Short story from Doug Hawley

         Professor Haines On Strayed’s Wild

Prof. Haines – As announced previously, today’s lecture covers “How to get an interview or endorsement from Oprah”.  As you know an appearance with Oprah, or her endorsement can mean millions of book sales.

First is there anyone here who has not read the reading assignment “Wild”?  OK, you two can leave.  Don’t hurry back.

What gets Oprah to notice you?

            Sex – Enough said.

            Drugs – People want that vicarious thrill of watching a train wreck.

            Abuse – Builds sympathy.

            Tragedy – We are glad it happened to someone else.  We may feel real empathy.

            Spouses – Hate them, love them, we can all relate.

            Social status – We like the extremes of society.  Trailer trash and celebrities or the rich are exotic to most of us.

            Redemption – After all of the tragedy, we want a feel good come back.

            Good writing – Always helpful.

            Therapy – Scores well with the touchy-feely types.  It doesn’t hurt that Oprah is our therapist general and a huge segment of the population gets its guide to life from self help books, talk show hosts and columnists. 

Social media use – It is the 21st century.

Previous success – Always good.

Truth  – Check out the trouble that James Frey and Greg Mortenson got into with alleged fibs in their memoirs.

Supporting cast – No one operates in a vacuum.

Closure – Do we know how the author feels at the end of the story?  Are loose ends tied up?

Let us see how “Wild” scores on these points. 

Sex – Based on her Googled photos, Ms. Strayed is attractive, although she downplays her looks on the trail.  Her encounters with Joe, her Portland guy and heroin addict, and Jonathan the handsome man she met in Ashland are not graphic by current standards, but then if they were they would qualify her for the Penthouse Forum instead of Oprah.  She appears to be a sex positive feminist, who could turn off conservatives, but her descriptions probably appeal to most of the straight population and maybe some of the “other”.  Men can imagine they are among her no strings pickups.  Women can imagine that they are her having impersonal sex with her hot pickups, and later having a happy married life.

I give her a B for Sex.

Class – Why the paucity of writing about sex with Paul?  Mr. Henderson?

Mr. Henderson – Professor Haines, throughout literature, no one cares about married sex.

Prof. Haines – Good Answer.

If she had been having sex with family or animals and could not write, she would be Springer material.

Drugs – Heroin goes with the overall tenor of the story.  It is kind of a hipster drug and fits well with her sadness.  Meth and coke might be too serious and marijuana not serious enough.  The shot to the ankle just before her hike was a good touch.

I give her an A.

Question for the class – would her story have been better if she was addicted rather than a user.  Ms. Anderson?

Ms. Anderson – Professor Haines, I think that if she had been addicted, the PCT hike would not have made much sense.  How does she get her fix on the trail?

Prof Haines – Good point.

Abuse – Her father was despicable.  Certainly others have had worse abuse than her, but hers was bad enough.

Call it a B.  Move on.

Tragedy – A lot of bad things happened to her, but some have claimed using the new cliché that they were “first world problems”.  That seems harsh to me.  It wasn’t just one thing – her mother’s death was the worst, but then her family and marriage falls apart.  She is set adrift and adopts an extreme and unusual solution.

I give her an A minus.

Questions?  None, OK moving on.

Redemption – Thousands of people have hiked the PCT and other long trails.  Many people have achieved amazing journeys.  Most of us have huge losses in life and love.  So why does “Wild” work so well?  The key is in the subtitle “Lost and Found”.  We want to hear about those who have struggled and yet managed to triumph over their obstacles.  Her critics complain about her extreme sadness over what is not that unusual a situation.  They point out accurately that in some ways she was less organized for an eleven hundred mile hike than a normal hiker would before a ten mile hike.  She had not tested her shoes or pack before starting.  I could, in the cliché of our former president, feel her pain intensely.

As a sometimes backpacker, I’m surprised that she did not refer to the difficulty of dumping environmentally in the woods.  It may have too much ick factor to be mentioned, but she mentioned urination, menstruation, but not defecation.  Personally, tents have usually outsmarted me.

Given all that, would she have a best seller with only the loss part, or with only the found part?  I think not.  We have to keep in mind stories about perdition and redemption go back into the mists of history.  Think Ulysses.  He screws up big time, but is the hero at the end of the story.  Oprah laps up this stuff.

Solid A.

Ms. Creech – Professor, she did refer to the difficulty of shitting in the woods fairly early on in the book.  She mentioned how difficult it was to dig in the ground and how she almost fell into her own crap.

Professor Haynes – Good catch, sorry I forgot that passage.

Spouses – We don’t know much about either one from the book.  We can get info on the current husband from the internet, but not much from the book other than he was handsome and ready to give up promiscuity.

