The Lighthouse Writers Top-Secret Blog

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Better late than never, a dispatch on the visitation by Cheryl Strayed

It’s been a month since Cheryl Strayed, author of, among other things, the memoir Wild—which has spent a couple of months on the best-seller list—dropped in at Lighthouse for its Fly-By Writers Project. I tweeted afterward that I felt like I’d had a visitation from an angel—not only because I’m a brown-noser who hoped Strayed would see the tweet, but because I felt she descended from some celestial place with just the advice I needed to throw my work into a tailspin, in what I hope will be a good way. (I know I’m not alone in granting her white fluttery wings, and maybe a baton, but humor me.)

That’s not an easel pad. Those are wings. Squint, why don’t ya.

Strayed’s April 15 session was titled “The Story You Have To Tell: Writing from the Urgent Place.” I signed up eagerly, because I’m writing stories I’ve told myself and sometimes others for years, stories I desperately want to get out. “Out” in the sense that I want others to hear them, to feel from them what I think they mean, and at this point, “out” as in, “the hell out of my head.” (This, I’ve found, is the hallmark of this stage of a project, where some chapters have passed the dozen-drafts phase.)

Before the craft session, I’d read Wild. It was a fast read, which could provide the deceptive sense that the book is simple. At one point, no pencil in hand while reading, I dog-eared a page to return to later. But when I went back to see what I’d admired, I couldn’t find the thing because it was all great, two pages thick with observation, metaphor, and craft. I can’t look up the piece I’m seeking as I write, because I’ve loaned my copy to a friend, but a fellow blogger called out the climactic paragraph of the same passage, which also involved a deer and a rest on a mountaintop:

I didn’t know my own father’s life. He was there, but invisible, a shadow beast in the woods; a fire so far away it’s nothing but smoke. That was my father: the man who hadn’t fathered me. It amazed me every time. Again and again and again. Of all the wild things, his failure to love me the way he should have had always been the wildest thing of all. But on that night as I gazed out over the darkening land fifty-some nights out on the PCT, it occurred to me that I didn’t have to be amazed by him anymore. There were so many other amazing things in this world.

The thing with Strayed is that she is amazed. She has a knack for looking around her and seeing what is so amazing, and then working it into something that lets us be amazed, too. And isn’t that why we write? To tell others, “Hey, check out this thing I noticed,” and get them to see it as we do, or as our characters do, and be struck by it too.

In Strayed’s craft session, she translated that sense of amazement into techniques, laid out rapid-fire: Here’s the idea. Write about it. OK, stop. Share. Take a new set of prompts and run.

Just what did she have to say? I’ll try to summarize here. (But if you’ve read enough, the nutshell was: Be brave. Go deeper.)

Things that feel scary or uncomfortable have the greatest power. Let yourself keep writing. Discomfort is a sign you’ve done something on the page. Find not the thing you set out to write, but what you do write. Allow your writing to take surprising turns.

Writing from the urgent place means writing the stuff you are compelled to share. What you have to share. These things have “heat” for you—meaning you are the most passionate and emotionally intelligent about them, and you’ll be most able to see them through. (Exercise: Make a list of what you want to write about urgently. Then pick one, and go.)

Get at the universality of your work by digging deep. Strayed outlined her particular method of shovel-wielding thus:

  • What is the core question at the heart of your work? (maybe it’s something like “Why did I love that person who was so wrong for me?” or “How can I pick up the pieces after fighting cancer?”)
  • What’s universal about your question? (striking around with a pickaxe might reveal “Why do people love something that isn’t good for them? What is the nature of love?” or “What is the relationship between our bodies and minds? What is illusionary about the things we think we must have or do?”)
  • What happened? (This can be straightforward, but after asking the two questions above, you might see it differently)
  • What’s the meaning of what happened? After clearing away a few shovelfuls of dirt with the questions above, the answer can be illuminating.

Don’t shy away from revelations. Embrace them. They don’t have to be cheesy. Indeed, revelations transform art into a higher level. Trust your writing to lead you to the revelation. Keep pushing on until you find it. To find that revelation and imbue it with metaphorical resonance, Strayed proposed this exercise: Put your character in a situation where s/he is experiencing the emotion, meaning or question you are trying to convey in your work. Start writing.

Get to know your characters by invading their privacy. That’s not how Strayed put it, but she advocates learning characters in a way that would make real-life acquaintances blush and tremble. Ask, she said, what are your character’s (a) ideal self (what did you think you were going to do?), (b) actual self (what did you do?), (c) code (and relationship to this code), and (d) talismans (physical objects that are important to characters).

Phew. Can you believe all that happened in three hours? I wanted to stay all day, and also, I wanted to hurry away and write. I’m still contemplating adopting what Strayed describes as her “binge writing” methodology, where she locks herself in a hotel room for a couple days at a time and knocks out pages. But until I find an open space on my calendar for a binge, I’m continuing to nibble at the dirt that I found in Strayed’s workshop. Maybe that’s a mixed metaphor, or maybe it’s a new metaphor: writer as earthworm. I’ll dig into that later.

Meanwhile, a few lucky souls are going to be seeing Strayed in Denver again soon, as part of Lit Fest. Get the skinny on all things Lit Fest 2012 here. And the word on the street (“street” meaning “Lighthouse Facebook page“) is that the next Fly-By is already scheduled, featuring none other than the inimitable Steve Almond, on Sept. 29.

About Susanna

Susanna Donato is a writer (memoir & fiction), copy editor, and copywriter based in Denver. She enjoys music and angst.

7 comments on “Better late than never, a dispatch on the visitation by Cheryl Strayed

  1. Mark Jabbour
    May 31, 2012

    Excellent summation of what must have been a great workshop – meaning: you got more value than you expected. I wanted to go but it was full. Saw Cheryl @ the TC, after reading ‘Wild.’ She is as amazing a person as she is a writer. Very, very rare. Good job, Susanna & good luck w/your writing.

  2. andreadupree
    May 31, 2012

    Love this, Susanna! This reminds me of good times last month, and good times yet to come next month. Are you reading at Lit Fest? Hugs, a

  3. mjhenry
    May 31, 2012

    Brilliant! Thanks, Susanna, for your insights, especially this one:

    “And isn’t that why we write? To tell others, ‘Hey, check out this thing I noticed,’ and get them to see it as we do, or as our characters do, and be struck by it too.”


  4. jessicapage2
    May 31, 2012

    Love the get to know your characters by invading their privacy. Cheryl was the keynote speaker at my Summer in Words conference last year, before the publication of Wild. And she was wildly received. I agree about the angel part too…she radiates something, doesn’t she?

  5. susannadonato
    May 31, 2012

    Thanks, everyone! Maybe Cheryl’s angelicity (is that a word?) is in the way she is like a walking courage tincture for writers, artists, people everywhere. It’s such a generous trait in many writers who have “made it” to whatever degree, and especially in her — the way they are eager to reach a hand back across the bridge to help others make their way over whatever abyss we’re working on.

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This entry was posted on May 30, 2012 by in Member dispatches and tagged , , , .

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