When I was 21 I saw the movie Henry and June in Minneapolis and was so affected by it I walked straight from the theater to a bookstore, where I purchased every book written by Anaïs Nin they had in stock. And so began my years-long obsession with Nin's diaries. She published volumes and volumes of them, each written in her dreamy yet precise style. I lost myself in her world, and found myself too. She was born 65 years before me, but that didn't matter. I knew what she was saying about art and love and sex, about jealousy and shame, about longing and doubt.
Like Nin, I was a prodigious journal-keeper during those years. My days poured onto the page, vividly described scenes of my life unspooling like fiction for three, five, ten pages at a time, my emotions exhaustively expressed and explored. I lamented and raged. I reasoned and begged. I reported and reached to find an explanation for the parts of me that I couldn't explain. Wherever I was, my journal was nearby. I carried a succession of them around in my bag for years.
So of course I carried a journal with me on my 1,100-mile trek on the Pacific Crest Trail. By the time I took my hike, I had a very clear idea of what my journal was: an 8-by-12 inch sketchbook with thick, unlined archival paper and a stern black hardback binding. Nothing else would do. It was not exactly the lightest thing to take on a wilderness trek during which I was meant to be concerned with pack weight — in fact, I'm rather sure it was exactly the heaviest thing — but it meant a lot to me, so I took it anyway. A fresh one for my journey.
My first entry was made while sitting on the airplane as I flew to Los Angeles from Portland to begin my hike. Out on the trail, the voice I got to hear in my journal in the deep solitude of that summer was often the only one I heard for days — a consolation, even if that voice was nothing more than my own echo.
Years later, my journal turned out to be an important resource when I wrote Wild. I didn't record everything that happened in its pages — to write the book I also drew hugely from my memory — but what I did record informed every page of Wild. My journal provided the who, what, how, when, and why with a specificity that memory might have blurred, but it also did something more: it offered me a frank and unvarnished portrait of myself at 26 that I couldn't have found anywhere else.
I wrote letters to friends and family from the PCT, but I didn't even attempt to gather them and mine them for information as I wrote Wild. I didn't because I sensed on a gut level that they'd be of little use to me. In my letters, I'd been trying to make an impression. I wanted to seem strong or funny or impressive, to offer evidence that I was now more together than the sort-of-falling-apart woman many of them thought I was before I set out on my hike. I wanted to seem transformed and heroic to those I wrote to. I know without reading them, my letters were hyperbolic and embellished, covertly self-aggrandizing and embarrassingly philosophical.
But my journal is none of these things. In it, I told myself the truth. Every last inch of whatever the truth might be. I didn't attempt to cast anything in either a better or worse light. On those pages not meant for anyone's eyes but my own I did what every memoirist must do years before I knew I'd ever become a memoirist: I gave myself a long level gaze. It was from that place I set about writing Wild.
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Cheryl Strayed is the author of the memoir Wild and the novel Torch. Her third book, Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of the "Dear Sugar" columns she writes for TheRumpus.net, will be released in July. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with her family.
Books mentioned in this post
Cheryl Strayed is the author of Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail