Cheryl Strayed is a master of the opening line. She doesn’t hesitate, but rather drops you directly into the dead center of the story. In her essay “The Love of My Life,” she starts with “The first time I cheated on my husband, my mother had been dead for exactly one week.” In her piece “Heroin/e” she begins with “When my mother died, I stripped her naked.” Her novel Torch begins simply “She ached.”
Eric first brought home a hardback copy of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild from the “Here & Now” collection at the library a few months after it was released. He loves stories of climbing Mount Everest or sailing around the world alone, so a book about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail seemed like something he’d want to read. But it’s not really a book so much about hiking as it is a story about, as Cheryl says, “learning how to bear the unbearable,” a story about acceptance, her journey from lost to found. Eric really wanted to read about hiking the PCT so lost interest, didn’t finish the book, handing it to me one day saying, “It seems like the kind of book you’d like.”
You see, kind and gentle reader, I love memoir – coming of age stories, stories about finding oneself, narratives about becoming, about coming undone, about catalyst and transformation and salvation, about what it means to be human. These are my favorite kinds of books, the journey from lost to found. And my favorite ones are written by women who aren’t afraid to tell the truth, even when it doesn’t make them look good, who talk candidly and elegantly about the brilliance and the mess. Writers like Anne Lamott, Dani Shapiro, Caroline Knapp, Mary Karr, Laurie Wagner, Christina Rosalie, and Elizabeth Gilbert.
So Wild is exactly the kind of book I’d read, but I hadn’t read it yet. It was too popular. When that happens with a book, I find myself avoiding it. It’s something about being an introvert. When everyone is reading and talking about it, it feels too crowded somehow. I want my experience of it to be private. I want to be alone with it. It’s why it took me years to finally read Eat, Pray, Love. I had to wait until things got quiet.
But Eric had already checked out the book, and the “Here & Now” collection is limited to seven days so I started to read. Once I did, I could barely stand to put it down.
I confess, at first I was irritated by Cheryl’s story. The deeper she dug herself into the hole she was in, the more my discomfort grew. By the time her story got to her decision to have an abortion, I wanted to stop reading. I couldn’t stand to witness it, the self-destruction, the suffering she was generating on top of what she’d already been given. And yet, this was a book that I just couldn’t stop reading. I couldn’t help myself. I had to stay with it, had to “keep walking” right along with her until the end, no matter how painful.
Having lost so much to cancer myself made some parts of this book especially difficult to read. Many times I had to pause because I could no longer make out the words through my tears. This is the impact much of her written work has on me. I’ve given away 20+ copies of her book Tiny Beautiful Things in the past few years, always with the warning “don’t read this in public if you are uncomfortable letting people see you cry.”
One night when I was getting toward the end of Wild, I was reading in bed and Eric, who sometimes can’t sleep with the light from my book lamp, asked “can you be almost done?” I did something I never do: I got up and went out into the living room so I could keep reading. I had to finish. The memory is still fresh of being alone in the living room, sitting in the gold chair in the corner wrapped in a blanket, finishing the story, closing the book, and sobbing. That weird and wonderful mix of wishing so hard that none of those awful things ever had to happen to her, to any of us, but also wishing they’d happened to me so I’d have that story to tell.
Cheryl Strayed does not shy away from the truth. She tells the whole story, even the parts that might make her look bad. And yet, she doesn’t add things for the sake of drama. Telling readers about her heroin use isn’t done to shock, or to make the story more exciting, it’s there because it’s essential to the narrative — tender and terrible, beautiful and brutal. And when she’s telling the truth, she does it with an elegance that presents the truth in its full measure, all its brilliance and all its mess. She says things like “Healing is a small and ordinary and very burnt thing. And it’s one thing and one thing only: it’s doing what you have to do,” (in her essay “Heroin/e”). I confess that the library copy of Wild I read was returned with corners of pages bent down, a sign of my need to mark the shiny places.
In the introduction to Tiny Beautiful Things, Steve Almond says, “With great patience, and eloquence, she assures her readers that within the chaos of our shame and disappointment and rage there is meaning, and within that meaning is the possibility of rescue.” He’s talking specifically about what Cheryl did in that particular book, but I’d argue that’s what she does in everything she writes.
Cheryl Strayed is coming to Fort Collins on Thursday, and I’m going to see her. In preparation, I’ve been on a Cheryl Strayed bender these past few days — rereading her essays, watching videos, surfing her website, finally reading her novel, and considering what I might say to her if I get to speak to her directly that won’t make me sound like either a total idiot or a creepy stalker. If we were sitting down over a cup of coffee, it would be so much easier. I’d ask if she was an introvert or an extrovert, how she’s been coping with being away from her family and traveling so much, what was it like to meet Oprah, if she goes to the beach often and if so where exactly does she go, does she know where Waldport is, has she ever heard of Sublimity, why did she move to Oregon, how does she like it, does her family still own the 40 acres of land she grew up on, does she have pets, what are some of her favorite books or authors, what’s she working on next, and after telling this particular story in so many different forms does she feel like she’s fully processed it, is she done with it, what is her writing practice, her process like, aren’t marionberries wonderful, what do you love, what’s hardest for you, where does your struggle live now…all things that would make so much more sense in the context of a longer, more relaxed conversation.
So instead, I write her this open love letter. I’ll email her the link, but have no expectation that she’ll see it, come read it. And that’s totally okay. In the end, I suppose all I need to say to her if I ever get the chance, in order to tell her everything, is simply: Thank you for telling the truth, for making a map, shining a light where it’s dark. It helps me cultivate the courage to tell my truth, my story. I adore you.