WILD is a textbook example of what a memoir should be. Cheryl Strayed has taken a pivotal moment of her life, described it in detail, and let readers decide for themselves exactly why it was so transformative.
It’s not easy for a memoirist to step back and let the story stand on its own. They have to overcome a tendency to let readers know “here’s exactly how I have changed,” as if they could not see it for themselves. Strayed gives us just enough backstory to help us realize why she felt compelled to hike the Pacific Crest Trail by herself as a young woman.
I got a sense of the emotional healing that was taking place even as her body physically was falling apart from the grueling 15-mile or more daily hikes. I also got a sense that this healing was just the start. In just three months she was not going to become a completely different person; the hike was only the beginning of her journey.
I’m not surprised that this book has become so popular. I personally was captivated by Strayed’s chutzpah and bravery (even if it was outward). I think many of us dream of leaving everything and taking a few months to find ourselves. If anything, I would have liked Strayed to acknowledge this luxury. Many of us have also faced losses in our lives, but we do not have the option to leave everything in order to contemplate what we may need to change in our lives.
But overall, Strayed is quick to acknowledge her shortcomings. She’s particularly adept at sensing where readers may question her decisions, and this helps her to become a more likeable and relatable character. For example, her first husband, Paul, is portrayed as a dutiful and supportive partner in the wake of her mother’s death. But Strayed cheats on him and eventually leaves him. However, she basically comes clean to the reader and says hey, this was an asshole move, and I know it.
My only quibble is that the book seemed to drag toward the end. Strayed has a major challenge in that she was on the trail for almost three months. So many days were just like the others: hike up, hike down, sweat, eat, stop, pitch tent, sleep. She does a good job collapsing time for the most part. But after several mentions of her getting up out of her tent and making breakfast with Better Than Milk and granola, I was ready to have her move on more quickly. She was ready to get off the trail by the time she neared Bridge of the Gods; I was ready for her to get off the trail, too.
I like how she chose to end the book with her last day on the trail. There would be no way for her to know at the time how this trip would actually change her, so I’m glad she didn’t try. But I love the forward projections in the last two paragraphs, the “I didn’t know how…” and “It was all unknown to me then…”
Strayed’s story is unique, yet universal, which also contributes to its popularity. This is one woman’s story of how she dealt with grief and loss. At many points I reflected on how my own story was both eerily similar but also much different than hers. This is another characteristic of the ideal memoir: the ability to hold a mirror up to the reader’s own life, so we can see our reflections in the book in front of us.
If anyone told me they were writing a memoir and they wanted advice, I would hand them WILD. It’s a successful structure worth replicating.