I wrote this post for my blog Writing Is My Drink when I was reading Cheryl Strayed’s WILD in April. I wanted to share it with you here because I think it speaks of how other writers’ work and process can impact our own work and the importance of going out into the world to hear other writers talk about their work.
Phew, I Just Flew in from the 80s
It was a sort of perfect storm of circumstances that led to my time travel back to the 1980s. It’s hard to tease one event out as the key, but let’s say it started with a surprise email from an ex-boyfriend who lives in a zillion miles away saying he’d be in Seattle in a few weeks and did I want to have coffee. Now, there are exes you keep in touch with for whatever reason–you’re coparenting (done that), you’re still into them (done that one too), and there are those you don’t keep in touch with for whatever reason–you despise them (haven’t quite done that), you don’t like who you were with them (uh), or maybe you just fall out of touch. With this guy, let’s call him Writer Boyfriend, it was the latter.
But now we were going to have coffee and so the long buried file of the late 80s–when I was a grad student living in San Francisco wanting to be a writer but instead forcing myself to be an academic and just dating a writer as a substitute for doing what I really wanted. And when this email arrived, I was reading–or not so much reading but swallowed up by–Cheryl Strayed’s Wild (unbelievably good), which is set in the narrator’s twenties. In Wild, Strayed does such an insanely good job of conjuring up the mindset of a certain type of dislocation that can dominate one’s up and comer years that my own 20’s started coming back to me in a visceral way. I felt my younger self tugging at me, saying, “Come back, I have something to tell you.” When Strayed was here reading in Seattle three weeks ago, she said that she’d kept a journal during her 20s and had kept a very detailed journal during the Pacific Crest Trail hike the book recounts. Why hadn’t I kept journals during my 20s? I wondered as she spoke. Or did I? (I couldn’t even remember) The truth is even if I had journals from that time, I wasn’t sure I’d want to open them due to the cringe factor. But there was something in WILD, something in Strayed’s willingness to own all the parts of her younger self, that was beginning to erode my longstanding cringe. Maybe the young me was tired of being banished by the cringe.
And then, it started: the opening up of old boxes of photos. And there was cringe. The fat period. The trying too hard. The constant image and hair changes. The restlessness. And, some of the worst earrings imaginable. But pushing past the cringe, I adopted the stance of the private detective as I flipped through countless pictures and old letters (letters!), looking for evidence that there was something of me in this girl with dyed black hair and leather jackets. And just what was it that she had to say to me?
And then I found them. Journals! There were journals, but unlike what I imagine Strayed’s PCT journal to be, these journals interested me not so much for what they revealed but because of what they didn’t. It seemed I had kept journals thinking that when I died, these journals would be discovered by both my mother and Jean-Paul Sarte, so it was not only important to avoid descriptions of the torrid and steamy, it was also important to write about all this as if it were an existential treatise. The bulk of them read like freshman philosophy essays written at 2am. Even in my own journals, I was trying to please, rarely letting my guard down enough to write about my ordinary worries in ordinary language, which would have been infinitely more interesting. But back then, I was always sure I wasn’t enough, that my ordinary struggles indicated all the ways I was flawed and dislocated from the whole rather than simply human.
But then, among all this existential mumbo jumbo, there were flashes of clarity. And a few times, I stopped in my living room strewn with photos, concert tickets, and matchbooks and gasped at the audacity of the girl. In 1988, making something like 10k a year as a waitress and tutor, I wrote my goals. I will make my living off my writing and teaching writing, I wrote boldly in loopy cursive. For how insecure I was at the time, I might have as well have written, “I will be President of the United States.” I want to send a message back to her with her black hair and red lipstick: hey girl, we get there. But it’s a one way street. She can talk to me, but I can’t speak to her. And what she says to me now is this: Keep going.