By Diana Rush
Two weeks ago I attended a large writing conference. I was thrilled to be there amongst 16,000 other word lovers to talk about books and publishing and MFA programs. In advance of the event I scoured the listings of 550 classes and readings so I could formulate a schedule and go into the conference prepared. I followed the suggestion given by others that had been to similar events and tried to strike a balance between the various types of listings and still leave time to peruse the giant book fair. I went in with a plan.
Although I was anxious to spend three days with other people that loved writing and reading as much as I did, I had another, more serious reason for being there. I was going there to meet one of my writer idols and convince her we should be best friends.
Cheryl Strayed was one of the biggest names appearing at the conference. She was going to be sitting on a few panels and also be part of a group doing a reading and discussion. I assumed many people there would be wanting to meet her. I also assumed nobody there would want to meet her more than I did.
I read her memoir, Wild four years ago. Her story of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in hopes of healing herself from some large losses spoke to me and made me want to make changes in my own life. I did briefly consider a physical pilgrimage like the one she had embarked on but I quickly remembered my disdain of all things outdoors and thought better of it. Instead I chose to write again after a twenty three year break and apply to get my Master’s. I needed to meet her and tell her what her words had done for me.
The conference was overwhelming. There were people everywhere and the convention center was enormous. Classes were spread out from one end of the building to the other with very little time to move around. The book fair was even more intimidating. There were hundreds of tables representing small presses, colleges, literary magazines and editors. I looked for Cheryl everywhere I went. I began to wonder if they were keeping her in hiding. It was the end of the second day before I saw her.
The reading she was part of was housed in the largest of the rooms at the convention center. I arrived early to sit close to the front. I surveyed the space over and over trying in vain to spot her. Would she suddenly appear from behind a curtain? Was she sitting amongst us right now and I just didn’t know?
The event staff was readying the stage with water bottles at the podium and adjusting the lights. Then I saw her. She and two other women stood by the right of the stage stairs, getting their microphones adjusted. I couldn’t believe Cheryl Strayed and I were in the same room, breathing the same air.
The moderator introduced the writers and Cheryl came up the stairs and walked to her seat. I began to cry. Quietly at first and then it built to a more audible, pathetic sound. I surprised even myself.
She read from a book she was still writing and I hung on every word. The other panelists read too and then they fielded questions. I couldn’t think of anything brilliant to contribute. As the session closed the moderator asked everyone to line up outside of the room to get their books signed.
I was able to get in the line before it was too long. Cheryl took her time with each person so it moved slowly. Finally it was my turn. My heart began to race and I could feel myself getting warm and shaky. Cheryl Strayed was sitting right in front of me! I approached the table and willed myself to be cool. I took a deep breath and laid my worn copy of Wild on the table that separated us and stared at it unable to look her in the eyes.
“Oh my goodness, it is you! Of course it is you. I mean, you just read and now you are sitting here signing books so it has to be you. Oh my goodness. I need you to know that I love you. I read Wild and it changed my life. I didn’t hike or anything after reading it. I don’t like to get dirty. Or be outside. Or exercise really. But it did change my life.” I took a breath.
“I read it and decided I needed to do things in my life differently and so I applied to graduate school and started writing again. I wrote all about you and Wild in my application essay! “
I looked up then at what appeared to be a very puzzled and possibly frightened Cheryl Strayed. I was far from cool.
Then I laid out my plan.
“I think we should be best friends.”
I shifted my weight awkwardly from one foot to the other. I tried to smile and appear like I was in control of my words. I feared I may cry again. She smiled back. She reached for my book and gently opened the cover and flipped through to the title page. There was a Post-It note affixed to the paper bearing my name, a gesture from the staff of the event to speed up the signing process. She wrote something and handed me the book. My friend asked if she could take our picture and Cheryl agreed. We leaned across the table towards each other and smiled for the camera. I envisioned the photo blown up over my fireplace mantle.
“It was nice to meet you Diana,” she said and smiled.
“It was nice to meet you too,” I replied.
I walked a few feet from the table and opened my book to see what she had written.
To Diana, who is apparently my new best friend. Best wishes, Cheryl Strayed
In the years to come I will share this story to anyone who wants to hear it and probably to plenty who don’t. Only when I recount this special moment, I will leave out the word “apparently”.