Known for her essays, Cheryl Strayed, a fellow Minnesotan, has published three works over the past six years. She published two essays, “Heroin/e” and “The Love of my Life” in The Best American Essays 2000 and The Best American Essays 2003 respectively. Strayed also published her first novel, Torch, last month. Strayed’s essay, “Heroin/e,” takes on the tragic reality of her mother’s death, as well as her own addiction to heroin. This is her first essay and was written with such care that each word hangs in the back of my head as I read it.
Maybe it’s the music (I’m listening to The Black Heart Procession’s song “I Guess I’ll Forget You”), maybe it’s the prophetic visions of what it would be like if it were my own mother in this situation; whatever it is, I’m still crying. Strayed offers no sympathy to the reader, or herself, only the cold reality of what it means to be young (she was 22 at the time), alone and addicted to a life-altering drug. It is an experience that could happen to anyone, and Strayed delivers a lesson both dark and endearing. She intertwines the story of her mother’s passing with her subsequent addiction to heroin as a way to link the pains that her mother and she both shared—her mother was on morphine, a similar drug to heroin, around the time of her death.
This essay doesn’t break any boundaries, but rather, gently fuzzes the line. Strayed amplifies her agony with an unflinching determination that fills me with envy—a very good kind of envy. I always find it difficult to expose the demons that lurk around the various synapses sparkling in my brain. These synapses bite and sting. They bring out an emotional pain that, when exposed, only cries to return to the comfort zone where they once existed, silently out of view. It took her 10 years to break this experience to the public.
Strayed writes with a voice that startled me. Each snapshot that Strayed provides has a flow that is vibrant, and concisely detailed. The essay is broken up into intense memories that blend the reader and Cheryl into one. Even with all of the literary landscapes that Strayed provides, the gaps between events are what draw me closer to her writing. These gaps open up questions that entice me to want more. The essay brings up questions such as: Where was her husband? Where were her friends? And why did a trip that was supposed to bring everything back together only tear her apart more? Maybe Strayed chose to write like this to bring the reader closer to her own addiction by not showing us the pieces that tie this essay together, much like the chaos she must have experienced at the time. I feel that this path coincides with a quote in the biography section of her website (www.cherylstrayed.com). While discussing her approach to the non-fiction side of writing she says, “In my essays I utilize the writing craft of a fiction writer, paying close attention to character and dialogue and setting.” She goes on to say that, by applying these skills, she’s “not just relating an interesting story, but rather crafting a work of art that has meaning beyond the personal or confessional.”
“Heroin/e” makes my mind race back and forth, trying to find the extra meaning beyond what’s there. I keep finding gaps between my stance on the events as presented to me and the whole truth. It is a writing style that encourages the reader to continue the journey, even after the story is finished. From a creative standpoint, this may just be her ticket to success. I encourage you to read this essay and go on to her next essay, “The Love of my Life,” published in The Best American Essays 2003. After reading “Heroin/e,” as well as her other essay, you’ll have, for a brief moment, clarity, and then you’ll want more, and more, and more. I know I do.
For more of Cheryl Strayed’s work in person you can hear her speak at the University of Minnesota bookstore on Feb. 28 at 2 p.m. She will be discussing her new novel “Torch.”