Cheryl Strayed's Wild Reviewed by Her Mentor Paulette Bates Alden
Have you ever been named in the acknowledgment section of a book? If so, you know how thrilled and tender you can feel.
How about being named in the hottest memoir of the season? That’s what happened to my guest today, Paulette Bates Alden, who was lucky enough to have Cheryl Strayed as a student at the University of Minnesota more than a decade ago and perceptive enough to know that she had encountered an unusually gifted writer. Cheryl Strayed thanks her at the end of the book (p. 314) for being the kind of teacher who becomes a friend: “to . . . Paulette Bates Alden, whose early mentorship and endless goodwill has meant the world to me.”
How did I find Paulette? Not at the University of Minnesota, but online. As I’ve been documenting in recent posts, online friendships continue to amaze me. Thanks to Richard Gilbert’s wonderful blog Narrative, I met Paulette Bates Alden, who made penetrating, informed, and witty comments, both on Richard’s blog and on mine.
Paulette is out exploring Yosemite again to celebrate her 65th birthday. This national park has been her touchstone place, having been visited by her at other birthday milestones: 25 and 40. Let’s make Yosemite echo with happy birthday wishes she can come home to. If you are a writer, note her manuscript reading service.
When Paulette wrote the review of her former student’s book below, Cheryl Strayed put it up on her Facebook page. If you like it, please let Paulette know on her own blog. Now, with her permission, I’ve copied her review below. Listen and watch carefully as Paulette skillfully guides you in uncovering the method and spirit of one of her greatest students.
Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is an amazing and wonderful book. It’s certainly one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. It’s beautifully written, so skillful in its craft, and so deep in its heart and feelings. I found it totally engrossing, entertaining, and moving.
I think you would find it equally fine, but I do admit I’m prejudiced. Cheryl was a student of mine in a graduate level fiction writing class in the fall of 1990, when she was senior at the University of Minnesota. It was that following spring that Cheryl’s mother died of lung cancer, forty-five days after her shocking, unexpected diagnosis, at the age of forty-five. When Cheryl came to my office to tell me, we both cried. I have never seen anyone as heart-broken.
Even at twenty-two, Cheryl was one of the best students I have ever had. There was something so special about her, so bright and receptive, mature, warm, talented, and genuine. I felt honored to know her and call her a friend. I recognized, as anyone would, that she was already on her way to being an exceptional writer.
Over the years she worked hard at developing her talent, with a commitment and sacrifice few people are able to muster. She published some knockout essays, and in 2005 she published an excellent autobiographical novel, Torch, that deals with her mother’s death. But it is with Wild that she has achieved a spectacular success: Knopf’s lead spring book; rave reviews in The New York Times, the NYTBR and just about everywhere else; a spread in Vogue; foreign rights sales in many countries; a big book tour; the movie rights bought by Reese Witherspoon; and #6 on the NYT nonfiction best seller list this week. None of this is a flux or some literary form of mass hysteria. People are responding with such “wild” enthusiasm because the book actually deserves it.
The memoir braids the surface story of twenty-six year old Cheryl hiking 1100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail alone with the emotional back story of losing her mother, having her family disintegrate after her mother’s death, and her own subsequent “wilding,” in which she began having affairs, got into heroin, divorced her young husband whom she loved, and changed her name to Strayed, because, as she puts it:
“I had diverged, digressed, wandered and become wild. I didn’t embrace the word as my new name because it defined negative aspects of my circumstances or life, but because even in my darkest days—those very days in which I was naming myself—I saw the power of the darkness. Saw that, in fact, I had strayed and that I was a stray and that from the wild places my straying had brought me, I knew things I couldn’t have known before.”
She’s terrific at capturing the physical aspects of the hike itself, but what creates a lot of the poignancy and power of the book is Cheryl’s ability to capture her inner life, the exploration of the past that has brought her to this necessary journey alone and on foot. She convincingly tracks her internal movement along the trail from damaged and wounded to strong and whole.
Both journeys—the external and the inner one—are incredible feats of fortitude, effort, pain, and authenticity. I certainly felt that I had traveled with her, so intimately does she let us into her life and self. Her voice is so authentic and so at her service, her technical skills so highly developed, the pacing and structure so skillful, her persona so honest and appealing, the memoir is a joy to read. It’s also a great model for memoir writers in how it weaves the forward action story with relevant, resonant passages of back story that give weight and meaning to that forward action.
