Does a Memoir Need to Tell a Wild Story?

After hearing about it (too much), I decided I’d read Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. I usually avoid books and movies that have too much hype because I don’t always like what “everybody” likes. So I assume I won’t like said book or film and try to ignore. Sometimes I’m wrong about the work. Sometimes I’m not.

In the case of Strayed’s memoir, I thought its popularity meant that the book would be insipid. Judgmental on my part, yes. I also assumed it would be too “outdoorsy” for my taste.

What I found was a well-written story which held my interest throughout. Strayed’s protagonist is a grief-stricken addict who decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail by herself. Once I started the book I didn’t want to stop. Perhaps more than any other memoir, I was entertained by the cinematic story.

Although the book seems to be very carefully crafted, the premise itself is rather wild. An out-of-control young addict embarks on a dangerous journey by herself, rather than a trip to rehab. The implausibility of this path to recovery is echoed by the central tangible symbol of boots which do not fit the hiker. They do damage to her feet and create multi-level meaning, but leave this reader thinking, there is no way she could survive on that trail without broken-in boots that fit well.

What I learned from this book is that I can exaggerate elements of my life to create a best-seller. I can make my story more wild. But I am unwilling to do so.

Have you read Wild? Did the unlikely elements of the plot bother you or did you suspend your disbelief as you read? Or maybe you have a completely different viewpoint of this memoir?

Would you be willing to make your story wilder?

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Filed under Book Review, Books, Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

44 responses to “Does a Memoir Need to Tell a Wild Story?

  1. Haven’t read this one. Your post was timely though, because I have been working on a memoir for my family…. instead of just stories of my life I wanted to create more of a story, but my life has been quite normal (in my opinion) Not all that wild. Struggling with finding a theme. I guess since I am not trying for a best seller, it’s not that important, but I want it to be interesting to my audience .

    • Luanne

      I think a lot of memoir writers struggle with exactly what you are struggling with, Ruth. I know I have. Take a look at “Blueprint Your Bestseller” and see what you think. What I like about it is how it has you take all your scenes (the ones you have written and the ones you still want to write) and figure out a way to see what you have there. It’s almost a mathematical formula, but NOT formulaic. Makes it so easy to see what you story truly is, as long as you follow him step by step.

  2. I haven’t even heard of this, shows how in touch I am with what’s going on.

  3. My life is full of wild stories, but I sometimes feel that they aren’t wild enough! Haven’t read this. Too busy reading other blogs, books, magazines trolling for potential content for Crazy Good Parent.

    • Luanne

      If you think they are wild, they are wild enough, written properly. I wouldn’t worry about that!
      That’s because you’re a crazy good parent ;).

  4. Sounds like a good book. Will I embellish? Probably. But mostly to fill in necessary gaps so that things work. Assuming I get back to it. I loved the Bloggess’ safety that hers is a. softly true memoir! Because really, that’s true of most!

    • Luanne

      I think you’re right. People who think they have written it out exactly as it happened are fooling themselves. But to willfully embellish is different than to structure for effect, ya know what I mean?

  5. I confess that I need to return to reading, “Wild.” I want memoir to be as authentic as possible; no I would not make my story “wilder” than it is. I might change the names and places but the events would be as true to memory as possible.

    • Luanne

      Lynne, did you stop reading it for a reason? Was it the book or was it your life at the time? I feel so strongly about authenticity I can’t even write with a changed name. Maybe I will change some names later, but not as I’m writing it. It seems to jam me up.

      • I agree as I am writing under the name of the character, “Grace” and that “jams” me up! I just had this conversation with the writer’s in the critique group that I attend. It is a fine line to walk between “your” story and truths and balance that fact with respect for those, still surviving, around you. I believe that the story has to be honest and authentic to be memoir.
        RE: Wild~ I just could not stay with the story, it did not capture my interest at all, for many of the reasons you stated in your post. I should give the book another chance.
        I have a good text~ Inventing the Truth- The Art and Craft of Memoir, which was a recommended read for a course I took. Annie Dillard states, “The best memoirs, I think, forge their own forms.” Annie Dillard claims to leave herself out of the memoir as much as possible, although she admits that she is the child and the teen in her memoir writing. She tries to leave out anything that might trouble her family… interesting, as her memoir seems rather “contrived” to me. Thoughts.

