That Time Cheryl Strayed Told Me to Keep Writing

The seed for my novel was planted in my brain 10 years ago. I was a 21-year-old college senior struck by a perfect storm of ideas: a spark in a literature class, and the assignment to write an adaptation for my playwriting class. I had stumbled into the playwriting class because of a ridiculous curriculum rule that stated you could not have more than 48 credit hours in your major. Mine was English and because playwriting was listed under theater, it was the only writing class I was allowed to take. Still, I look back with gratitude not only because of the perfect storm and the people I met in that class, but also because writing scripts squelched any potential fear of dialogue I might have developed.

After graduating from college, I fiddled with transposing the play into a novel, but didn't get serious about it until my impending 25th birthday when I had a quarter-life crisis. (A term I use expectantly since the women in my maternal line have lived to be 100 or older.) My future husband, then boyfriend-of-one-year, gave me the birthday/quarter-life-crisis gift of renewing my annual membership at a local writing center so I could hole up there a few times a week, a few hours at a time to pump out my first draft. I made it to 35,000 words, closer to the length of a long short story, and called it done (enough for a first draft).

But three years later it was no closer to becoming a finished draft. And I was struggling with the whole complacency thing. So in 2013 I applied to Stanford's online novel writing program, seeking accountability and discipline, and was accepted. 

I was in my 5th course of the program last March, when a writer friend/star-sister* and I drove to D.C. to hear Cheryl Strayed talk about Wild at the National Geographic Society. We sat close to the stage, in the second or third row, cradling our copies of Strayed's memoir, laughing at her witticisms, and marveling at her eloquence.

We rushed out at the end in an effort to be near the front of the book-signing queue. There were several people in front of us and we observed in a bit of a panic as it became somewhat of an assembly line. Doting readers held their books ready, open to the page where they wanted her to sign. She'd acknowledge each of them and smile, sign the book, and then they'd be ushered away by a NGS employee. When I reached the front of the line, I set down my book open to the title page, and stuttered out a hello.

"Hi, how are you?" Cheryl Strayed said with a beaming smile.

"I'm fine, thanks. How are you?" I said like an automaton.

She began to answer, but I felt the pressure of time and the long line of bodies pushing up against my back, the psychological weight of which caused me to lean forward over the table, reach out my hand, and cut off the magnanimous Cheryl Strayed mid-sentence-- 

"I just have to say, I love your essay Write Like a Motherfucker." (The mother of swear words I never thought I'd utter in the National Geographic Society.)

"Oh," Cheryl Strayed said. "Are you a writer?"

"Yes." I swallowed. "I'm working on a novel."

"Well just keep writing," she said as she signed my book. And then, looking up: "And your earrings are awesome. So you're halfway there."

I touched them, honored that she liked them, and thanked her, while the moderator sitting beside her laughed and she laughed with him. I had purchased those dangling turquoise chain-store earrings to wear on my wedding day, until a family member described them as "costume jewelry," and, swayed or offended enough, I ordered a teardrop turquoise pair off Etsy for the occasion instead.  

As much as I'd like to think that Cheryl Strayed read something in those earrings about my style or risk-taking or willingness to find some value, some humanity in mass-produced items that gave her the insight to conclude that I was halfway to becoming a writer or to finishing my novel, or something, I realize her non sequitur simply conveyed that she liked my earrings. But just hearing her speak the words, "You're halfway there," gave me hope. And because they were the earrings I bought with the intention of wearing the day I said my vows, I associate them with commitment. As much as I am amused by the idea of them becoming my writing-commitment earrings, that I slipped them into my ears every morning thereafter that I sat down in my pajamas to work on the book, I have not done so.

But I have kept writing.

Motivated by Strayed and my star-sister, other dear writing friends, my adviser, and Annie Dillard's admonition, "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives," I have walked myself to my desk and sat down. The only time I've had to drag myself is that first day after a long absence when the work sits across from me like an aloof old friend, a little unfamiliar and possibly resentful.

And though I used to excuse my inconsistency and procrastination by calling myself a binge writer, I am learning that habit does not equal nature. I am learning how to create a more balanced life, to take a more incremental or cumulative approach, and am witnessing the stillness that it gives me. I am learning what other writers have been saying for years: Sit down at the same time every day so the muse knows where to find you**. 

It's been a week now since I started setting the alarm for 6:00, getting up to feed the cat and put on the kettle, and then sitting down at my desk. I clock in with two writing friends, and then begin. I write for 30 minutes and when I'm finished, I clock out, recording my word count.

It is so simple, this advice to keep writing. But momentum is a powerful thing. The result has been that checking in daily with the fictional world gives it more opportunity to collide with my world throughout the day, giving me inspiration for the next morning.

And so I have kept writing.

I have kept writing in the sense that I have continued the action, and in the sense that I have held the thing itself. With no intention of letting it go.




*a woman so eerily aligned with your own self that she may have been born from the same star

** Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir