Cheryl Strayed hiked 1100 miles alone. And she didn’t just do that, she wrote about it in a gut-wrenching, unflattering, brutally-honest memoir called Wild that deeply affected me and influenced the writing in my literary suspense hike novel, Unsound.
Some of you know I’ve been wrestling with my own memoir for more than ten years and have now done two complete drafts after numerous pukings on paper, hair-pullings and trips, yet again, to personal therapy. Signing up for this five-day workshop when Cheryl came to Maui has been a last-ditch effort to penetrate the surface of the events I’ve chronicled. I want my memoir, Children of Paradise, not just to be good. I want this book to be great.
I’m petrified of the workshop that I committed to six months ago when it seemed like a good idea, and wish I could just “queeb out” as we called it growing up, but my dear Facebook friends encourage me, I've paid the money, and I go.
Cheryl’s lovely. I find a way to sit on the floor, literally at the feet that lost six toenails while walking 1100 miles (she has a very nice pedicure now, BTW). Lecture, and then writing prompt. Lecture, then writing prompt. Everything she says is a quotable quote and she’s down to earth and doesn’t wear makeup, and in an amazing personal moment, she accepts my gift of Unsound and my trembling thanks for influencing my writing very graciously (though she must be inundated by that kind of shit, and I'm mortified to be yet another asking for autograph and handing her my book.)
I thought I’d share some of the good stuff I’ve gleaned from the writing prompts so far. And if you haven’t read Wild, get it and read it. See the movie too (though I liked the book better.) And bear with me. Children of Paradise WILL get where it needs to be, someday.
Prompt: Write the story of one of my talismans.
I loved a baroque pearl my grandmother wore. She'd had it since the fifties, captured before pearls got big and cheap and exotic and grown by the zillions in Tahiti, from a time when little Japanese pearl diving women fetched them from the depths, wearing white fabric and holding their breath.
Every time I visited my grandmother, from our tent in the jungle, cottage on the beach, tiny apartment in a garage, I coveted that pearl. It looked so good on her, and she had my coloring: the red hair, the creamy skin with nutmeg freckles. I knew it would look good on me, too.
But my grandmother never gave it to me, in will or in deed, though she promised to. When my grandfather passed and she was living in an assisted living place, she began giving away her jewelry to caregivers and people who attended her, and I heard the manicurist got the pearl necklace.
By then I was thirty-five and telling myself I didn’t need her pearl; anything I wanted I’d get myself, and I knew her promises always to be false or at least, less than she said. “Bait and switch” we called the way she gave what she promised to someone else.
That year, she sent me and my sisters each a ring. I got the big aquamarine that my sister wanted (her birthstone, and a blue that would look good with her eyes) And she got a pearl ring from the 1950's, a hideous fake-gold setting of clawed fingers studded with rhinestones holding a bulbous carbuncle of a pearl so large it looked like a pregnancy.
We traded rings, because I felt bad having the aquamarine, so much more valuable and so wrong for me, but I hated the pearl ring. It reminded me of the manicurist, and all the broken promises, like “I’ll take care of that” and “All this will be yours someday” and somehow what I ended up with was a ring that was too ugly to wear, ever. I cried over it and put it away with all the junk I never wanted to see but was too good to give away. At least I’d given my sister the ring she so wanted. I wasn’t someone who made false promises.
My birthday rolled around and I opened a small box from my husband.
Inside was a fat baroque pearl on a chain, hanging by a delicate filigree loop. It was smaller than my grandmother’s, so I knew it wasn’t that one, but it was still all the creamy reflections of seafoam and looked amazing hanging in my freckled cleavage.
“Where did you get this? It’s perfect.” I have tears in my eyes. He knows about the pearl.
“I took your grandmother’s ring apart and reset the pearl,” he said. “The setting was awful but the pearl was what you’d always wanted. It was right there the whole time.”
Prompt: Write about an object that used to mean something but doesn’t any more.
I still have a work badge from the Department of Education, from my first job at my first school as a school counselor at Kalama Intermediate, circa 1999. They took that “official” photo on a day when my curly strawberry-blond hair was especially askew from a bad haircut, tufts lifting like the curving horns of a water buffalo on either side of my freckled, unlined, startled face.
For twelve years I wore that plastic ID badge clicking on top of pound or so ring of keys, keys to all the secure doors I could open to all the secure buildings where I had a place and a role. The badge allowed me to walk the halls, open the doors, and interact with children all over the island, a privilege and a responsibility that I felt as heavy as the keys around my neck. That badge had to be worn every day and guaranteed that I was a safe, good person who was there to help.
Over the years my job titles changed, advancing hierarchically to Supervisor of Behavioral Health and then demoting with budget cuts back to Counselor—but the essential necessity of that badge never changed, and neither did my photo ever age, nor my hair improve.
I turned those keys in two years ago when my books began to do well, and I no longer had to do that taxing, wonderful, heartbreaking job.
I came across the badge in the back of a drawer not long ago, and I took it out. The plastic was pitted but my startled eyes were still open too wide, my haircut still bad, my skin unlined.
I don't need a badge anymore now. I make my own schedule. I get up and drink my tea and do yoga in the mornings, and write my daily word count, and afternoons, I take out a different set of keys that give me access to a private clinic. But sometimes I still miss the rush of children’s running feet in the halls, the hugs, the smiles, the sticky hands.
It was a long time.
Prompt: Write about a secret that you keep, kept, or was kept from you.
We weren’t big on secrets in my family. In fact, I really knew too much, all the time. I knew my mom got pregnant with me and that’s why my parents got married, among many other things I’d have preferred not to know. I knew my parents’ lives intimately.
I have few secrets myself. A certain weird something I find sexy, that I haven’t heard of much before. Binge eating chocolate in secret that I have gradually brought into the open since my thighs tell the truth anyway. Dreams and ambitions I have that are too grandiose to share.
But in my work, I who am transparent am a keeper of secrets. As a therapist, I witness and hold the secrets of others. Unspeakable things done in secret to my clients, wounding and crippling them. Unspeakable things my clients have then inflicted on others. Dark passions, questionable motives, and all the accompanying rationalizations that the human mind can craft to make them okay.
Perhaps it’s that I carry so many secrets that I don’t have many myself, that I really don’t like them and how they work like dye through water, changing the color of things.
When was the last time you wrote something really challenging, or took a look at a dark place in your life? Do it. It's good medicine.
The workshop with Cheryl Strayed sounds like it was an amazing experience for you. The story of your grandmother’s pearl moved me. It’s such a strange thing to associate so much with an object, like that, and yet reading your story, I am thinking about a ring of my mother’s that I wish had been given to me when she died. I am happy that your husband made something beautiful come from your selfless act of making your sister happy. That has a nice balance to it, and I think it’s rather beautiful that you got that pearl on your terms in the end. Thank you for sharing these stories. xoxo
Ah, Toby, I have been thinking and thinking about you, wondering how things have gone with Cheryl! That story of the pearl knocked my socks off, and I can see that she got you to do exactly what you’ve been trying to do in your writing with that wonderful memoir of yours: dig, dig, dig into the emotions so that we don’t just hear your story, we feel it! You do that a lot in your book already, but this will give it another layer of complexity. I’m so proud of you. It ain’t easy, being honest on the page–it takes courage and persistence and, yes, a lot of talent as a writer. You’re doing it.
Wonderful. You are such an amazing writer. I just love reading your stuff! The pearl story. Oh. Heartbreak. How wonderful of you to give the aquamarine to your sister and how wonderful and thoughtful of your husband to make the pearl necklace for you. Sigh.