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Into the ‘Wild’: Life lessons culled from experience

I am often inspired by how writers become successful. Some authors create an experience out of their imaginations and try to write about it in such a way that it seems real. We call that fiction. And then there are authors like Cheryl Strayed. She had the experience first, and gave it language after the fact as a nonfiction memoir. It is storytelling all the same, but when written from a place of inner truth, we can often glean life lessons that may elude us in pure fiction.

Strayed, author of “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” (Knopf, 2012), is not an overnight success. Unlike some of her noteworthy contemporaries who found literary success almost accidently while self-actualizing, she has been working as a writer for much of her adult life.

Her first novel, “Torch” (Mariner Books, 2007), was considered successful, but not wildly so. She also worked anonymously and without pay as a popular advice columnist for an online site called The Rumpus under the code name “Sugar.” Strayed, now 40-something, is finally enjoying literary notoriety for an experience she had when she was 20-something. “Wild” is currently No. 1 on Bay Area nonfiction best-sellers list.

The fact that she survived her life-changing hike in the woods as chronicled in “Wild” is a miracle to most people. Her readers are deeply afraid for her from the outset, but according to Strayed in an online interview: “I was much more afraid for myself before the hike.”

Isn’t it interesting how we perceive where danger lies – both within ourselves and in the outside world? Her danger was not as great in the woods as it was in her heart and mind. She needed physical fear and suffering to ultimately contend with her internal suffering.

At the heart of her story is mother-love. She had been loved really well by her (mostly) single mom, who died of cancer during Strayed’s college years. The loss of that love (along with a tumble of unfortunate events precipitated by her mother’s death) caused her to come apart. She was grieving not so much for how she loved her mother, but for how her mother loved her. Much to ponder there.

“Strayed” is not the name she was born with – she changed her last name after her divorce. When interviewed for an online book site, she said: “I love my name. Taking my own name was symbolic of my desire to build my own life, to create my own sense of family, to make a home inside of myself. I feel deeply connected to the word ‘strayed.’ It is my heritage.”

I really like the idea of picking our own name at some point in our life – once we’ve figured out who we are and how we would like to be known. Too bad for me that “Her Royal Highness” is already taken. I guess you could say that I was well loved by my dear mother – surely more than I deserved, but thankfully not more than I could comfortably withstand. I’m just saying … dark woods, heavy backpacks and unattractive hiking shoes really scare me.

Sharon Lennox-Infante, contributing editor for Book Buzz, is a Los Altos resident.

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