Wild, a film about a young woman’s transformational hike, is causing a fair-sized buzz here in Oregon. Forget the Academy Awards nominations in the actress categories. The author of the book, Cheryl Strayed, is one of us. In her real-life story, portrayed by Reese Witherspoon in the film, she may be ill-prepared and bumbling, but she’s determined. And real. When she’s finally able to lift her ponderous pack at the beginning of the film, it’s somehow familiar. We recognize the determination we can all access when we must bear the unbearable. She’s a pin-up woman for authentic courage, and the local backdoor – from the Pacific Crest trail to the Bridge of the Gods – defines our sense of place.
But it’s Cheryl’s unassuming-yet-profoundly-deep writer self that has drawn me to learn from her as a memoirist and a writer. After spending a week last summer in a retreat that she led, my writing became more honest and gritty. The rainbows and ponies all but disappeared. And I continue to feel the draw to memoir, fed by brave writers everywhere as I piece away at telling my own life tales of trauma and healing, my own ongoing journey of transformation.
Last week Strayed spoke to an overflowing audience of thousands here in my medium-sized college town. Her honesty packs a wallop with a whole lot of people, it seems. She was full of anecdotes and good spirits, as usual. And a bit starry-eyed from the Hollywood attention and it’s deeper power of healing below the buzz. She shared a wealth of healing moments and metaphors within the story and the film.
She rolled her eyes at the relief of reviewers who loved Witherspoon for portraying a “not nice” woman on screen. “I think I was nice all along,” she grinned. “But what I learned from the journey, which was a journey of transformation, in the end, was not the quick “aha!” of the usual Hollywood solution. I wanted to portray what was real for me.”
“I learned what transformation looks like: one foot in front of the other. A gradual and ordinary, gentle sense of acceptance.
It’s learning to accept what’s true. That what’s true is true. It’s an incredibly radical thing. I don’t want it to be true…that I have to live without my mother. But I will. And I can do it well.”
And this is why I love Cheryl Strayed and the message of her memoir Wild.
Her burdens, so different from those I carry, are also mine. And her growing understanding about what is true…really, matches my own. Really.