Tag: Cheryl Strayed

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living

Cover image for Scratch by Manjula Martin Edited by Manjula Martin

ISBN 978-1-5011-3457-9

“Writing for free looked like work. It felt like work. But it was the illusion of work, a fun house mirror reflection.” –Nina McLaughlin  

There are many books about writing as an art form. Library and book store shelves overflow with them. And there are some books about the business of writing, too, such as how to become a freelance writer, or find an agent. But the discussion of writing as an art form predominates, and discussing money remains a bit taboo. In a selection of essays and interview with writers from a variety of fields and at different stages of their careers, Manjula Martin aims to peel back the layers of polite obfuscation and create some transparency about the business and financial aspects of the American writer’s market. Divided into three sections, Scratch takes readers from the “Early Days” of trying to break into the industry, through the “Daily Grind,” of being a working writer, and on to that dreamed of “Someday” when the young writer has finally made it.

In reading this collection, I was struck by the varied and individual business and financial situations faced by the authors. For some writers, the pressure of having to support themselves and their families by writing was crushing. But that same pressure turned others into lean, mean, writing machines. In Malinda Lo’s words, “financial necessity can be extremely clarifying.” In her own contribution to the collection, “The Best Work in Literature,” Manjula Martin writes about how all her non-writing jobs have contributed to her work as a writer. As she puts it, “all this unwriterly work was what allowed me to understand that people and experiences other than mine exist.” On the flip side, in her essay “The Insider,” Kate McKean chronicles how building her career as a literary agent sapped most of her energy for many years, taking her away from her original dream of being a writer. With thirty-three authors included in the collection, Scratch can encompass quite a wide range of the experiences of American writers.

One of the stand-out pieces in the book is “Faith, Hope, and Credit,” featuring a conversation with Cheryl Strayed. Incidentally, it was the online excerpt of this piece that first drew my attention to Scratch. In it, Strayed and Martin discuss what a $100 000 advance ends up looking like in real life, after it is taxed, after the agent takes a portion, and then paid out in four installments. Suddenly $100 000 doesn’t seem like that much money anymore, when parceled out over several years. And even while Wild was hitting and staying on the best seller list, Strayed’s rent check bounced during her promotional tour, because she was just that broke. Wild would eventually make Strayed very comfortable, but when it first became successful, Strayed had already spent the advance paying off the bills she incurred writing the book, but the royalties hadn’t started to come in yet. It is a good reminder that a writer’s financial situation is not always evident from the outside.

Of course, being paid to write can become a sort of insatiable obsession, as documented by Rachel Maddux in her essay “On Staying Hungry.” Many aspiring writers would define having made it as the point where you can live on your writing, but as Maddux points out, the goal posts are always moving. On the experience of finally landing her first cover story, she writes, “I expected to experience a sort of transcendent satisfaction, or at least some palpable sense of leveling up. Instead, my stomach just grumbled, my appetite already recalibrating.” As Alexander Chee puts it in his piece, “there is no ‘made it’ point. There is only ever the making of work.” And there is always more work you could be doing, or chasing. There is always another next level.

The business of becoming a working writer isn’t an easy one, as new writers try to navigate the world of agents, advances, publishing houses, and freelancing. Any agent or editor seems like a good choice for a hungry, unpublished writer, but there are several horror stories and cautionary tales in Scratch about the fatality of the wrong fit. In “Five Years in the Wilderness,” Cari Luna writes about landing an agent for her first novel, which they were ultimately unable to sell. When Luna wrote her second novel, entirely different from the first, her agent didn’t feel that she could represent it, and they parted ways. At the time, this was a crushing blow, but in retrospect, Luna writes, “I see now that it was a very kind thing for my first agent to do, to recognize we weren’t a good editorial fit and set me free. Because I never would have walked away on my own.” Still more sobering is Kiese Laymon’s account of being jerked around by his editor for four years, destroying his health in the process.

Scratch is obviously most useful for, and aimed at, writers, but the main message of transparency and information sharing can be extrapolated to other creative professions. And folks in professions related to writing, such as librarians and book sellers, can definitely benefit from a better understanding of how writers are—or aren’t—being paid. The focus is on traditional revenue streams—publishing houses, magazines, teaching gigs, and speaking tours—but Kickstarter is mentioned in Laura Goode’s piece about funding the independent film she wrote. Self-publishing goes largely unaddressed. Overall, Scratch provides a good idea of the basics of the business of traditional American publishing as it stands today.

