Summer in Words

Writing Conference

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Interview with keynote speaker Cheryl Strayed

When I first heard Cheryl Strayed read from her upcoming memoir Wild, I knew she was the real thing. She was reading a segment where she describes the beginning of her hike alone along the Pacific Crest Trail and everything is going wrong—her feet hurt, her camp stove doesn’t work, she’s ill and hungry. She stepped off the trail for a bit and wrote about these encounters. Afterward, I realized that she’d captured pathos on the page—her desperation, grief, humor and need all rolled into a sort of raw mix of revelation—not an easy thing to accomplish. After the reading I devoured her novel Torch, recognizing the upper Midwest where we both hail from, the hungry truth of the emotions and relationships shaped on the page. It’s about a working class family and in which the mother dies of cancer and all the pain of that loss. She called it Torch because since her own mother died when she was 22, she felt like a torch singer, carrying on after someone leaves. Then I was online one night when she announced on Facebook that she’d won the Pushcart Prize for her lovely, lovely essay about writing and the venerable Alice Munro. Her work has also appeared in places such as The Sun magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Doubletake and The Best American Essays. She’s a writer to watch and learn from. Simple as that.

Q: Since you’re a mother of two and you also teach, I’m wondering how you organize your days and writing time.
A: I work when someone else is taking care of my kids–which means, for the most part, when they are in school. (My son is in kindergarten and my daughter in preschool.) Deadlines tend to dictate my schedule. Unfortunately, I’m the most productive when I’m up against it, like so many of us. I also write well when I can really sink into it and have long periods of uninterrupted time, which is very, very hard to find when you’re a parent of young children. Before I became a mother, I used to go away on writers’ residencies to get serious work done. I can’t do that much anymore because I can’t leave my children for weeks and months at a time, but I do create my own mini-residencies on a fairly regular basis. I hole up in a hotel for 2-3 nights and write like a maniac. I come home exhausted and wired and with more pages than I thought possible.

Q: You write about loss and grief–fertile territory for a writer. Can you talk about that a bit?
A: My mom died when I was 22 and she was 45. She was my only real parent (my dad hasn’t been in my life since I was about 6) and so when she died I became an orphan. I was a grown up technically, but I still very much needed my mom. Her death profoundly changed my life. I had to find my own way in the word in a really stark and lonesome way. My grief couldn’t help but become my subject matter. It was the story I had to tell. I’ve told it in different ways in different forms over the years, both fictionally and nonfictionally. I don’t really think that I write about grief so much as I write about love. What is grief, after all, but a deep sorrow and longing for those we loved the most truly and fiercely? Sometimes I wonder what I would have written about if my mother hadn’t died. There is so much material in all of our lives. Where would my eye and my heart have landed had I’d been lucky enough to be a woman who still has the love of her mother? The question takes my breath away every time I ask it.

Q: Is writing nonfiction such as your essays and upcoming memoir a different process for you than writing fiction? Along those lines, do you plan the narrative arc of your nonfiction pieces as you would fiction?
A: The two feel very much the same to me, as a writer. What I mean, is that when I’m actually writing I’m reaching for the same feeling on the page, regardless of genre. With fiction I draw on real life and whatever I decide to make up; with memoir, it’s all just from real life. But in each I try to find and reveal the layers of truth within the story. I tug hard on language and metaphor and meaning. I structure the plot and revelation in ways that seem pleasing and clear. You use the word “plan,” but I don’t really plan. I get vague ideas or images and begin writing. I see where the story takes me. It like riding a runaway horse. You just hold on.

Q: What is the toughest part about being a writer for you and how do you get past it?
A: It’s hard to make a living, or at least a consistent and reliable one. I’ve been fortunate enough to sell a couple of books and that’s helped tremendously, but it’s still an incredibly uncertain existence. And of course money is time–time to write instead of teach or wait tables or write something that’s not your “real work.” This is pretty much a universal experience for writers who don’t have financial support from spouses or parents. I’ve taken serious financial risks in order to write my books. I accrued significant credit card debt in order to “buy the time” to write. It seems somehow untoward to say that, but it’s true. I don’t regret those enormous credit card bills one bit–it came out okay in the end–but writing is definitely not a career path for the financially faint of heart. The other tough part is the writing itself. I love to write. There is no feeling like it when it’s going well. But it’s hard to get to work, to stick with it when it seems as if the whole thing is a failure, which is rather often. I’ve learned you simply have to forge ahead and trust the process. It’s always going to feel miserable, but one mustn’t let misery win.

Q: So many writers are afraid to write what they really want to write, what they dare not say on the page. Could you give us a preview of your keynote speech about writing from the fearless place?
A: Fear is a piece of most of the best things we do. I think if you never experience fear about something you’ve written you’re probably not doing the work you need to do. I’m going to talk about what happens when we embrace fear, when we take it all the way to its darkest, realest place on the page.

Q: What books are on your nightstand?
A: An as-yet unpublished novel called “The Empress Chronicles,” by Suzy Vitello Soule. It’s terrific and totally absorbing. Suzy is in my writers’ group.

“A Witness In Exile,” a book of poems by Brian Spears. Not only are the poems great, but there’s a snake and a candied apple on the cover. Brian is the poetry editor at

Erin Belieu’s book of poems, “Black Box.” The first line of the first poem in the book is: “When the man behind the counter said, ‘You pay / by the orifice,’ what could we do but purchase them all?” Erin is such a brilliant literary badass. Plus, she’s one of the founders of VIDA: Women In Literary Arts, which is an organization dear to my heart–I’m on the board of directors.

An advanced reader’s copy of a novel called “Sleight,” by Kirsten Kaschock, which will be published by Coffee House Press in October. I haven’t started reading it yet, but I know it’s going to be amazing. Every word Kirsten Kaschock writes makes me feel like I’ve been stabbed in the head. In a good way.

Q: What project is next for you?
A: I have three things at various stages of completion. One is a collection of memoirish pieces I’ve already written that I’m shaping into a book. One is a long personal essay that’s threatening to turn into a novella-length memoir. One is a novel that I’ve been writing silently in my mind for the past year, though I’ve only managed to get two pages of it written because I’ve been busy writing other things. It’s about a trio of people who live together in a house in Southeast Portland. They’re housemates who span three decades in age, from early twenties to early fifties. One is a radical political activist who spent some time in a cult. One is an orphan from the Midwest like me. One is a trust fund baby who plays guitar in a punk band. The first line is: “Bliss was furious about the eggs.”