Alison Bechdel and Cheryl Strayed in Conversation - Believer Magazine
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Alison Bechdel and Cheryl Strayed in Conversation

Earlier this summer, Alison Bechdel and Cheryl Strayed got together for Virtual Wordplay, an event presented by St. Catherine University and Star Tribune as part of West by Midwest. The event was also presented in partnership with Literary Arts, the Loft, Black Mountain Institute, and Wisconsin Book Festival. During their talk, transcribed and lightly edited below, the two discuss Alison Bechdel’s new graphic memoir The Secret to Superhuman Strength and reflect on the gendered history of physical activity and the spiritual nature of exercise.

CHERYL STRAYED: So Alison, I’m curious, tell us the genesis story of this book.

ALISON BECHDEL: This book has been gestating for almost my whole life, as long as I’ve been doing physical activities. In a way, this book is my own version of an ad I saw that promised the secret to superhuman strength—that’s where the title comes from. It was one of those bodybuilding or self-defense ads in the comic books and I think that’s when I started writing this book in the back of my head. That’s the thing about these physical activities for me is they’re blissfully free of this symbolic register.

I’m not thinking or taking notes or attaching concepts to this stuff, but that process has interested me all along, like what’s going on in this other register. And as time went on, I felt like it was something I wanted to really try and explore in a book. I wanted to try and perhaps ruin it—take this thing that was so free of conceptual baggage and give it some.

CS: One thing that struck me over and over again in the book is you use this phrase that is the title. You talk about why you do this sport or this thing, and you go, “Did I find it? Have I finally reached the secret to superhuman strength?” And there’s so much about the book that is about seeking rather than attaining. The whole book is a journey of you essentially longing to reach some kind of state that maybe you’ll never reach.

AB: Yes, it’s definitely a quest and it’s ongoing. It’s not like I had any clear moment of catharsis or becoming enlightened. That’s part of the joke.

CS: And I do think that the book is very much about trying to strengthen the body and  find the soul’s enlightenment. There’s so much in this book, that’s about a spiritual quest, not just a physical one. And that those two things can be the same thing.

AB: In a way I was trying to write about my whole life. Whenever I write anything, I somehow want to write everything.

I want to convey everything I’ve ever thought or felt in a book, which of course is impossible. So this book starts when I was born and it comes right up to the present moment, which is a very large swath of time for a memoir to cover, it’s probably easier to tell a coherent story in a smaller timeframe.

So it’s sort of experimental in that way, taking this whole life and trying to make some sense of it. What I love about memoir is that puzzle of trying to find a story in  the randomness of our lives.

CS: I love the organizing principle of your physical endeavors.

And of course at every turn it becomes about so much more than that.

AB: The comic book ad that I responded to as a kid did not impart to me the secret to superhuman strength.

But it planted this idea in my head that I  kept trying to pursue. I did all kinds of exercise as a kid and over the course of my life for all sorts of reasons, not just to cultivate strength. But I get all kinds of mental and emotional and psychological and even metaphysical benefits from it.

I have a tendency to get stuck in my head and strenuous physical activity counteracts that. I think there’s also an allure of self-sufficiency that this superhuman strength idea holds for me. The book proceeds through my life in chronological order so there’s a  history of exercise trends represented as I try one thing after another.

CS: It’s so interesting in that way, because you did just bring me down memory lane. Back when we’re girls, I remember being told you don’t want to bulk up or there were certain eras of ideas of what was fitness and what wasn’t. I think you wrote about that quite interestingly.

AB: Yeah, God forbid you should build up any muscles. I also talk about how that feeling of working out, the feeling of runner’s high or that heightened focus, is very similar to the feeling of being caught up in your creativity—that feeling of creative flow—and was something that came much more easily to me as a child than it does now.

One thing I do in this book is I look at the relationship of a group of writers to their creativity, including the British Romantics—Coleridge and William Wordsworth and Dorothy Wordsworth—who were always out walking in the hills and being  inspired by nature in their writing. Those guys inspired the Transcendentalists like Margaret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emerson, another bunch of writers who were inspired by nature. These guys were like hippies a hundred years ago before there was any such thing which fascinates me.

CS: One thing I’ve learned is there’s always been hippies. They were outsiders, what we now say, “disruptors,” but they were creatives who had ideas that were outside what we consider the moral zone.

AB: It was this whole lineage of them from the Romantics to the Transcendentalists and the Transcendentalists inspired the Beats.

I also write about Jack Kerouac and his book, The Dharma Bums. It was this chain of these counter-cultural people talking about Eastern ideas about divinity and our connection to nature all through the centuries. 

