The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative

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Into the Wild: The Millions Interviews Alden Jones

It’s not seamless, and it’s not supposed to be. In The Wanting Was a Wilderness, Alden Jones exposes the frayed edges a writer must contend with when gathering the pieces of her story, and then offers a pattern for assembling them into a narrative. On its face, The Wanting Was a Wilderness is a critique of a widely beloved book, and its detailed analysis is what you might expect from an award-winning professor of creative writing and cultural studies. But Jones’s analysis of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild quickly becomes “a springboard, mirror, and map” for Jones’s own journey, and The Wanting Was a Wilderness transforms, before our eyes, into her own raw and inviting memoir.

At age 19, Jones abruptly left college to spend 85 days in the wilderness as part of an outdoor education program. She climbed a 17,000-foot volcano in Mexico, caved in Tennessee, spent long stretches lost on the Appalachian Trail, and fell in love. But not until reading Wild two decades later did Jones consider how she might transform what felt like a private experience into a work of nonfiction to be enjoyed by readers who hadn’t been there. As she fashions her story, Jones invites readers behind the curtain, exposing each step of her writing process as she examines how Strayed accomplished a similar task. She shows her work, including her missteps and false endings, with a tone of genuine intimacy. The result is a masterclass in memoir writing. I spoke with Jones about her book, the craft of memoir, and being open to where a story will take you.

The Millions: What is a common misconception about memoir?

Alden Jones: That it is beholden to the facts.

TM: If not facts, what is memoir beholden to?

AJ: Memoir is beholden to the truth. But it is not the same kind of “truth” we mean when we talk about journalism, which is beholden to verifiable facts. This is a frequent discussion in creative nonfiction classes: How do you remain loyal to the truth while telling a story using details you can’t possibly remember in any perfect or provable way? You simple wouldn’t be able to write about your childhood with any clarity at all if you didn’t have the leeway to invent details to build a sensory experience for the reader. So as a memoirist you are beholden to the “spirit of the truth”—Like: I don’t remember if I was wearing that exact dress, but it is definitely a dress I wore around that time. You can’t make up details to serve the plot or put words into someone’s mouth that they never would have said. But if you want to include dialogue in your memoir in order to make your characters come to life, you’re going to have to approximate with this spirit of the truth in mind. Perhaps thanks to the discussion prompted by James Frey’s naked invention in A Million Little Pieces, readers understand that when they pick up a memoir they are trusting the writer to be telling a true story, but not a literal one. Memory is fallible and personal; if someone else from my Outward Bound crew were to write about our experience in the wilderness, it would likely be a very different story with some conflicting accounts of what happened. But I did my best to tell the truth in The Wanting Was a Wilderness, including reckoning with some things about my 19-year-old self I’d rather not have down on paper.

TM: You’ve written about this time in your life before. More than 20 years passed between the time you spent 85 days in the wilderness as a participant on an Outward Bound course and when you began writing The Wanting Was a Wilderness. But in the meantime, you published the story collection Unaccompanied Minors (2014), which featured “Flee,” a story about a young woman in a wilderness education program; you’ve shared that your inspiration for this story was your real-life experience on Outward Bound. Why did you first turn to fiction to explore this autobiographical material? Had you ever considered writing this story as nonfiction prior to The Wanting Was a Wilderness?

AJ: I had not ever written about this experience as nonfiction before starting The Wanting Was a Wilderness, and I never intended to. Even during the time I was on the trail, I knew it was important to write down as much as I could; I knew I would become a writer, and that I would use this Outward Bound material somehow. But there were a few reasons it never occurred to me to write about my experience as nonfiction. The main reason was that in the early 1990s, when I was on the trail and in college taking my first creative writing workshops, the genre of memoir as we understand it now didn’t really exist. James Baldwin and Ernest Hemingway wrote memoir, but it was not yet a widespread genre for regular people. It existed mainly for established writers who were considered important or who had proven expertise on a certain subject. But even when fiction began to yield to creative nonfiction in the mid- to late-90s, I never thought I could transform my experience on the trail to nonfiction, because I didn’t understand how I could possibly do it without seeming sentimental or trite, since the whole experience was deeply emotional and involved so much challenge and so much growth and so many “I believe in myself!” moments, along with a lot of behavior—on my part, and the part of my companions—that was flat-out ridiculous and embarrassing. When I wrote about it as fiction for the story that became “Flee,” I put a filter on my experience so I saw my companions and myself as our worst, most comical selves. I chronicled our lowest moments and exaggerated our flaws so that the reader could laugh at our expense. The way I presented us in fiction wasn’t totally inaccurate, but it wasn’t the full picture either.

