What strikes me most about Cheryl is her presence. She’s authentic and real. She is the character you meet and grow to care about in Wild. But Wild has become much bigger than Cheryl Strayed at this point. It’s one of those rare memoirs that has launched into the stratosphere and become the next big memoir that every author will try to compare their work to. Just like Eat, Pray, Love and The Glass Castle before it, it’s setting the bar for new memoirists and also giving memoirists everywhere hope for what’s possible to achieve with memoir. These are a few of Cheryl’s key points from last night:
“Real transformation doesn’t happen in one moment; it happens over a series of moments.”
This statement should set memoir writers free. There’s a lot of pressure to wrap up a memoir with a single important takeaway for the reader and to tie up everything just so. But Cheryl’s point is that writing a memoir is a journey, one that’s full of a million little ah-has. Use these insights to your advantage, and draw out your takeaways over the course of your whole book.
“What I faced on the trail schooled me in how to be a writer.”
For Cheryl it was the trail. For others of us it may have been another experience—travel, loss, facing yourself, coming out of something difficult. She made the point that out there on the trail no one was going to come to her rescue. She had to take care of herself, and rely on herself, and the same has been true in her writing. What struck me here is the perseverance of someone like Cheryl, on the trail and in her writing. Her brand of tenacity and spunk has served her well.
“People have reflected back to me a million times what my story is actually about.”
I love this. And writers must understand its importance. Your memoir, at the end of the day, is not about you. It’s about your readers and what they take away from the experience. People are looking for a mirror. They will resonate so powerfully with certain parts of your book, because those are the parts that spoke to them and inform their story. You can’t necessarily set out to write a book that mirrors others, but in paying attention to universal truths and larger themes, you can tap into what’s essentially true about your own memoir and begin to be buoyed by the ways in which your story is bigger than you are.
Thanks to Cheryl for her wonderful book and heartfelt keynote!