16 February 2012

Confession: Being Cheryl Strayed

My confession—
This is the most difficult blog post I’ve written so far. It’s about being emotionally naked as a writer. It’s about being vulnerable.

I hate that.

But I swore to myself I wouldn’t post it until I was naked on the page although I gave myself some leeway: it didn’t matter if the piece had flaws or awkward prose; it didn’t matter if I stumbled; it only mattered that I let go. This time I needed to truly examine myself. On the page. For the whole world to see.

This is my humble and terrifying attempt.
* * * * * *

About a month ago, my Litchix crewmate Chris Scofield sent a link to an essay in The Sun magazine. I remembered reading Cheryl Strayed’s story “The Love of My life” years ago when it was first published. I remembered thinking at the time, “How can she love her mother like a lover? How is that possible?” I remembered feeling a little sick and sad for her. I remembered being a little repulsed. But I never forgot that story, and I’ve read everything of hers since, including her novel Torch.

This time, after rereading, I felt sad for me. I’d been writing for over twenty years and couldn’t get a novel published. Cheryl at twenty-three sent her first short story to a contest, won first prize, sent a copy of the story to Alice Munro—yes, that Alice Munro—and Alice wrote back within two weeks, ending her letter with "I wasn't writing nearly so well at your age."

So I printed out “The Love of My Life” and read it six more times. I underlined. I highlighted. I sat with it. I carried it with me, as if by osmosis I could find the secret to writing like her.

I highlighted her first sentence:
“The first time I cheated on my husband, my mother had been dead for exactly one week.”
I highlighted and underlined the paragraph’s last sentence:
“I was raw, fragile, vicious with grief. I would do anything.”
Raw. Fragile. Vicious.

I’d been there.

I would do anything.

Had I been there?
I would not do anything. Emotions did not control me. I controlled emotions. By suppressing them.

And there it was. Years of conditioning. Years of growing up in New Hampshire where never exposing yourself or your emotions was considered a strength. If you did, there were consequences.

I remember my brother the day after my dad shot himself. The police came to the house with the gun. My brother started crying. The policeman, still holding the gun, said, “Stop crying. You’re the man of the house now.” And Kent stopped crying. Has he cried since? Probably. Has he fully grieved my dad? I have no idea. For me it took twenty years and the death of my two dogs to crack me open. Months of crying, sometimes sobbing until I felt sick. But the grief finally turned to a manageable level and eventually disappeared. I did this by myself, sometimes in bed next to my husband.

But those years of conditioning, of being the oldest, the caregiver, kept my emotions bottled up. Oh, I acted out, fought against the strict rules and unfairness of my parents’ world, but that’s a normal reaction to parents who rule by reward and punishment. I wanted to be good girl, but in this case, it was impossible to live up to the standards without being lobotomized. It was dangerous to show emotions, too, so I went head on with my folks, thwarting their rules. My mom would prefer to forget those teenage rebellious acts and prefers me as a little girl. As mom puts it still, “You were always such a good girl. When you were upset, you went to your room and closed the door.”

Closed the door.

Yes, I did.

Cheryl Strayed
So when I read Cheryl’s essay again, that door creaked open a bit. I needed to see how I either compared to her or not. I had a life as intense as hers, feelings as vicious. I suppose you could say that since my dad gave or withheld love depending on my obedience, then getting pregnant by a bi-polar, alcoholic Vietnam Vet with PTSD was an in-your-face act of rebellion. Oh, I was madly in love with the guy. He did look like George Harrison. But once my parents started talking to me again, we followed a pretty standard path—marriage, work, living near my parents. Then my dad committed suicide. But I had a husband who loved me. I soon had a baby to care for and love. My husband, in a few years soon to be my ex, at the time proved himself worthy, helping the family, shoring up my sister, being there for me. For a while, it seemed I had done something good, accidentally good, but good nonetheless.

I turn back to Cheryl’s story. After her mother’s death, she had sex with some risky, possibly dangerous characters. She destroyed her marriage with a good man. She shot heroin. That’s how vicious her grief was.

