Monday, June 29, 2015

leaving--a theme for writing fiction

Gaelwriter, 1990, on wilderness hike
in Sweetwater Mountains, CA
One of the universal themes in fiction writing is "leaving." Our main character has been left by another, or he/she has left someone else.  The event, whether it be a death, divorce, abandonment, or dismissal, typically sets off a powerful series of predictable emotional grief stages, which might be exploited by the writer in plotting an arc for a novel.  These stages are variously described in the literature (esp. E. Kubler-Ross's On Death and Dying) as including denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  Some studies have suggested adding a couple more stages, but Kubler-Ross' basic five will do for our discussion.

A recently published book, Wild, by Cheryl Strayed, provides a vivid example of writing a story with a theme of leaving (Wild is actually a memoir).  Like her mom, somewhat independent and venturesome as a young woman, and strongly attached to her mother, Cheryl is stunned when her still early-forties mom is diagnosed with inoperable cancer. At the time, the mom, with her second husband, and Cheryl, and two younger siblings are living in comfortable but spartan, homestead-like conditions in a wooded area of Minnesota.  

There is the first stage of the leaving theme, where Cheryl angrily denies the likelihood of her mother dying, and vents her anger toward the medical staff, as well as toward her siblings, for failing to meet her expectations to support their mother.  Then, as things look very bleak, the inevitable bargaining with God, and more anger when it seems God will not respond.  A sort of depression follows the mom's death, as Cheryl, married just a couple of years earlier at nineteen, plummets into a long period of risky and sordid behavior, involving random, extra-marital sex, drinking, and drugs.  She was determined to ruin her own marriage, and does, and goes on to wallow in depression.  During her spiral down, she happens to read a guide book for hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, a very long trail that traverses desert and mountains across California, Oregon, and Washington, to Canada.  Although never having done anything like this trek, she's had a very woodsy upbringing, and feels this could be a sort of redemptive journey for herself.

From the very beginning, when she starts out alone and with a backpack she can barely lift, at first hiking only six or seven miles a day, she has some mesmerizing adventures and encounters on her epic three months, eleven-hundred mile long journey along that part of the PCT reaching from the Mojave Desert in California to the Bridge of the Gods at the Washington state border.   Refusing to quit through all the adversities and fearful encounters along the PCT, Cheryl succeeds in finding her way through her final stages of grief following her mother's departure--to a genuine acceptance of herself.

A really engrossing, well-written memoir.  Reminded me a bit, just a bit, of my own, much shorter wilderness hiikes, though mine also had a strenuous element of total fasting, just water during a special, four-day "Vision Quest" segment on each of those trips.  The three trips, all in California wilderness areas, included Sweetwater Mountains, Inyo Mountains, and Death Valley.  The photo above harkens back more years than one remembers easily.

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