Usually in these types of books the author is dumped, keeps marrying the wrong person, or gets to trade up to a better model.  What happened here?  Throw out some ideas.

Ms. Grant – I wanted her to get back with Paul.  He was such an understanding guy.

Mr. Krasny  – I liked the charming bad boy Joe, but hanging with him could have cost her her life.  Whatever happened to him?

Ms. Fenton – I would have guessed that she would hook up with somebody from the trail after the hike.

Ms. Anderson – Without knowing more about Paul, I’d say she traded up.

Prof Haines – I’ll give her a C for spouse based on what little we know.

Social Status – Clearly she starts at the deprived end of the spectrum.  Her housing is rustic at best.  Finances are limited.  Of course if she had been a celebrity, no pain or achievement would be required to write a best seller.

Although not the worst of circumstances, I give her a B for social status.

What is the status of her life now?

Ms.  Shandon – With her current fame, money and semi-celebrity husband, any memoir based on her life post 2012 would have to be celebrity writing.  My God, according to her website she wrote on an island off Brazil and will be a part of a writer’s workshop in France.  She could, however, mine earlier times before the celebrity phase.

Good writing – She is a trained writer and a good one.  Her integration of the hike and the tragedy is very good.  The pain and the triumph both work.

Another A

Therapy – Her reference to therapy is very short.  We don’t know who performed it or when.  This snippet appears to underline her “male” approach to sex – she finds an attractive guy and gets it on.  Another thing we don’t know if her attitude changed after her mother died, or if that was always the way she was.

Make it a B, good relevance, but very limited.

Social media – Her website lists Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Tumbler. 

Let’s call it a B – she must be missing something.

Previous Success – Her popular novel “Torch”, which is clearly closely related to her nonfiction, was a natural setup for “Wild”.  At that time, she had no other full length books, so give her a B.

Truth – So far she has not been “Freyed”.  Note taker that is F-r-e-y-e-d, a reference to James Frey, not f-r-a-y-e-d or s-t-r-a-y-e-d.

No one has questioned any of the book and in fact it would be difficult to do so.  We don’t the real names of most of the people in the book outside the family and most events are undated.  The details which could be verified are incidental.  We can’t check on her abortion, various sex partners or heroin use, so even if she has lied we would not know.  Mr. Tyne?

Mr. Tyne – Sir, she said early in the book that her backpack “Monster” weighed half as much as she did.  In a later interview or FAQ, she said that she did not know what it weighed.  Then how could she know it weighed half as much as herself?

Prof. Haines – Good catch, I’ll give her a pass on a minor goof.  Make it an A.

Sidebar – She seems very insistent about condoms, but gets pregnant with Joe.  Ideas?  Ms. Shandon again.

Ms. Shandon – She got pregnant before the trail, so maybe she learned her lesson.

Prof Haines – Mr. Grant –

Mr. Grant – Given her loss and regret for her infidelity, maybe she was looking for pain or punishment?  Maybe it was the heroin clouded her judgment?  What do you think professor?

Prof. Haines – Either or both of you could be right.  If brain research has taught us anything, it is that our actions frequently can’t be rationally explained or understood.

Supporting Cast – This may be the weakest part of the book.  Even granting that it is her memoir, except for the family we don’t get to know anyone well.  We get few details about people that she meets on the trail.  Even the family, other than the mother, is very thinly described.

Other than being a saint, giving her all the space she needed and taking her away from heroin, and a flake, flipping between Ph.D. and guitar player – Paul is a cipher.  Did he favor the divorce, acquiesce, or appease Cheryl?  What happened to him in the twenty years after the divorce?

Lisa is a friend.  That’s about it.

As previously noted, Joe charmed her into sex and heroin.  That’s about all me know about out him.

Can’t give her better than a C

Sidebar – One thing that makes me a little happier about humanity is that none of the characters in her book have tried to leverage their closeness to celebrity to write their own tell all book.  We know that relatives of Joan Collins, Sylvester Stallone and so many others have exploited the fame of relatives.

Closure – She is found, she can go on with life.  She has become more her true self again than changed.  She forgives herself, but I’m not clear on how a hike does that, and what exactly she is forgiving herself for.  The abortion, infidelity, the inability to save her mother or her family?  Maybe the pain and single mindedness brings clarity.  Sometimes we can run away from our problems,

Call it a B.

Overall, a great Oprah Book.  Nothing below a C.  Most books get a number of incompletes.  An A overall despite some low individual scores.  

Postscript – The fame or notoriety of her story has inspired a tour company to sell coed “Divorce or Loss PCT Hikes” including porters, camp setups, happy hours and condoms and private tents for those that hit it off.  Prices to be announced depend on length of hike, but don’t expect them to be cheap. 

