Alden Jones Wants You to Be Self-Aware
Author: Michael Carroll
September 10, 2020
Here we are in 2020, the year laughter died. This is the year to collectively ask the question of what it means to hit rock bottom, and consider the opportunity to begin again, do better, fail less.
Rock bottom has always been the territory of memoir. So we are very fortunate that 2020 is the year Alden Jones gives us The Wanting Was a Wilderness, a memoir in which she remembers a time in her young life when she, like our wayward culture, felt on the wrong track in some obscure and compounded way, and took a personal time out from civilization in order to figure herself out. The Wanting Was a Wilderness is a volume in the Afterwords series from Fiction Advocate that asks writers to interact with an important and recent work of literature, and this is not a straight shot of a memoir; it’s also a discussion of how memoir works, structured primarily as a close reading of one of the most successful memoirs in the canon: Cheryl Strayed’s Wild.
Wild (2012) is the story of a young woman who loses her mother (who had had a hard life herself, including surviving an abusive marriage), then ventures west, does heroin with a punk-rocker boyfriend and has sex with a lot of people before hiking the Pacific Crest Trail by herself. The story has a happy and inspiring ending: a bestselling book and a healthier and triumphant Cheryl. Since half of us were writing memoirs I read Wild to help motivate me to write about my own life, which hasn’t been so abject—at least not nearly abject enough to inspire me to write one of my favorite lines in literature: Maybe I learned something from heroin.
In The Wanting Was a Wilderness, Alden Jones uses Wild to remind herself what she’s learned since she departed from her nineteen-year-old self, and to understand how to write about that distant self she might sometimes rather not remember.
Alden Jones and I met in 2014 when our first collections of fiction were being published two weeks apart. Alden had sent an advanced copy of her book, Unaccompanied Minors, to my husband, Edmund White (he was her fiction teacher years ago at Brown). Halfway through his reading Ed waved the book at me and said, “Michael, this one’s for you.” I read Unaccompanied Minors and wrote Alden right away, and soon we were exchanging late night emails and then sitting for a conversation and reading together at the Center for Fiction in New York. In Unaccompanied Minors (a Lammy Finalist), perhaps the kernel for this new book began to sprout in the minds of the narrators and characters of the kids and young people who venture into the adult world, or in several cases, away from it. The restlessness of youth is suffused throughout her work, including her gorgeous travelogue of a first book, The Blind Masseuse.
As evidenced in every page of her three books, Alden Jones is a traveler: she has voyaged around the world, taught in Cuba and Costa Rica, taught on ships, met her partners in out-of-the-way locales, and never stopped.
Here we are in the middle of the first wave of the pandemic and the one thing you’re not doing is getting around much. Between reading you and knowing you, I’ve traveled the world. How has staying put more affected your writing? Do you dream and write more?
It’s apt that you put “dream” before “write,” because though I have not done much sustained writing since the early days of lockdown, the pandemic has been a fertile time for me in terms of my dreams or ideas about projects I want to write. When the pandemic first drove us inside, matters of life and death made me weigh my ideas differently. I was in the middle of a travel-related project that suddenly (and temporarily, I trust) lost its momentum, while an older, more complex global project started to call me more loudly. I’ve also been drawn back towards fiction, probably for the escapism and the freedom it affords. I’ve been focusing most of my attention these days on my kids and the ever-shifting responsibilities of teaching, while at the moment trying to enjoy a bit of frivolity while the weather is still nice, and writing in fits and starts around those things. But I’ve never been a purist about writing every day. My life responsibilities don’t afford me that option, but even if they did, it’s not my preferred way to write. I like the dreaming part before the writing starts. I like taking a break from the book I’m writing when I hit a wall, and returning to it when I’ve untangled the knot. I can sit with a project for a long time but I can also be a binge writer. I used to think my uneven process was a problem, but I’ve made my peace with it and think I am healthier and happier when I have pots on all available burners: writing, teaching, family, friends, romance, travel, and usually some outrageous temporary interest (currently an obsession with converted Sprinter camper vans, which is really just an extension of the travel impulse).
I have one main theme, which is male companionate relationships and the loss of them. Do you feel you have one yourself, or are you too restless a being for that?
I suppose my core set of interests is coming of age, sexuality, and cross-cultural experience. I’ve taught eighteen- to twenty-one-year-olds for over twenty years now, and I find people in that age bracket endlessly interesting and easy to be with. It’s hard to imagine writing a book that wouldn’t include a major character around that age.
In The Wanting Was a Wilderness, before we go to the wilderness with you, you write about the first time you were meaningfully away from your family, which was when you began college. You write about it in a plain and frank fashion, not so much apologizing for the comforts of the experience as setting the scene for us—your attitudes and over time in the space of your book your personal evolution, which would forever mark you as a mother and a writer: “For the first time in my life I found myself in the company of large groups of people whose ideological opinions I shared and where I felt I belonged. Growing up I had always felt a little off.” Take us from there into your travels, and into your new book. How did all of this result in the person and thinker you are today?
I think this is a common phenomenon among both writers and queer people—the childhood experience of feeling like you don’t quite fit in, or that you see things differently than other people do in what feels like a problematic way. In childhood and adolescence, this difference is isolating. But later in life it becomes a superpower to be able to see things through the eyes of the dominant culture, as any marginalized individual is compelled to do if they want to survive socially, and also hold alternate perspectives.
