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