Tag: Cheryl Strayed

Starting with a Song: Big Dipper

I’m going to try something new today, I will start with a song and see where it leads me. My goal will be to get back to the song by the end of my rambling. I will not edit or make corrections while composing. So here it goes…

Cracker’s song Big Dipper is a song I have been listening to a lot lately. It is my favorite Cracker song of all time, for right now. There is a melancholy aspect to it that I really like, the primary instrument is a piano, but there seems to be a slide guitar hiding in the background giving the whole song a very strange sound. The song turns at one point and John Hickman (lead singer) sings about a brother of Jack Kerouac calling him a lucky bastard.

Now Kerouac isn’t someone who I would call a lucky bastard. The leader of the Beat Generations road novels doesn’t seem that lucky to me. I have been reading Dharma Bums lately. I haven’t formed any real opinions about whether I really like the novel or not, but I have been a big fan of Gary Snyder‘s poetry for a long time. Snyder is portrayed by Kerouac in the novel as a small Dharma Bum who takes him on a long hike to the top of a mountain. I do believe that Snyder is probably like the man portrayed in the novel, but I like Snyder’s poetry better than I like his portrayal in the novel. If that makes sense. Snyder’s poetry has just the right amount of rebellion and nature for me.

I wrote a letter to Snyder at one point in my life. I never sent the letter. I am not one for too many overt hero worshipping moments, but I thought poets probably don’t get many fan letters. I knew that Snyder was teaching poetry at Cal Davis and that he lived in the mountains in a stone house he built himself. I don’t know if the whole house was made of stone, but that is how I imaged the house. Like a cave, but cool and with a dinning room table and windows. I guess that says more about who I am than Snyder, but I never sent the letter.

Two years ago, when I was taking a writing class from Pam Houston, who also teaches at Cal Davis, I asked her if she ever met Snyder. She had, and then I did a weird bit of creepy hero worshipping. I guess telling one writer how much you like another writer is like telling a girl how beautiful her friend is. But like most men, I only know how stupid I am being about four hours later. Anyway, Houston did say that Snyder was a nice man, but he was no longer teaching. I don’t know why I was disappointed, it isn’t like I was going to fly down to Davis to take a class, but I was sad to think that he might be holed up in his stone house drinking tea and making ax handles.

This year I went to see Pam Houston and Cheryl Strayed do a reading in Port Angeles, Washington. Houston is one of those writers who is great to see read. Her sense of humor and condensed stories make her material perfect for a reading. She charmed the packed audience and sold out her latest novel, Contents May Have Shifted, at the reading. Each of her 144 stories has an element of humor, but what I liked best about the novel is the puzzle quality of the stories, they fit together and tell a story, but it is not a traditional novel built on a plot. The one thing I thought was really interesting was that Houston read before Strayed. Houston was the more established writer, but Strayed’s novel Wild was the New York Times best seller at the time.

When Strayed read she was as warm and caring as I expected. Having a novel take off and become a best seller is probably a mind bending experience, but Strayed did not put on airs. She talked for a little bit, read from Wild and then took out a book that she had just released, Dear Sugar. The Dear Sugar book is a collection from her online advice column. She said that she started the column with the focus of “radical empathy.” I bought the book that evening and have been reading a letter a day since then, the letters a often heart wrenching and sad, but Strayed’s advice is so insightful and wise it is hard to believe that she isn’t sitting atop a mountain in the Himalayas. There are times she takes her writers over her metaphoric knee and gives them a good spanking, but most often she deals with the brokenness of the human condition with such compassion that it gets me a bit weepy. (Yeah, I am a crybaby, so what.)

When I had Strayed sign my copy of Wild I told her I only cried twice while reading the book. She guessed that I cried about the horse, which wasn’t the case, not a huge horse fan, but I told her that the part about Crater Lake really got me. If you haven’t read the book, I won’t give it away, but it is a beautiful metaphor for turning life’s challenges into something wondrous.

Which brings me back to where I started, Big Dipper. What I like best about Cracker is the skillfully written lyrics. Hickman, in my opinion, is one of the great song writers of today. I first fell in love with his songs back when he was leading Camper Van Beethoven. When I Win the Lottery is still one of the best songs ever written. Big Dipper is wonderful because the song is so personal. Is he really sitting on a cafe steps watching all the girls walk by? Is he really in love with a girl who is in love with someone else? I don’t know where the song is set, but I picture it being Berkley. The same Berkley where the Dharma Bums live and where it is a short day trip to the mountains where you can see Monterey and think about San Jose even though it isn’t that pleasant.

A Weekend in Oz


Seatac is not really part of the Emerald City, but the bastard child of Tacoma and Seattle has its own charm: aging hotels, tourists waiting for another flight, and parking garages. Seatac was home this weekend to the Pacific Northwest Writers Association annual conference and because I wanted to eat unhealthy food, sit without moving for hours and hours, and get nervous to the point of hyperventilation, I went.

The Prep: Before attending the conference I did what every writer should do before packing your bags, I googled “what should I bring to a writing conference.” The information  I gathered from google was valuable because it sent me into a tither of useless activity: making a one sheet (which turned out to be something no one wanted), trying for hours to make business cards (pay someone to do this unless you are Steve Jobs, but if you want to look like a modern-day Jethro Bodine do it yourself), and getting an author headshot taken for my one sheet (have your daughter/son/husband/wife/tripod do this because no one will want to see it anyway.) Then I packed my bags and headed off to Seatac.

Day One: I arrived early enough to pick up my registration information and then hopped into line with 400 of my closest friends. We were waiting to sign-up for agent pitch sessions. There were going to be five total sessions ( A,B,C,D,E) and I targeted “B” as the session that was best for me. In retrospect, most of the sessions were probably equal, but as I stood in line with the other writers I became more and more nervous. Many of these people had been to the conference multiple times and had an elaborate strategy for maximizing their pitches. If I were 12 years old, I probably would have started crying, but now that I am as old as the trees, I realize that sometimes these people who sound the most prepared are, in fact, not prepared at all. After waiting for 45 minutes, I was able to get my preferred session and then I went to the rooms where authors were practicing their pitches–What is a pitch? I really don’t know if there is a Webster’s answer for this one, but I would say that a pitch is your book with all the water boiled out of it. Can you summarize your novel in two sentences? How about 30 seconds? Is it memorized?–I sat down at a table with six other writers and we soon found out that five of us were unprepared for the gauntlet of book pitching. How did we find out? Well, there was a writer at our table who was an expert. How did we find out she was an expert? Because she talked the most and had the most opinions. I left the table. If I wanted to hear how stupid I was I could just listen to the soundtrack in my head. The rest of the day was pretty much a blur. My anxiety increased as the day went on and I could not memorize my pitch, I could not boil all my ideas down, and I heaped as much self-loathing into the crucible of my blackened heart as I could. Pitch session “B” was the next day at 4 PM, I went back to my hotel room and began reading Cheryl Strayed‘s new book Tiny Beautiful Things. Strayed’s book Wild is great, but this book (Tiny Beautiful Things) moved me like not too many things I have read in my life. If you want insight into the cruelties of human life and responses to those cruelties that can only be described as radical empathy, then you must read this book.

Tomorrow: The Pitch Sessions


%d bloggers like this: