Fame sometimes follows a rocky trail for 'Wild" author Cheryl Strayed
By Lou Fancher Correspondent Contra Costa Times
LAFAYETTE -- A recent appearance by Cheryl Strayed, author of national best-seller "Wild" and recently outed "Sugar" advice-on-love-and-life columnist for the online cultural commentary site The Rumpus, spawned all-over-the-map reactions from the sold out audience gathered at Acalanes High School.
"Is this just gonna be chick lit?" one 50-something year old man worried. "I hope it's not just chick lit."
"I want to see her, yeah, but really, I just want to be her," gushed a young mother from Orinda.
"She's racy, she swears ... and she's a mom!" admired a 13-year old boy from Moraga.
Strayed, now 41, married, the mother of two young children and the center of a national hoopla over her literary account of the Pacific Coast Trail hike she took at the age of 26, was less sensational.
"The thing about fame is that it's outside of you. My life hasn't changed: the things that were most important to me before are still important to me now."
In a 90-minute Q-and-A session, first with moderator Lynn Carey -- just repatriated from Singapore -- and with the audience, the Lafayette Library and Learning Center's guest speaker wowed and tickled the funny bones of doubters and devotees alike.
Her book, topping "best of 2012" lists and already slated for the silver screen in the hands of screenwriter Nick Hornby and producer Reese Witherspoon, is a memoir of the solo hike she took in 1995. Grappling, mostly fumbling, with the loss of her mother, separated from her husband, wallowing in feelings of dishonor and disgrace due to using heroin and sleeping with too many men, Strayed sought salvation by strapping on ill-fitting boots, a backpack nearly the size of a Volkswagen Beetle and embarking on an adventure.
The trip, along with writing about it 17 years later, allowed her to "accept grief on its terms," she said. "All of us who have experienced loss know that it's a process. I surrendered to it."
But reading the memoir, one is struck with just the opposite -- her unyielding, relentlessly combative punch back at circumstances. Despite lack of experience, Strayed refused to accept reality.
"I researched, which meant I read the same guide book over and over again. There was no Internet then. Or, if there was, Al Gore was the only one on it," she joked.
"I realized, (the night before starting her journey) that hiking and backpacking are really different. It's like the difference between baby-sitting and giving birth to twins."
She also hammered her way through difficult recollections.
"The scene with me, my brother and the horse," she said, "I feel like I should have an apology on the next page. It's the most brutal scene I will ever write about my life. I gave myself over to the immensity of the regret, the sorrow, the ugliness."
Sex scenes, on the other hand, were easy to write. "Those were fun. It doesn't get any better than sex in a tent with a hippie," she laughed.
Strayed claimed that only one person had been offended by her portrayal of them and defended memoir writing as "the art of subjective truth."
What puts the book far beyond a literary version of reality TV is Strayed's writing. Similarly to Jon Krakauer's "Into" books, "Wild" is well-told wilderness story. Strayed's maturation unfurls magically and is twofold -- the young, ignorant hiker regains a sense of personal power as a writer finds sweet resolve in baldfaced retrospection.
Still, claiming to be "really, really over myself," Strayed said her next book will be a novel "with no dead mothers."
Whether or not she returns to write more "Sugar" columns was undeclared. Her essay-style advice has been collected in "Tiny Beautiful Things," also a recent release.
The crest of acclaim doesn't prevent daggers from falling close to home. Asked if she reads threads and comments online, Strayed said she has tried to stop.
"One comment said I was essentially a slut and a mental cripple. After a week, it's funny, but it's so mean!" she exclaimed, emphasizing how the word "slut," this time not written in jest by her husband in the margins of her manuscript but delivered anonymously and with animosity, caused pain.
"We can't make everyone love us," she concluded. "Everyone who makes art, who puts themselves out there in a public fashion, has to endure things. Good art is made by telling your truth."