It was four years after her mother’s death that Cheryl hiked the PCT. The idea had come to her almost randomly, it seemed, in the midst of her own downward spiral, into sex and heroin. She describes her experience with heroin:
“It was good. It was like something inordinately beautiful and out of this world. Like I’d found an actual planet that I didn’t know had been there all along. Planet Heroin. The place where there was no pain, where it was unfortunate but essentially okay that my mother was dead and my biological father was not in my life and my family had collapsed and I couldn’t manage to stay married to the man I loved.
“At least that’s how it felt while I was high.
“In the mornings, my pain was magnified by about a thousand. In the morning there weren’t only those sad facts about my life. Now there was also the additional fact that I was a pile of shit.”
It is in the midst of this crack-up that she decides she has to walk the PCT alone. On the hike she understands the connection:
“I stopped in my tracks when that thought came into my mind, that hiking the PCT was the hardest thing I’d ever done. Immediately, I amended the thought. Watching my mother die and having to live without her, that was the hardest thing I’d ever done. Leaving Paul and destroying our marriage and life as I knew it for the simple and inexplicable reason that I felt I had to—that had been hard as well. But hiking the PCT was hard in a different way. In a way that made the other hardest things the tiniest bit less hard. It was strange but true. And perhaps I’d known it in some way from the very beginning. Perhaps the impulse to purchase the PCT guidebook months before had been a primal grab for a cure, for the thread of my life that had been severed.”
A profound moment comes late in the book, after she’s had some great sex with a stranger in Ashland on a stop-over, and goes to the beach with him for the day. By this point, we know her very well–what has hurt her, what she has struggled with, her mistakes and regrets, her strengths and what she has borne to get to this point on the hike and in her life. She walks off by herself and writes her ex-husband’s name in the sand:
“I’d done that so many times before. I’d done it for years—every time I visited a beach after I fell in love with Paul when I was nineteen, whether we were together or not. But as I wrote his name now, I knew I was doing it for the last time. I didn’t want to hurt for him anymore, to wonder whether in leaving him I’d made a mistake, to torment myself with all the ways I’d wronged him. What if I forgave myself? I thought. What if I forgave myself even though I’d done something I shouldn’t have? What if I was a liar and a cheat and there was no excuse for what I’d done other than because it was what I wanted and needed to do? What if I was sorry, but if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do anything differently than I had done? What if I’d actually wanted to fuck every one of those men? What if heroin taught me something? What if yes was the right answer instead of no? What if what made me do all those things everyone thought I shouldn’t have done was what also had got me here? What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was?”
Reading that passage, I felt as if I were witnessing a woman arriving at her deepest and best truth. It was stirring and moving to me in a way I can’t describe. The letting go, the owning up, the honesty, the acceptance and understanding of her very self. What if I was never redeemed? What if I already was? The great accomplishment of the memoir is its hard-earned truth, and I believe that’s ultimately why readers are responding to it as they are.
During the hike, Cheryl has books sent to her in her supply boxes at various points along the trail. She burns the books as she reads them, to save weight.
“When The Ten Thousand Things had turned to ash, I pulled out the other book in my ziplock bag. It was The Dream of a Common Language. I’d carried it all this way, though I hadn’t opened it since that first night on the trail. I hadn’t needed to. I knew what it said. Its lines had run all summer through the mix-tape radio station in my head, fragments from various poems or sometimes the title of the book itself, which was also a line from a poem: the dream of a common language. I opened the book and paged through it, leaning forward so I could see the words by the firelight. I read a line or two from a dozen or so of the poems, each of them so familiar they gave me a strange sort of comfort. I’d chanted those lines silently through the days while I hiked. Often, I didn’t know exactly what they meant, yet there was another way in which I knew their meaning entirely, as if it were all before me and yet out of my grasp, their meaning like a fish just beneath the surface of the water that I tried to catch with my bare hands—so close and present and belonging to me—until I reached for it and it flashed away.”
I love the way this beautiful passage moves from the actual and factual to something more elusive, the intuitive grasp of meaning which can’t be articulated, but is sensed, felt.