  6. If I made my memoir wilder, it would be a novel, not a memoir.

  7. I am among those who was unaware of Wild, but I’m curious to read it now. The idea of healing through this trek in nature, knowing there is both such beauty and peril of the natural world, very much interests me. I’m a big proponent that connecting to nature has healing properties.

    Also, have you ever read Lit by Mary Karr? Someone recommended it to me years ago and I finally picked it up. Not too far into the book but her writing style has my attention so far. I like that she seems a little wild and wayward, but it’s downplayed in the language which I feel she keeps poetic to a degree. It’s not too dramatic.

    • Luanne

      Sun Absy, I think you would really respond well to the story as a whole. She does a wonderful job of connecting the physical and the spiritual and the emotional.
      I have read “Lit”! And I’ve read “The Liar’s Club” and “Cherry.” I think of them as the “Trilogy” ;). I love Mary Karr’s writing. My favorite is “The Liar’s Club,” but that is the childhood story. “Cherry” is her teen story. And then “Lit” is her recovery story.

      • I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the “trilogy” now! Thanks for mentioning those. As for Wild, I’ve read more of the discussion here and feel less inclined to read it, understanding now the question a little more of whether a memoir has to be “wild.” I’ve always been unimpressed with embellishment that seems attention seeking or placed for shock value, especially when the writing is overtly sexual. Sex is easy to sell, but it’s often neither artistic or classy in a work and sometimes just disrupts the true storyline as it’s often a gratuitous addition that does nothing to strengthen plot or emotion. But, I also don’t want to be so subjective and limited that I don’t give a writer’s work a fair chance, or miss out on the bigger issue or message of a work. I really want to go beyond my perceived tastes more and discover more writing, and especially support more writers. Good discussion here though, at least I won’t be too surprised when I start reading Wild, regarding the sex addition aspect. That’s just me though, I think on a personal level modesty is good; and I think extra embellishments or drama make a story more powerful.

  8. I had mixed feelings on this memoir. Seems like she really did embellish some things, especially her addiction to sex. She seemed to exploit that aspect of herself for shock value. And I don’t understand why she divorced her husband if they had such an amicable relationship. I thought it was interesting how she buried the part about her father deep in the book, but I suppose that symbolized how the ongoing journey took her deeper into her past pain. My favorite element of the memoir was her description of her backpack. Perhaps it was exaggerated, but I like how it became it’s own character. Monster, was it? As to your other question, I would not be willing to embellish like she did; I wouldn’t feel ethical.

    • Luanne

      Good point about the sex addiction! Yes, well put: she exploited things about herself which is where I find some of the embellishment, I think. The backpack is good. Did you think that the boots were believable? For me, that was the least believable. I know how important feet are in daily life, so when her whole life depends on her feet . . . ?
      I agree: I wouldn’t feel ethical either. It would feel creepy.

      • Hmmm, I guess the boots didn’t bother me so much, but giving them more thought, I think you’re right. If she was losing toenails and stuff, it’s unlikely she could have hiked so far in such conditions. Was she trying to make herself look especially tough, do you think? Maybe I overlooked this because the rest of my sensibilities were offended by her content. Nonetheless, it’s her memoir, so she is justified in reporting on her life, if what she said is true. Some of it is doubtful. Then again, memoirists can always claim that their “truth” is how they experienced things, which leaves considerable wiggle room in the writing.

