“It’s not about telling half the truth”: A Conversation with Cheryl Strayed, Author of Wild [Part I]
By Ethan Gilsdorf
If you’re interested in memoir, then you’ve heard of Cheryl Strayed and her book Wild.
Strayed’s memoir --- its full title is Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail --- is the 2012 account of her 1,100-mile trek from the Mojave Desert into California and Oregon, and as far as the border of Washington State, to recover her life. The mega-selling book moved a zillion copies, and inspired millions of readers, many of them female, to take risks of their own.
Now, her story has been adapted into a film. Wild the movie, which opened nationally Friday December 12, stars Reese Witherspoon as the Strayed character, and is directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, whose last outing was Dallas Buyers Club. The screenplay is by novelist Nick Hornby.
Since the success of Wild, it’s been a whirlwind for Strayed (who is also the author of the New York Times bestseller Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, and the novel Torch). I was fortunate to speak with Strayed, via telephone, between her West Coast stops for the premier of Wild. We discussed why there are so few movies and books about women going on physical journeys, her advice for memoirists, and her wild ride thus far, among other topics.
Ethan Gilsdorf: Where are you now?
Cheryl Strayed: I am in the back of a car in San Francisco right now. I live in Portland, Oregon, but I’m doing an event tonight in Berkeley, actually. We’re driving to the event, in terrible San Francisco traffic. I go to LA tomorrow for the Wild premier. I’ve been to many different Wild premiers, but the LA one is very exciting.
Gilsdorf: What was the adaptation process like for you? In the movie, is story is credited as “Based on the book by Cheryl Strayed.” But the writer Nick Hornby actually wrote the screenplay. Did you consult with him, or were you consulted, during the process of writing or during the process of filmmaking?
Strayed: I was. I was one of the first people to read a draft of the screenplay. Reese [Witherspoon] and Nick very much invited me to give some of my honest feedback and my honest opinion and I did. There’s an extra layer of something going on here. It’s not just the adaptation of my book. It’s a book about me. That is my life and the people, the characters in the book are actually people I know and love. I had a lot of opinions, actually, about the screenplay when I first read it. And they were so open, and respectful and really took my suggestions to heart, and integrated many of them. Once Jean-Marc [Vallée] was on board, he and I talked a lot about the script. One of the things on the set that Jean-Marc would often ask, he would always say, “Ask Cheryl. Ask Cheryl,” whenever there was a question about the way something was, or the way something looked or felt.
Gilsdorf: So you were on the set for a fair amount of the filming as well?
Strayed: Yeah, for most of it. I was only not there when I couldn’t be, because I’m so busy with the book so a lot of times I was travelling to do speaking engagements.
Gilsdorf: There are not a lot of other movies that have chronicled women going on long, physical journeys. There are a few, and you have to stretch the definition. This year there are two good ones: yours, and there’s Tracks. But not many in the tradition of men going off into the wild and doing stuff. Do you have any thoughts on that? Is it because there aren’t that many books that have a similar theme? Do you expect it to change now that, after your book, women may feel emboldened to write about these kinds of more daring journeys?
Strayed: It’s interesting. I was certainly mindful of this when I was writing Wild because I was always thinking about, What’s the sort of tradition that I’m writing in here? I’m very aware of the age-old tales of man versus wild, man versus nature, the hero’s journey. Pretty much always, historically, in our literature, it’s men going on journeys that school them and lead them to the darkest places and that return them altered. I was really mindful of that. I knew that I was going on my own hike. I knew that I was both writing within that tradition and writing in some ways against that tradition. We do just have fewer narratives. Historically, women have not been allowed to go off by themselves very much. There are all these layers and layers of reasons that have made it more difficult for women to journey, to become writers, to get the work they write published, all of that stuff.
Gilsdorf: Right, right.
Strayed: I did feel like I was mindful especially the history. I cared enormously about women seeing themselves in my work. But, more than anything, I really cared about people seeing themselves in my work. I really wanted to write a book for humans. I always cringe when people assume that I’ve written a book for women or that this is a film for women. Because even though it features a woman, I think it tells a very human story. No question about it, it’s not framed as a woman’s book, ultimately.
But I was just reading today, something crazy like only 15 percent of films even feature a female protagonist as the lead. It’s astonishing. I think just to see any movie where you’re watching what a woman does --- What happens to the woman? Where does the woman go? What does she need? What does she say? That is an original film. And the next layer with Wild is, a woman doing something that is also unorthodox, going into the wild, alone. At the end of the film, there’s Reese Witherspoon standing on the Bridge of the Gods. She doesn’t have a home, doesn’t have a man, she has twenty cents in her pocket, and all those things were true in my own life. And I was perfectly okay. Just that in itself is a unique story. What’s interesting is to hear the way that it’s resonated with people. Because I do think it’s unique in that we don’t see [these stories] often. I know lots of strong and brave women. They’re not a rarity, they’re just a rarity in literature and film.
