How Cheryl Strayed feathers her compelling backstory into Wild.
. . . I spun the backstory. I dole it out. The trail is a chronological report of my hike; what came before the trail is not chronological. I give you a scene from when I was seven and then another the year before [the hike]. I worked that pretty hard.—Cheryl Strayed in an interview
The second time through Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, I dog-eared the page each time Strayed launched a major flashback depicting an aspect of her life before the trail. There are scattered memory outcrops throughout, of course, but I was interested in how many significant backstory passages there are and how they’re introduced and where they occur.
I marked twelve, of various lengths, counting perhaps debatably a short passage from the scenic Prologue and yet not counting the book’s long expository opening that discusses Strayed’s pre-trail life. So this tally is subjective—yours would be different—but the point is that I was surprised there were not more digressions, because her backstory is such a compelling and memorable aspect of the book. Ten or twelve background passages aren’t so many, not stretched across five acts and 315 pages, though some of them are quite long.
Strayed transitions into them organically; that is, instead of backstory bits used as stand-alone passages that start a chapter (other than the first) or that begin as freestanding passages after a line break, they arise from what happens to her on the trail. Typical is how she gets into six-pages in the middle of the book on her mother’s death and the death of her mother’s beloved horse:
I made my way along the trail for twenty minutes until I came to a place where the trees opened up. I took off my pack and got down on my hands and knees with my headlamp to explore a spot that seemed like a reasonable place to sleep. I set up my tent, crawled inside, and zipped myself into my sleeping bag, though now I wasn’t even remotely tired, energized by the eviction [from a proprietary campground] and the late-night hike.
I opened up The Novel, but my headlamp was flickering and dying, so I turned it off and lay in the dark. I smoothed my hands over my arms, hugging myself. I could feel my tattoo beneath my right fingers; could still trace the horse’s outline. The woman who’d inked it had told me that it would stand up on my flesh for a few weeks, but it had remained that way even after a few months, as if the horse were embossed rather than inked into my skin. It wasn’t just a horse, that tattoo. It was Lady—the horse my mother had asked the doctor at the Mayo Clinic if she could ride when he’d told her she was going to die. . . .
This digression is interesting (we’ve not heard about that tattoo before) and compelling because we do know about her mother’s love of horses and her sudden illness. We remember an early scene of her mother asking the doctor if she could ride (he said that after her radiation treatments her spine would collapse like a cracker). So this passage rewards us for what we already know and it deepens the story. Strayed has withheld the tattoo until she needed it narratively.
Though Strayed’s backstory sections are presented as naturally arising occurrences, as memories provoked by current action, they appear rhythmically throughout Wild at fairly even intervals. How much artifice an author uses in mixing in such material—did she really remember that there and then?—doesn’t matter to me, if I trust her and it makes sense. Humans are so riddled with memories that coexist with or dominate our “actual” living moments that what’s truly not believable, a real violation of verisimilitude, are chapter-long chunks of freestanding backstory. (I previously noted Strayed’s sensible view of honesty in memoir.)
I’m trying to be less self-conscious in my memoir about how I transition into memories of my father. At the least I look for places where his experiences are relevant to what’s going on with me in the foreground. For instance, after a summer of almost biblical disasters on my farm—including heat, drought, storm, flood, and locusts (well, seventeen-year cicadas that everyone calls locusts)—I recall how Dad’s perseverance in the face of one of his own farming setbacks inspired me to go on. Which it did, always, and I think at that very time; in any case, my hard season epitomized how I always drew strength from his lesson. So the story of how he overcame his nursery’s salty well—its irrigation water was killing his plants—is true to my memory and to the connection with him that I need to convey there amidst my own disasters.
We are after Truth, the Big Picture, the granular bits in your interior landscape. There’s seldom a transcript to help you convey what it was like to be you—and I’m beginning to think that the more “facts” we have the harder it can be to bring the past to life. One would like some photos, some dates, sure. But I’m careful now about thinking that my experience as a journalist can help me find what’s vital in external records; I’ve had to cut so much of that, while so much of what I have discovered that’s useful has been in the process of writing.
I feel silly for seeing so many of the ordinary-but-important craft lessons within Wild so late, for being such a slow learner. But writing isn’t a hike up one mountain, it’s a journey through a series of ranges. There’s always more undiscovered country to see ahead of you as you stand there, atop one peak on the never-ending trail, looking out and catching your breath.
This and the previous two posts have run in abbreviated form as a single post on Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour.
Next: The backlash against Cheryl Strayed and Wild.
The interview quotes from Strayed in this and the previous post were taken from the excellent short video below, a discussion with Bill Kenower of Author magazine.