Damn. Was I lacking? Did I not love my father enough? Did I not show my grief enough? Did I actually have enough grief?
Some would say I was simply trying to replace a father who didn’t know how to love by finding someone who could, someone who would accept me without conditions on my behavior. But as they say, love is blind. What they should say is youth is blind. I wanted to live and love. Cheryl wanted to join her mother. She wanted to die. At least that’s how I see it.

Thankfully, she didn’t. But the risks she took were outside anything I could take. Her grief drove her there. My grief drove me in a different direction. Different roads, different drivers.

Perhaps the key to our differences is this—I lost someone every year of high school. My best friend’s mother. The neighbor boy. A girlfriend’s brother whom I had a crush on. My best friend, Diane. I knew grief in many different forms. I’d grown up with death.

My dad’s death the year after I graduated made me want to save people. My ex husband. My sister. Friends. I would not lose one more person.

So what prevents me from writing about this? Where’s the rawness, the fragility, the viciousness of Cheryl’s grief in my writing? What am I afraid of? Am I afraid that I’ll hurt someone? Am I afraid of divulging someone’s secrets or showing them in a negative light? No. Not really. Writing with heart and empathy prevents this. Writing about our lives is not about vendetta or judgment, and Cheryl and I both write without those.

I ask myself again, "What am I afraid of?" Truthfully, nothing. Anyone who knows me can attest to that. I can write about my father who shot himself in the family Oldsmobile out in the woods at his favorite hunting spot. He left a letter. He bought dog tags that day and got a haircut. He loved my mother with the love of a teenage boy. The night he died, I curled up with my husband and cried myself to sleep. My brother was probably left alone now that he was the man of the family. My mother slipped into my sister’s bed, curled up against her, and cried all night, and many nights for years to come.

And then we went on. I’m sure we were back at work or school within two weeks. I was one month short of nineteen, newly married, and six months pregnant. My brother was seventeen, my sister thirteen, mom forty-seven. We went back to the lives we were living before dad died.

Cheryl says that everyone tries to help you through your grief by telling stories that are similar. I doubt if anyone told her a story where they went out and fucked every available man or tried heroin, but I bet there are stories just as intense. What makes Cheryl’s story so different is in the telling, is in the way she puts you in her shoes and doesn’t apologize and at the same time seems just as surprised by her actions as the reader does. She could not imagine a life without her mother. She wanted to die. That’s how she handled her emotions.

Hers was the cry of a child. I picture a three year old abandoned on the street in a strange town, and it’s raining. She screams. She screams out to those walking past and grabs their legs. She won’t let go. And when one pushes her away, she grabs another and another until somewhere amongst all those people asks “Where’s your family?” She didn’t have any. No other family members appear in her stories. She has nowhere to turn, so she decides to hike the Pacific Coast Trail. A pilgrimage of sorts? Another risky, do or die act? Yes. Another physical act that walks/hikes/sweats away her grief. She’s written about it in her new memoir Wild, out in March. Will she ever put her mother’s ghost to rest? I don’t know. Maybe her mother’s gift is the gift of story. Maybe that’s what she gave Cheryl by dying young. Her mother became her muse.

Cheryl reading a funny/hairaising bit from WILD

And me? Well, I’ve come to the conclusion that what I write about is different from Cheryl. I take risks, I’m not afraid about what my family or friends think, but I rub up against life in my own way. I, too, had sex with lots of men after my divorce from, as Cheryl would write it, the Bi-polar Vietnam Vet George Harrison Look Alike. But I had sex because I was free of my family and could do it my way. I liked having sex. I felt empowered by it. As I remember either my dad or husband saying, “You never know someone until you either work or sleep with them.” I’d say that’s true. Also, I was looking for love and seeing who was out there. I knew their names, I asked them questions about their lives, I had short relationships that didn’t work out. But I remained friends with most of them. I sure as hell wasn’t going to confuse love with just sex. So I took care of that. I wasn’t trying to find my dad. I didn’t need another control freak, but I did want a man with a sense of honor and humor. And I found him eventually.

As did Cheryl. She found a husband and had children and can boast that she’s one of the finest writers alive. She did good. So did I. I could leave it there, but it’s not about us. It’s about writers.

