In under 400 pages, Aspen Matis chronicles her 2,650-mile walk from Mexico to Canada. Her trek along the Pacific Crest Trail was one of peril, romance and suspense. But it was a psychological journey as well; one she undertook to live beyond the college sexual assault that prompted the adventure. It was only with the completion of her journey that Matis knew she wanted to be a writer.
"I was naive and ambitious, but knew it's not a practical way to make a living," Matis, author of the memoir Girl in the Woods, says. "I would show up to these 'shut up and write' groups in San Francisco; everyone was fairly lost. Then I realized all of the amazing, accomplished writers were not at these things, and certainly not looking for a mentee. So it became apparent that the way was to go back to school."
A college dropout, Matis followed her then-husband to New York City, where she enrolled in Susan Shapiro's class at The New School, where the goal was to publish a piece by the end of the class. And Aspen did. Her first article appeared in the New York Times.
"Aspen took my New School class several times," Shapiro says. "She'd pick my brain and talk out the story beats of her memoir, which I loved from the first beautiful pages she brought into my class. Dan Jones loved her work too, launching her book with a great Modern Love piece."
In the book acknowledgements, Matis expresses gratitude for Shapiro, calling her "the most passionate, generous professor and friend a young writer could ever meet." Shapiro took Matis under her wing, where she currently attends a closed writing group with Shapiro's fellow author friends twice a week.
Writers acquire different techniques for writing books, but Matis, having sold her book on proposal, worked with deadlines given to her by the publisher. "I'd go to a cafe and I worked three or four hours in the morning. I'd write until I hit a wall. Then I'd take a break and go for a walk. Then I'd go to a different cafe and do it again. I wouldn't socialize until I did my writing for the day. I treated it like a full-time job, writing eight hours a day, every day. One day off really is two days lost. It was so tremendously stressful. But I don't regret doing it that way because it made me write the story quickly."
Matis worked at Joe Cafe, her unofficial office. Renting a space for writing wasn't her style; she preferred to be around energy and people working together. "I find it very exciting and feel most productive when people are productive around me. Most of my closest friends are writers. That's why I have work dates with my friends. We will just show up to a cafe and write."
After two and a half years, her book was over 1,200 pages. "I would write the stories that were burning in me, the stories I couldn't possibly forget. I really had to write all of these stories before I could discern which ones were necessary."
Though 25-year-old Matis makes it sound easy with the sheer volume of writing she produced, she still had difficultly. "The very hardest thing was writing about falling in love with Justin as I was mourning our marriage. When I sold the book, we were still married. It was going to end with our wedding. But then he disappeared. I had to write about finding this love and meeting him and falling for him as I was missing him, for my first book, on deadline, and the stakes were my book deal and my ability to finance me staying in New York."
Matis was also anxious about the reaction of loved ones to the book, which has some vivid details about the assault, and later, her romances, as well as some intimate details about her very private family. "I didn't write this book for my parents. I wrote this book to help the people who had been in my position, other girls who had been sexually assaulted, people who were trying to find their place in the world." The writing itself, Matis found to be cathartic. "A rape is too big a secret to hold inside your body and still be healthy. It will consume you. To speak openly and truthfully is so freeing. It lets it out, and puts it in its place, somewhere outside of you. It shrinks it."
Aspen Matis is a writer living in Greenwich Village, where she's finishing her degree at The New School and working on a novel.
Christina Berke grew up in Los Angeles, California. From an early age, she loved libraries and creating stories. She pursued writing throughout high school and college, completing a minor in Creative Writing at UC Berkeley. After teaching English for five years, she decided to fully dedicate herself to writing. In 2015, she moved across the country to pursue her MFA in Creative Writing. Her work can be seen in Thought Catalog, The Odyssey, Eleven and a Half, Literary Orphans, The Underground, The Moorpark Review, and elsewhere.