I was really happy with the story “Flee,” but something always nagged at me about not being finished with the material. I knew I hadn’t gotten to the bottom of my experience in that rendering. So when this book project materialized, I knew it was time to do the really hard thing: figure out how to tell my wilderness story in earnest.

TM: One of your goals in this book, which you articulate in the first chapter, is to “demystify the memoir writing process” by analyzing Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. You state your strategy as “using Wild as springboard, mirror, and map.” Could you explain the three functions in greater detail and how they connect Strayed’s Wild with your memoir?

AJ: I knew when I began writing The Wanting Was a Wilderness that I had two main tasks: To offer a thorough critique of Wild. And to elevate the book beyond a work of criticism by making my response to Wild somehow personal to my experience of reading the book, including what I brought to it and what I took from it. It was obvious why I was drawn to Wild: I’d endured a similar physical journey. The most obvious and available approach to writing about it would be to weave my own story into the critique in a “mirror” kind of structure. Like: hey, I recognize myself in that part where Cheryl loses her toenails! Let me offer you my similar anecdote. Sometimes mirroring happens naturally, but at other times I felt like it would make me like that person at the party who follows up someone’s really engaging story by launching into an uninvited story of a similar thing that happened to them, effectively sucking the life out of the original story. I had to have more of a genuine, thoughtful engagement style. By breaking down Wild as a successful memoir, I drew myself a “map” of how to construct a memoir, and in some ways I followed this map. But the map would only carry me so far—I wasn’t trying to mimic Wild—and so ultimately, it became a springboard for a more sweeping exploration of how to tell a true story, how to write an authentic persona, and the telling of my own story as both a traveler/hiker and a writer.

TM: The second chapter in this book is titled “This Is Not the Book I Sat Down to Write.” You mention how you paused and resumed writing this book. You also write that “Where you are in your life determines the kind of book you are going to write.” How much time passed between when you started the book and when you finished? How did this duration and the life-events therein affect the outcome?

AJ: “This Is Not the Book I Sat Down to Write” is the second chapter in The Wanting Was a Wilderness but the last chapter I wrote. I have a long-time trusted reader, Valerie Stivers, who read the early finished manuscript without this chapter, and told me the revelation at the end of the book—that I’d gotten divorced, and that writing this book had something to do with it—was jarring. Why not give the reader some clue that it’s going to happen at the beginning of the book? And she was right. I had to make that “lost” period of my life and writing process part of the fabric of the story from the beginning.

What happened was I arrived almost exactly at the halfway point of my first draft when my marriage suddenly ended. I had to stop writing in order to manage my personal life, which included parenting three kids under six, selling a house and finding another house to live in, splitting up the stuff, and moving, all of the most consuming life stuff. And of course the emotional turmoil. It took me two years to return to The Wanting Was a Wilderness. When I did, I had a very different outlook on what my book was about. Something about living an authentic life was at the heart of Wild and my inability to continue in my marriage. Something about reading and rereading Cheryl Strayed’s work was a breaking point. Now I had to write in order to figure out what. Altogether, including the two-year break, it took me three and a half years to write this teeny little book. But without the life crisis that informed its trajectory, it would have been a much simpler and probably less interesting book.

TM: What advice/recommendation would you give writers who are working on projects in the midst of major life events—career changes, deaths, births, divorce, marriages, etc.?

AJ: If it helps you to write while you’re experience a major life event, you should write. But don’t expect to produce your best work if you’re struggling emotionally. And if you need to take a break from writing to attend to your life or your emotional health, you should do so with no regret. If you’re going through something you want to remember and explore later, perhaps in book form, take lots and lots of notes, but don’t try to structure them into an essay or book until you have some distance from the events.

TM: You spend some time in your book analyzing the “situation” and the “story” of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild in the context of Vivian Gornick’s seminal book The Situation and the Story. In the case of Wild, the situation is Strayed’s trek on the Pacific Crest Trail, and the story is Strayed’s processing of grief and self-actualization. It seems like you knew going into The Wanting Was a Wilderness that your situation was your own wilderness journey as a teen with Outward Bound. At what point in your writing did you figure out the “story”?

AJ: When I returned to the book after my two-year hiatus I knew I was writing towards the idea of authenticity. Authenticity, being true to oneself, is a major theme in Wild and in Cheryl Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” letters, and in the saga of my sexuality during the time I was in the wilderness. But I was also writing about writing—both Strayed’s and my own—and being truthful and authentic applied to the actual mechanics of how these stories were best told. I realized what I had here was a meta-memoir. How do you tell a true story? How do you tell it well? How well do you have to know yourself in order to understand the truth of your own story? What might go wrong or cloud an authentic account? I had to show my work in order to get anywhere close to answering these questions. So the form of the book itself might be the story.

As any good memoir has both a situation and a story, Roland Barthes wrote that all good photographs have a studium and a punctum. The studium is the subject matter, the thing we can all agree on. The punctum is that thing that pierces you, that pricks you, and this is not necessarily the same for everyone. I think the “story” can be like the punctum; it’s not the same for all readers. Ultimately you, the reader, get to decide what this or any book is really “about.”

TM: There is an intimacy built between you and the reader in the “behind the curtain” moments where you, as you say, “show your work” to the reader, elucidating your thoughts and techniques. Sometimes these are subtle moments with a quick sentence clueing the reader into your strategy. Other times you spend pages dissecting and narrating both Strayed’s process and your own. What made you decide to be so explicit and direct in your approach to these moments?

AJ: I didn’t really decide to break the forth wall. At a certain point in the writing process it seemed like a logical thing to do. I’d written this one pivotal section that moved around in the book a few times. And since I was writing a memoir about how to write a memoir, it seemed natural to explain to the reader how it landed where it landed and why I’d made the choices I had. When writing a memoir, or any long narrative, you work so hard to make everything appear seamless, but there is so much messiness to tame in order to present the reader with a seamless story. Since the book was ultimately about the choices I was making about how to tell my story, it seemed necessary to expose the unruliness of the process. Narrative flow is not a magic trick—it’s work. Ideally, when reading a book, we are completely unaware of the construction process and can get lost in the story itself. But craftspeople want to understand how something was built, and I was writing with them in mind during these moments.

TM: Towards the end of your book, you call attention to the trend of women memoirists ending their stories in marriage, writing “Women memoirists do this all the time, too often, and we need to understand resolution on different terms.” Do you anticipate any objections to this statement from your readers, or from other women memoirists?

AJ: I think I would receive more opposition about that statement if I hadn’t already done it myself. My first book, The Blind Masseuse, ends with me getting married and having my first child and having to figure out how to remain a “traveler” even after I’d settled down. It was an organic ending to that story, and it felt like a genuine landing at the time. I still believe it is. But I also can’t deny that I was, deliberately or subconsciously, playing into a faulty cultural belief that marriage is a woman’s ultimate landing spot, some kind of achievement that means we have arrived where we are supposed to be; even if I personally married a woman, it’s still a patriarchal trap. The problem isn’t necessarily that women memoirists do this. It’s that the culture makes us feel this imperative so strongly. I’m not saying no memoirist, female or otherwise, should ever use marriage as a final plot point. But if we can choose something else, if we resist that expectation, we can ask the culture to consider other ways women come to resolution. I tried it both ways. For The Wanting Was a Wilderness, because the book’s whole message at some point pointed towards embracing the messy truth and the narrative’s need to reflect that truth, I had to find resolution in the disorder. Even though Wild ends in marriage, Cheryl Strayed’s ending is less about marriage as a landing spot, and more about owning and occupying the messiness of our life and how that ultimately affords us self-acceptance. And I hope The Wanting Was a Wilderness offers that message, too.

Bonus Links:
Put It in a Box and Wait: The Millions Interviews Cheryl Strayed
Susanna Moore, Cheryl Strayed, and the Place Where the Writers Work
A Bit About Frey
Why We Need Memoirs
Who Says Memoir Has to Be Nonfiction? The Millions Interviews Tyrese Coleman
Here Is the Needle, This Is the Thread: ‘Safekeeping’ and the Liberation of Memoir

Image Credit: Flickr/Bureau of Land Management

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