The Millions

Into the Wild: The Millions Interviews Alden Jones

It’s not seamless, and it’s not supposed to be. In The Wanting Was a Wilderness, Alden Jones exposes the frayed edges a writer must contend with when gathering the pieces of her story, and then offers a pattern for assembling them into a narrative. On its face, The Wanting Was a Wilderness is a critique of a widely beloved book, and its detailed analysis is what you might expect from an award-winning professor of creative writing and cultural studies. But Jones’s analysis of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild quickly becomes “a springboard, mirror, and map” for Jones’s own journey, and The Wanting Was a Wilderness transforms, before our eyes, into her own raw and inviting memoir.

At age 19, Jones abruptly left college to spend 85 days in the wilderness as part of an outdoor education program. She climbed a 17,000-foot volcano in Mexico, caved in Tennessee, spent long stretches lost on the Appalachian Trail, and fell in love. But not until reading Wild two decades later did Jones consider how she might transform what felt like a private experience into a work of nonfiction to be enjoyed by readers who hadn’t been there. As she fashions her story, Jones invites readers behind the curtain, exposing each step of her writing process as she examines how Strayed accomplished a similar task. She shows her work, including her missteps and false endings, with a tone of genuine intimacy. The result is a masterclass in memoir writing. I spoke with Jones about her book, the craft of memoir, and being open to where a story will take you.

The Millions: What is a common misconception about memoir?

Alden Jones: That it is beholden to the facts.

If not facts, what is

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