In her new book The Wanting Was a Wilderness, a new installment in Fiction Advocate’s series of books about books, author Alden Jones takes a deep dive into Cheryl Strayed’s beloved memoir, Wild. Jones’s critical interest in Strayed’s book stemmed from the fact that it is about hiking, an activity that is not inherently interesting (to non-hikers, at any rate), and yet Wild is all kinds of compellingly readable. Because Jones had her own backcountry tour tucked into her past, one she had struggled to write about in nonfiction (although fictionalizing it worked well), she set out to discover how Strayed had pulled it off. In the process, she created a book that analyzes Strayed’s work and tells Jones’s own wilderness transformation tale at the same time.
I met Jones at an AWP panel, “Women in Open Spaces: Life After the (Un)remarkable Journey,” and when she first described her book to us in an email thread leading up to the conference, I pounded out one of those awkward fangirl-y, all-caps responses asking how she, a perfect stranger, had known to write a book just for me, a person trying to write a memoir about hiking.
Jones is core faculty in the Newport MFA, and she teaches creative writing and cultural studies at Emerson College. Her previous books, a collection of stories, Unaccompanied Minors, and a memoir, The Blind Masseuse, have both earned critical praise.
We spoke recently about her new book, making meaning out of hiking, whether the world needs another memoir, and why we do hard things when we don’t have to.
The Rumpus: The Wanting Was a Wilderness blends three genres: craft discussion, criticism, and memoir, which could make a mess but doesn’t. How did you decide on such seemingly disparate approaches? Did your material suggest this structure or the other way around… or something else?
Alden Jones: The very specific craft talk came last. I started The Wanting Was a Wilderness with a somewhat straightforward idea: I would critically engage with Wild; and I would somehow use my own wilderness experience to illustrate the critical discussion. I took pages and pages of notes collecting thoughts and quotations while rereading Wild in preparation for starting the book, with headers like “A Woman Alone,” “Pain as Redemption,” “The Healing Powers of Nature,” and “Grit.” Then I printed out the pages, cut them up, and ordered them all over my floor. This helped me get some thoughts together topically, and it helped me better understand Wild, but it did nothing to help me structure the book or locate the ultimate “message” of my own book, the one I was attempting to imagine into being.
Only when I started writing The Wanting Was a Wilderness did I realize what I was really writing was a memoir about how to write a memoir: I was breaking down Wild to articulate how she’d so successfully used persona, flashback, and other technical elements of memoir writing, and then using those tools to build my own memoir of my wilderness experience. Once I understood this, it made sense to go all-out with craft talk, to break the fourth wall and talk to my reader about the craft choices I was making as I made them. I decided to expose my choices, including the doubts I had while writing, sentences I deleted and then restored, the neat-and-clean endings I might have written that wouldn’t have embodied the truth of my experience.
Rumpus: Neat-and-clean endings are so tempting.
Jones: So tempting.
Rumpus: Despite doing many different things, your book is compact and focused. How did you keep it from getting unwieldy or going off the rails?
Jones: There were many times it went off the rails as I was writing. More than once I had to stop and take a few days away from the book. It’s much easier to spot the moment the train left the tracks when you have some distance from the work; it’s also psychologically easier to delete large chunks of material a few days after they were written. I’m usually a hit-the-vein writer. If I don’t nail something key pretty quickly, I know a narrative isn’t going to work. I don’t believe in “shitty first drafts” or the notion that a first draft is supposed to be terrible; that might work for other writers but it doesn’t work for me. If I hit a snag, if I feel the rails slip out from under me, I’d rather sit, pace, bore some poor listener as I talk out the problem, or distract myself until I’ve solved the puzzle of a narrative’s next step in my head, then continue writing. I did cut a much larger percentage of writing from The Wanting than I usually do. But miraculously, all my darlings survived.
Rumpus: Ha! Any favorite darlings you’d like to draw our attention to?
Jones: Well I don’t know if it’s the best part of the book, but my favorite section is “Boots on the Ground,” in which I give a whirlwind account of my eighty-five days in the wilderness in nine pages. This was the first memoir section I wrote. I had been thinking about that time in my life for so long, and when I finally allowed myself to write about it the details escaped in a flood, but somehow landed in this concentrated way—after all that thinking, I had a sense of what was key, what was most interesting or telling, and I could leave out most of the details while choosing the ones that best embodied the whole story. I moved that section around in the book a few times, but I barely changed a word.
Rumpus: Nice. Wild has been so influential that, as with Eat Pray Love, it’s practically a trope now for women of a certain demographic (white, privileged) to follow the protagonist’s footsteps into a big adventure. (Although your Outward Bound experience took place before Strayed’s Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike.) What hopes, if any, did you have in mind for your readers as you wrote The Wanting Was a Wilderness?
