Cheryl Strayed: "Tackle love"

The author of the smash memoir "Wild" dishes to Salon about Oprah, her new advice book and our "universal" problems

Published July 8, 2012 1:00AM (EDT)

The hardest thing about interviewing Cheryl Strayed is refraining from asking for personal advice. This is a rare impulse: I haven’t felt it even interviewing world-famous therapists and psychologists. But Strayed, the author of the runaway hit “Wild” -- which not only currently sits atop the New York Times Bestseller List, but also inspired Oprah-freaking-Winfrey to restart her book club and Reese Witherspoon to secure the movie rights -- is unusual, to say the least.

Before the explosive success of “Wild,” which tells the story of her harrowing solo 1,100-mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail -- following the death of her mother, her divorce and an entanglement with heroin -- she achieved pseudonymous stardom as the advice columnist behind the Rumpus’ Dear Sugar. Since 2010 she's answered questions about everything from finding work after college to overcoming addiction under the moniker Sugar -- it was only on Valentine's Day of this year that she came out as Strayed -- and now a collection of those columns, “Tiny Beautiful Things,” will release on Tuesday, July 10.

Strayed has a special talent for glimmering, golden turns of phrase that seem to hold all the promise and hope in the world -- they're Bible verses for a secular audience -- but these are not the sort of cheesy mottoes that you’ll find on, say, motivational posters on Pinterest. (Although there is a Dear Sugar poster, and mugs.) Take, for example: “The best thing you can possibly do with your life is to tackle the motherfucking shit out of love," "Let yourself be gutted. Let it open you. Start there" and "All right is almost always where we eventually land, even if we fuck up entirely along the way."

She refers to letter writers as “sweet pea” and “honey bun,” but never lets them off the hook. No matter how tragic their predicament, she exhorts them to be their "best, most gigantic self," that "every last one of us can do better than give up." It is tough, smart, real love.

Most remarkable has been Strayed's willingness to use her own story, to revisit her most hopeless, fumbling moments -- from drug use to infidelity -- in answering readers’ questions. The simple question "WTF, WTF, WTF? I'm asking this question as it applies to everything every day" elicits a story about Strayed's sexual abuse as a child ("My father's father made me jack him off when I was three and four and five"); a woman bereft over a miscarriage is told about Strayed's time working as a youth advocate with "high risk" teenage girls ("She had to grab like a drowning girl at every good thing that came her way and she had to swim like fuck away from every bad thing"). The magic is in these unexpected connections, her ability to make the specific universal.

So, while I successfully refrained from treating our interview as a personal therapy session -- it was. I had all my deepest, dearest questions answered without asking them. I hung up the phone with her and thought: “Well, I don’t have to go to yoga today.” I’d already found that place of calm and center, that feeling that the world is actually pretty OK. Maybe our conversation -- which took place by cellphone as Strayed’s husband (aka Mr. Sugar) drove her home from a couple of “Wild” readings -- will do the same for you. If not, there's always the book.

What is it like feeling so desperately sought after for advice? What a pressure to have people bringing you the greatest problem in their lives.

It does feel overwhelming sometimes. When I feel most overwhelmed is when I go through my Sugar inbox where there are thousands of people who have written me who have real problems. The thing I will say about that that gives me comfort is I feel like I’ve already offered them the advice they seek. They don’t realize it yet. If lightning struck me dead today, I do feel like so many of the answers to the questions that I have in my inbox, I have answered them already in “Tiny Beautiful Things.” The advice I give tends to be so universal that if you’re willing to think in a bigger way about whatever little pickle you find yourself in -- which never feels little, but really so often our troubles are universal. That’s the way Sugar has always functioned, to be less prescriptive and more encouraging a way of living a life or a way of finding wholeness.

I recently was reading “The Wizard of Oz” to my kids -- not the shortened, abridged version, but the real, full-on novel. Dorothy’s house flies away and she gets these magic ruby slippers, which are silver in the novel. She goes off on a journey to Oz and endures all these trials and hardships, and all she’s trying to do this whole time is get home. She ultimately has to travel again through these dark places and has this final moment of despair when she thinks she’s never going to get home. One of the good witches comes back to her and tells her that, actually, those silver slippers that she’s wearing are the things that will get her home. What the witch says -- and this line was so powerful to me when I read it to my kids, I stopped and started crying -- she says, “Those slippers had that power all along, you just didn’t know it.” So here’s this whole dark journey through all this treachery and doubt and fear, and she was wearing the magic shoes the whole time. I think that’s true of you and me and all of us, that we have a lot of power that we don’t know we have. So much of growing up is learning how to find that power and to use it for good purposes, to get home.

I love that story because your hiking boots obviously could be seen as your ruby slippers.

I never thought about that. You’re right. That’s funny that I didn’t even make that connection and they’re right there on the cover of my book! That’s so often the case. What you just said is a great example of the way Sugar works, and the way that friendship works: I told you this whole story that was meaningful to me and then you saw something that I didn’t see, that’s just so obvious and yet I didn’t see it.

Why do you think you’ve become such a beacon for people?

I think the main thing is I took the chance to actually be myself. I was always very self-conscious about not being cool enough, that I wasn’t snarky or super-aloof and witty and cutting in that cool way. But I will risk telling the truth. With Sugar, I took that chance of writing completely from that place that I feel in my heart -- of total sincerity and love. People recognized that I wasn’t protecting myself by being aloof and cool, and so they recognized themselves, not just in me but in the letter writers too. They saw that people were being vulnerable.

