Memoir and Indescribable Magic: An Interview with Alden Jones
April 19, 2021 § 4 Comments
In The Wanting Was a Wilderness (Fiction Advocate, 2020), Alden Jones blends literary analysis, craft essay, and memoir to create a thoughtful, distinctive examination of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Alex Marzano-Lesnevich terms Jones’ compelling hybrid “a beautiful, lyric, unexpected book about the power of memoir.” Morgan Baker interviewed Jones recently for the Brevity blog, exploring issues of honesty, self-awareness, “likeability,” persona, and how to determine a memoir’s structure.
Morgan Baker: Fiction Advocate asked you to write a critique of a “contemporary classic” and you chose Wild—before you’d read it—because its topic resonated with you, given your own experience in the wilderness. Did you worry, once you’d taken the assignment, about liking the book or the writer?
Alden Jones: I knew I would connect with Wild. That was part of why I’d put off reading it in the first place. When I was nineteen, I spent 85 days in the wilderness in a group of twelve people. We hiked, climbed, caved, and canoed in North Carolina, Tennessee, and Florida, and spent a month in Mexico, where we ultimately climbed the 17,400-foot volcano Iztaccíhuatl. It was an incredibly fertile and fluctuating time emotionally. I experienced some immense changes during that time, and it has remained a touchstone experience for all these years. So, when I first saw that powerfully familiar hiking boot on the cover of a memoir about hiking, I was knocked back with nostalgia. I knew that once I opened the book and entered the story I’d be shunted right back into that time and my young, chaotic mind.
But I wasn’t concerned with “liking” or “not liking” the book or the writer. Strayed’s essay “The Love of My Life” has long been one of my favorite essays to teach, and from that and other essays she published prior to Wild. I already admired Strayed’s voice, specifically her crystalline articulation of grief and her controlled persona. I was curious about what Wild could teach me about writing the wilderness narrative, and what had made Wild such a powerful story to both those who cared about hiking and those who did not. The primary interest was craft.
MB: Has your feeling for “Love of my Life” changed since reading Wild?
AJ: Like all long-haul creative writing teachers, I have a stable of short works I teach over and over because they isolate or showcase different elements of craft: Denis Johnson’s “Emergency” for dialogue and chronology; Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” for second person and style; ZZ Packer’s “Brownies” for traditional plotting; Robert Hass’s “A Story about the Body” for efficiency; and Strayed’s “The Love of My Life,” which I consider a master class in dual persona. Strayed divides her persona into the young, promiscuous, heroin-using wreck she was after her mother’s death and the wise teacher of life she became later on in life. By moving back and forth in perspective this way, Strayed manages to be forthcoming about what she considers her “bad” behavior in her early 20s, and articulate the pain that fueled it, with utter control. It’s a powerful example of a memoirist owning their past self and reveals that honesty and self-awareness—rather than immaculate behavior—determine a memoir persona’s so-called likeability. This persona carries over into Wild, though it is a softer iteration of the persona in her earlier essays.
MB: What advice do you have for writers working on structure?
AJ: My first creative writing workshops were as an undergraduate at Brown University, where the dominant sentiment was Down With Tradition in all its forms. Which meant that during my formative years as a writer I didn’t even understand that a story or essay was supposed to have “a structure” or what traditional structure might look like. And I was always reading crazy shit. I think this was actually a pretty good way to learn how to write—I’d been relying on intuition for so long that when I finally arrived in a classroom with a teacher who believed in teaching the so-called backwards checkmark model I was like, “Oh! I see. I am supposed to organize all this information and language I’ve collected.” Maybe this is why I don’t teach craft books very often, even though The Wanting Was a Wilderness itself is a craft book of sorts—I think they are great for supplementing the knowledge you earn by writing and reading, but not necessarily what I’d recommend as a starting point for someone interested in learning the conventions of structure. You should start by reading in the genre in which you are writing—a lot.
Of course there have been some game-changer craft books, and one of them is Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story. I would recommend paying very close attention to her advice—locate your persona, your situation, and your story—for a memoirist looking for their container.
MB: What were the stakes when you started this book? What did you want to figure out when you realized you were writing more than a critique?