She returns to this metaphor at the end of her journey and the end of the book. In a flash forward, she recounts from the present what the future would bring to her: a loving marriage, two adored and adoring children, a return fifteen years later with her husband and children to this very spot where she finished her long walk:
“And how it would be only then that the meaning of my hike would unfold inside of me, the secret I’d always told myself finally revealed…
“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 that what I’d done was true. To understand its meaning without yet being able to say precisely what it was, like all those lines from The Dream of a Common Language that had run through my nights and days. To believe that I didn’t need to reach with my bare hands anymore. To know that seeing the fish beneath the surface of the water was enough. That it was everything. It was my life—like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me.”
It would be seventeen years after she finished the hike before Cheryl Strayed would write and publish Wild. During those years she would master her craft, understand and distill her experience, and become the writer she was meant to be.
What would you rather do, write a best-selling memoir or be a teacher to someone else who fulfills that dream? What have you learned from Paulette by being her student reading this review?
Powerful post Shirley. Thanks for sharing this. Which would I rather do? Why do I have to choose? Aren’t many of us working on both?
In my experience as a teacher, I’ve found that I may learn the most of all to the benefit of my writing, and students learn as much or more from each other as from me.
Long life the wisdom and power of the group — or the class, as the case may be.
You’re so right, Sharon. Yes, working on both is the best of all possible worlds. For years I used a quote from Wallace Stegner to the effect that you can’t teach writing. The best you can do is to create an atmosphere wherein they teach themselves and each other (weak paraphrase of a lovely quote I can’t seem to find any more).
The long life part helps too. The more relaxed we are, the more open we are to learning, both about our own writing and about our students’.
I just put a hold on the e-Book Wild and look forward to reading it in light of this moving review. There are six patrons ahead of me on the list, so it may be a couple of months, but I’m sure it will come at exactly the right time. When the student is ready, the book appears.
I am blessed to call myself a teacher; have no present plans to write a memoir; and I am eagerly awaiting the memoir of my own teacher, Shirley Showalter. In the meantime, I’m learning much about writing and about living through this blog. Thank you, Shirley!
Thank you so much, Laurie. I’m so glad we found each other again. I deeply appreciate the contributions you have made here and on facebook to the community of readers and writers. And I’m glad that you are able to expand your professional base from law to include writing and teaching. Aren’t we blessed to be living these lives?
An incredibly beautiful review. It’s the second review of Wild that I’ve read, and Wild is now on my “to read” list.
I used to teach English, and I have many fond memories of it. But I would rather write a memoir. It doesn’t have to be a bestseller–that would be icing on the cake!
That said, it would be immensely satisfying to know that I’d had the kind of effect on a student that Alden had.
Tina,I like the clarity of your vision. You see that book as a finished project. I”m convinced that you will reach your goal. I feel your determination, a huge wrench in the writer’s tool kit. Perhaps the story you are telling in your memoir will become the equivalent of touching a student as a teacher. Memoirists are teachers too — of the probing they are able to do of their own lives.Many blessings on your way.
I learned in this post that I wish I could have Alden for a writing class! Superb post, Shirley.
I am not teaching writing but have been a teacher-of-sorts all my life. Now I am writing my memoir. Both are rich experiences.
Thanks for directing us to “Wild.”
Ha, Brenda! I agree with you. Did you notice, especially, how skillfully Paulette reads the book, noticing when language is concrete, when it is abstract? Then she makes sure we don’t miss the repeated metaphor. We feel guided but not spoonfed. That’s what master teachers do. Aren’t you glad we can at least have this virtual forum with Paulette?
Thanks for calling attention to Paulette and this memoir. Having just finished it yesterday, I can affirm that Paulette’s sense of it is accurate, her closeness to Cheryl Strayed notwithstanding. I was amazed by the technical skill here, how easy Strayed makes what she does appear. But unrolling a powerful narrative of a journey while feathering in her backstory at just the right places and pace is nothing short of masterful.
I was amazed also, Richard. To the point of intimidation. I love the last two sentences in the paragraph Paulette selected: “It was my life—like all lives, mysterious and irrevocable and sacred. So very close, so very present, so very belonging to me.”
And also the very last sentence: “How wild it was, to let it be.”
Transcendence and immanence together. That’s why I call the book a spiritual memoir.
