Finding My Way: A Conversation with Alden Jones




ALDEN JONES’S recently published The Wanting Was a Wilderness defies easy labeling, which — as rangy a writer as she is, author of award-winning titles across genre — should come as no surprise. Still, from the start, a person might wonder: What is this little gem of a book? Billed as a close examination of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, smart and personal and profound, no question The Wanting Was a Wilderness is the work of a devoted and thoughtful reader. It makes sense, too, that Jones, who teaches writing, would have considered the book as an example of craft. That being so, The Wanting is not only lit-crit, but also how-to — a kind of manual for writing a successful literary memoir. But Jones doesn’t just lay out the terms, she takes up the cause. Using Wild as a model, she revisits her own long-ago wilderness adventure as it informed her reckoning with self, sexuality, and coming of age. And that’s not all: in the way of the some of the best first-person narrative, Jones implicates and confides in the reader, strategically breaking the fourth wall in her effort to get to the truth of what happened and her reasons for writing. Her compound agenda resolves in a long-form essay that is intimate, instructive, and entertaining — all you might want from the genre — and yet early on Jones tells us it isn’t the book she set out to write. I asked her about that.

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DINAH LENNEY: So then what did you originally have in mind?

ALDEN JONES: My basic initial goal was to approach Wild as a critic, evaluating craft elements like persona and plot structure, and thematic elements like “wilderness as redemption” and “being a woman alone in the world,” and then to weave stories of my own wilderness expedition into the critique. But I knew early on that a simple back-and-forth structure wasn’t going to be enough to yield an interesting book. And I didn’t want it to feel like I was shoving my own experience in there; I needed a reason to juxtapose these two stories — my book had to become about something besides just Wild. (Much as Wild had to be about something more than just Cheryl Strayed’s hike.) So this raised an important question: how do you elevate your subject matter, to make it about something bigger, more universal? I wanted to address the question by using Strayed as an example (how did she do it?) and by performing it myself (now how am I going to do it?). I came to see The Wanting Was a Wilderness as a craft book that puts its own ideas of craft to the test.

But what I didn’t anticipate was the life upheaval — the divorce, with three very young kids — that came about halfway through the writing. Suddenly I recognized that the idea of being true to oneself, of living an authentic life — this imperative at the heart of my unhappiness in my marriage, of my teenage “wilderness,” of Wild, of Cheryl Strayed’s advice column “Dear Sugar,” of the craft of memoir writing — was the thematic vortex that held The Wanting Was a Wilderness together. At that point, I understood what The Wanting Was a Wilderness was about. Then, of course, I had to take the book apart and start again. But writing this book enabled me to live a better life. And living more authentically enabled me to tell the truest story that I could. 

Had you always intended to write a memoir about your wilderness experience?

I didn’t really want to write about that time in my life as nonfiction. At all! I’ve written a lot about adolescence in my fiction and of course have mined my own experience in some cases. I have worked with teenagers and college students my entire adult life and I find adolescent psychology endlessly engaging. But many embarrassments must be faced when looking back on one’s own youth. When I’d previously written about my Outward Bound experience as fiction, I’d invited the reader to laugh at my crew mates and at me, to be amused by our shortcomings. But why had it been so hard to write about the good parts of us? To be sincere? To express our love for each other? I realized how ungenerous I’d been when I’d recreated us in fiction. This time I tried to hold myself accountable for my actions while also demonstrating more sympathy for my younger self. It was not an easy process emotionally — there were things about that girl I’d rather not have owned up to — but this is something I believe all memoirists should do: choose the real truth over the easy truth.

Is that what you love about Wild? And did you fall in love with the book the first time you read it? Or was it rereading it that got you thinking about how well it works?

I took on this project before I had even read Wild! I first fell in love with one of Strayed’s earlier essays, “The Love of My Life,” which is masterly on a craft level, and also really got me in the gut, so I was sure I would enjoy Wild. But I held off reading the book when it first came out.

For any particular reason?

My reluctance to read it right away had something to do with revisiting my own wilderness experience; it had been so intense, and I knew reading Wild would cause me to relive it in all of its intensity. I also knew it would force me to consider whether I might be able to tell my own wilderness story as nonfiction, if it might in fact appeal to a reader who hadn’t been there — something that had always seemed impossible, but Wild’s existence proved it could be done. So when Fiction Advocate approached me to write a book for their Afterwords series, and I saw Wild on the list of books they were interested in, I chose it instantly, knowing that I’d have to confront my past and figure out how to write about it.

But as much as Wild inspired you, your story is very different from Strayed’s, isn’t it? Talk about how these encounters are the same and how they are not.

The most important difference was that Strayed’s experience on the Pacific Crest Trail was a solo expedition that she planned herself, whereas mine, an 85-day Outward Bound course, was designed by educators. Self-reliance was something Strayed had to confront every minute on the trail, but I was part of a group of 14; on a practical level I was almost always supported by others. When I panicked and hyperventilated, or fell and gave myself a black eye, or worried I couldn’t go on, or burned myself while cooking, there was always someone there to help me. As a result, I’d say the self-reliance Strayed achieved by the end of her journey far surpassed what I achieved by the end of mine. My primary struggles involved the people around me: 85 days in the wilderness with the same 13 people and no escape! There were secret romances, and shifting alliances, and teary fights … so much drama. I was falling for a girl, grappling with my identity, and generally trying to understand who I was in relation to others. But like Strayed, I was trying to become the person I wanted to be through an isolated, intensely physical experience.

The person you wanted to be. That figures into your title, doesn’t it?

“The wanting was a wilderness” is a fragment from Wild. The full line reads: “The wanting was a wilderness and I had to find my own way out of the woods.” This line reflects that the supposed subject of Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, was not the book’s primary subject matter; Strayed’s inability to find peace after the death of her mother is the real “wilderness,” and she merges her two struggles, the literal hike and the unmanageable grief, in this line. At the same time that it captures the spirit of Wild, I felt this line very much applied to my own literal and internal wilderness journey, and also to the journey of writing this book. I wanted to understand the mechanics of Wild, and I also wanted to better understand the meaning of my own wilderness journey through writing about Wild. And I was going to have to write myself through and out of the woods in order to find the answers to my questions. When I came to this line in a rereading of Wild, as I was beginning to gather my thoughts, it was like, boom, that’s it — the phrase that carries all of that weight at once. And it gives a firm nod to Wild, as my book’s title should.

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Dinah Lenney serves as an editor-at-large for LARB. Her latest book is Coffee (Bloomsbury, 2020).

 

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