My essay about my relationship with my dad
And you can see what we go through. The comparisons. The constant re-examination. The lottery-like odds of winning a New York publishing contract. I write novels and I can’t tell you why New York publishers haven’t picked one up yet. I’ve won awards and residencies and have short pieces published. But all this worry and comparison to Cheryl could be explained by where I’m at now. I’m finishing a novel and once again, I’m putting myself out there. Naked again. I’ve probably written this blog to work through my anxiety. I’m sure I wrote this blog because Miss Gonna Be a Great Writer Who Is Loved By Alice Munro showed up at the right time for me to use her. Sorry Cheryl. I do adore your writing and you.

“Trust the process,” everyone tells a writer.

Yes, well, you can say that all day to a writer, but in the end, you have to trust yourself. And that can be the hardest part of the whole damn journey.

Yours, as always,
Captain Val

Coming Up!
Who the hell knows? I'm trying to finish a novel, for landlubber's sake!

For more about Cheryl:
Cheryl comes out as Sugar, the advice columnist on The Rumpus
Cheryl is featured in the March issue of Vogue 
Click here for Cheryl's website


Lisa Threadgill said... [Reply to comment]

Wonderful post. So much, so true, so courageous. I'll definitely check in again. Well done!

Rossandra White said... [Reply to comment]

Holy cow! Valerie. Outstanding piece. I'm kinda at a loss for words to tell the truth. Thank you.

Intertwingled said... [Reply to comment]

I really appreciate you sharing this. I have been questioning my own way of dealing with grief in comparison to my daughters and wondering .... It was very timely for me and reminds me that it doesn't matter how we get there or even if we get there but that we make the journey. It is about ourselves and our own connections, our own sorting outs but the emotions and the types of experiences are shared. Women sharing that is so empowering. Thank you.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

Oh, Aria, I'm so glad it was timely. No. It doesn't matter how long, how, or what path it takes to get there. Healing is as individual as the individual. Hugs to you and your daughters.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

Thank you so much, Lisa. You don't know how much that means. It was scary and having you reply right away eased my body, never mind my mind!

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

Oh, gosh, Rossandra! Just you saying "Holy cow" made me laugh! Thank you for commenting. I take your loss for words as a big compliment. Please come back to visit. I promise to make you laugh in the future.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]


This is a knock-your-socks-off, powerful post. Way to put yourself out there. What came from this courageous post is not only stellar writing, but a palpable sense of freedom. Bravo!

stephanie brennan said... [Reply to comment]

Wow, difficult indeed, I can imagine. I've recently started a blog and am warily finding my footing on how "naked" to be. I've already annoyed one sister, so I guess that means I need to do what you have done and get "naked" about me. But, also I lost my mother several years ago, and the grief continues, not in a non-functioning way. It sits there like a book on a shelf you'd like to donate to the library but just can't. Thanks for showing me the way to do it! The blogging part, I mean. What is ok to say and how to say it. Great post! And I will surely go now and read Cheryl Strayed.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

Stephanie, if you've annoyed one sister, you're doing your job. I love what the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz said: “When a writer is born into a family, it is finished.” I think he means the family as it wants to be perceived. Our truths are our truths. Members of our family have their own. My best advice is "Say with your heart." I've learned a lot about myself and my family by writing. But I'm old enough now to know that a writer's job is to make people uncomfortable in some way, whether it's waking them up to the world or to the personal insights of a family member. Let me know when you start your blog. I'll be the first to sign up.

Tia Bach said... [Reply to comment]

My first visit to your blog (I hopped over from SheWrites). I applaud your courage and honesty in this post. I'm inspired to be both of those things from this day forward, to be raw and dig deep. You've become my Cheryl with one post--made me really look at my writing and how much of myself I put into it. I can only say, "thank you."

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

Tia, you almost made me cry with your response. Thank you so much. We write to touch people in some way and for you to be inspired by my post, I'm so grateful.

