Interview by Frances Donington-Ayad
About the Book: Alden Jones’s critical memoir, The Wanting Was a Wilderness: Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and the Art of Memoir, is one of nine titles in Afterwords, the series launched by Fiction Advocate in 2018. Fiction Advocate asserts that the authors of Afterwords books are “reinventing literary criticism,” and the series mission is both simple and vastly open-ended: “In this series of very short books, acclaimed writers engage with iconic works of literature in surprising ways.”
The Wanting Was a Wilderness surprised me with its reinvention of literary criticism, indeed. Given the premise and title of the book, I expected the insightful analysis of an iconic 21st-century memoir that I found within its pages. But The Wanting Was a Wilderness, clocking in at just under 200 “pocket book” pages, manages to be many other things as well: a craft book; a meta-memoir; and the captivating story of Jones’s own time in the wilderness when she was nineteen. I could not have imagined such a radical guidebook for memoir writers existed between these covers.
Jones’s quest in The Wanting Was a Wilderness is not about how to overcome grief, the question at the heart of Wild, but how to make one’s own personal journey interesting to others. As Jones isolates and clarifies the craft methods Strayed used so masterfully in Wild, we also watch her build her own persona and walk her own 85-day journey on the trail, constructing her own memoir of tumultuous early adulthood and her escape from civilization as a pairing to Wild.
Jones effortlessly weaves her story and Strayed’s story with illuminations about the ways memoir is built, all while candidly peeling back the layers of her own writing process, letting us in on the often tricky task of making sense of our lives as they are still playing out.
About the Author: Alden Jones’s most recent book is The Wanting Was a Wilderness. Her story collection, Unaccompanied Minors, won the New American Fiction Prize and was a finalist for a Publishing Triangle Award and a Lambda Literary Award. Her memoir, The Blind Masseuse, was longlisted for the PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award and named a Top 10 Travel Title by Publishers Weekly. She is core faculty in the Newport MFA, and also teaches creative writing and cultural studies at Emerson College, where she was recognized with the Alan Stanzler Award for Excellence in Teaching.
I spoke with Alden Jones about her experience reading and writing about Wild, the unruliness of telling a true story, and how writing a book can help you live a better life.
Frances Donington-Ayad: When you originally sat down to write this book, what drew you to Wild?
Alden Jones: When I took on this project I hadn’t yet read Wild. Because I’d done my own intense wilderness journey, an 85-day Outward Bound course when I was nineteen, I’d of course been very curious about Wild the minute I heard about it. Even the book cover, with its familiar-looking hiking boot, set off a wave of nostalgia. I’d put off reading it because I knew it would bring back all those Outward Bound memories, and I was waiting to be ready to relive that experience. In the meantime, I’d stumbled upon Strayed’s earlier essays, and “The Love of My Life” in particular I’d really loved. So I was confident I’d connect with Wild, and when Fiction Advocate approached me to write about a book for their Afterwords series, I chose it without hesitation. I was awed by its success, partly because I had written about my Outward Bound journey before, as fiction, but the idea of rendering my own wilderness journey as nonfiction in a way that appealed to readers who hadn’t been there seemed impossible. How had Strayed made her story so appealing to so many people? I started writing The Wanting Was a Wilderness to find out.
FD: This book has lots of components. You explore Wild, your time as an undergrad discovering queerness, the physical hardships of your hike, as well as the divorce you went through in the middle of writing this book. How did you keep everything straight?
AJ: I really had no idea how many components this book was going to have. I started out with a pretty simple idea, one I knew was too simple and would have to develop as I wrote: I would put on my critic’s hat and engage with Wild; and then I would switch to my memoirist’s hat and weave some of my own stories of the wilderness into the analysis.
As I began my critique of Wild, I recognized how Strayed did some things I was going to have to do and the questions I would have to answer in order to write about my own experience. Who was I before I went on my hike? Why had I chosen to check out of society and to do this intense thing at this particular point in my life? I realized I would have to write about my college experience, during which I found myself ideologically stuck between second and third-wave feminism, all while trying to come to terms with my confusing sexual identity. And in order to explain that, I’d have to go further back, to the socially conservative high school environment that shaped my ideas on feminism and sexuality. So there was that, and as I went on I realized I was writing a meta-memoir: my real task was to elucidate how to write a memoir by writing one as I analyzed one and exposing how I wrote it as I was writing it. And of course, I did not anticipate my marriage falling apart in the middle of writing the book!
But I suspected that something about the book I was writing, about being so submerged in Wild and Cheryl Strayed’s advice column Dear Sugar, had something to do with my marriage ending. I had to keep writing to figure out what. There were many times I had no idea how I was going to pull all these things together. But I knew the pieces could click if I kept writing.
If I’d known from the beginning what all the pieces were and how they would fit together, the writing process itself wouldn’t have been very much fun. The real objective of writing memoir, for me, is to figure something out that I didn’t know before. The challenge of fitting it all together was the thing that made writing this book enjoyable.
FD: Did you intend to mimic the “braided weave” narrative of Wild? Do you think memoirists are beginning to rely on this style too heavily?
AJ: Form has to follow function. A braided narrative isn’t the best approach to every story. In Strayed’s case, the structure seemed very authentic: she took on this very hard physical challenge in order to figure out how to become the person she wanted to be. So it made sense that her story of her time on the PCT included reflection on what brought her there: the death of her mother, and the way she’d fallen apart in the wake of her grief. How would this physical journey bring her closer to self-reliance, when she had no choice but to rely on herself after losing her support system? The back-and-forth, present/memory, reflects her true experience on the trail.
