~From English Department Communications Intern Kara Nosal
The last time I was in a place with this much buzz in the air I was at a premier for the final Harry Potter movie. (That was 2011. I don’t get out much.) But we’re not waiting for a movie to start. We’re at the Hilton Hotel to see a lady who had come for the Creative Writing Reading series, and is also a bit of a modern legend.
Cheryl Strayed is more than just another author for a lot of people. Yes, she wrote a memoir Wild about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and Tiny Beautiful Things, which catalogs her advice from The Rumpus’ “Dear Sugar” column, and numerous essays as well as a novel, Torch. Wild was even transformed into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon this summer. (At one point, Strayed recounted her fear of her ten-second cameo in the film.) But I wouldn’t categorize Strayed as a celebrity, either.
Strayed began her reading with an invitation for those standing against the wall to come closer, sit near the stage, and get comfortable. (For some, the walls were the only spaces left in the ballroom that sat 500.) “Sit at my feet,” she joked, and the crowd laughed. As soon as everyone was settled in, Strayed began to talk about her mother, who died of cancer during their senior year in college (Strayed and her mother ended up going to college at the same time). “It was embarrassing for me to write that grief,” she confided in us. At the mention of this tragedy, a somber mood hovered over the crowd. We were engaged as Strayed read a passage about her massive backpack she would use on the Pacific Crest Trail. But I think we were also there, in that desert hotel room, feeling her physical and emotional struggle as she wrestled with her baggage.
I had read Wild before, over winter break of 2013. Before I turned the last page, I had made up my mind that I would be a backpacker, too. I would hike the 485-mile Colorado Trail the summer after I graduated. Maybe I’d even do it alone. If Strayed could do it, I could, too. This simple fact, removed from her delicately nuanced craft elements, was all I needed to inspire me. I could explore like I had always dreamed. But I needed Strayed to pave the way for me before I believed that I could.
I wasn’t the only one who was helped by Strayed’s stories. The woman who introduced Strayed described the moment when she stumbled across some life-altering advice in Tiny Beautiful Things and began crying in public on the floor of a bookstore. During the question and answer session, another young woman described how some of Strayed’s words heard on audiobook struck her frozen in the middle of a cleaning job and encouraged her. Another reader received Strayed’s blessing to do solo hikes.
Something decidedly different from other readings was afoot here. Most questions asked were for real-life advice or inspiration. Most of Strayed’s talk focused on overcoming obstacles in life.
Only once, that I remember, she mentioned something about her process. “People ask me why I waited so long to write the book [Wild],” she said. “I took the hike in ’95 and Wild wasn’t published until 2008. But I didn’t wait. I wrote the book when I had something to say about the hike. It wasn’t just a story that said, ‘look how interesting I am.’” She urged us to write when our stories and the human story intersected. She gave us an example. She equated her story to the scene she read to us: Cheryl trying to pick up a heavy pack. The human story inherent in that scene was something much richer. It asked the question, “How can we bear what we cannot bear?”
More than anything else, this is the idea I took with me as I left the Hilton that night. I realized where her success stemmed from. She was telling the human story and that’s why so many people came to hear her read. That’s why I felt as if the audience was made up of more followers than mere fans. That’s why people seemed to revere her like a fearless, holy guru.
It wasn’t as if Strayed had collected more answers about life than any of us might have. I knew this. But she was writing out the human story, which was our story, our life. We were living in her books, in a way, and she wrote to make us feel the common thread that ties us together. Which is why I’d say Strayed is more than a guru. I’d say she’s an author.
The Creative Writing Reading Series at CSU is organized by English Department faculty and the Organization of Graduate Student Writers (OGSW); Creative Writing faculty serve on a rotating basis as director of the series and faculty advisor to OGSW. The series has an annual budget of only $1,200 and relies on the support of the Associated Students of Colorado State University (ASCSU), the College of Liberal Arts dean’s office, donors, local businesses, and CSU’s English Department. Its spring 2015 events are made possible with support from CSU’s Lilla B. Morgan Memorial Endowment, a premier funder of the arts at CSU. Please help grow this fund with a gift at: http://president.colostate.edu/lillabmorgan/index.aspx. All events are free and open to the public.
Next reading: MFA Thesis Reading (Nonfiction), TONIGHT, Thursday April 16th. Jayla Rae Ardelean, Susan Harness, & Jessica J. Hill and will be reading 7:30 pm – 9:00 pm in the University Center for the Arts, Organ Recital Hall.