What was not compelling about Monday night’s talk at PSU with Cheryl Strayed? The 44-year-old author of bestselling memoir, Wild, took the stage this week in an event that was coordinated through the university’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
Strayed began the talk by reminiscing on her own time as a teacher at Portland State, a time in which she was reminded of the struggles that both creative writers and teachers face in their craft.
She spoke of going to college side-by-side with her mother until her mother became terminally ill with lung cancer. And then the loss of her mother, “split the world in two,” Strayed said. For Cheryl, losing her mother at that time, though horrific, was a privilege that allowed her to understand mortality.
Then, the spiraling away. The spiritual anguish and anger. “The clutches of heroin.” Her happenstance discovery of the possibility of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. The trail, Strayed said, “was everything I was not.”
I was interested to hear that the first scene from Wild that Strayed wrote was the scene in her Mojave hotel room at the Southern Californian feed into the trail. Writing this scene, Strayed said, was what made her go back and revisit the heart of her “story of transformation.”
“Bearing the unbearable,” Strayed said. “[This] was what Wild was all about.”
After losing a few toes, pounds, and much of her pride to the PCT, Strayed said that she reached a place of “accepting what is true.”
“‘I don’t like this, it’s uncomfortable, but I can do it,’” Strayed said of the three-month hike. This resilient attitude, which Strayed said was “a gift of poverty,” allowed her to come to terms with her mother’s death. In return, Strayed said that, “the PCT gave me the strength and faithkeeping I needed to become a writer.”
Her agony, walking the spine of the Sierra Nevada and the Cascade Mountain Range, was the creation of “a rite of passage for myself,” Strayed said. “In a culture that offered me none, walking alone into the wilderness did that for me. Rites of passage often involve going into solitude and experiencing physical suffering (often only offered to boys). Solitude. Suffering.”
To say plainly that Strayed came to terms with her mother’s death is a simplification of the totality of cancer’s violent removal of her mother from Strayed’s life. Strayed spoke of a climatic scene in Wild, which occurred in Crater Lake National Park on what would have been her mother’s fiftieth birthday.
Strayed said: “Wild gets to the ever-present, ever-diversifying elements of my mother in my life. That scene when I’m walking to Crater Lake and blaming her [for all her faults] felt like a sullying of my mom. . .I needed to show my mom as a human being. And [show] myself as a human, taking this dead woman to task. . .This creates a story that is dense with meaning.”
Strayed had also answered a question about her beloved Dear Sugar column on The Rumpus and said that she answered those letters “with the full force of my being.” The strong responses of Rumpus readers (and the readers of the book that spun out of the column, Tiny Beautiful Things), demonstrates how much these thousands of her readers have in common with her, and with each other, Strayed said.
“That’s the entire assertion of literature,” Strayed said, raising both hands above the podium, as if to hold the hundreds of tiny beautiful things before her for a moment.