Thanks for introducing me to Paulette.
Paulette’s review is every bit as engaging and instructive as Cheryl Strayed’s memoir.”Wild” captivated me from the first sentence and kept me in its grip until the end. Strayed kept it so believable that I could feel my own feet aching from the hike and my heart longing for a lost mother. Paulette’s review is stunning and reflective of a very special bond between a teacher and student that goes beyond the classroom. They both made a difference in each other’s lives and in doing so have touched us all. Thank you for sharing this exquisite review.
Kathy, I somehow missed responding to your comment. Hope you see it now. Your empathetic reading of Wild shows how Cheryl Strayed’s voice reaches into the reader’s heart — especially a wide open one like yours!
I just started Cheryl’s book a few days ago and am hooked. As a memoirist, I’m studying her structure (not to mention painful, lyrical writing). Her weaving in her backstory into the hike is masterful. I’m actually heartened by the fact that it took 17 years until Cheryl could write this memoir. I’m in the process of mastering my craft as I work with thousands of pages of letters and diaries out of which I’m trying to learn about and then craft the story of the stresses that undermined my parents’ marriage. Congratulations on being Cheryl’s mentor, Paulette, and thank you, Shirley, for posting this guest review.
I understand your reaction completely. I waited fourteen years to write my first essay about my father’s death. “The heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of,” said Blaise Pascal. It takes a long time to find the heart’s reasons.
Your project is wonderful I know you will create a work of art.
Thanks for comment here.
Hi Shirley, Thanks for the quote. Writing memoir requires both heart and head; the head to get organized and plan and structure; the heart to find the deepest feelings and meanings we want to pull out of it. I’m pretty good on the “head” part; I keep at t his diligently, but heart is playing hide and seek as I try to untangle my emotions about what I’ve learned in the letters and diaries. Thanks for the encouragement!
Linda, did you hear this one?
I thought of you.
Thanks for the link, Shirley. Looks fascinating. The role our parents play in defining our lives can’t be overstated–for good and ill. I’ll check it out.
I’m not sure what the proper blog etiquette is on revisiting older posts and leaving comments, but I wanted to let you know that I just finished Cheryl Strayer’s “Wild” this morning and to say thank you again, Shirley, for recommending this exceptional memoir. Watching the book trailer at CherylStrayed.com after I finished reading was a special treat!
Laurie, it’s wonderful when readers remember a post and come back to add their own experience after they’ve read the book. Thanks!
(I get an email for every comment, so it’s no problem when you add something to an older conversation.)
I suppose you saw that Cheryl Strayed was interviewed by Oprah and that her book went right up the bestseller charts again afterward?
Thanks, Shirley. I have watched it climbing the NY Times Best Sellers list for nonfiction over the past several weeks and know that I probably would not have read it, but for your blog. I posted a review on Goodreads, Amazon and BN.cm and then read some of the other reviews, especially the 1 & 2-starred reviews (a much different perspective than my 5). It’s interesting the expectations people bring to books…along with their love/hate of Oprah.
Just wanted to add to my May 29th post of starting Wild that I finished it within a week. It was a library book, and i decided to purchase it so I can mark it up to study all the masterful transitions and enjoy its poignant beauty again. Her honesty and years of learning her craft paid off. It’s just taken off virally!
Linda, you recognize the beauty of the wild. If you really study this one and emulate it, you will surely write a better book.
I don’t think I have the ability, yet, to move seamlessly, as she does, from one setting to another and back again.
But I can certainly admire it, and admire you. Go for it!
Well, I don’t have the mastery either, and don’t know if I can learn it quickly enough before I run out of time or steam! But even so, I just love studying what she’s done. I won’t be able to pull it off as she did, but there’s a learning experience in virtually every paragraph. Always nice to hear from you!
Yes, a learning experience in virtually every paragraph. O
Do you follow Cheryl Strayed on Twitter? Like her page on FB?
She just put up an amazing piece of writing from another young writer. More models to study.
[…] The word “wild” has loomed large over the field of memoir this year. You’ve probably heard of Cheryl Strayed’s wonderful book about her amazing journey on the Pacific Crest Trail. I reposted a wonderful review of the book by Strayed’s mentor Paulette Bates Alden here. […]