17 – Cheryl Strayed on Memoir

This was written for Ideas Tap, an organization (sadly now defunct) that supported young people pursuing the creative arts. Cheryl Strayed, whose Tiny Beautiful Things was my bible for several months, was as generous and gracious by phone as she is on the page. A case of meeting one’s heroes not going wrong.

Photo by Holly Mandarich on Unsplash

After writing her first novel, Cheryl Strayed turned to memoir and wrote her New York Times bestselling book Wild, about her 1,100-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail in the wake of her mother’s death. Here, Cheryl tells Cila Warncke about mining memory and sets us to work with a writing exercise…

How does the emotional experience differ between writing fiction and memoir?

It doesn’t. To write fiction well you have to inhabit the consciousness of the characters you’ve created. With non-fiction there’s an extra layer of intensity because the character you’re building is yourself.

When writing memoir, how do you build yourself as a character?

The only way you can build yourself is to dismantle yourself. To take apart who you are, what your assumptions have been, what you hope people think of you. You can’t write: “I’m pretty and cool and awesome and interesting” because everyone would hate you. You have to say: “I’m human. Here are positive things about me. Here are negative things about me. And here are things that don’t make sense, don’t add up, and I’m going to present them to you”. Writing is like the deep work you do in the course of therapy where you take yourself apart.

What memory aids do you use?

I naturally have a very good memory – I think a lot of writers do. I kept a journal through my 20s and 30s. That helped me a lot in writing Wild. I do research where I can, going back and looking at pictures for example. When most people imagine what a memoirist does they think: “I don’t remember anything from high school, from 20 years ago”. But they do remember – they just think they don’t.

How can writers elicit those memories?

The process of writing is re-conjuring memories. It’s doing things so more memories come to you. Even looking at a photo can allow you to remember something accurately. The process is like running into an old friend from back in the day, somebody you knew 20 years ago. When you first start talking you only know a few things about each other. But as you talk and go deeper into your lives you remember things you thought you had forgotten. Just because you haven’t thought of something for years doesn’t mean you don’t remember it, it just means it takes a little work to access it. When I was writing Wild I’d think, “I don’t remember, I just walked” but once I started writing my mind would open up to specific memories.

Do you draw heavily on your own life for your fiction?

You’ll see a lot of details from my life. My next novel is set in Portland [where I live]. None of the characters in the book are me but there are all these little tendrils of the story that you can trace back to me.

How do you deal with writer’s block?

I never call it “writer’s block” but I always have trouble beginning. Writing is hard. I resist writing. I run from it. If I am left alone with a laptop I flounder for an hour or two, then I sink in and I’m in the zone. When I get stuck I go for a walk, come back and try again. I don’t force it. If something isn’t coming, I move on; that’s a good strategy for me.

How long did it take to write your first book, Torch?

Your first book is so hard because you don’t know how to write a book and there is no way for anyone to tell you. It turns out the only way to learn how to write a book is to write a book. I avoided finishing [Torch] for fear of failure, until the point where the fear of failing to finish was bigger than the fear of finishing a book that was terrible. I worked on it for about ten years in total, three years really diligently.

How did you overcome that fear of failure?

Once I let go of the idea that I was going to write a great book, I was able to write a book. I let go of any ego or fear or shame. That was an important moment in my writing life. None of us really knows what kind of book we’re writing. A lot of people think they’re writing brilliant books and they’re terrible. And the reverse is true too. It isn’t up to us to judge our books; it’s up to the people who read them.

In Focus: Writing exercise using objects

I take random objects out of my handbag like lipstick, a ten-euro note, and a pair of sunglasses, and tell my students to pick one and write a story about it.

To begin writing you begin with an image. You begin with a feeling. I encourage people to start writing and not think about it too much. Even if you have a good idea, usually once you start writing it will become something else.

I could do that same exercise with the world’s Nobel Literature Prize winners and something would come of it. Perhaps what came of it would be better than what comes to my students, but that’s how the [Nobel Prize winners] do it too – they begin with something then they make something else.