        • Luanne

          So at some level we either have to trust the writer. But then what is the difference between CNF and fiction because I might think something sounds plausible and it’s fictional and something else can seem impossible and be true. In the case of STrayed’s book I don’t trust the things that don’t make sense to me, judging from the world as I know it: the boots, losing an addiction that way (oops, all I needed was another activity), and making herself sound more at odds than it sounded to me she really was. In short, I trusted her to tell me a great tale and she did. But I don’t trust her on the various points that seem outlandish to me.

  9. I think that if I had to substantially alter my nonfiction story, it would actually be fiction and I would have to label it as such. On the other hand, memory is unreliable. That’s scary.

    • Luanne

      WJ, what does substantially mean? Does acting like all you needed to get rid of a drug addiction was to go on a very extreme hike seem substantial to you? Or wearing ill-fitting brand new boots for this trek?

  10. I remember hearing about this book, Luanne, but I haven’t read it, and I probably won’t. If a memoir is too exaggerated doesn’t it then become fiction? When I read a memoir, I want the truth.

    • Luanne

      I do, too! That is really the point, isn’t it?!

      • Definitely! I remember being FURIOUS when I read A Million Little Pieces, believing it was a memoir, as it was sold, but then finding out it was semi-fictional. I didn’t purchase a memoir for a long time after that. I can’t wait to read yours, Luanne because I know it will be the truth!

  11. What I think is “wild” is how many memoirs you’ve read! You’re my idol.

    • Luanne

      Hahaha. If only you saw how many I have to go! Luckily for everyone concerned, I plan to stop at the end of February with these pieces. I can also do some more later, but I want to move on to something else for March!

  12. I haven’t read wild, but I don’t like much that is too far removed from reality unless it is fantasy or sci-fi. My husband reads two to three crime novels a week and he is forever pointing out implausibilities.

    • Luanne

      Does he ever read true crime? I wonder if those are more plausible than the novels. I like a very well researched book, usually. The one place I don’t mind a stretch, though, is in a cozy mystery. I like cats that solve mysteries ;).

      • I like Carl Hiaasen. he watches Law and order and Forensic Files, a lot of real life crime TV shows. For the most part read doesn’t read true crime though.

        I started writing a crime novel myself, and I put it away because I felt it superficial and shallow, but he loved it.

        I wrote a fictionalized true story, a roman a clef, based on true stories…they were very real people and their real lives, but unimaginable truths.

        • Luanne

          What are Hiaasen’s books like? Was it your plot line that made it seem superficial to you?
          That is tough–writing a nonfiction story about something that seems impossible. How does one get the reader to believe it?

          • They are Florida regional books. More like teen or young adult mystery, but the series is wonderful. He is big on conservation and environmental issues. The movie Hoot was made about one of his books. Good family movie.

            I think my crime story is turning out sort of cheesy and that’s not what I wanted for it. I wanted some humor in it, but the transvestite sidekick is stealing the show and the seriousness of the murder seems underplayed. They are working on a cold case together.

  13. I read an article about Wild in the NY Times a while back (here’s the link: I haven’t read the book and have no plans to, in part because of Strayed’s attitude: ““I’ve given people permission; that you do not have to be an expert to walk into the woods,” she said, adding that some backcountry critics are elitists who think there is just one way to do things: their way.”
    I don’t think backcountry critics are being elitist; they are simply concerned that some people may think that just because Strayed managed her hike with ill-fitting boots, etc., that they can too. I’d have a bit more respect if she encouraged her followers to at least be outfitted better. Her defensiveness makes me wonder about the authenticity of her experience.
    I know one friend who hike the Appalachian Trail and wound up losing a toenail or two due to ill-fitting boots. She had even trained for the hike, but still it wasn’t until a few days out that she realized her boots actually were a poor fit, so it happens. You can survive a hike with bad boots; it just isn’t any fun and people shouldn’t be led to thinking that it’s okay.
    From reading the comments here, it sounds like other parts of Strayed’s memoir may be exaggerated or at least “overshared.” So are people reading it because she wrote about sex or because she wrote about a hike? And back to your question about being willing to make one’s story wilder … no, I wouldn’t. For me, that would be fictionalizing my story. I suppose one could always have a caveat like they do with movies based on books (“Loosely based on Marie Ann Bailey’s actual life”) but the reading public seems to want “wild” memoirs.
    I remember the controversy about A Million Little Pieces. What struck me was that Frey probably couldn’t have sold his book as fiction (which is mostly was). Even his publisher knew the book was not a true memoir. What do you do when even publishers are willing to dupe readers?

