The participants of the Yale Writer's Conference were eager to meet Cheryl Strayed. Rarely does an author become a celebrity. Memoirists, including yours truly, were wondering--how do I publish a bestseller, get a movie deal, go to the Oscars, and have Reese Witherspoon play me (okay maybe I wasn't asking that last question about myself, though I'm sure Reese could do a great Scott Jones).
"You must write answering the question 'What does it mean to be human?'" was Strayed's simple answer to the unasked, but apparent, questions. "That's really the only question of literature."
Yesterday I attended her Master Class and Craft Talk and interacted with her briefly in the lunch room. This post is an amalgam of my notes of those presentations.
She drew upon F. Scott Fitzgerald to talk about the connection between heart and craft. "Write big, even though your life is small," she encouraged. "Our lives are not original. We have a lot in common. Your subject isn't original; your voice is. Give your heart to your writing."
Strayed began her Master Class by stating that success is overcoming resistance and doubt. "Tell the story you have to tell." Have in two senses--the story you possess, that is yours, and the story that you must tell ("fire in the bones" from the prophet Jeremiah is how I imagine this).
She charted on the blackboard the layers she believes any book or story must include. I'll reproduce them here as a list (why didn't I take a picture of the chart?).
- Your story--your obsessions, interests, experiences, things that happened to you, how you feel about them
- Other experiences in you or your character's life that remind you of or echo your story
- Other stories in the culture or in history/mythology that resonate with your story
- What place does your story occupy in the narrative tradition? Examples include hero's journey, fish out of water, stranger in a strange land, fairy tale, etc.
- What is the question at the core of your story? And this is twofold--your specific question and the universal human question you are writing about
She explained that not every layer must appear explicitly on the page, but that the author needs to have thought through every layer. The universal question she was exploring in Wild was "How is it that we bear the unbearable?"
"Meaning is more powerfully conveyed the more discreet it is." She isn't a fan of explicitly giving the meaning to the reader. She especially doesn't like writing with a message. "Wild doesn't have a message. I didn't plant a message for people. Readers can take whatever message they need from the book."
She instructed her Master Class to focus on objects and talismans in their writing. Talismans are objects we imbue with meaning. Some are cultural, like wedding rings. Others are personal. In Wild her backpack, which she names Monster, becomes a character itself. She encouraged us to let objects do some of the narrative heavy lifting (was the pun intended?). She enjoys writing that tells you what happened so well that it doesn't have to tell you how it felt.
Strayed began her Craft Talk by exploring the question, "Why would anyone want to read about me or about this fictional character I've made up?" The answer is, "They don't. No one wants to read about me or about a character I've made up. People want to tap into the eternal voice asking what it means to be human."
She encouraged us instead of plotting the events of the book to plot the emotional development, particularly looking for revelatory moments, and to build the story around those. In Wild the basic structure is 1) I can't do this, 2) I have to do this, 3) I'm doing it. The first example is getting the backpack Monster on her back and starting the hike. "The mundane revelations prepare for the big ones." Eventually that structure is used to move her through her grief over her mother's death.
In the final Q&A there were many questions about success and the film. "I wouldn't have gotten lucky if I hadn't done the hard work," she said. "Every person who walks up and says 'this changed me,' I earned that by working hard."