Notes from a workshop with Cheryl Strayed
Last week I was at a writing workshop with Cheryl Strayed, the author of Torch, Wild, and Tiny Beautiful Things. I signed up for it almost a year ago, and as the trip approached I had no more idea what to expect than I had the day I registered. In the back of my mind I imagined writing a crisp travel article about how writing workshops were unique opportunities for experiencing new places. It would be thorough, and have some flash from my own personal experience with Cheryl. I'd sell it, for sure, and I had a list of magazines that I would pitch in order.
Ha! I should know by now that when I come up with that kind of neat and tidy plan, it's a cover up. The truth is I was scared, scared of what it would be like to be surrounded by other writers, scared that in the presence of this writer I would feel small, and scared of everything I didn't know--which once I arrived at the workshop felt like quite a lot.
On the first day, Cheryl asked, "How many of you are here to produce art and to work on the craft of writing--writing that you hope might be read by others someday?" Half of us raised our hands. Then she asked, "How many of you are here because you write or you journal as a way of understanding yourself or healing your life?" And the other half of us raised our hands.
Over the next four days, we received her teaching on the craft writing. She presented many examples of literary strategies, she offered prompts, she described her own process as a writer, and in between all that--in the gaps when she wasn't talking about the nuts and bolts and two by fours of the practice of writing, there was a shimmering. Mystery, magic, and soul appeared among the seventy of us. The way I write it, it sounds so lovely.
But what it took for that to happen was the quiet tiptoeing back into the room after responding to a prompt, faces streaked with tears and wondering. It was writing down a secret, the one you could hardly bear to put down in actual words, and then reading it to a fellow traveler. The free fall of reading those few unspeakable words aloud, knowing you had nothing to lose really, but feeling like deep down, that everything was at stake. That creating the art you were learning to create with Cheryl would always come down to this moment and your own ability to tolerate telling the truth.
The honest and unmannerly bits, the stolen girl scout cookies, the secret pleasure, the venomous judgements.
All those things not fit for Facebook or the dinner table. F. Scott Fitzgerald called it selling your heart, which he believed to be especially essential for novice writers. Many of us made our best effort at truth telling over of those few days. And even though I don't believe any of us walked away with any tangible writer's achievement, we were rewarded nonetheless.
Cheryl asked us, "Can't you feel the sacred in the room?" And we could.
It's hard to imagine writing that travel article now. One of my new friends marveled, "I've been in Maui for a week and I haven't even seen the beach." She said this with a sense of stunning satisfaction. We had managed to discover to savage and holy shores, wide open vistas and subterranean rivers, but none of the sights we encountered can be found on the island of Maui. They were made in the gap between a teacher and willing students, in the safety of community, in the work of turning toward the heated battles in our own hearts, in the quiet moments spent staring while our deep wordless minds spun whole new worlds we did not yet have the words to describe. A journey, to be sure, just not the one I expected to have.
Cheryl asked us to track her speaking and send any good quotes we jotted down for an up coming project of hers. These are some that I managed to grab.
"To make art demands something more than making sense."
"The hard thing about memoir is the unfortunate presence of other people."
"First write everything and then make decisions."
"Art is not anecdote."
"Answer the question beneath the question."
"The writer's job in the world is to be an illuminator."
"I hate fucking writing."
"Wild is a story about objects and talismans."
"As a writer you are the conduit of the light."
"Honest writing is being unmannerly."
"Story is dangerous stuff."
"Intuitive knowledge is a super big part of my writing."
"Most of us were sluts in the 90s"
"Success in the arts is measured differently than in any other profession."
"We are always capable of transformation and we are always the same old song."
"You're a writer when you know yourself to be a writer."
"The highest standard of any art is its humanity."