Barbara Ehrentreu said... [Reply to comment]

Valerie, I got here from Blooming Late on SheWrites and I really enjoyed your post. Writing about emotion is difficult, especially if it is a traumatic experience in your life. When my emotions get raw I usually write poetry, but I did incorporate the horrible experience of my husband 's heart attack and bypass surgery in a YA novel that I am ready to sub. I found when I wrote passages about the most emotional parts of that experience they didn't come across the way I wanted them to. My critiques found them devoid of emotion. I thought this was odd, since I had pored my heart into them. But I had to actually push myself away from the actual experience and the rawness of the emotions to be able to convey my real feelings. I have always been an emotional person and you can see on my own blog that I don't skip anything at all. Yet, I couldn't write about one of the most important and stressful parts of my life.

Jack said... [Reply to comment]

Val: It looks like mostly women reply to your blog posts so let me be the first unwoman to do so. Strong piece of insightful writing, Val. Peeling off the armor takes guts. Thanks for laying it out there. J

MariNaomi said... [Reply to comment]

It's as impossible to write with abandon, from an unguarded place, as it is to live in such a way. But it's necessary if you want to connect with people. I'm always reminding myself this, and your blog post is another beautiful reminder. Great job!

Wendy Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

BRAVO VAL! Thanks for not annoying this sister. wink wink

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

Yes, writing about emotion without being melodramatic is difficult. But if we stick to the facts, get the scene down as experienced instead of trying to "capture" our emotional state, it can be powerful. That's not the best way to explain it, but we do recognize it when it happens. I think you said it best: "...I had to actually push myself away from the actual experience and the rawness of the emotions to be able to convey my real feelings. Cheryl does that in every scene. Yes, in your blog you don't skip a thing! Brave woman. Best of luck with your YA novel!

Tonya Rice said... [Reply to comment]

Hi Val.

I've been so freaking cautious writing my novel with my words and the character's feelings and experiences; yet, my journals show my authentic, raw, and gut-wrenching thoughts, emotions, and imagination. It's the kind of stuff I want for my characters, but I hold it back. I don't know why... when I review those journal pages, they seem to present my best work - if I do say so myself. When we writers pull off the covers, we simply experience the gift we've been given to be naked anytime. It's up to us to decide if we want to. By sharing your post, you've reminded me that we're not alone in this self-imposed barrier and you've given me the courage to work on letting go.


Anonymous said... [Reply to comment]

I'm so proud of your courage Val. My dad committed suicide when I was 11. Still looking for mine.

Julie Farrar said... [Reply to comment]

What a powerful piece, Valerie. I'm a late-blooming novice at this writing thing, but you've addressed many of the self-flagellating thoughts I've had. I think you should rework this as a full-blown essay to send out so that everyone (not just writers) who ask themselves many of the same questions about their worth and their chosen paths can say "I see myself."

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

Thanks for the male voice. "Unwoman?" laughed at that one. Yes, the armor takes a lot of strength to finally strip off. But oh, how the body and soul loves the freedom!

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

Thanks so much for commenting. You're right. It is impossible to write with abandon because we can't live that way all the time. But we sure can write from a place of emotional honesty and universal connection. Hooray for you reminding yourself. We have to stay on top of this always.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

You're welcome, sweetie! Thanks for being my sister.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

That's such a good thing to point out, Tonya. Yes, we often let go of some of the best, most raw, writing in our journals, and then hold back in our fiction. So hard to pull off the covers, but I did in this post and look at what it brought--all these comments (plus, I have over a dozen in email) saying thank you! To connect with readers, that's why we write. NO, we are not alone. Not at all. We can be brave. We can touch others with our writing. Go for it!

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

You will find it. I researched suicide and suicide survivors often take up to twenty years to grieve and reach some peace. I hope you find yours sooner and that you reach out to others for support. Arms around you.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

Thank you, Julie. Oh, how we flagelate! It doesn't stop either. We just have to work through it. I felt powerful after I wrote the piece, when in fact, I thought I'd feel drained. So many have connected with this. Thanks for the suggestion to rework and send out elsewhere. Good idea. Yes, it doesn't just pertain to writing. Glad you stopped by.

