Project 52, Week 26 — “Wild”

Back in late March I read a book review by Michael Schaub on the NPR web site. The book reviewed was Wild by Cheryl Strayed, and I was instantly intrigued. Hiking, Pacific Crest Trail, Portland-based; all those caught my eye and I read his excellent review and then an excerpt from the book, and I was hooked. What little I read in that excerpt reached in and grabbed me the way no book had in a long time, and it immediately went on my to-read list.

As I do with most books I want to read, I put it on hold at my local library. There were more than 700 holds ahead of me, so I knew it’d be a long time, but I was prepared to wait. To whet my appetite I went to nearby Annie Bloom’s bookstore and picked up the book from time to time, reading snatches here and there, checking the library wait list and seeing I was agonizingly number 640, then 550, then 486. Due to lack of extra funds, I generally avoid buying books these days, reading almost exclusively library books, but I couldn’t stand to wait for this one much longer and knew I’d cave and purchase it pretty soon.

Wild is the story of Ms. Strayed’s 1100-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert to Cascade Locks, Oregon, to the Columbia River at the “Bridge of the Gods,” a trek she made after a downward spiral in the wake of her mother’s untimely death from cancer and the demise of her marriage due to her grief. While the physical journey itself is arduous and unflinching in its detail, it’s the inner journey that moved me deeply. There were times when I couldn’t put it down, and there were passages that were so soul-ravaging that I had to leave it alone for awhile. I cried and I laughed, but most importantly I was changed by this book.

Ms. Strayed was making personal appearances by this time to promote her book, and made several here in Portland, where she lives with her family. I saw a sign in Annie Bloom’s window that she would be appearing to do a reading soon, and I knew I had to be there, that perhaps I’d meet her, perhaps she’d sign my book, that somehow perhaps some of her ability to write so brilliantly might rub off on me just by being in her vicinity. I was unashamedly starstruck.

Soon after her appearance at Annie Bloom’s was scheduled, Wild was chosen for Oprah Winfrey’s new “Oprah’s Book Club 2.0,” and sales of the book exploded. I knew there would be a huge crowd to see Ms. Strayed, so I went early the night of the reading and still was only able to get a seat near the back in the room next to the bookstore. I had brought my copy of the book I’d bought at Annie Bloom’s days earlier, for I was sure they’d sell out. The room filled up until there was standing room only, with people sitting outside on the back deck, spilling out the front door and gathering on the sidewalk, everyone craning to look at the podium, hoping to be able to see when Ms. Strayed appeared. I assumed she’d be signing books afterwards, but the crowd was so large that my hopes of having my own book signed were dimming.

Then, just before the reading was about to start, the host announced that Ms. Strayed would be in shortly, that she was signing some books next door for those who couldn’t stay for the entire reading. I jumped up out of my chair and called out, “Someone else is welcome to have my seat!” and hurried out the door as fast as I could without knocking anyone down. I went into the bookstore and there she was, signing a book for one other person, and I was next. I felt a bit tongue-tied, but managed to say hello and introduce myself. I asked then if she’d sign my book, which she did, and I told her, “The most important thing to me about your book is the way it’s made me look at my own life, and my own writing,” to which she said she was glad, and we exchanged a few more words before time for her to go next door to start her reading.

I wandered back next door, knowing I wouldn’t get my seat back, but I didn’t care. I stood on the sidewalk happily, listening outside the door. I’d gotten what I came for, to meet her and have her sign my book, and my day, my week, my month was complete. I went home in a haze of having met a celebrity, but better yet, in a haze of inspiration.

What I find most compelling about Ms. Strayed’s work is her willingness to be candid and vulnerable in her nonfiction writing. I am not there yet in my writing; I seem to be still stuck in my reluctance to let people see parts of me that may meet with disapproval, or at least may not live up to the image I’d like people to have of me. It’s not that I want to write like her (well, at this point I do, but that’s not the goal), but I want to write most like me. Can I let myself do that? Can I go places within myself in my writing that may truly be outside my comfort zone and give my writing a depth it seems to lack? Could I move people to look at their own lives, too?

I’m restructuring my daily schedule now to give my writing precedence; that’s the easy part. The hard part will be stretching my storytelling skills by going deeper, pulling out words, images, feelings that will communicate and connect in ways I haven’t let myself experiment with before. I plan to participate in some workshops to help me do that, but it’s still up to me to take those chances.

Ms. Strayed has no idea of the gift she’s given me through her book. Her journey has helped me redefine my own, and her writing has re-energized my own desire to write better, reach higher, dig deeper, following my own literary path, for which I’ll always be grateful. I hope my own writing will one day move others to express themselves more fully as well.

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