Gilsdorf: I’m a creative writing teacher in my other life, when I’m not doing freelance journalism. I’ve used passages from your book in my classes.
Strayed: Thank you for teaching my book.
Gilsdorf: You’re welcome. This is a question more for my writing students. I’ve been teaching a class right now here in Boston called “Writing and Publishing the Risky Personal Essay.” I’ve been trying to get my students to think about the idea of taking a risk on the page. I was just looking at your introduction to the Best American Essays anthology, which you edited last year, and we used a couple of essays from this term. I was struck by your introduction, and your advice to students, that when writing a personal essay, the unwritten last line should be, “And nothing was ever the same again.” What would you say to my students or to people who are feeling shy about exposing that kind of story where there is so much at stake and there’s so much on the line for them, not only for them as a character in their own story but, what people might think of them once they’ve written it and hopefully published? That’s a scary thing for some students.
Strayed: It is scary, and that’s what art is about. Art is about moving the self and the other into the narrator of the unknown, you know? Or the known that is not expressed. I think the best things do happen when we push beyond the kind of boundaries of polite society. The number one question you get when you talk about writing truthfully about your life is, “Oh my gosh, aren’t you afraid?” And what we’re always afraid of is, people will judge us or they’ll condemn us if we reveal ourselves to be flawed. But having now done this for years, I can absolutely say, without any question, that that’s hardly ever what happens. When people are honest and vulnerable, we usually respond with our own honesty and our own vulnerability, and with kindness. You could go read my one star reviews on Amazon, which I have not done, for the record. People say all kinds of nasty things about me, all kinds of horrible things. But that’s a tiny, tiny, tiny percentage, compared to the many, many, many people who say to me, “Thank you. Thank you for telling your truth. Thank you for being brave enough to say not just the things about yourself that are pretty, or things to be proud of.” I do think that that has been such a great lesson for me.
One of my first essays is called “The Love of my Life.” I had been experimenting with being brave before, but I was just absolutely merciless with myself. And that essay --- gosh, it was published more than ten years ago now --- I don’t think a day has gone by, in more than a decade, that I haven’t received an email from someone who feels like their life has been changed because they read those twenty pages that I wrote about, the hardest time in my life. That’s the power of literature. It will only have that power if we’re brave enough to harness it. Art is about truth. It’s not about telling half the truth. If you’re not prepared to be strong in that way then writing is not for you. There are a lot of people who do a lot of things, and they’re not asked every day to tell the truth on that level. But I think that’s the mission of art. So don’t hem and haw about it. That’s my advice.
Part II of this interview can be read here.
[This interview has been edited and condensed.]
Editor's note: Ethan will be teaching Writing and Publishing the Risky Personal Essay again, starting January 2016! Check out the class page for more info.
A GrubStreet instructor since 2005, Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, essayist, critic, poet, teacher, performer and nerd. He is the author of the travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, named a Must-Read Book by the Massachusetts Book Awards. His essay "The Day My Mother Became a Stranger" was cited in the anthology Best American Essays 2016. His fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in Poetry, The Southern Review, The Quarterly, Exquisite Corpse, The North American Review, The Massachusetts Review, New York Quarterly and dozens of other literary magazines and in several anthologies, and he is the winner of the Hobblestock Peace Poetry Competition and the Esme Bradberry Contemporary Poets Prize. Gilsdorf got his start in journalism as a Paris-based travel writer and food and film critic for Time Out, Fodor's and the Washington Post. He has published hundreds of feature stories, essays, op-eds and reviews about the arts, pop, gaming and geek culture; and media and technology, and travel, in dozens of other publications worldwide including the New York Times, New York Times Book Review, Boston Globe, Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, Wired, Salon, WBUR's The Artery and Cognoscenti, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and Art New England. A regular presenter, performer, and event moderator, he frequently appears on programs such as NPR, The Discovery Channel, PBS, CBC, BBC, and the Learning Channel, and also lectures at schools, universities, festivals, conventions, and conferences worldwide, including at this TEDx event, where he nerded out about D&D. Gilsdorf is co-founder of GrubStreet's Young Adult Writers Program (YAWP), and teaches creative writing at GrubStreet, where he served on the Board of Directors for 10 years. He teaches essay, memoir, journalism and other workshops, and is also the instructor of GrubStreet's 8-month Essay Incubator program and serves as coordinator of GrubStreet's Providence program. He’s also the lead instructor for the Westerly (RI) Memoir Project. He has led writing workshops for non-profit social justice organizations and also teaches writing and Dungeons & Dragons classes for younger students, in schools, libraries and community centers. He had also served on the Boston Book Festival Program Committee and as a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He received his BA from Hampshire College, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Louisiana State University. Follow Ethan’s adventures at ethangilsdorf.com or Twitter @ethanfreak, and read his posts on Grub's blog, GrubWrites.See other articles by Ethan Gilsdorf