July 12, 2020

Get Wild with Flashback and Memory

MV5BMTczNzI2MDc1Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTU5NTYxMjE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_Because Linda Joy and I taught Cheryl Strayed’s Wild as our first best-selling memoir course in our best-seller series, I’ve been eager to see the movie from the moment I heard about it.

In our six-month course, Linda Joy and I talk a lot about writers’ strengths. There are always certain elements of craft that writers will nail. You might feel comfortable with scene-writing, or narrative voice, or takeaways without even realizing it. These are areas in your writing that might come naturally to you, so much so that you may even be implementing craft without realizing you’re doing it.

When I saw Cheryl Strayed at a keynote at the San Miguel de Allende writers conference last year, I asked her about her “framed” structure. She responded that she had no idea she was even writing a “framed” memoir—which is a memoir that spans a point of time (A to B—in Cheryl’s case her three months on the Pacific Crest Trail) and uses flashback and memory to recall earlier points in time. There’s no question in my mind that Cheryl knew she had a structure for her book that made use of flashback and memory, but it’s probable that she has a knack for being able to move back and forth in time this way, and that these particular craft points—flashback and memory—came naturally to her.

In the film, director Jean-Marc Vallee handled Cheryl’s flashback and memory scenes three ways. Mick Lasalle, film reviewer for The Chronicle, describes them here:

In the first kind of flashback, Vallee [director] replicates a sudden involuntary memory: We see something from the past but hear Cheryl’s surroundings in the present. The second kind of flashback suggests a recollection so powerful that it tunes out the present, kind of like the state between waking and dreaming. For that, Vallee shows us something from the past, but in complete silence. The third variety of flashback is total immersion — a visit to the past, as it looked and sounded. In this way, Vallee keeps us in Cheryl’s head, in her journey, which is not just physical but spiritual.

In the book, Cheryl’s movement from the trail to these various flashbacks and memory are seamless. She uses transitions (another element of craft) to bring us from the present moment (on the trail) to a past recollection, which she sometimes unveils in great detail, and other times just as small moments of reflection.

One example of how she does this is a flashback scene she introduces to tell us the story of putting her mother’s horse down. We’re with Cheryl on page 157, where she’s gotten off the trail to have a hot meal and a shower. All of a sudden, sitting at the dinner table, she notices her tattoo and it writes, “It wasn’t just a horse, that tattoo. It was Lady.” From here on, for six pages, she writes about Lady. Much of what’s written here is a full flashback sequence, where she brings us fully into the scene where her brother Leif fires the gun:

“Leif crouched, kneeling on one knee. Lady pranced and scraped her front hooves on the ice and then lowered her head and looked at us. I inhaled sharply and Leif fired the gun. The bullet hit Lady right between her eyes, in the middle of her white star, exactly where we hoped it would.”

Notice how Cheryl uses her tattoo as a way to bring us into this back story about Lady so effectively that we barely realize we’ve left the present moment and traveled back in time with her. And she does this over and over and over, so fluidly that the reader is being carried along, back and forth, through her present PCT experiences and her past experiences of life before the PCT. That the movie accomplishes the same effect is magnificent, and a helpful study in flashback and memory for writers who struggle with flashback and memory in their writing.

Linda Joy and I would like to gift you Class #3 of our Wild course, which covers flashback and memory. You can listen to the call and/or download the transcript:

Wild Transcript: Flashback & Memory




  1. What great timing. I’d started an independent study of this very subject. My copy of Wild is covered in flags marking Strayed’s back flashes. The first draft of my memoir did not work as a straight chronological telling, so I want to master the art of flashbacks. Thanks so much for sharing this piece.

  2. Thanks, Linda. We hope it’s helpful and good luck!

  3. Eli O'Herlihey says

    You are so right on about the flashbacks in the book. Seemless transitions. And I think the movie did farely well in translating those to the screen. But I really wanted more from the movie, especially the scene about killing Lady. It didn’t have the impact like the book and perhaps that is because we don’t have Strayed’s language/ voice. What I also think the movie lacked was the reflective voice of the author. It really wasn’t until the end were we hear the voice of the woman looking back and reflecting on what it meant to her. It was difficult, especially for my friends who hadn’t read the book, to see her transformation on the trail without that reflective voice. I did point out that when the little boy sang to her, she had some sort of breakthrough. Perhaps if I wrote the screenpplay (ha, ha!!) I might have started from the now, getting the author at her current age, looking back to the trail experience, having the flashbacks and most importantly, have that reflective voice. But you know, Hollywood isn’t knocking at my door.

  4. This information is especially helpful and timely right now as I endeavor to write my second memoir. I too am doing an independent study on this subject so to maximize the most of flashbacks.

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