Coupling a story to a physical journey is one way to create a clear quality of movement, that underlying dynamic that makes a story 'work.' The stages of the physical journey can correspond to the stages in the story.
Cheryl Strayed's memoir Wild is a wonderful example of this kind of storytelling.
Wild starts with a prologue that takes a dramatic scene from deeper within the story, when Cheryl has lost one hiking boot and tosses another off the trail. This raises powerful questions: what brought her to this point, and could she continue the hike, or how could she continue, in this situation?
She also conveys she is alone, a stray; that with her mother's death her step-father withdrew from her life and her siblings drifted away, and she drifted into odd jobs, drugs, and casual sex.
This leads to an answer to why she is on the Pacific Crest Trail: to find herself. This raises the question, will she find herself by finishing the hike? We have to read to the end of the book to find out. Because as a reader I want to know, the prologue has done its job.
The prologue ends with the line that even bootless, Cheryl had one option, "To keep walking." This is also a powerful metaphor for how to live life.
Cheryl then goes to the beginning of the hike, the thoughts that crystallized the idea, the preparation, the packing, the real decision to begin the hike, which makes her realize the hike had another beginning, her mother's death from cancer.
The plot of the memoir - the hike along the trail - now connects to a deeper layer of emotions and understanding.
Many people think of plot as a sequence of events, but those events must be connected to something deeper to have meaning. This is true whether the story is Fellini's 8 ½ or the action film Lethal Weapon. The action of the plot events striking characters puts characters into deeper states of feeling, and the reader gets to experience those states.
But first, Cheryl sets the story and plot into motion together in the prologue. Then, when we want to know more about her, she gives us more, by returning to her life with her dying mother and the exchange:
I did not want to do this, but I did, inexplicable, as if I had a great fever that could be cooled only by those words. I went so far as to ask her directly, "Have I been the best daughter in the world?"
She said yes, I had, of course.
But this was not enough. I wanted those words to knit together in my mother's mind and for them to be delivered, fresh to me.
I was ravenous for love.
This is pure, heartfelt emotion and need.
When her mother dies, Cheryl writes...
I didn't know where I was going until I got there.
It was a place called the Bridge of the Gods.
Now that we understand something about Cheryl, now we are ready for the hike to begin, at least if Cheryl can check into a motel for a night. Because she doesn't have a home to return to or knowledge of where she'll live when the hike is over, this moment of trying to check into the cheap hotel reflects something deeper about Cheryl's situation in this world. By not having/owning/nesting some place, she's free to chart her own course.
Most worldly people surround themselves with things (job, home, spouse, child) and feel rooted to this world, or, in some cases, stuck, bound to a life half-lived out of duty and half lived out of fear.
At this moment, Cheryl thinks back to her marriage with Paul, again matching the journey to emotions.
This chapter ends with, 'I only knew that it was time to go, so I opened the door and stepped into the light.'
The use of the word light here echoes with that understanding of dying and going into the light. Cheryl is giving birth to a new life for herself. She's not withholding the purpose of the trip, she's setting it out with bold, lucid clarity, so her readers can share the moment and the journey. Struggling writers can't escape the flawed idea that storytelling is about withholding information, instead of being about revealing information that allows readers to share a story's journey.
The physical journey onto the trail in Wild is announced as Part Two of the book. It has a comical beginning, with Cheryl at first unable to get her heavily loaded backpack hefted onto her shoulders. The natural metaphor is of the heavy baggage we all carry, but in Cheryl's case, she's aware of the weight of her baggage for the first time.
When she needs to get the pack on again and a young man offers to help, she turns him down. The Cheryl before the trail probably would have been glad for the help. It's subtle, but it defines how her character is changing even in the opening moments of the journey.
Within an hour, her mind is telling her to give up, but Cheryl had made a deal with herself:
'I knew that if I allowed fear to overtake me, my journey was doomed. Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I choose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. Nothing could vanquish me."
A powerful realization, and because she's using it in a situation that would seem to be overwhelming, it has a powerful impact. But she still has to prove out this new identity by finishing the journey.
Getting through to her first night on the trail, Cheryl reads a poem over and over again, 'Power.'
On this second day, she comes to the realization, 'I was in entirely new terrain.'
Now she experiences the reality of a mountain and as the days mount, she comes to understand after an encounter with a bull, '...was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial. No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay.'
So she walks on, choosing to go forward, not back, into this new life that will not be numbed down.
If Cheryl had taken the path of writing one chapter in the present and then one in the past, she would have needed to find another way to create the same powerful fusion of story and plot and physical journey. For some struggling writers the underlying problem is they want to use writing about the past as a way to explain or introduce their story, plot, and main character, before setting their story into motion. It risks making the beginning of a story a recitation of details of events and situations and people, without giving a reader a context or a reader to care or feel invested in what happens next.
As she continues the hike, Cheryl finds herself in a now awareness. 'I saw no one, but, strange as it was, I missed no one.'
She experiencing life in her own skin, not as an on-going reaction to others that is constantly mulled over and dissected into dust, until the next anxiety train pulls into the station.
As she continues on the trail, Cheryl begins to hear about the snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and she meets an experienced hiker who tells her it might not be possible to get through the snow-covered trail. That gives her pause, but his belief that she's doing fine also lifts her spirits. Now she has a new mantra at night:
Who is tougher than me? No one.
The sadness for most people, they have a different answer.
As she continues, Cheryl realizes she can bear the unbearable. She continues...
'I had only just begun. I was three weeks into my hike, but everything in me felt altered. I lay in the water as long as I could without breathing, alone in a strange new land, while the actual world all around me hummed on.'
Going through a period of hot sun and lack of water, she appreciates the unending depths of pleasure in drinking a Snapple.
Facing hiking a section of the trail with now too small boots and only sandals, she must 'ride into battle like a warrior' to get through the next section of trail and the new boots waiting for her.
Here we catch up to the prologue, when losing one boot, she throws the other after it. Now she must finish this portion of the hike in sandals that are held together with duct tape.
In a clear cut forest, she sees a metaphor for the destruction of her family after her mother's death. And half way through her hike, she realizes she's had so many amazing experiences, she no longer need feel amazed that her step father abandoned her when her mother died.
'There were so many other amazing things in the world.
'They opened up inside me like a river...I laughed with the joy of it.'
'I felt fierce and humble and gathered up inside, like I was safe in this world, too.'
She is transforming, and she writes in a way that allows us to share the moment.
The memoir continues, the hike now moving into Oregon, stopping in Ashland, then back on the trail.
Now, she confronts her feelings about her mother, who kept her and her siblings isolated from others, who died before Cheryl could grow up and feel distant to her, to share her failings with friends. Until she realizes, her mother had always given her all the love she had to offer; and Cheryl begins to heal inside.
Now the story picks up pace, and she writes about hiking through Oregon, 'I skipped it, I spun it, leapt it in my imagination...'
As she nears the end of the trail for her, sleeping in a futon with three young man, she realizes, 'For once I didn't ache for companionship. For once the phrase woman with a hole in her heart didn't thunder through my brain.'
As the hike comes to an end, she is now ready to release the final weight she carries on the trail, the burden of her memory of her mother.
Now at the end of her journey, she thinks to the universe, 'Thank you,' and, 'it was enough to trust that what I'd done was true.'
Wild, a powerful, powerful work, deserving of its acclaim.
To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, books, and plays, check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise, available on Amazon's Kindle and Barnes and Noble's Nook.