CS: Each generation has to remember that they didn’t invent that outside the box or newer, radical way of thinking.

AB: In the book, I also talk about my own efforts to meditate and to learn about this Buddhist idea that our “self” is the root of our suffering. But it’s very hard going.

It’s nothing like the very blissful experience I had when I was twenty on psilocybin mushrooms when I clearly understood that I wasn’t separate from everything else in the universe.

CS: Let’s go back. You sort of walked us through many of the things that I really am curious about, and I do want to go back to those earliest beginnings. As you said, this book is told in chronological order. You were conveniently born in 1962 so you get to do these experiences decade by decade.

That first decade I was really struck by what you longed for as a girl. There were so many things that you weren’t allowed to long for—the outdoor clothes that you discovered in the LL bean catalog, the muscles that you immediately read you weren’t supposed to grow. Even things like sports that weren’t available to girls in that time and place. I’m curious if you can talk to us a bit about the ways that sexism, misogyny, and the erasure of girls not being able to be strong, impacted you?

AB: It’s hard to convey to young people today, what it was like being a girl in the 1960s. It was just wall-to-wall misogyny, twenty-four hours a day. “Girls were dumb.” “Girls were weak.” “Girls were stupid.” It’s amazing any of us grew to maturity at all. The idea of weakness was really bothersome to me as a little girl because I knew I wasn’t weak. I knew I was strong. So that just rankled and as soon as I could,  I started learning how to strengthen my body.

I found a calisthenics book of my mother’s and it was amazing to me that you could actually do exercises and increase your endurance for a certain motion and I could feel myself getting stronger, which was incredible. I started running as a teenager too, and I love that feeling of endurance, so I was  figuring this out on my own. I had gym class, but gym class didn’t really do very much for me. I didn’t really like gym class, even though I liked the stuff we were doing. There was no athletic life for girls and barely for boys in those days, compared with what there is now. Title IX didn’t happen till I was in high school so there were three sports for girls at my school.

CS: Do you in some ways feel like growing up in that cruelty and scarcity increased your sense of “I’m going to get this?” “I’m going to prove my worth by using my body and doing the things that happened to hide me?”

AB: I do, but what I learned as I went along is that it’s just a very effective “psych-out” technique.

Men tell women they’re weak, tell women they can’t do this or that and it makes it very risky to try those things. One thing I really regret that I never did as a young person was skateboarding and rock climbing—these really cool things that boys were doing. It didn’t occur to me that I could do those things that were “too risky and dangerous.”

CS: Very early on, I love this scene in the book where you’ve started to cross-country ski or Nordic ski, and you’re out there, feeling what it feels like not only just to be active and testing your body, but you’re in the natural world.

You write about seeing a dam break and this water bursting down and you say that for the first time that you deeply understood that you were not the center of the universe. I’m wondering if you can talk about that and that place where physical exertion and exercise and nature or the wild world come into play.

AB: That moment was one of those pivotal moments in life that really marked me. I was probably 16, I was out skiing along the Creek in this beautiful Pennsylvania landscape and I just happened to be there. It had been a very unusually cold winter. This Creek hadn’t frozen over since I was a little kid, but the Creek had frozen and it was thawing and these giant chunks of ice were piling up and the water was coming behind them.

And as I stood there, this huge dam burst and all these giant chunks of ice went flying down the stream, groaning and churning and I was right there. It was incredible. I remember just feeling a sudden sense of perspective, like all this stuff goes on without me all the time.

I happened to see it and that was amazing. The world is not revolving around me and that was a wonderful feeling.

CS: I had a very similar experience on the Pacific Crest Trail. I was looking at a cliff and I saw this huge piece of the cliff dislodge and come crashing down.

I wasn’t near enough that I was harmed by it, but I witnessed it and I had that same feeling. I think that nature has this really interesting way of reminding us that we’re connected. Even though we’re out there alone, we’re connected to all living things, including the things that we think of as not living like mountains and rocks and dams.

In the book, you’re making a connection between your physical journey and the way you seek to transcend yourself in the course of doing these various physical endeavors. You write about literary transcendentalists who have contemplated these questions throughout time.

Can you tell us a bit about that?

AB: I have to confess that I found Emerson actually pretty rough sledding. I certainly read some of Nature, but I found that language a little too antiquated to really get. I could see little glimpses of something amazing that he was doing, but I couldn’t get in the flow of his language.

I had never read much Wordsworth. It was fun to try and read Wordsworth’s poems and learn what those were about. I love the fact that he was revising his evolution as a poet over the course of his whole life.