AJ: The stakes for this book could have been low, because it was an assignment: I was tasked with writing a critical response to Wild, and there are certain direct and easily fulfilled expectations that come with literary criticism. But Fiction Advocate also expects its Afterwords authors to engage with texts in “surprising ways,” and that was where the bigger stakes were located: What was I going to do with this book beyond simply saying what worked about Wild and what didn’t, and how was I going to surprise my reader—and myself? What did I have to say about Wild that no one else had said before? I had to identify for myself my bigger-picture question, which was to articulate the elements of memoir writing that, when executed well, seem like indescribable magic. What if I tried to decipher one writer’s magical-seeming techniques and then use them to build my own? What if I twisted those narrative lines together: her wilderness story; my wilderness story; and commentary on memoir craft? Then the stakes got juicy.
Honestly, I was on the edge of my seat for a great deal of the writing process, wondering how I was going to pull it off, knowing that I could, because I would have to, but not knowing how I would until literally the last page.
MB: Can you talk about what you mean when you write that Cheryl and you in your respective hiking and writing journeys were seeking to be more authentic people? What were you before? Your story “Flee” was written as fiction. Do you think you could be more authentic in nonfiction?
AJ: I don’t think it was an issue of genre that this attempt was more successfully authentic than my earlier attempts, but rather of having more time and space to unravel the meaning of my wilderness journey. I wrote the story “Flee” when I was much closer to the experience of being on the trail, and The Wanting Was a Wilderness was written over twenty years after the events. Even at the time I declared “Flee” “finished” I knew I wasn’t at all finished with this material, that I had so much more to explore narratively and figure out emotionally. When I returned to the material with the intent to capture it truthfully, I began to understand how, in fictionalizing my experience, I had flattened it into self-mockery—emphasizing all of our most immature, most dramatic behavior—with the intent of maximizing ironic tension and humor. This time, I wanted to tell my story as wholly, as abundantly, as truthfully as possible. That meant ongoing self-interrogation before and during the writing process. I wrote this book in part to learn what I truly felt at the time, and to tell the truth of what my wilderness experience meant to me. Of course I had hoped to become closer to my best self by doing that really hard physical thing. But I found there was no way to end the story itself with the end of my 85-day journey, because the truth was I was closer to being myself at the end of that expedition, but I still had a long way to go. I had to push the narrative out much further into the future in order to locate that authentic sense of resolution.
MB: Strayed has read your book and you met her in a virtual book launch. What was that like? What surprised you? What was the best part?
AJ: As you can imagine, it was an amazing way to launch this book! Cheryl knew I was writing the book, and she graciously answered some questions via email along the way, but I didn’t want to hound her and mostly kept my distance while writing. She agreed to do an online event with me hosted by the Center for Fiction—a personal silver lining to the pandemic, since a live event would have been unlikely given the 3,000 miles between our cities. I spent 4 years thinking about Wild and of course the entire time I wondered if my analysis would “get” the intentions and the magic of Wild in the opinion of its author. When The Wanting Was a Wilderness came out I sent Cheryl a copy with a note, and didn’t hear from her except to say yes to the Center for Fiction event, though she tweeted about my book a few times, so I knew she at least didn’t hate it. I was dying, but it turned out she was too—she said when it arrived in the mail she let it sit there haunting her, wondering what could possibly be in there. The day before the event she sent me an email that began, “Just so you know…I LOVE YOUR BOOK.” I’d had to pretend to myself that I didn’t care what she’d think in order to write the book without allowing that to influence the process, but I think that was the moment with the biggest whoosh. The ultimate conversation truly felt like a celebration of everything—her book, my book, our journeys in the wilderness, and writing the truth.
Morgan Baker lives in Cambridge, MA. She teaches at Emerson College and is the managing editor of thebucket.com. Her work has been published (or is forthcoming) in Thebark.com, The Boston Globe Magazine, The Brevity Blog, Cognoscenti, Talking Writing, Under the Gum Tree, The New York Times Magazine (as M. Baker), Motherwell, and thebucket.com, among others. She is at work on a memoir about the year she lived in Hawaii.
Very interesting! I look forward to reading your book. Curious about the backwards checkmark model? What is that?
Thanks for this enlightening piece. My intro to Alden’s book was that Center for Fiction conversation between her and Cheryl. It was fun to read Alden’s book after that. It’s good to hear her voice again, in this discussion with Morgan.
Great interview and I look forward to reading Alden’s book now. I appreciate the specific mentions of essays she uses in teaching. On the other hand, I wrote notes everywhere in my copy of The Situation and the Story, but haven’t gone back to them. I’d love to know how others keep track of the advice.
What a good interview. I look forward to reading Jones’ work, and more of Baker’s too.