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Page to Screen: Wild

Movie tie-in cover for Wild by Cheryl Strayedby Cheryl Strayed

Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée

ISBN 978-0-307-59273-6

“I had to change. I had to change was the thought that drove me in those months of planning. Not into a different person, but back into the person I used to be – strong and responsible, clear-eyed and driven, ethical and good. And the PCT would make me that way.”

In 1995, at the age of twenty-six, Cheryl Strayed had managed to turn her life upside down. After her mother’s early death from cancer when Strayed was twenty-two, her family fell apart, she got divorced from the man she had married when she was only nineteen, and she was regularly doing heroin with a new boyfriend in Portland, leading to an accidental pregnancy. In an effort to get her life back on track, Strayed decided, almost on a whim, to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2650 mile path that stretches from Mexico to Canada. Her trip began in Mojave, California, and ended in Cascade Locks on the Oregon/Washington border, bypassing the Sierra Nevada Mountains in the middle section, a distance of about 1100 miles.

Strayed devotes a few chapters at the beginning of the book to her childhood and the events that led her to the trail, but she largely avoids falling into the trap of front-loading her back story. Instead, much of it is dispersed throughout the book, coming up at relevant moments in her ruminations along the trail. While we find out in the beginning that she fell out with her step-father after her mother’s death, we don’t find out why until about halfway through the book. This means that we get to the meat of hike and the PCT experience more quickly than in many memoirs.

Jean-Marc Vallée’s film adaptation takes this structure even farther, relegating almost the entire backstory to flashbacks while Strayed (played by Reese Witherspoon) is on the trail. A large portion of the film’s runtime consists of these memories, along with a generous helping of voice-over. Vallée also resequences and consolidates events and characters, and omits others entirely. Strayed’s step-father and sister are among those who have been deleted from the story, along with a large number of the other hikers. Major incidents are consolidated for added drama, while several minor characters are combined in the guise of Ed the trail angel. Other items, such as Strayed’s famous Bob Marley t-shirt, appear in the film merely as a nod to the book, without surrounding context or events. However, most of these changes have relatively little impact on the story.

Strayed went into her trip woefully unprepared, a fact that begins to become clear to her from her first day on the trail, and which only grows more apparent from there as she struggles to carry a pack she can barely lift. As she gains some experience, she does wise up a little bit, opting to bypass the snowed-in Sierra Nevada Mountains. The book strikes a decent balance between cautionary tale and inspiration; Strayed doesn’t undersell the importance of the experience she had on the PCT, but she also readily admits to the situations where her lack of knowledge and preparation could have cost her life. Hopefully those who are inspired by her trip will take her mishaps as a cue to be better prepared themselves.

Overall, both the book and the film it inspired are much more about Strayed’s personal journey than the hike itself, and Wild certainly doesn’t purport to be any kind of guidebook, for all the mimicry it has spawned. We see this reflected in the film’s understated cinematography, which spends much of its screen time on Reese Witherspoon, and lavishes relatively little attention on the dramatic landscapes of the trail. The most recurring feature of the natural landscape is the fox that represents Strayed’s deceased mother. Unfortunately this conceit, which is touching in its single appearance in the book, is overdone in the film. The movie similarly manages to stamp the life out of other powerful and affecting scenes, most notably the death of her mother’s horse in a flashback.

Though much has been made of Strayed’s recklessness as a solitary hiker, far from being in danger most of the time, other hikers on the PCT readily helped one another out, and as a woman alone Strayed actually found that she experienced more kindness from strangers who were worried about her. This comes through clearly even in the film, where several such events are omitted. Most (but not all) of the dangers came from the trail itself (snakes, bears, rough terrain, snow) or her own lack of preparation (not carrying enough water, buying boots a size too small) rather than other people. Strayed’s account of her trip is actually a great testament to the sense of community that has grown up amongst PCT hikers, and those who live and work at the outposts along the trail. Strayed is a strong writer who can evoke both the day-to-day grind of trying to walk up to twenty miles under a heavy load, and also the charm and magic of the culture than surrounds this undertaking.

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