I feel in some ways my book ended up sort of mimicking some of these writers’ work. Like Wordsworth’s Prelude—an endlessly revised story of his own development. Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal—I never could have written this book without my endless and obsessive journal keeping over the course of my whole life.

Jack Kerouac’s book, The Dharma Bums was his own version of the Diamond Sutra. And I feel in some ways I’m copying both Kerouac and trying to give my own version of the Diamond Sutra in this book.

So I feel like I was copying these people who I was writing about, including you, Cheryl! One of Adrienne Rich’s poems from Dream of a Common Language is also a throughline in my book.

CS: In Wild, I carried Adrienne Rich’s Dream of a Common Language with me on my entire hike. The first night I’m out there on the trail, I read her poem, “Power” and it’s a very meaningful book to me. You used the word “copying,” but I don’t think of it that way. I really love the way that your work references so many other works. I think in all of our writing we’re always referencing implicitly. You might have not been conscious when writing about Adrienne Rich, but we were there together. There was a certain thing that we both tapped into, a different version of the thing, and yet also the same thing.

I think that legacy lives in a lot of us in different ways.

AB: Can I tell a funny story about how I came to use that poem in my book? I was practicing brush drawings and I  got a big scroll of rice paper, and every day I would do a little addition to this long continuous drawing. If I screwed up, it would ruin the whole scroll, so I had to really focus on what I was doing. And one day I made my drawing and as I was doing it, I drew myself reading a book and the words “transcendental etude” came into my head.

I googled it and first I got lists of piano pieces, and then it said, “Transcendental Etude – Adrienne Rich” and I thought, “Oh right, that poem!” When I looked up the poem, it was very familiar. No one ever told us we had to study our lives and I felt like that was what I was trying to do in this book. That poem—which I still don’t understand—is very long and has the word “life” in it about forty times. It’s a poem about being alive and the more you read it, more is revealed to you.

CS: I love that you wrote  in the book that there’s this poem you love and even though you don’t understand it entirely, you’ve read it all these times.

Once I wrote about The Dream of a Common Language in Wild, so many people were like, “Explain this book to me, tell me the meaning of this book.” And I’m like, “I don’t know.”

I think what we’re responding to is a recognition. You discovered that book when you were really stepping into the truth of being a lesbian and who you were, instead of who you were expected to be.

AB: It’s also a poem about transformation.

That whole book is about [Adrienne Rich’s] transformation and different ways women have transformed themselves, and the necessity of transforming ourselves which is what Wild is about. I envy the clear arc of transformation in your book. I feel like in my story, over the course of my whole life it’s this spiral of coming around and around to the same issues over time.

CS: The hike provided me with a sort of narrative arc that fits neatly into a memoir.

I think the complicated thing about writing a memoir is you’re writing about your whole life and trying to tell a particular story, but you’ve got all this material and how do you find your way through it?

I think one of the most moving and powerful aspects of your book was how vulnerably and honestly you write about creativity and your own anxieties and struggles with doing your work. Can you talk to us about how difficult it has been for you over the years to create, to find that flow, and to not procrastinate?

AB: It’s hard when you have to make stuff up out of thin air all the time. For me, it’s the gradual realization that if you can open yourself, it’s all there. But that’s very hard for me to get to. It’s very hard for me to let things happen. I’m always trying to control things. I’m always trying to push and force. I’m having to find other ways to use my creative energies in a more sustainable manner.

CS: In this book, you’re ultimately reckoning with that sense of seeking. Seeking the secret to superhuman strength, but also that ease when it comes your work. I’m curious if it has gotten easier. What’s that arc?

AB: It has gotten somewhat easier, along with the exercise and other things I’ve done. I’ve also learned a lot in therapy about my creativity and these supposed blocks that I’ve created for myself.

One thing I learned in therapy, which was on one level about relationships and intimacy, but at another level helped me with my creativity, was learning to see ways that I had given my own creativity over to my partner. My therapist pointed out that wasn’t true.

I had just handed that over to her somehow. And as soon as I saw that dynamic, I was freed of it.

CS: I’m curious if you think that kind of resistance is part of a creative process?

AB: I do believe that on some level my struggle paid off, so therefore, I keep struggling. Isn’t it good for it to be difficult? What do you think?

CS: What’s so funny is you’re saying how hard it is for you to do this, yet you’ve done decades of brilliant work. So I’m just fascinated by it and think that you write about creative struggle really powerfully.

AB: It’s definitely a spiritual quest. I want to get back to that childhood state, back to the feeling I had when I was tripping when I was 20.

CS: And it brings us back around to this connection that you’re making throughout the book when seeking that kind of state when you’re doing physical exercise.