When I re-read my 200+ page Outward Bound journal while writing The Wanting Was a Wilderness, I noted that I had written very little about the actual physical journey I was on. I mainly wrote about where I’d come from, and where I was going, and some of the emotional stuff I was going through with the people in my crew. When you are actually on the trail, you’re certainly engaged in the minute-to-minute experience; but the whole point of a wilderness expedition, at least to those of us who don’t do them regularly, is to provide room for the unspooling of the conflicts that led you there. I didn’t intend to mimic anything about the structure of Wild, only to articulate it.
The difficult task for me seemed to be that while Strayed’s conflict was easy to digest—she faced a major loss, and was trying to overcome that particular loss by doing this really hard thing—mine was more mysterious and messy. Could a two-thread back-and-forth braided narrative properly encapsulate my wilderness experience? Probably not. In order to tell my authentic story, the narrative itself would probably need to be a little unruly. I would also have to control its unruliness.
FD: You candidly call out the questionable behavior of your peers at Brown University and Outward Bound. How do you balance addressing a person’s shitty behavior while still giving them the benefit of the doubt of being young or naive? How do you know when to draw back or let lose for the readers, so the characters don’t become unlikable but aren’t given a pass either?
AJ: The memoir canon is filled with accounts of people seemingly at the mercy of other people’s shitty behavior. I definitely did not want to present myself that way. I think one of the most important things a memoirist can do, and one of the most emotionally difficult things I had to do in this book, is to contend with a true account of one’s own questionable behavior. I remember feeling at the mercy of other people when I was nineteen years old. But I am mature enough to realize, now, how complicit I was in my own tumult, and also that I probably caused tumult to others during that time.
It would have been so easy to, for instance, recount a homophobic joke or slur uttered by an Outward Bound crewmate (I had many to choose from, all recorded in my diary!) in order to cast them as a terrible villain and to put me, the queer person, on the “right” side of things. But would that be fair—if I only gave you this one piece of information, and asked you to judge that person on it alone? I don’t think so. And was the homophobia of some of my companions more of an evil force than my own fear and internalized homophobia? Also probably no. If you are going to call out someone else’s questionable behavior, you have to put it in context. And if you are going to call someone else out, you have to be willing to confront your own accountability. You absolutely must be willing to see yourself as flawed.
I think Cheryl Strayed’s ability to recognize, and then forgive herself for, her own regretful behavior is precisely what makes Wild a more enduring memoir than other memoirs of overcoming trauma. Wild was as much about becoming a better person than it was about a hike, or grief, or loss.
FD: You do a lot of work to acknowledge your own shortcomings. In the chapter “The Urge to Revise the Past,” you admit that you’d grappled with one paragraph you’d written in the previous section about ways you could be an “asshole” to your crewmates, and the ultimate decision to leave it in:
“The paragraph about [me] being an asshole—I wrote it, took it out, put it back in, fine-tuned it, and left it…”
That while you would,
“love to reconstruct my character to be wiser, more together, less of a complainer, always charitable,”
you recognized that it was important not to self-revise in order to be seen as a “better” person.
In both a writing sense and a general personhood sense, does that ever get easier? How did you move past that in your prose?
AJ: It definitely got easier for me, both as a writer and as a human being, as I got older. When I was first writing my earlier travel memoir, The Blind Masseuse, which I began in my twenties and published when I was forty-one, I had the sense that I was supposed to have everything figured out, that I had to present myself as an infallible character who had traveled through the world the “right” way. I was finally able to finish the book when I came to terms with the mistakes I’d made along the way, and realized that the real quest of the book was not to educate my reader on a topic I had completely figured out, but rather to articulate the learning process I’d faced as a traveler, including my mistakes.
The tricky thing comes from the urge to be “likable,” and of course if you want a reader to come with you on the journey of your book, you have to be companionable enough for them to spend a lot of time with you. But “likable” doesn’t mean perfect. The true key to likeability for a memoir persona, I think, and maybe for a human being as well, is self-knowledge. Writing The Wanting Was a Wilderness required a certain amount of self-interrogation. Anyone becomes a “better” person by working to understand herself, and that is a more truthful way to connect with your reader than omitting your flaws and mistakes from the narrative.
FD: You describe Cheryl Strayed’s voice in her essay “The Love of My Life,” an essay you say you admire: “The authority of the wise narrator, fortified by a perspective beyond the experience she recounts, provides the scaffolding for the chaos of her earlier self.” In the face of your own writing process being thrown off track by a divorce, how did you manage to relocate that scaffolding to be an authoritative narrator of your story?
AJ: That is a great question and one that took me almost two years to answer. I remember one of the things I was most upset about at the very beginning of my separation was that my book, which was about halfway done at that point, was going to be thrown off track, as I’d obviously have to stop writing it in order to deal with the chaos of a divorce, and the writing had been going so well! That quickly became a minor concern as the painful details of getting divorced while trying to parent three kids under six consumed my life.
But the whole way through, I knew I would return to the book, and that when I did it would have to be a different book because of what I was going through. What did I now have to say, having gone through this experience which had so much to do with the content of Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s advice in her “Dear Sugar” column, and the book I was writing—being “brave enough to break my own heart,” to leave a family structure that had so many implications for what kind of parent I wanted to be, to live an authentic life, to tell a true story?
I’d been hiding behind a marriage and family that looked ideal to so many people, when the truth was I had been deeply unhappy in my marriage for a while. There were parallels to uncover about choosing to stay in the marriage and smile and allow everyone to believe my life was better than it was, and writing a memoir that had an easy, clear moral versus writing the more complicated, less pretty, more true story. I knew I couldn’t pick up the book again until I had some grip on my own life. But the subsequent work I did on this book helped me figure out how I felt about the turn my life had taken. Writing the book helped me live a better life. And deciding to live in a more authentic manner helped me write a better book.