Both literary criticism and memoir, Alden Jones’s The Wanting Was a Wilderness serves to deconstruct the craft through Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, and to construct her own narrative. It begins and ends with a hallmark candidness, such as in the second chapter, “This is Not the Book I Sat Down to Write,” where we are enfolded into a thoughtful confession of the writing process as informed by real life. My own admiration of Wild inspired me to explore its success, and doubly excited to walk along the parallel trails of Strayed and Jones.
Jones writes in the first chapter, “Maps,” that “when I opened Wild and started down the trail with Cheryl, it was a different segment of my memory accordion that flattened out and became real and present after years of my holding it at a distant blurriness.” We are then immediately pulled into Jones’s recollection of holding a map along the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina, staring at the array of paths scrawled on the paper with her fellow hikers, none of them with the faintest idea of where they were. Thus begins this composite journey of why and how, of where does she go next, and where do I go next.
The Wanting Was a Wilderness alternates between craft and personal narrative until the penultimate chapters of false endings, where Jones arrives at the thing she has been seeking to both prove and reveal: her truth. It flows through catharsis in the same way it must have felt to write, for the shell to be cracked open and the reality uncovered. An important function of memoir, Jones contends, is a persona and the ability for that character to be sympathetic and/or redeemable. Like a persona, she admits to feigning one in her daily life for the sake of her children and life as she knew it — an act that every one of us can empathize with. Lying to ourselves feels easier than having to uproot our entire system, put one foot in front of the other, and walk an unforaged path; but to actualize contentment, we have to face what is right in front of us.
This book is a testament to that. It’s evident how much Jones is inspired by Cheryl Strayed’s work, and how vital Wild was in helping her process both her past and present. She became aware of a shift in her marriage while writing, forcing her to shatter her own notions of truth in order to realize that she and her wife were no longer happy together. Among the parallels Jones draws, one of the most poignant is the springboard from which one plunges into the search for something greater. In her case, studying Wild and its function is the springboard for confronting both her then-present unhappiness and her years-earlier hike that was more formative to her character than she once believed.
When we meet Alden Jones the Brown University student, she is infatuated with feminist theory and, in the midst of her coursework, coming to terms with her sexual identity. She is reckoning with her theoretic beliefs at the same time that she realizes, “Now I was certain I was too afraid to be gay,” and we follow her through defining bravery for herself. Alden Jones the Expeditioner paints herself in a potentially unfavorable light; she writes, “I could include a sentence now designed to let me off the hook…and it would be true. But also true: sometimes I was just an asshole.” This makes her even more sympathetic, her character redeeming. She is fraught with desire for Melissa, a member of her team, and hunting for the moment she could finally look inward at her progress. All the while, we have sat with Alden Jones the Learned Critic and Writer, who has worked backwards to unveil the crux of the leap of faith, and succinctly lets us know that, from that scary notion, everything can and will be okay.
The magic here lies in self-awareness. I’m familiar with the sort of literary criticism between the pages of bound hardcovers necessary to my college degree; break the fourth wall and add Jones’s lightness and transparency, and you have an analysis edged with lyrical touches. When she dissects the traveling wilderness story to reveal that it is the humanness of the writer that allows the memoir to endure successfully, she pairs it with the lens by which she is explicitly asking us to view her in.
And Jones is an incredible teacher of the art without being didactic; rather, she employs these tools and stylistic elements with interludes of how she arrived at this point and why she crafted her story as such. The chapter, “My Own System(at)ic Oppression,” concludes with the line, “Trust me, reader: I’ll return to this.” It’s an alluring note, echoing previous discussions of how memoir functions and setting us up for what we can expect from her own story.
Wielding the power of words almost feels sacred; harnessing their strength for the understanding of self is monumental. The Wanting Was a Wilderness is an “I see what you did there” smart spin on its respective genres, with Jones’s own personas perceiving one another. It begs the reader, whether or not they are a writer, to look inward at their individual experiences and decide how they have shaped who they are, or if there is something more to glean from them. Even in what may be considered the mundane to someone, Jones argues that we must forge on in order to better understand ourselves and to coexist with our humanness. The academic approach is refreshing in the nonfiction canon and an open door to Truth, where everything worthwhile inevitably lies.
Lindsay Maher is a Massachusetts native and on her way to officially being dubbed a New Yorker. She holds a BFA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing from Emerson College. Her words can be found in Scene Magazine Boston, offMetro, Ireland Before You Die, Practical Wanderlust, and on social media for hotel and food brands, as well as for her own poetry. Fiction writing and dance are her longtime loves and she is driven to interlace them wherever she can. You can find her on Twitter @lindsaymaura, on Instagram @lindsaymaura_, and at lindsaymmaher.com.