If you were “weird” in some way, your mind might adapt itself more readily to unorthodox ideas, which can be the space where creativity happens. I think this sense that I didn’t quite belong where I was prompted an early interest in exploring other cultures and places. It was Edmund White who wrote somewhere along the way that when you’re immersed in a foreign culture, that sense of being different from the people around you has a specificity to it, and that specificity becomes a source of comfort to those of us who usually feel different or odd at home for no discernible reason. That resonates with me. But I also think being a voracious reader as a kid was responsible for that curiosity about other people and places. I liked reading about extreme situations in history or faraway places, and those stories pulled me towards adventure.
What are the attractions of the wilderness, and how do they relate to your queerness? How do they help define your queerness?
One thing the wilderness offers humans is objectivity. When you are in the wilderness you are actively interacting with this living entity of nature. You are constantly reacting to it and it is constantly giving you things to react to. But nature doesn’t care if you’re there or not. It doesn’t care if you’re hungry, or scared, or awed by its majesty, or if you die. It doesn’t do favors for one person and not another. It has no motive as far as you are concerned. After a stretch of time in the wilderness you become attuned to yourself, your needs, preferences, and natural tendencies, in a way that feels very authentic, because your consciousness is the only one in play—you are not trying to please this major force you are in dialogue with, or displease it, or prove anything to it; you are just trying to be in harmony with it so you can get through the day and accomplish whatever task you are there to accomplish.
I was in search of a more solid and authentic sense of self when I was nineteen and coming out. I was overly concerned with what my queerness meant and grappling with what people thought and historical contexts and internalized homophobia. Once in the wilderness, all that noise was muffled. What were my most basic, most authentic, needs and hungers? I discovered a lot about how that applied to me as a queer person during that time.
In the middle of The Wanting Was a Wilderness, you offer an elaborately and again breathtakingly honest recounting of the first wilderness trip. How much of the sojourn was colored in the recollection by who you are now, and by what you might have learned technically or artistically from Strayed’s work? And by the person who Strayed presented herself as in Wild?
That section, “Boots on the Ground,” was the first scene I wrote of the memoir thread of the book. Later parts of the book were far more influenced by Wild and the persona that Cheryl Strayed created for her wilderness story. “Boots on the Ground” came about by me throwing open the gates of the dam behind which I’d hoarded my Outward Bound stories, the ones I’d been trying to figure out what to do with for decades, and allowing them to flood the page.
In the spirit of a book about how to write a book, one in which I actually showed my work including my drafts and missteps, I was trying to begin my story in a way that would interest the reader, but I was also dumping out the contents of my memoir in a way that I didn’t expect to be very organized, getting it all on the work surface so I could then figure out how to deal with it. But as it turned out it needed almost no revision. I moved this section around in the book a few times, but I changed very little of it. This is the benefit of pre-writing “dreaming”; I had turned this material over in my mind so many times over the years, by the time it reached the page I’d organically figured out which anecdotes were important to include, which to leave out, how to paint a sweeping picture of a drama-packed eighty-five days, how to touch upon the personalities in the group, how to capture our conflicts and balance those with our triumphs. Of course, like any memoirist writing about her much younger self, I have the distance to understand my experience more objectively, and I’m writing from the perspective of the 40-something woman who knows exactly what happened to that lost 19-year-old girl; that obviously colors what I choose to leave in and leave out.
As the memoir thread of The Wanting developed, I paid closer attention to what Strayed did in Wild as I made my narrative choices. I turned to her techniques when I was not sure how to progress, but I didn’t always follow her lead as much as consider if it would work for me too. She, for instance, ended her story at the end of the literal trail, as she crossed the Bridge of Gods after finishing her hike on the PCT, with a brief flash-forward that lets the reader know one day she’d return to this spot with her husband and children. Could I do that, end my story at the end of the trail? In that case, it turned out I could not—I didn’t find my “end of the trail,” my true self-reliance, until many years after my hike, so I had to push my story much farther into the future. And of course, throughout the book, there were subtle ways I tried to replicate things like the personability and honesty in Cheryl’s Wild persona that I so admire. That is the kind of thing a writer does whenever they read a book they revere in the genre in which they write.
What other books went into the writing of The Wanting Was a Wilderness?
The Wanting Was a Wilderness is on one level a craft book concerned with the evolution of memoir. So the essential memoir craft books were part of my discussion: Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story; Sven Birkerts’s Then, Again: The Art of Time in Memoir; and Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, as were the memoirs that set the stage for Wild, primarily Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. I gave A Million Little Pieces a pretty thorough beating, though I also believe that book is a cultural touchstone and that we learned a lot about memoir from the pandemonium it created, so I’m grateful for it. And then there were the texts that their grips on me at age nineteen, particularly Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality Volume 1 and Catharine MacKinnon’s Towards a Feminist Theory of the State.
What surprising advice would you give a young memoirist?
The most obvious way I see memoirs fail, from a submission in an intro memoir class all the way to published memoirs by successful and admired writers, is due to a lack of self-awareness. Do the work to understand yourself, truly understand your desires, your motives, your beliefs—through writing that is not intended for publication, or therapy, or talking to people who are emotionally smarter than you are—before you even think about writing about your experience for other people to read. This might mean you can’t turn your story into a book right away, and that’s ok.
If Cheryl Strayed had tried to write a book about her hike right after she finished it, there is no chance it would have been as successful as Wild, which was published thirteen years after her hike, with thirteen years’ worth of acquired knowledge and reflection. And start with essays. Essays teach you about beginnings, middles, and ends. If you spend the time perfecting three essays, you’ll know enough to write a book.