December 17, 2017

Transformation in Wild—The True Inner Journey

WILDLast week, my writing group celebrated our annual holiday gathering by seeing the movie Wild. Prepped with the excitement and the long wait for the release of the movie, we settled in to see how the filmmakers and Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed would translate the book onto the big screen. Earlier in the year, we had met the “real” Cheryl at a daylong writing conference where, in a graceful and authentic way, she shared her stories of living and writing the moments that were so profound in her book. My writing group holds Wild (the memoir) close to our hearts as a story that moved us deeply—a woman’s story of loss, heartbreak, and transformation that parallels some of our own life challenges.

The book spoke to us—as women, as people who have traversed our own journeys through the figurative and literal dark woods of middle age, family tragedies, childhoods marked by abuse, and the sharp challenges of body and soul that living brings. Another thing this group has in common is that we have written or are writing our own personal stories. Though Wild may be about Strayed’s story of transformation through her journey on the PCT, the book has many universal themes, particularly her quest for healing and redemption. When Cheryl decided to come to terms with her life, she began a new relationship with herself and her past. This kind of change is part of our human potential, once we decide to change our lives. When we decide to make the journey to learn about who we are, not just who we think we are, something new and surprising can happen to us, something we could not have imagined.

As a therapist, I see many parallels between memoir writing and therapeutic healing. Most people don’t set out to “heal” when they write a memoir, but as one of my students said recently, it’s one of the side benefits. New insights and ahas come as you unravel the complexities of memory and story.

It’s been surprising to watch, since the release of the movie, the many negative attitudes people carry toward the idea of transformation. One critic of the movie felt that the theme of a walk in the wilderness by an inexperienced person was superficial and unbelievable. Another reviewer took the tack that a hike in the wilderness was a meaningless luxury that only privileged people can have because of class or race. I have to wonder about this cynicism surrounding the idea of turning one’s life around—it seems similar to a societal attitude I’ve noticed toward therapy: that it’s hokey, not real, or a waste of time and money. The cynical view is that it’s not possible or important to think of transformation as valuable or something we can reach for, as if it’s some kind of fairy tale or sappy view to hold about life. We are supposed to just “soldier on,” hiding our wounds and presenting a “happy mask” to the world.

But the problem is, of course, that this does not work, not really. So many people come to me in therapy and to write their memoirs who for the first time, are given permission to speak their truths, their deepest truths, the ugly ones, the moments they’d prefer to forget, the moments of loss and pain, the moments of betrayal—issues that they have suppressed or tried to forget, but this is what trauma does to people: it follows them around, it keeps them from fully living, it’s woven with threads of shame and loss and silence. The only way to get fully free is to break out of the silence and face the unwanted stories, the unwanted and rejected aspects of Self, to speak, to be heard, and ultimately to hold our heads up high.

Cheryl’s journey on the PCT happened over twenty years before she wrote about it. She had many years to live through the insights and healing she gained, but she knew the story was calling to her. When she began writing, had no idea her story would become an international phenomenon. She worked on her story, unearthed it with copious tears, self-reflection, and pain to put into words what had happened to her on the trail. The trail story in the “now” of the book was transformational, but it’s important to note that so was writing her memoir. Writing allowed her to frame and re-live her youth from a new perspective, a doorway into the past, a new lens through which to look at her life.

Wild was the first memoir that I taught with Brooke Warner for our best-selling memoir series and the book has a place in my heart for that, and also for the power of Cheryl’s story. We have continued on and taught three other memoirs for that series, and will teach Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club this spring. We look forward to celebrating memoir writing with you this year, and invite you into the journey of transformation both your story and the process of writing offers when you make the decision to answer the call.

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