VWS to Cheryl Strayed’s Kitchen

How The Village Writing School Put Me in the Kitchen with Cheryl Strayed

            Yes, that Cheryl Strayed, rock star author of Wild—From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Wild is the brutally honest memoir of Strayed’s healing from divorce and her mother’s death by solo hiking 1,110-miles from the Mojave Desert to Washington State without previous long distance hiking experience. It blew everyone away in the Oprah Book Club, and Reese Witherspoon bought the film rights. She portrays Strayed in Wild the film, which premieres this fall.

            When I read Wild, it hit me in the gut— not just the sheer enormity of her story, but the risks she took in sharing it. I winced at more than her blisters and lost toenails. I ached with her loneliness. I never knew a memoir could be so uninhibited. Soon nebulous memories of my own childhood began to surround me, their fuzzy images slowly twisting into focus. Somewhat grainy, black and white, and true. I had to write it down.

            But how? Where to start? Fortunately, I responded to a Citizen ad offering a course for writers. When our group gathered expectantly on that first Saturday, Alison Taylor-Brown asked us the hard questions. “Why do you write? What are your writing goals? How are you going to accomplish this?”

            April 2014 marks the first anniversary of Taylor-Brown’s dream. The Village Writing School is now solidly installed in a vibrant and cheerful building of its own on Highway 23 South in Eureka Springs. It’s far more than a school. It’s a welcoming place where anyone can come to awaken the writing desire that lies dormant in a precious cluster of their right-brain cells.

But don’t think The Village Writing School is just for beginners. While Taylor-Brown has a talent for enabling new writers, her depth of knowledge can help experienced writers see weaknesses in their story. In her program, she covers in five Saturdays everything she learned getting an MFA in Creative Writing.

            Creativity is fostered, shown structure and method. “Structure” doesn’t have to be a bad word. Some of the most organic-appearing writing is firmly structured. A good house needs a strong foundation, doesn’t it?

            At The Village Writing School, Director Alison Taylor-Brown provides skilled leadership while teaching us patiently and hosting guest teachers. We listen, we write, we read our work aloud. Even the shyest among us gain confidence as we critique and re-write.

            One year and 83,000 words later, I now have my memoir of a small child hiding under a bed who grows up to be brave. In the meantime I’ve written other memoir pieces, like the true tale of my visit to a juke joint in Clarksdale, Mississippi during one of my Arkansas Artist-in-Education residencies in the Delta. Imagine my surprise when “Destination Juke Joint” won “The Search for Excellence Award” at the Ozark Writers Conference. Validation! Isn’t that what spurs writers forward?

            I pushed on with submissions to Tales from the South, Arkansas’ NPR storytelling program. I swelled to the next level of happiness as I read “Destination Juke Joint” before a live audience when the show was taped in Springdale for worldwide distribution. Applause is good. “Thank you, Village Writing School.”

            After that, since I follow Cheryl Strayed’s Facebook page, I noticed that Oprah Winfrey Network was doing a nationwide search for a few people to appear on their HelpDesk program with Strayed. I emailed my paragraph entry, and one Saturday night at 9 o’clock I received a response from a producer in L.A., asking if I’d be available for a taping of HelpDesk in Portland the following week.        

            Could we talk on the phone right then and there?

            “Sure,” I said.

            We chatted, she said she couldn’t promise that I’d make the final cut, but she’d let me know in a few days. Even if I didn’t make the final cut, I’d still be part of the show so I made my airline reservations. Maybe Cheryl Strayed would be able to sign my copy of Wild.

            Well, I didn’t make the cut for the one-on-one facing Strayed across the HelpDesk, but this released me to observe the taping process as a background guest. I met a Producer during downtime who told me that a small group of filmmakers were meeting at Cheryl’s house in a couple weeks to promote a film with a Vietnam War theme. I knew the film! Did I want to join them? Yes!

            Minutes later I was chatting with Brian Lindstrom, Cheryl’s filmmaker husband. Two weeks later, I was in Cheryl Strayed’s kitchen accepting a glass of wine from the writer. “Hi, I’m Cheryl,” she said.

            While several filmmakers, producers and a handful of guests talked film in the living room, Cheryl and I lingered in her library. I ran my fingers lightly along the spines of a shelf-full of Best American Short Stories to confirm that I really was there, in Cheryl Strayed’s library, which she told me she’d had painted a rich dark blue so that the books themselves would become the focus.

            We carried our chopsticks and plates of Vietnamese sticky rice and spring rolls to the dining room, and we sat talking privately about our writing for about an hour. She’s a wonderful, warm, generous woman.

            The Village Writing School launched me on a most amazing adventure. You, too, can find technical training in the skills to make your writing better right here in our village. Most of all, you’ll find motivation and a support system. Cheryl Strayed’s Wild-est dream has come true. Maybe yours can too.

Linda Hebert has been writing under the pen name “Linda Summersea” ever since she learned that there are 246 Linda Heberts in the U.S. She reads voraciously and writes passionately from a cottage on Beaver Lake.