AB: Those things for me are a shortcut into that feeling which is so much harder to get to creatively than physically. It’s much easier to just go for a run than to write a book.

CS: I have questions about drawing and writing, and that relationship the two offer. Do you write first? Does the drawing feel like a physical experience or is that not the case for you?

AB: No, it is. Something I thought about a lot as I was drawing this book is what a gloriously physical activity it is to draw. I draw for hours on end and it’s like an endurance  exercise. There’s something physical that happens with that line coming out of my hand onto the page that is different from what I might type or do on the computer.

It is very embodied and I feel like drawing is a tracing of the world for me.I’m showing you what I’m seeing and then you’re holding it in your hands. It’s like this touch-based transmission.

CS: And in this book, you did some new things, right?  The color—why did you decide to do this differently? What was that like for you?

AB: I never did a book in full color before. It’s a lot of work. I knew it would be a huge amount of work and my partner, Holly, helped me. She was able to come on board and color these images I was making. All the colors you see in the book are actually gray ink and she was doing them in layers of cyan, magenta and yellow. The end result is these very luminous washy colors.

CS: In the book you write a lot about your romantic relationships and the impact that your work had on them. Very often your partners felt that you were choosing work over everything else.

AB: I’ve always been very rigid about my work and it would always come first. With Holly, that wasn’t as possible as it had been previously in my life. She wouldn’t let me get away with that and I’ve gradually gotten better at taking time off and having weekends.

But it was fun to have her in these final throes of this project. Usually that’s a lonely place but we were together in that world and that was really great.

CS: One other question that I was curious about is what is that relationship between the drawing and writing? Which comes first?

AB:  If you were looking over my shoulder, I’m sitting on the computer and I’m typing, but I’m writing in a drawing program. I’ve got panels drawn on the screen and I’m placing my text in them. I’m envisioning what the images in those panels are going to be like—that’s how I write.

It’s very visual in my head and the images are driving the story along with the words, but you don’t see the images until the final stage.

CS: My sense of your creative work is that you make this plan and then so much is born in an intuitive sense. That the work takes you in the direction that it needs to go.

AB: The cool thing is when I start drawing, everything changes, the words change.

I start seeing ways that the drawing can convey information that I thought I had to impart in the text. That calculus is always shifting once the actual drawing starts. The idea is to get the words down to as few as possible and show as much as I can in the image.

CS: Can you talk a bit about that cyclical process of how you think and find inspiration, or whatever it looks like for you?

AB: That’s interesting. It all does come back into my head. I joked earlier about how I took this kind of wordless realm of life—of exercise and physicality—and pinned it down with words. But there’s something freeing about that actually. I’ve articulated something that was worth doing and had to go through that whole process.

CS: How does your book speak to people with disabilities?

AB: When I was younger in my twenties and hanging out in my lesbian feminist community, I had to be secret about my exercise life. Exercise was not something that you flaunted. I felt like it partly was flaunting your able-bodied-ness, partly flaunting your fitness or, and maybe this implicit assumption that you were exercising to lose weight.

Exercise was an anti-feminist enterprise so it was something that I didn’t talk about much when I was younger. I couldn’t help feeling as I wrote this book that I was flaunting my able-bodied-ness in this way that might seem really annoying. I decided I’m just going to talk about loving how I love to do these things and hope people don’t take it amiss. I can certainly understand if people do, but it’s something I get a lot of pleasure from and I thought, “Why not just talk about that?”

CS: I’m curious how long it takes you to finish one of your books.

AB: Comics is such a time intensive activity. This book took me eight years—that’s a crazy long time for a book.

The drawing was the least of that. I did most of the drawing in a year of twelve hour days. But it takes a long time for ideas to gestate and a real story to emerge. I like having time to marinate in ideas and fortunately, I’ve been able to afford to do that.

CS: What do you imagine next? Where is your imagination taking you next in your literary life and where are your physical interests taking you in your exercise life?

AB: I have a sense that it’s going to be about money and time—I’m running out of topics. Exercise was something I felt very passionate about so I knew there was a book there for me, but now I’m like, “What else do I care about?”

I have always kept very close accounts of my financial life so I’ve had this sense that I can do something with that. I love the way that a ledger is a list of stories. Everything you buy is something that happened in your life and I’m going to do something with that.

CS: That’s amazing. So what about the exercise stuff? What are you into these days?

AB: Running is salvational for me. It really, really calms me down.

CS: Hiking does the same for me. That’s what we should do, like Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac

AB: Oh my God, that would be so much better than The Dharma Bums.

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