When Cheryl Strayed was 33, she sat in a hushed cabin in the Massachusetts woods to write “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” the book that would eventually earn her dazzling literary success and worldwide acclaim. She, of course, had no way of knowing that her memoir would go on to sell millions; the only thing on her mind when she confronted that first blank page was “shit, how am I going to write this book?”
“Don’t let dreams ruin your life,” Strayed pleads. We usually don’t think of dreams as sources of conflict but nothing causes more misery, anguish, and self-doubt. Like most aspiring writers, Strayed cherished her dream: she spent a lifetime fantasizing about finally seeing her words in print, about the miracle of holding something she created bound between covers. But with that dream came enormous expectations: for her book to be “worthwhile,” it had to be the next great American novel, it had to rival the works of the literary titans she so admired. What artist hasn’t experienced this sense of defeat? “Why write a poem,” we wonder to ourselves, “if it won’t be the next ‘Wasteland’?” “What’s the point of writing a novel if it’s not on par with James Joyce?”
It’s embarrassing to admit, but many writers equate the fulfillment of our dreams with conventional notions of “having made it.” Millions of copies sold. Glowing reviews in The New York Times. A feature in Harpers. Since we were little, we were told to dream big, to aim higher. So we envisioned the glittery glamor of New York parties, dramatic, turbulent marriages reminiscent of Scott and Zelda. We imagined warm reception and critical praise. One day, we hoped, our books would be required reading in every American English class, our words enshrined eternally in the canon of “great” literature. We dreamt so big that to achieve anything less than our grandiose ambitions would be to have failed.
And therein lies the dilemma: when we believe the attainment of our dream (being a writer) is the same as the realization of our bold and, can I just say, unrealistic/borderline delusional ambitions, we won’t write. There will be too much pressure. But if, like Strayed writing her memoir in the peaceful serenity of the forest, we resolve to let go of our unreasonable standards and just write a book- not the next masterpiece of English literature- we can finally write. “I had to relinquish all of those anthems of greatness and dreaming big and aiming high,” Strayed confesses, “I knew I would fall short of greatness so I had to rewrite the story of what greatness was, redefine how I measured success and figure out what purpose dreams served, if they served any at all. I realized part of what was getting in my way was those very dreams. Forget greatness, forget if anyone would actually read it- I just had to write my book. In other words, I had to surrender to the idea of my own mediocrity.”