    • Luanne

      Marie, I read this after you wrote it, but was on my Blackberry. Then i forgot to come back and write what I was thinking! Thank you so much for this. Yes, it would be fictionalizing. I hate to think that it has happened in the past and not been detected, but I’ll bet it has. Amazing about the defensiveness. Thank you so much for sharing the link!

  14. Luanne, you know I couldn’t resists… Having gone on a similar odyssey in Alaska, at about the same age as Strayed, I felt some things were a bit out of proportion in this read too… that she claims to have hiked so far after losing a boot(s) over the cliff seems impossible, especially with Monster on her back… But monster symbolized so many things — the monkey’s on her back that she carried: those addictions – which frankly ya seemed like youthful exploration more than addiction. I saw little in the writing that indicated she had an addiction. She was just blowing off steam in her mourning phase. I unfortunately knew several friends in high school who lost a parent. Several in fact. It messed them up for years: depression, experimentation, anger, angst, drugs, failing out of school, going off to find themselves… etc. So this rang true. What I felt a story of this caliber needed was a more artful, literary hand to suspend our disbelief at her responses to the losses that brought her to the edge. The writing lacked in the complete beauty that would seduce the reader into belief. That said, she made it. She packaged the experience in a way that the market has “bought” it in a commercial sense. I can’t knock that!

    • Luanne

      Beautifully written, Renee. The one place I differ with you here is your response to Strayed’s drug-taking. I do think she presented herself HALF-HEARTEDLY as an addict. What I was reading into it was that she wasn’t an addict at all, but that she was trying to make herself look “sorta” like an addict to make her story more “wild.” It really irritated me because I knew she was not an addict (I was being a little tongue in cheek above). An addict could not have undertaken the hike and would not have just stopped using like that. But she went to a lot of trouble to make it look like her life had become the drugs. It felt exaggerated to me as I read. “Youthful exploration” doesn’t take over your life the way addictions do. So I agree that she probably was engaged in youthful exploration, but disagree that she wasn’t trying to present herself as an addict (and believe she was). I love the symbolic meanings of Monster, btw. And of the boots. But I feel a need to believe in the sincerity of the memoirist. I think Strayed is a phenomenal writer, but worry that to market her book successfully (and it is wildly 🙂 successful) she tweaked things a bit too much. And yet the book has made her career. She is judging writing contests. Will she look for the most marketable stories like her own? Or will she use another set of criteria?

      • she was trying to make herself look “sorta” like an addict to make her story more “wild.” It really irritated me because I knew she was not an addict (I was being a little tongue in cheek above). An addict could not have undertaken the hike and would not have just stopped using like that.

  15. Luanne, I’m interested in knowing what the consensus to the title question is… ? My memoir may be at stake on this very question. I find myself as a reader equally engaged by memoirs that are lovely, poetic and well-written vs those where there’s a lot at stake for the protag, but the market may think otherwise… I’m curious what your readers and you think!

  16. Luanne

    Renee, I have an idea. Emailing you.

  17. Well, this is very interesting and thought provoking. My story about abuse was just released but I guess I never thought about it as a memoir. I did not even consider it an autobiography. I just consider it “my story”. I would love for you to read it. I have a review posting on my blog about it. As I read about these book reviews, it just amazes me because I was not a writer… but I was told to write my story. I guess life has many lessons…

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