My day with Cheryl Strayed

If you’re not familiar with Cheryl Strayed, you should be.

She’s the face behind the popular advice column “Dear Sugar,” who doesn’t mince words when it comes to giving advice on matters of the heart, life, and everything in between; as well as the author of Tiny Beautiful Things, a novel that holds some of those columns.

She’s the author of Torch, a fictional novel that tells the tale of a family coping after their mother’s death – loosely based on her own family’s experience.

And she’s the author of Wild, a story of her solo journey hiking 1,100 miles on the Pacific Crest Trail, and the deeper journey of learning how to live life without her mother. The novel made waves when Oprah chose it as the first book for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. It has since reached #1 on the New York Times Bestsellers List, voted Best Nonfiction Book of 2012 by The Boston Globe and Entertainment Weekly, and chosen as Best Book of the Year by NPR, St. Louis Dispatch, and Vogue.

And this author (ME!) devoured Wild in a matter of days when she picked it up on the recommendation of a friend.

I totally recommend it to you, too.

On Saturday, June 1, I joined 300 other writers at the Sheraton in Petaluma to hear what Cheryl Strayed had to say about writing – particularly memoirs – and become inspired with our own writing.

We weren’t disappointed.

Cheryl began with how to find time to write – the biggest question on every writer’s mind. How do you find time to write when you’re a full time employee, a mom of little kids, just can’t find two minutes of alone time as it is…

(Read my own thoughts on this HERE)

“I’m in the same boat,” Cheryl laughed, describing her own life with kids, a husband, and life’s priorities. “Now I’m too busy promoting my book to write.”

She told us that just because we’re a mom, a full time worker, anything we think is taking up too much of our time…it’s no reason to NOT write. She admitted that she doesn’t write every day, but instead goes on binge writing trips. At home she does her day to day stuff. But at least once a month she’ll check into a hotel and, in her words, writes like a “motherfucker”.

She advised creating time set just for writing – whether it means getting up early, staying up late, or creating your own day of binge writing.

Cheryl addressed the fear that every writer has – that it just isn’t good enough. And her common sense answer to that was that it’s better to write a book that kind of “sucked” than to not write a book at all.

“Renounce control of your novel,” she said. ” Accept that it may never be published, and relinquish your attachment to it.” She told us how, once she did that with Wild, she was able to finally write out everything she wanted to say in it.  The fear that it would just be mediocre was paralyzing her writing. Once she let that fear go, accepting that it could just be mediocre but would be the best SHE could write, the story began to flow.

And then there was the advice she gave on writing a memoir.

I have grappled with writing a memoir on my own. Just like everyone else in the world, I have a past full of horrible events I was able to overcome. And they are screaming to be written out. However, I haven’t yet done it in book form. I’ve written many essays over in my WineCountryMom blog. I’ve alluded to some things in my fictional writing. But to actually publish a full blown memoir detailing years I’ve swept under the carpet, that’s a very scary thing. However, Cheryl breathed new life into this possible future endeavor.

First off, Cheryl told us, a good memoir doesn’t hinge on what happened, but what the author MADE happen. For instance, Wild’s main storyline wasn’t about Cheryl’s hike along the PCT, it was about the growth that happened within while she was on the trail. A good memoir tells about the transcendence of moving from one realm to another. It helps the reader see something in themselves.

But how do you write a memoir without hurting those you love (or even DON’T love)? It’s not always possible, Cheryl admitted. You can’t write an honest account of your story without mentioning Mom and Dad, where you came from, siblings, close friends, romantic partners…

“It’s always the squirmy part of writing,” she told us, before telling us about her own squirmy feelings when she wrote about her dad in Wild. The 3 or 4 pages that share her feelings about her father’s abuse, neglect, and failings kept Cheryl awake at night just before the book was published. But with time, Cheryl had to come to terms that what she had simply written was her truth. “I felt sorry for a man whose daughter had to write these things about him.”

She went on to advise that, when writing a memoir, write EVERYTHING. Don’t try to figure out what stays in or what goes – there’s plenty of time for that later when you can decide whether each memory is helping or distracting from the story. Share the connections your story has – how one memory is linked to another, how it conjures up deeper emotions, and WHY.

And the one thing I’ve often wondered about – using your skills as a fiction writer to create a non-fiction writer. When you tell a story that conjures up memories from the past, you aren’t going to remember the tiny details that gave it life – how the sky looked, exact words that were spoken, the exact timing of events… Telling a tale of experiences can be a flat narrative. But as a memoir writer, you are still a storyteller. Tell the truth, but don’t forget to create a colorful story.

Cheryl then led us on a series of writing prompts to get our memoir juices flowing. We wrote about a time when something was over, or more specifically, when we KNEW it was over. We wrote about a time when we changed our mind about something we were once certain of, when we did something we never thought we’d do.  We thought about the common theme in our writing, what one thing kept popping up that was screaming to be faced head on. And we wrote about a time we went “too far.”

The basis of Cheryl Strayed’s workshop was how to create art out of experiences. The act of writing a memoir is not a selfish or narcissistic act, but a brave offering of one’s failings and hardships, and the journey to overcome what once felt unbearable. Strayed shared all she learned from writing her own memoir. And in return, she may have inspired the next crop of wild books that send the reader on a journey that changes their lives forever.

I came away from this experience more enthralled with Cheryl Strayed than I was already. There’s something so brave about a writer who lays every single part of herself on the table, the good and the bad, and trusts us – the readers – to sift through it even though it all belongs to her.

WildNotBraveAlso, I had come to this workshop, not only ready to be inspired, but also bearing gifts. I bought a new copy of the book Wild (I had read it as an eBook) for her to sign for me, and I brought a copy of my own book (not for any other reason but to share something with her that I put my life into in exchange for the story of her life she shared with me) plus a bottle of Snapple (mentioned a dozen times in Wild). It was silly and ridiculous. It was laughable. But it was something I had to do.

Thank goodness I never got the chance, lol!

Sadly I had to leave early to be able to attend my son’s baseball game. I’ve only missed one game this season, and it was because I was out of town. And as much as I love Cheryl Strayed, I love my son a million times more. So I sat in the sweltering sun and watched my son’s team lose by one point. And I kept cool by drinking Snapple.

It was so good, I think I might just buy a case for myself.


Crissi Langwell is the debut author of A Symphony of Cicadas.  Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

3 thoughts on “My day with Cheryl Strayed”

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