Kirsten Steen said... [Reply to comment]

So many subjects....so well-woven! Thank you for giving us a glimpse of YOU, for putting yourself on the virtual page and sharing those inner parts. And you're right. You're always telling me: Trust the process! But it's me I have to trust along with the process. A double-edged candy cane.
And a great post!

(P.S. I LOVE that your sister comes by to see if she should be annoyed! ;~)

Nadine Feldman said... [Reply to comment]

Hi, sorry I came so late to this blog post. I know how hard it is to trust the process as a writer, but I know for me it's about finding ways to be more and more authentic emotionally. You have done this in a powerful, profound way.

I wish grief were better understood and tended to so that we could feel free to express the pain we need to -- to not feel that we have to dry our tears, and to have those who love us treat us with compassion when we "act out." It's hard to tell the truth about our emotions, whether to ourselves or others, but when we do, we give others permission to do the same. Thank you for doing that.

samantha stacia said... [Reply to comment]

It took me awhile but I got here Girlfriend! I love the openess of this and know that it will make every writer a better one just by reading it! I hope that you make it to th elevel of your hero writer Cheryl Strayed, we all have a writer that we want to grow up and be like someday and although you havent gotten the holy grail of the Ny contract,Id say you made it anyway! Good job!

Kate OMara said... [Reply to comment]

I compare & contrast with other writers too. Thanks for the invite from SheWrites. Always nice to read a good piece of writing.

Dody said... [Reply to comment]

Thank you, Val, for writing this post. I've stumbled upon it kind of late-er yet, perhaps, just the right time for me. I feel the honesty in your words and had a visceral experience of my insides pulling me back into the honest core of myself. I've been dried up for a while, fingers simply poised over the keyboard yet no flow of words....fertilizing, I call this phase. Your post gave me the dose of fertilizer that I needed to begin to blossom again.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

You're welcome! Yes, it's no accident that my tea cup says, "Trust the process" on one side and "The Universe Knows." Whatever the heck that means!
I'm lucky; my sister supports me no matter what crazy thing I do.
I'm looking forward to reading your novel, Kirsten. So fun to be writing with you at B&N. Great support.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

I love that, Nadine: "finding ways to be more and more authentic emotionally."
That's so true. We aren't all even tempered emotionally, and sometimes we're just not in the mood to let it all hang out, lit wise. When it comes to grief, it's tricky. Sometimes it's right to hold back for a while to process. Some times it's right to let go in a wail. But if we're thinking only of how we're being judged and perceived, then we know it's not what we need to do.
And by the responses I've had to this blog, I've learned so much about what being honest emotionally does for the reader. That's why so many people love memoir because we learn from it--if it is honest and comes from the heart.
You are so welcome!

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

Thank you so much, Samantha. Your words just gave me goosebumps. And thank you for being so supportive in all aspects of our writers' lives. You are a blessing.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

Thanks, Kate! Yes, we all do compare and contrast. That helps us learn about what we love and how we want to write. Like painters. They start out copying the masters to learn, then take off in their own way. That's what we do when we hook into those writers that ring our bell.
Is SheWrites giving you lots of juice and support? Sure hope so. It has me. Love the members.
And thanks for the "good piece of writing."

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

Dody, you couldn't have said anything more heartwarming! Just to know that I could give you that dose of fertilizer was worth the post. I want to hear about where you are and how you're doing. Let me know. My email is at the top of this page.
I'm chanting "blossom, blossom, blossom, Dody!"

Annabelle said... [Reply to comment]

That gives me a lot to think about in my own life and writing -- thanks for sharing it.

Valerie Brooks said... [Reply to comment]

I hope this gives you inspiration and a love for your writing.
You're very welcome.

chakra girl said... [Reply to comment]

Grateful for your raw. and for keeping this post up. Some bloggers-in-the-raw (yes, I'm guilty of this) turn 'round and delete their gift b4 it can be far-reaching and empower those who cannot visit right away.

Nancy Hinchliff said... [Reply to comment]

Hi Valerie, Wonderful post. I found it just at the right time. I'm right in the middle of peeling off another layer in my writing in an effort to dig even deeper. You have inspired me to keep going. Thanks, Nancy