I hope that we have had some fun today and not taken it too seriously.  You will never get an Oprah endorsement, but you might shoot for a local rave.  Despite my disdain for Oprah and Oprah types, Oprah might be an actual human being behind the mega corporation façade, hard to tell.  If you can’t get an Oprah look, you can claim that your readers don’t want an “Oprah Book”.  It could help with the literary snobs.  I’m fairly certain that Cheryl Strayed had some reason for writing her book other than hanging out with the big O.

Another little postscript, I’m thinking about restarting the 50 mile walk craze that started when JFK was president.  I don’t intend to seriously prepare for it, at least not publicly.  I still  have to work on motivation, the deep underlying cause.  Coincidentally, I’m up for tenure.

Next class, “How to have your memoir turned into a movie”, same text.   Assignment is to take basic ingredients of “Wild” and turn it into a Rom-Com pitch with lots comedy, no tragedy and your ideal cast.

Any Questions?  Mr. Franklin?

Professor, to me this is just white people whining.  Is there any relevance to people of color?

First of all, do you have any idea what “people of color means”?  Is that just a catch phrase implying that people of non color are the oppressor class?  Are people from India of color?  Japanese?  Middle Eastern?  Or are people of color PC for colored people?  My rant is over now.

We can assume that Ms. Strayed’s family was all white based on the cover art.  Paul is probably white.  The race of Joe and Lisa are unknown.  If they were, say, black it might have been racist to mention it.  I will admit that the book in no way addresses race issues, but that was not what it set out to do, so I see no problem.

Anyway, to paraphrase Joe South, before you accuse or abuse her walk a few hundred miles in her ill fitting shoes.

We’re out of time, see you next class.

Professor Haines – I hope that you remember the assignment from our last class – Take the bones of “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed and come up with a Rom-Com pitch, soon to be a major motion picture.  Has a novel ever been turned into a minor motion picture?  Has a TV show ever been partially new?  Sorry, I got off track for a moment.

Somehow, you have to take the major elements of “Wild” and manufacture a story which is funny and the “right” people end up together.  So, you have to have a mother dying, a marriage breaking up, an 1100 mile trip on the PCT and “Cheryl” or whatever we call her in the Rom–Com happy at the end.

What do you have people?

Ms. Schoonover – First we emphasize the break up, downplay the mother.  This is a romance, not a tragedy.

Mr.  Sheen – I felt sorry for “Cheryl’s” husband “Paul”.  “Wild” says nothing about how he ended up.  What little we know of him from “Wild” he really tried to make “Cheryl” happy.  I think he could have corresponded with “Lisa”, “Cheryl’s” friend and after a long correspondence they discover that they have more in common than their concern for Cheryl.  He visits Portland, they end up in love.

Mr. Grayson – The trail is a problem in the original version.  We have to dial down on the things that go wrong and find the funny.  Let say she trips and falls on somebody’s crotch.  Maybe there is a mismatched couple on the trail that always fights, but always ends up making up in their tent at night.  A guy that drinks, and seems really slow, but ends up the fastest hiker?

Ms. Schoonover – One of her food deliveries ends up being paste instead of pasta?  She might meet some guys to get her out of her dilemma.

Professor – Who does she end up with?

Mr. Franklin – It can’t be the same guy she met after the hike.  That would violate the rule that you have to meet the boyfriend / husband early in the film.

Mr. James – If we wanted to lean towards a women’s channel movie we could enlarge the threat from the Bear hunters in “Wild”.  Maybe some handsome guy could have save her and lead up to a romance.

Mr. Sheen – I could see her hooking up with “Joe” the bad boy that introduced her to heroin.  In the original book, she hoped he got cured.  In the rom-com version they could stay together after he goes through the cure.

Ms. Steel – How about she gets a job waitressing in Portland and her trail stud Jonathan show up at the restaurant.  He turns out to be an executive from an outdoor wear company, they start to talk about her hiking equipment and romance blooms.


Ms. Reyes – Any pretty faces from some TV series.  Somebody from “Gossip Girl” or from one of those movies on the women’s channel.  They couldn’t afford anybody very expensive, because who wants to see “Wild” turned into a rom-com.

Professor Haines:  This isn’t real life; just pretend the movie was never made.

Mr. Tyne:  None of the younger actors have made any impression on me.  From watching Turner Classics, I’d go with a young version of Janet Leigh for the Cheryl roll and maybe a young version of Jack Lemmon for Paul.

Professor Haynes:  I see that our class time is only half over, but let’s get an early start on spring break.  See you in two weeks.

Appeared in Down In The Dirt