What do you do when you feel like you are failing in life? How do you go on when the things that mean the most to you are taken away? For Cheryl Strayed, the answers to those questions were to go wild. In 1991, when her mother was diagnosed with cancer and died seven weeks later, 22-year-old Strayed felt stripped of the most important person in her life. Three years later, feeling raw and lost with grief, she decided to take a three-month hike along the Pacific Crest Trail along the west coast of the United States.
This decision turned out to be a momentous one: her spiritual growth on this hike was the genesis for her future career as a writer. Her first book, a novel called Torch written in 2006, drew from her experiences of losing her mother and growing up in rural Minnesota. More recently, Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, which recounted her journey starting from her mother’s diagnosis, has received immense acclaim, reaching No. 1 on the New York Times Bestseller List for seven consecutive weeks. It has been translated into 28 languages and was selected by Oprah Winfrey to the be the first book in Oprah’s Book Club 2.0.
Vassar will welcome Strayed to campus on April 29, 2013 for a conversation, reading, and Q&A along with Professor of English Amitava Kumar, who recently published his book A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb in 2010.
Strayed’s memoir is currently being used in Professor of English Pat Wallace’s Senior Writing Seminar. Wallace picked Wild as an example of creative non-fiction, a genre many of her students enjoy writing. For Wallace, the genre of memoir is important in that it melds together the devices present in fiction with the real memory of the past, a characteristic in which she finds Strayed excels. Retrospect in memoir is a perspective that allows for a creative and powerful rendering of events as opposed to a strictly accurate one. “Part of what makes Strayed’s memoir so powerful is the way in which she is able to integrate fictional (and, I’d say, poetic) strategies and shapings with an amazing level of realistic detail,” Wallace said.
Wild is the story of a woman who took on a massive endeavor in order to deal with emotional trauma. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Strayed described what she felt her memoir was about. “My mother’s death brought me to what I think of as my most savage self. It stripped me of the one thing I needed. My mother was the taproot of my life. And suddenly, I didn’t have that anymore. I had wild love for my mother. I had wild sorrow. And then I went wild. I went wild into my life,” (“Oprah talks to Cheryl Strayed About Walking Her Way to Peace and Forgiveness”).
For Strayed, the hike was both a physical and a mental quest; one came out of the other. She experienced many things along the ways, from waking up to find hundreds of frogs crawling on her body, losing her toenails due to inappropriate footwear, to sexual relations with men she met along the way. All of these events and encounters contributed to her growth along the hike. Even the physical weight of her backpack served as a metaphor for the emotional weight she held. “I did go out there on a spiritual quest. But what I got was a physical test. I didn’t understand how connected the two are. So when Monster [her backpack] was the physical weight I could not bear, I was having that feeling on the inside, too. The physical realm kept delivering the spiritual.”
In between her hike and publishing her first novel, Strayed took on miscellaneous jobs, while mastering her craft. Having been an English major and participating in writing programs in college, Strayed’s interest in writing had been developing for some time before her mother’s death. While she took on jobs to pay the bills, she would quit one whenever she was able to receive a grant to write or was accepted to a residency at a writer’s colony. Despite this, she found it difficult to have the initial push to write her novel.
“Sometime around my thirtieth birthday, I looked up from all the hiking and shopping and odd-jobs and drinking of various concoctions and realized that my novel had not been written…. I had to write it. I had to. I had to. I said I would and so I would. I am not the kind of person who says she will do something and then does not do it,” she wrote in “Backstory,” an online blog (“Cheryl Strayed’s Backstory”, 5.15.2006). This urge led her to grad school, where she earned a Master’s in Fine Arts in fiction writing at Syracuse University. A year after receiving her degree, she finished Torch, which marked the start of her successful career.
Strayed’s is a story of courage. In the face of doubt, and feeling as though nothing in the world was going her way, she chose to fight back and take on a challenge that was completely foreign to her. At the same time, her voice is gripping and entertaining. Because of this, Wallace feels that Strayed’s message will resonate with many Vassar students.
She said, “I think Strayed’s book speaks to those who have experienced a loss that changed their lives and had to find a way to face that loss and recreate themselves. And anyone who spends time hiking in the wilderness or loves the out-of-doors or undertakes an adventure that will test you, challenge you, thrill you, scare you. I think it will speak to anyone who is interested in writing that’s honest, funny, moving, and makes a reader want to keep reading.”