Cheryl Strayed has pretty much won the writers’ lottery: Her memoir “Wild” was a boffo bestseller, picked for Oprah’s book club and translated into dozens of languages. It then became a boffo movie, with a screenplay by the always-amazing Nick Hornby and an Oscar-nominated performance by actress Reese Witherspoon.
A few weekends ago, she spoke at the annual Power of Storytelling conference in Bucharest, Romania. (Is that a cool location for a narrative gathering, or what? I wish I could have gone.)
The conference, which is built around the idea that “stories can change our worlds,” drew a stellar list of storytellers, among them literary journalist Jon Mooallem, Decemberists songwriter Colin Meloy, nonfiction author and novelist Carolyn Paul, illustrator Carson Ellis, documentary filmmaker Brian Lindstrom and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jacqui Banaszynski.
This year’s theme, “Dare to Wander,” could have been the blurb for Strayed’s book, which, in case you’re one of the few people who haven’t heard of it, is about “finding herself” after the death of her mother while hiking the Pacific Coast Trail.
At the conference, Strayed spoke about the rewards of being both emotionally and physically daring — “that physical going into the world and seeing and hearing and trying to do things.”
Her speech resonated deeply with me, as I think it might for all of us who have experienced loss. This quote in particular was moving, reminding me of a poem about loss by Jack Gilbert:
She came to understand, she said, “that part of being able to bear the things we can’t bear is not about tossing them off, not about making the weight lighter, but simply learning that we have the capacity to carry it.”
The full transcript of her talk is here. But I thought I’d give you a nice long selection of some of the best quotes, about storytelling — and about life.
On daring to wander:
When I was reflecting on what I would talk about today, I decided to tell you about my walk, but, like that journey itself, it extends so much into the best things in my life. Daring to wander on the page, daring to wander in all kinds of metaphorical and figurative ways in my life, in my relationships, in my work. And I think so much of that begins with that physical daring, that physical going into the world and seeing and hearing and trying to do things.
On the death of her mother, and realizing she wasn’t alone:
What I learned through my writing is that to so many people, this is what it feels like when someone dear dies. I actually had this whole tribe of people all over the world who felt exactly how I felt on the day my mom died. But it was years before I would learn that.
On making mistakes:
You know, one of the things the 48-year-old me standing before you knows is, it’s actually pretty hard to really ruin your life. You can almost always find your way back.
On a moment (in an REI store buying a folding shovel!) that changed her life:
One of the most rewarding things about writing a memoir is all you really have to do is pay attention to your life. Because life often enough offers up all kinds of metaphors and images and symbols. There I was holding this implement waiting to dig my truck out. But what I was searching for was a way to dig myself out, out of this hole that I’d really buried myself in, in the midst of my grief. And I saw this guidebook, called “The Pacific Crest Trail Volume 1 California,” on that rack in line at REI, and I picked it up and I read the back and it just… You know, so many books have been so important to me, have, in many ways, saved my life, have been my greatest counsel and solace. But I hadn’t expected that one of these books would be a guidebook to a trail.
On finding herself with a pack she couldn’t lift (both metaphorically and literally):
I couldn’t lift my pack. And it was really an actual moment, a moment when I’m not being sort of hyperbolic, when I’m saying that I couldn’t lift my pack. I couldn’t lift my pack, and yet I had to lift my pack. And it was years later when I was writing “Wild”; when I first wrote that scene, I didn’t even know “Wild” was going to be a book. I thought I was writing an essay, and one of the most common questions I get about “Wild” is, “Why did you wait so long to write it?” I took the hike in 1995, I didn’t begin writing it until around 2008 or 2009. I think that the answer to that question is bound up in that scene, that scene when I finally did turn back and I wrote about being a woman alone in this motel room with a pack she couldn’t lift.
On transcending the personal in her stories and finding something that resonates with others:
One thing you hear writers talk about when they talk about the stories they tell, we always say, “You know, you have to have something to say.” I tell my students that when I teach writing. You have to have something to say. And I think that what I mean by that and what’s meant by that by other writers is that you have to have some sense of the meaning of your story that isn’t just about you…. I did not write “Wild” because I thought my hike was inherently interesting to anyone but my friends and my loved ones. I did not write “Wild” because I thought the love I had for my mother or the grief I had over her death is any more tremendous than anyone else’s loss. I wrote “Wild” because I finally, in writing that scene with the backpack, came to have a sense about how my story of a journey might resonate with others.
On having to bear what you cannot bear:
There was something about being alone in a room with a pack I couldn’t lift and then lifting it that, from that first step, taught me — it began to teach me — what I needed to know about healing. And when I was doing that as a writer, what I realized was that every one of you in this room has had to bear something that you cannot bear. And if you’re not someone who’s had that experience yet, it’s coming. Because, as we know, part of being human is to suffer. And part of the beauty of our struggle is to learn how to carry that suffering with grace.
On finding the thing you actually needed, not the thing you set out to get:
Pretty soon what I realized was like all good journeys, you set out to get one thing and then you get this other thing and it ends up being the thing you actually needed.
On writing the scene at the end of the trail:
It was such a hard scene for me to write, that final scene. Because the editor kept saying, “There has to be a sense of the ecstatic or a sense of victory or grandeur when you finish this trail.” And … all the things that I felt were, I think, the humbler emotions. As I said, gratitude, humility, acceptance. The biggest one was probably acceptance. This coming to understand that part of being able to bear the things we can’t bear is not about tossing them off, not about making the weight lighter, but simply learning that we have the capacity to carry it.
On the greatest gift her memoir has given her:
I would say that the most beautiful and powerful, unexpected thing for me has been that the thing I set out to do, which was to tell a story that wasn’t ultimately just about me, that was about all of the people who have been on journeys or who have been through things they thought they couldn’t bear. And the gift was of people telling me their stories.
Whenever people talk to me about my book, my favorite thing is they talk to me about themselves. Memoir gets this bad rep as the narcissistic form. And I think that that’s really a misunderstanding of the form. Obviously, bad memoirs are narcissistic; good memoirs are about all of us. There are people who are using themselves so that we can see ourselves better.