book by Cheryl Strayed
annotation by Seth Fischer
Editors’ note: We know, this is the fiction page. But we here at Annotation Nation are so pleased by our former mentor Cheryl Strayed’s runaway success with Wild that we wanted to post Seth Fischer’s astute – and nontraditional – annotation of the book on our home page.
It’s been almost three months since I promised this fine publication an annotation of Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild. I thought it’d be unfair to write a review, as, like nearly every human who’s ever been lucky enough to meet her, I consider Cheryl a friend. Instead, I would write an annotation: an analysis of what Cheryl’s book taught me as a writer. It would be safer that way, and there wouldn’t be any of that awkwardness that comes from reviewing the book of someone you know.
Easy enough, no?
But then something happened, and I got stuck. Wild became a phenomenon. We all knew it would do well. Cheryl is a brilliant writer—her previous novel Torch and a string of Best American essays and her stint as the advice columnist Dear Sugar are testament to that—and she has a superb editor and excellent representation. The book’s storyline — her lonely hike along the Pacific Crest Trail post-divorce, still not recovered from losing her mother and having narrowly avoided heroin addiction — all but guaranteed people would buy it. I mean, at one point in the book, she even has a run-in with a feral bull.
But then the phenomenon started to get out of control. It was glowingly reviewed in the New York Times … twice. The movie rights were optioned by Reese Witherspoon. Then it made the bestseller list for nonfiction. And just last week, Oprah herself decided to restart her book club because of Wild.
I can’t just ignore all that. I can’t, for the life of me, write a mundane piece on what Wild taught me about pacing and flashbacks. Don’t get me wrong – there’s a lot for a writer to learn from this book in terms of technique, but given all the fireworks, I couldn’t make myself write a traditional annotation.
I’m going to admit right now, against my better judgment, that Wild’s success made me uncomfortable. It wasn’t quite jealousy, but it also wasn’t quite not jealousy. The success of this book forced me to question my own jaded view of the literary world, and maybe even the world at large. Try as I might to be an idealist, I see the world a bit like Sam Spade. Success doesn’t come to those who deserve it. With a few notable exceptions, only people who lie, cheat, steal and see books as widgets find material success in publishing. As a literary writer, the best you can ever hope to do is throw a few wrenches in the works of a fundamentally screwed-up world, and maybe, if you’re lucky, you can die poor and alone but having made the world suck a little less. In my world, no one will ever reward you materially for being genuine, honest or real, but you should do it anyway, because that’s the point of life.
But there, right in the pages of the New York Times, is a woman whose writing and personality is honest, genuine and real, hugging Oprah, and she succeeded by telling a true story that aims to heal rather than to manipulate. A story whose ending, despite being a memoir, does not end in a trope. Despite the book’s subtitle, Cheryl was never completely lost, and she never was completely found. She doesn’t lie to her readers by giving them an answer or by making it simple. She never makes things easy, especially at the end:
“It was all unknown to me then, as I sat on that white bench on the day I finished my hike. Everything except the fact that I didn’t have to know. That it was enough to trust what I’d done was true … How wild it was, to let it be” (311).
And that is absolutely beautiful, that a person whose answer is that there isn’t an answer has been allowed to succeed. In this time when marketing rules all, in this time of easy answers and The Secret and infomercials and branding and douches in suits saying “it is what it is” instead of no, I just don’t know what to do with the fact that something so complex and honest has met with so much success.
Actually, it scares me.
Which is all just to say that I struggled when I read this book. I kept looking for reasons to dismiss it, to prove to myself that there was something dishonest about it, that she had sold out in some way. But then, like most people who’ve read the book, it had an enormous emotional effect on me. I bawled like a baby, but I’ll stop there, because many, many people have spoken to the power of the work more eloquently than I can.
I still found a way to get mad, though, because in creating this phenomenon, Cheryl broke some rules. While I’ve never been a huge fan of rules in life, after studying writing long enough, I learned to respect the rules of writing — maybe more than I should — to the point where I shudder when I see them broken.
The most classic example, for those who you who haven’t done the whole workshop thing, is that adverbs are always bad (except, of course, when they’re not), or that you should avoid too much exposition. But that’s not all of them. There are books full of rules. Many of these rules encourage writers to be understated, to make sure metaphors are uncomplicated and that emotional language is minimized, and those rules stuck with me in a big way.
I taught myself to abide by those rules. Cheryl paid no attention to them. In Wild, Cheryl told those rules exactly what they could do with themselves.
I’ll start with a couple lines about fifty pages into the book, toward the beginning of her journey, when the physical exertion is starting to take its toll.
“I was thinking only of moving myself forward,” she says. “My mind was a crystal vase that contained only that one desire. My body was its opposite, a bag of broken glass” (63).
Ooph. What powerful writing, part of me said. I could feel what she was feeling—forgive me, I’m breaking the no clichés rule here—in my bones.
But then another part of me, the writer, the person who has loved being part of a gazillion writing workshops, was freaking out. “You can’t write that,” I thought. Crystal vases don’t hold desires, and why again was her mind a crystal vase? She was coming pretty damn close to mixing that metaphor — certainly torturing it a bit. And to make matters worse, she’s no slouch, so she knew damn well what she was doing. Why?
Here’s another bit that bugged me, about two thirds of the way through her trek, after she had finally replaced the boots that had turned her feet into a giant open sore: “Going down, I realized, was like taking hold of the loose strand of yarn on a sweater you’d just spent hours knitting and pulling it until the entire sweater unraveled into a pile of string. Hiking the PCT was the maddening effort of knitting that sweater and unraveling it over and over again. As if everything gained was inevitably lost” (222).
Again, as a reader, I felt this passage, I understood her frustration, and I never wanted to hike downhill again. But also, the writer and editor in me thought, “That last line is completely unnecessary. It‘s already inherent in the first two sentences, which, by the way, could be shortened.”
But if it was communicating emotion to me, if it was doing it so well I could feel what she was feeling, why did I care that it broke the rules? And if she had written these bits differently, would it have been more effective?
I don’t think it would have.
Recently, Diane Sherlock posted a question on her blog; “Do you read as a reader or a writer?” In other words, do you pay attention to craft, or do you immerse yourself in the emotional effect the words have on you. I thought about it for a second, and I said, “A writer.” And then I thought, “Well, why the hell am I doing that? The only way to get anywhere is to do both.”
When writers go to school, they’re trained to read as writers; they are trained to think in terms of craft, in terms of timing and dialogue and pacing and characterization. And because of that, many writers seem to have forgotten the point of craft: to find the best ways to emotionally connect with your reader.
To make matters worse, we’re trained to write for writers. Workshops can be invaluable, if we focus on learning how to write with the goal of some sort of emotional connection. But instead, we write to impress our workshop leaders. We write for the other writers in our workshops. We try to prove our chops, to show that we can effectively use our “craft,” and we forget the point of what we’re doing in the first place.
And then we sit around baffled, wondering why no one but writers seems to be buying literature anymore.
Cheryl Strayed uses her voice to emotionally connect with her readers, to use craft towards that end and not in spite of it. Which is all just to say that the lesson Cheryl is giving writers is just as valuable as the story Cheryl is giving readers: Don’t forget that craft is a means to an end, and not simply an end in itself. And if craft gets in the way of your voice, to hell with it.