Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Writers at Soapstone: Cheryl Strayed

For Cheryl Strayed, a residency at Soapstone allowed her the simplest of things, and what she most needed—time. “Something happens at Soapstone that can’t happen in real life—a total immersion into my work.”

For one week in October 2008 and another week in February 2009, Cheryl worked on getting the first half of her new book, Wild, a memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail after her mother's death, ready to be sent out to publishers. A writer and mother of two children, ages 3 and 5, Cheryl said, “It’s often difficult to focus and work, so I deeply appreciated and utilized my time at Soapstone.” The timing of her residency couldn’t have been better, and her work at Soapstone paid off. Cheryl sold her memoir in May; it will be published by Knopf in 2010.

Cheryl Strayed's debut novel, Torch, was published by Houghton Mifflin in 2006, and her personal essays have appeared in several magazines, including the New York Times Magazine and the Washington Post Magazine, and twice have been selected for inclusion in Best American Essays. Over the past two decades, Cheryl’s had many residencies, but Soapstone was special for two big reasons. First, she says, Soapstone "is a world created by women writers for women writers—I feel that giving and strong spirit when I'm there." Second, Soapstone was the first residency Cheryl's had since becoming a mother five years ago. The week-long shorter residencies, a rare thing, allowed her to get an incredible amount of work done without being away from her family for long periods of time. "Each week I have spent in residency at Soapstone has equaled triple and quadruple what I'd have accomplished at home."

I was fortunate enough to have a residency at Soapstone with Cheryl. She was Water; I was Wind. My favorite part of the day was around five in the afternoon, when we would leave our work and go for a long walk. We rarely knew exactly where we were going—each afternoon was a little different—but we would walk in the forest and talk about writing, the future and our lives. We’d talk about what was going great with the day’s work, what was going wrong, and what wasn’t going at all. At some point, one of us would say, “Should we turn around?” and then the other would say we should, or urge us on a little further, before heading back to write some more.

At Soapstone, there is no balancing act—it is just you and the woods and the writing. This is the real miracle of its residency. There, the act of writing is all that matters; it is more important than anything else.