Last night, I went to see the film, Wild, adapted from the book of the same title by Cheryl Strayed, which I admit that I didn’t read all the way through, even though everyone, thinking they knew me, insisted that I absolutely must.
I tried. Six times, to be exact. I couldn’t. I realize that “I couldn’t,” sounds like pain. And avoidance. I know that. But it’s not. And I’m not lying. I know pain and avoidance, believe you me. I just couldn’t. It didn’t grab me. I kept feeling like there was no there there, kind of like Oakland, except really in my experience, there’s definitely some there in Oakland. I kept waiting for something to happen, for the natural arc of a story, the conflict, the climax, the tension that will resolve somewhere there, in the final pages. Nothin’.
I’m sorry (well, I’m actually not sorry, but you know, it’s a manner of speaking), but it read to me–the parts I read, which I freely admit were the first few chapters a few times over–a bit like a privileged woman who was able to write 338 pages about the time when, in the span of one week she lost her purse, broke her nail, and got blackballed by a social club. Maybe it has to do with my radical feminist history, and maybe it’s that the author was the blonde cheerleader and homecoming queen–despite actually being from a hippie family and living without plumbing or electricity during high school–and has “that look” as an adult. I mean, Reese Witherspoon??
Yes. I am guilty. I freely admit that I am prone to falling into the holes created by notions of “popularity.” Yes. It’s no different than hating on the nerds or the awkward girls. There’s my own painful story of being the “ugly duckling” and hating the “pretty girls” creeping in. (I see you. Stop.)
To the fans: I know. It’s heresy. I clearly didn’t read the same book that you did. You read a book about a woman who conquered the wilderness and overcame fear in the process of grieving the tragic early death of her mother, her abusive childhood, and her history of promiscuity and drug addiction. She did something amazing, something you would never be able to do, something none of us would be able to do. I mean, who does that, a single woman walking the Pacific Crest Trail end to end, especially with no background in backpacking or hiking? She did it to heal. She screamed out her pain on the top of a mountain, something you wish you could do, or had done, or might be in a place to do some day. She walked your pain, so many people’s pain that they have ignored, letting it fester like the sores on her feet, arms, and hips. She was courageous, she was a soul searcher. She not only did it, she wrote it. Not only for herself, but for us. And don’t forget, Oprah loved the book.
Never let it be said that I don’t get the idea of the book. I get it.
Here’s my problem. A lot of us have lost our parents. Yeah, even young. A friend of mine lost her husband this weekend. He was 36. She has two kids under five. It happens. It hurts. Like a son of a bitch, it hurts. We all do things–we do what we have to do, just like Cheryl did–to move through it.
Don’t misunderstand me.
I think what she did was courageous. I think what she did was amazing. I admire her determination. I admire every metaphor that the walk represented. It was an incredible journey. I just don’t think it was a very good story (and yes, I’m a very picky reader.)
I’m sorry (see, there it is again, I need to practice not saying that), but I kept waiting for something to happen.
There was the time when I hitchhiked. And I thought I was going to get raped and dismembered. Nothing happened. It was fine. Good, even.
There was the time I was thirsty and the two hunters came up. I was sure I was going to get raped. And then they walked away and nothing happened and I ran away anyway because I was scared, because I mean, really, who wouldn’t be scared. But I’m glad that nothing actually happened.
There was the time that I saw a rattlesnake on the trail. That was so frightening. It could have attacked me. It could have bit me and I could have died. But I walked around it, and it was fine.
There was the time when my feet were bleeding because I bought the wrong size boots because I don’t really know anything about buying hiking boots and I didn’t tell the experienced people at REI what I was planning on doing so they didn’t have the opportunity to talk with me about how the boots should fit. But then some guy told me how to get new boots sent to me, and they sent them and then everything was ok.
There was the time when I was hungry. So hungry. And I found a guy and he took me to his house and then to a store, so I ate well and got food and fuel. And then it was ok.
There was the time when I was thirsty. And the tank was empty. And I had to filter my water with my handpump filter and iodine tablets and it still looked and tasted disgusting, like no doubt about it, I’m going to get some terrible intestinal disease from this even though I did all the right things. But then I drank it even though it looked gross and I felt fine, so that was ok.
The whole book (okay, the parts I read) was like that to me. The whole movie was like that to me. You can feel the anticlimax in every scene. And maybe it’s just my English teacher talking, but I kept waiting for the “conflict.” Which I realize makes me sound like a sadist.
She should have been raped! She should have been bitten by a rattlesnake!
No. No. NO. Don’t be crazy. I don’t wish any of those things on her. I wouldn’t wish them on anyone. That’s not what I’m saying. I am really glad that nothing terrible happened to her on the PCT and that she got what she wanted out of the trip. It’s all good. It’s just that if I took an amazing trip and nothing happened, I wouldn’t think that I had a book in it.
Hmm. Maybe that’s where her bravery lies, and where mine is lacking. That could be. Shoot. This is turning into something.
I had a similar conversation with a friend about visual art some time back. What makes something art? How is it that one person can paint a canvas all blue and it is art, and another person can paint a canvas all blue and it’s a do-it-yourself on-the-cheap home decorating project? How is it that your photograph of that lighthouse is a memento and someone else is charging $200 for a photo of the same lighthouse at the gallery downtown? We concluded, musers that we were, that a big piece of what makes something art is the decision to consider it art and to call it art–to name it. If I paint a canvas blue, and I have a story about it and I talk to gallery owners and tell them about my process and my background and I go to openings and chat with art collectors and I make a splash and get magazine articles written about me and my unique process of making art, and I insist, without wavering, that this is fine art…then I’m an artist, and the blue canvas is art. If I paint a blue canvas and say “this will look nice above that couch in the family room” and I put it up and it reflects the light in the room nicely and I admire that and go about my life, then it’s home decorating. I guess the same could be said about writing (which, after all, is art.)
I could take a trip–a difficult trip, an adventurous trip, a frightening trip–and not a whole hell of a lot could happen. But if I am a writer, and I can write about my experiences and I can get those pieces of writing into the right people’s hands, and I can read out loud what I have written and I can convince people that this is something I have done–whether that be the trip or the writing, that is indeterminate–that they cannot or would not do…then it’s a book.
It’s a little like the phenomenon of pointing up. You point up. People look. They begin to point. Suddenly, many people are looking up at something, but they don’t know what. It could be nothing. And yet they’re all pointing. And looking up. Voila. Marketing. (I may be slow, but I do catch on at some point.)
So, anyway, in the aftermath of watching the movie in the aftermath of not finishing the book, I’ve been thinking. In case you can’t tell.
I googled Cheryl Strayed (she made up that last name, for those who have been wondering or remarking at how perfect it seems to be.) In pretty short order, I found an article about her in Poets and Writers magazine, entitled The Beauty of a Brutal Honesty. And there, in the title of that Leslie Schwartz article, I found everything that I felt and wanted to say.
The thing that keeps ME from writing–or more to the point, that keeps me from calling myself a writer–is just that: Brutal Honesty. It is the only way that I know. I can write around it–I have. I can pretend I have other things to say. I can find “something to write about.” But it seeps through the cracks, fills up the airspace, and screams at me that there are things that must be said, and that all those things that I throw in the way of the things that must be said are not writing, they’re an obstacle course. In the article in Poets and Writers, Steve Almond is quoted as saying “[Cheryl] is into radical disclosure, radical honesty, and radical empathy.” Huh. Me too.
I imagine her reading this (though I know she won’t.) I worry that she will be hurt by my cynicism and disappointment (as if my response is unique or original!) I worry that her fans will “come after me” (I read too many comments sections, can you tell?) I worry that if I write my own radical honesty–because I do get that that’s the point–others will be hurt, and others will come after me. And I let that worry about upsetting people keep me from writing.
Cheryl Strayed didn’t do that. She wrote anyway. For me, that is far more courageous than walking a trail alone. There is more than one way to “put it all out there.” Maybe I should go to a movie where I sit in a theater and watch her write for two hours.
They say that the purpose of art is not simply to have people like what you do or make, not to have people agree with you, but also to make people uncomfortable. James Baldwin said “The purpose of art is to lay bare the questions that have been hidden by the answers.” Georges Braque said “Art is meant to disturb.”
Art is nothing if not sneaky.
The book and the movie had their way with me after all, dammit.