Underdogs and Broken Things
I have always been drawn to underdogs and broken things.
As a youngest child and a perpetual people pleaser, I grew up believing it was my responsibility to make sure no one ever felt left behind or outshined. For this reason, I usually only harvested cracked seashells, ripped stuffed animals and wilted or trampled flowers. These I lovingly displayed and treasured, because I believed I saw the beauty underneath. I also figured everything needs SOMEONE to be its champion. Why not me?
As I have shifted into adulthood, my love of underdogs and broken things has developed into an intense appreciation of flawed, three-dimensional characters in the stories I read and write. I am particularly drawn to imperfect yet beautiful women: women who are complex, multi-layered and unabashed in their authenticity.
Why? Because being a woman is hard. We live in a society where we are told we can (and should) be everything to everyone all the time. We are expected to pour our hearts in our careers, our marriages, our families, our friends, our bodies, our wardrobe… We are encouraged to be strong and independent and unstoppable, yet we are also tasked with ‘retaining our femininity’ by dieting, plucking, working out and making sure we always look as cute as possible.
And you know what? That stuff is exhausting, so it’s refreshing to meet a female character who doesn’t feel the need to always pretend her life is in order.
I have read many incredible stories that star women like this, and the most authentic one I have met in quite some time is actually an author’s self-portrait. This makes her authenticity particularly poignant, as she is exposing her soul to us even though it means opening herself up to be judged by us.
The author I’m referring to is Cheryl Strayed, and her memoir WILD chronicles her 1,100 solo hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. (In case you have been living under a rock, Reese Witherspoon will play Cheryl in an upcoming 2014 movie adaptation of the book. To say I’m excited would be a gross understatement.)
I’m an avid backpacker myself, so I picked up WILD several months ago thinking I would enjoy a light-hearted travelogue filled with scenery and a little girl power thrown in for good measure. Instead, I found myself immersed in a gripping, gritty, and not always pretty portrait of a woman on the edge.
Strayed undertook her journey in the aftermath of a tumultuous divorce and her mother’s death. This sort of life shake-up—while tragic—wouldn’t usually be front-page news, but Strayed’s decision to be completely fearless in her portrayal of herself is what left me breathless.
Because here’s the thing. ‘Cheryl Strayed’ isn’t a completely likeable character. She cheats on her husband, gets into drugs, uses sex as a tool and makes all these huge mistakes. However, Strayed’s narrative is so close that you almost can’t judge Cheryl, because you are Cheryl. You are tired and run-down and terrified and exhausted, and you understand why Cheryl made the decisions she did. And at the very end—when Cheryl finally finds what she’s looking for—you feel that victory coat your entire insides, because her victory becomes your victory, too.
Cheryl Strayed is transformative. And unapologetic. And—despite her flaws, or maybe because of them—she is one of the most sympathetic, haunting and breathtaking characters I have ever encountered. The word ‘brave’ jumps to mind, and this is a word I believe we as women (and writers) should embrace.
There are enough damsels in distress out there already. It’s time to start filling our books with women who are their own heroes.