Recently, I ran into a writer acquaintance a week before her first book — a memoir — was to be published. When she saw me, she screamed. "I'm terrified," she said a moment later, clutching onto me. "Are you terrified? Please tell me you're terrified."
"Yes," I replied with more equanimity than I felt. "How can anyone publish a memoir and not be?"
But as we spoke, I came to understand that her fears went beyond the general anxieties of having a book in the world in which she is the main character. She'd gotten specific with her terror. She was afraid she would come off as a self-absorbed creep in her book. She was afraid people would be hurt by what she wrote, or worse, claim it happened a different way and accuse her of lying. "I wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night," she told me. "Even though I told the truth and tried to be fair and implicated myself at every turn."
I can't say I didn't relate.The beautiful thing about memoir is also the thing that makes it the most appalling: It's actually you on the page. And not just you, but you on a literary teeter totter that asks you to carefully balance the weight of fearless self-revelation against the wisdom of graceful omission, of the factual and actual against the loosey goosey art of spinning a good yarn, of the difference between what those you write about would say about themselves against what you have to say about them, of what you can verify and what you are pretty sure you remember from a decade ago, of what really happened against the experience that's inevitably altered and informed by your own very particular consciousness.
It's no wonder we're all scared witless on publication day.
Tomorrow my memoir, Wild , will make its debut. It's been a long time coming, but I still feel a bit like in publishing it I just got this crazy last minute idea to streak naked through an elegant party. Of late, a little voice inside my head has repeatedly screeched: But why did you have to write a memoir? And yet, I know exactly why I did. I had a story to tell that I wanted to tell through the thinnest possible screen. I wanted to stand before the reader and say this happened to me because some stories simply demand that you do.
Wild is one of them. It's the chronicle of the 1,100-mile hike I took on the Pacific Crest Trail in the summer of 1995 and the story of what compelled me to take that hike. So much of the book is about carrying things — my incredibly heavy backpack, the emotional burdens I believed I couldn't bear — and this week feels like the final leg of the journey. I've carried this story so long inside of me, and now I don't have to anymore. It's a book I can finally pass off to the rest of you. I'll be blogging here about what happens as I do that. I don't know what stories I'll have to tell about it in the coming days, but that's okay. Not knowing has always led me on the best adventures.
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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