Syracuse University Magazine

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Cheryl Strayed G'02

Wild Adventure

One day under a hot Mojave, California sun, Cheryl Strayed hoisted an overloaded pack onto her back and took her first step into a world no one in her right mind would dare go as such a novice. Today, 20 years after her solo 1,100-mile trek on the 2,650-mile Pacific Coast Trail (PCT) to the Oregon-Washington border, Wild (Vintage Books, 2013) tells the tale.

What began for this Syracuse alumna as an essay in 2008 became a New York Times number-one bestseller, Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 inaugural pick, and a Hollywood hit starring Oscar nominee Reese Witherspoon. “Wild is built on the savage sorrow I had, the grief, the things that messed my life up,” says Strayed, who, while hiking the PCT, was coping with her divorce, recovery from her brief heroin addiction, and her mother’s death from lung cancer. “[Writing it] required me to go back in time and deeply contemplate a former, younger version of myself and the people in my life. I had to look at everything anew and make sense of those experiences. This allowed me to heal and accept myself more, and evolve; and once again say I do really feel grateful.”

In 2012, Strayed—who lives in Portland, Oregon, with her filmmaker husband, Brian Lindstrom, and their two children—asked her agent to send the prepublished literary memoir to Witherspoon, who bought the rights, and the film premiered December 2014. No, it wasn’t the close friendships the author formed with Witherspoon and co-star Laura Dern that surprised her the most, but “how emotionally involved I’d been in the making of the film—really consulted and included,” she says. “I collaborated on many aspects of it.” And seeing Witherspoon portray her? “She gives a beautiful performance, and I feel honored by it,” says Strayed, who describes being depicted in a movie as “moving and bizarre. Even very few famous people have this experience; the biopic usually happens after they die. I’m always going to be surprised that the film happened at all.”

However, Strayed is not surprised she became a writer. “Some of my earliest memories are of my mom reading to me, full-length novel versions of Black Beauty and Bambi,” she says. “From the very beginning, the power of language felt like magic to me, and I always wanted to make beauty in the world through words.”

By the time she enrolled in the M.F.A. program in creative writing at the College of Arts and Sciences, Strayed was already deep into her first novel, Torch. “It was a powerfully important time of my writing life,” she says. “I don’t know if I would’ve ever finished the book if not for the program. The community I found there was wonderfully challenging and supportive.” So were English professors Arthur Flowers and George Saunders G’88. “I learned it’s necessary as a writer to apply yourself to the craft and listen to others, but also to trust your instincts,” she says. “That’s when you’re doing your best work.”

Along with Torch and Wild, Strayed’s writing has appeared in The Best American Essays, The New York Times Magazine, and Vogue, among others; and as Tiny Beautiful Things, a book of “Dear Sugar” life-and-love advice columns she anonymously wrote for the literary website, The Rumpus. Currently, she’s working on another memoir and a novel, which is set in Portland and features an astronomer and Earth First activist among its main characters.

Whatever Strayed writes, she says, “I always feel that you never know what is going to find its way in your work.” Take her Pacific Coast Trail trek. “I never thought I would write about it,” she says. “But in the writer’s life, everything you do is possible material, and you don’t know how it’s going to end up.” —Claire Sykes