Baxter Arena was half-full on the evening of Thursday, April 27, as young and old alike mingled with popcorn in hand and smooth jazz seesawing with acoustic music in the background. The casual conversation and whispers of music stopped in their tracks when the lights dimmed and a blond woman in all black stepped on stage. Cheryl Strayed had arrived.
After a quick introduction from both University of Nebraska at Omaha Chancellor John Christensen and College of Fine Arts and Media Dean Gail F. Baker, Strayed emerged to tell her life story and offer words of wisdom and support.
Strayed is best known for her book “Wild” and came to Omaha to speak for the second annual Marion Marsh Brown Writers Lecture Series.
Paul and Djel Ann Brown created this lecture series to honor the legacy of their mother, author and teacher Marion Marsh Brown. As part of Strayed’s visit, she agreed to give a keynote address, as well as work alongside a Master’s Class in the English department.
Writer’s Workshop professor Anna Monardo welcomed Strayed to her class the afternoon before Strayed’s lecture. The class had been reading “Wild” and studied various structures and points of view to prepare for this discussion and had been anticipating the event for months, Monardo said.
“They [professional writers] have a huge impact in that they are living, breathing proof that it is possible to live in the world as a published writer,” Monardo said. “When visiting writers tell their story, it usually involves a childhood in which they loved to read, or listen to stories, or spend summer days in an air-conditioned public library. The students recognize themselves in these stories. From that point of connection, the students are more willing to believe they’re capable of the trial-and-error labors that each visiting writer inevitably tells about. The visitor writers model the importance of following one’s passion while at the same time making it clear that there’s no way around the hard work.”
In fact, hard work is Strayed’s motif. “Wild” is a memoir of her journey through the Pacific Crest Trail in the 1990s, a physical and spiritual endeavor that she cites as the main factor in her healing process after the death of her mother. Aside from this book, she worked as an advice columnist, “Dear Sugar,” and published a book of her best columns, essays and quotes.
In her lecture, Strayed recapped a lot of her life’s journey, but in doing so, provided a window into a group advice column, intimately lined with laughter and levity among all in attendance.
Strayed grew up with an abusive father who left her family picking up the scraps for the rest of her life. She and her mother attended college together, and in the last half of her senior year, her mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. She was given about a year to live, but seven weeks later during Spring Break, she died.
“My mom covered the father wound I had for my entire life,” Strayed said in her lecture. “When she died, it opened me up in every way imaginable.”
She turned to drug abuse and an unhealthy relationship to bring her pain deeper, but ultimately realized it wasn’t the answer to her grief. One day, while she was in a hardware store purchasing a shovel, she stumbled upon a book depicting the Pacific Crest Trail and immediately felt drawn to it.
Thus, “Wild” was born. Strayed did not write during her expedition and, during this hike, did not see another human for eight days. Before she even got on the trail, she could hardly lift her pack filled with supplies and survival gear, but Strayed was determined.
“You must bear what you cannot bear,” Strayed said. “Sometimes this is on a small scale, like your first break-up, and sometimes you must carry your pack for your entire life.”
Strayed vowed to herself on her 1,100 mile trek that she would take another step, no matter how much it hurt. This lesson was the underlying truth to her address, and her words created a hush that lulled Baxter Arena’s audience into complete understanding.
“This is not a how-to book,” Strayed said. “This is an I-can’t-believe-I-did-this book.”
The audience chuckled in response, but Strayed still seemed shocked by her life story; especially the part where Oprah Winfrey called her up during her book tour to restart Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. The launch of this program came directly after Oprah read “Wild” and wanted to further the book’s reach across the globe.
No matter the notoriety, though, Strayed stayed true to her authentic self. Although her best friend list includes Oprah, Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, she closed her lecture telling an anecdote about her children.
Strayed proved that her strength and bravery was not only defined in the toenails she lost in her hike, the interviews she has shared with Oprah or the money that continues to flow from her book sales, but in her writing.
“I don’t write for exposure,” Strayed said. “I write because I have a story to tell.”