Jones: I suppose you could say I was endeavoring to follow in Strayed’s footsteps as a memoirist, but that’s not exactly what I was trying to do. The Wanting Was a Wilderness was always going to be a very different book from Wild. Literary analysis is at the heart of The Wanting Was a Wilderness, and literary analysis does not usually make for a bestseller; that’s not what I was going for. I thought of it more like I was trying to solve the puzzle of how Strayed took material that was similar to mine, material that I had trouble imagining wrangling into memoir form without being boring, self-indulgent, and either self-congratulatory or self-deprecating to a fallacious degree, and used the tools of memoir to make her story appeal to so many readers.
I hope that readers who either write memoir or want to understand the mechanics of memoir will gain insight into the process. I also hope that, whether they write or not, readers will consider the connection between living an authentic life and making the effort to interrogate your true beliefs, which you need to do in order to write a good memoir, and so was one of the reckonings I needed to perform in order to write this book.
Rumpus: Central to the existence of Wild, of your book, and of the memoir I’m trying to write about depression and the wilderness, are two questions you ask: “What is the appeal of turning one’s back on the safety and comforts available to them? What is it we are trying to learn by choosing to do something hard that we didn’t really have to do?” In some ways, it takes an entire book to answer those questions, but if you had to give a CliffsNotes answer, what would it be?
Jones: Sorry, Mathina, there is no CliffsNotes version! You’re going to have to write your book in order to answer the question. And if you knew the answer already, the book wouldn’t be as much fun to write.
But, if I might offer an approximate or general answer to this question, it is that there is no way you can go through any extended period of life off the grid without learning something about yourself. You may be Cheryl Strayed and have a very specific thing you want to learn: Can I restore the sense of self I had before I fell apart after my mother’s death? Or it might be a more general query: What will I learn about myself if I strip away all the things that make my life easy, that enable me to move through life on autopilot?
I entered the wilderness in the latter way. I knew I wanted to be stronger and have a stronger sense of who I was. But as it turned out, eighty-five days in the wilderness wasn’t enough to feel the solidity of identity and the fearlessness I craved. I had to take the plot of The Wanting Was a Wilderness almost twenty years beyond my Outward Bound journey to arrive at true self-reliance and beyond fear. So even though my wilderness expedition was crucial to my ultimate self-understanding, it was only one piece of the journey. Time off the grid might not give you all the answers you want, but it is likely to get you closer.
Rumpus: Yes! I think of my time in the woods as an accelerator.
In memoir, as in a novel, one of the first jobs of the author is to establish the stakes for a character. You call the crisis that sparked your Outward Bound experience less acute than the one that prompted Strayed to take on the PCT. A student of mine suffering from impostor syndrome recently asked me whether the world really needed another memoir. As a writer and writing teacher, I genuinely believe everyone’s story is valuable and interesting, but readers’ time is in fact finite. How can aspiring memoirists write about quiet lives in a way that earns readers’ time?
Jones: That is a great question, and one at the heart of The Wanting Was a Wilderness. When Fiction Advocate presented me a list of titles, I immediately chose Wild because, having gone through a similar physical experience, I had found it such a mystery that Cheryl Strayed had been able to transform this hiking experience into a beloved bestseller that so many people wanted to read. I always knew that my wilderness experience had been interesting… but in some ways it seemed like a litany of anecdotes, like, “We used one-hundred percent DEET and our plastic sunglasses melted off our faces! We jumped a one-hundred-fifty-foot cliff! We slept on canoes for three nights, yes, canoes! My pack smashed my face into a rock and I had a black eye that was every color of the rainbow!” But what did these anecdotes add up to?
Strayed had taken all of her PCT anecdotes and figured out how to make them add up to a universal story of transformation and healing. Perhaps if I broke down her craft, I could attempt to make sense of the deeper, more universal story of my own wilderness experience. Like your student, I didn’t know if my situation was enough to carry a memoir. My objective in writing The Wanting Was a Wilderness was to make it enough. You can make any topic enough in the telling. Your student should be asking not if the world needs another memoir, but how they can tell their story in a necessary way. Does the world need another work of art? As Oscar Wilde said, “All art is quite useless.” And later, “A work of art is useless as a flower is useless. A flower blossoms for its own joy. We gain a moment of joy by looking at it.” Joy is the value of art, and a good enough justification, as I see it, for the person who wants to make it.
Read an exclusive excerpt from The Wanting Was a Wilderness here.
Photograph of Alden Jones by Adrianne Mathiowetz.