Given that so much of your writing is influenced by your mother’s death, I’m wondering if it plays a part in your searing, unabashed honesty about your own life. Is there a certain freedom in being without that parental gaze? Or is it more that your memories of your mother’s spirit inspire that degree of candidness?

I think it’s a combination of things. I’ve always tended to be a pretty candid person like that, but I will say that when I teach memoir people are always asking, “Oh my god, what will my parents think?” and I always joke -- nobody ever laughs at this joke -- “Well, there are some advantages to having a dead mother ... and a father who abandoned you young.” Essentially, I don’t have any parents and I haven’t since I was 22. I don’t have anyone who gives a shit in that regard. I can write truly about my mother because she’s dead.

I’ve always been, even as a kid, very inquisitive and open. I always wanted to know people’s secrets. Sometimes my mom’s friends would come over and she’d say, “OK, you can only ask them three questions.” Otherwise I would dominate. If there was a couple over, I would look at the man and say something like, “Well, why do you love her?” Here’s this 10-year-old saying, “Why do you love her? Why do you love her?” I’ve always been a little awkwardly honest. I’m curious -- why do people love each other, why do people leave each other, why do they stop loving each other, why can’t they have sex with each other if they are in love with each other? All of these are questions I’ve asked and have been asking for a long time. I know you ask those questions too in your work.

All the time, and since I was little too.

Sometimes, before I was out as Sugar, people superimposed their own narrative on what Sugar did for me. They’d say, “Well, I’m afraid that when you reveal your identity you won’t be so open.” And I’d say, “You’re wrong!” I’m no more open as Sugar than I am as Cheryl.

I wonder if people got something from your anonymity.

I do think sometimes, especially at first, they got to withhold judgment from me. Like if they’d seen a picture of me first, they’d have all these judgments of what kind of a person I am based on the photograph. I think no matter how much we know we’re not supposed to judge books by their cover, we all do. Being on the “Wild” tour has been so interesting because there are so many people who come up to me and say this book changed my life, and they are not at all alike, they do not look like you would think they’d look. I had a 90-year-old guy come up to me and he was crying so hard, for like three minutes he couldn’t even tell me his name, because he loved my book so much -- and it’s like, why did I think 90-year-old guys wouldn’t love my book?

Going back to your mom, she’s at the center of so much of your work, from your gorgeous essay “The Love of My Life” to your answers in Dear Sugar to your novel “Torch,” which even though it’s fictional, it centers around a similar theme of a mother dying of cancer. Have these works all been ways of processing that major life event? What have you gotten from each iteration?

Clearly, my mother’s death is like my obsession. I didn’t choose it. I don’t like that I’ve written about it so much. It’s funny, for a long time I was so excited about “Wild” because I thought, “My mother won’t be in it!” But of course, now I’m like, “What was I thinking?” It’s totally about my mom. I really do think that writers, you have to write that story that you have to write. For some reason, I had to keep telling that story of my mom, and I know why: When her life ended, so did mine in so many ways. I really had to re-create and redefine my whole existence in the world, because the world didn’t contain the one person who loved me truly and unconditionally and primally. I had to go back to the primal to figure out how I could be. It keeps coming out in my art. I will say that I do think I’ll always write about my mom. But I also know well enough not to guess yet. I always trust this path where it leads me when it comes to writing and life.

What it gives me is that every time I write about it maybe I’m getting closer to that place of total acceptance. And I do think I’m there in terms of total acceptance about her death. I’ve healed as deeply as you can heal about grief and loss.

Did writing “Wild” get you there? At the end of the book you note that even at the end of your trip you didn’t know at the time what the trip really meant for you. Was writing that book part of understanding?

What happens with me and writing is I think I understand something and then I start writing and my understanding goes deeper and deeper and deeper. I knew that the hike was transformative and then when I wrote the book I got to go to a deeper place in understanding what that experience meant in my life. I think it’s the writer Grace Paley, who I love, who said, “I write so that I can taste life twice.” It’s kind of like you go to therapy and talk about things that happened in the past and you get a new understanding, and writing does that.

You seem to have such an impulse to make beauty out of ugliness. I see that in your writing about your mother, and in the messages of hope that you deliver to letter writers, some of whom are in such desperately awful situations -- I think of column No. 46, "Beauty and the Beast," in particular. Does this optimism take great effort?

That’s so interesting. I don’t see it quite as optimism. I see it as, first of all, that there is beauty in ugliness. I think that sometimes when you have to look harder or work harder to find a beautiful place it’s actually more magnificent than an easy beauty. So I think of it as a way of looking more deeply at the world or a person or at yourself. I also think that we don’t have a choice. There are some things about which there are two ways to go. One is in the direction of despair and wallowing in the ugliness and saying basically “life sucks and we’re all gonna die,” and then the other is, well, like in the column “The Obliterated Place,” the letter’s from a man whose son was killed by a drunk driver, and I say this is a terrible, terrible, terrible thing and it will never not be terrible -- it’s just awful, probably the most awful thing to lose your child -- and yet he has two choices: He can wallow in that and have a horrible life and every day live in this ugliness, or he can take this ugliness and make it beautiful, he can honor his son and create something out of this. I think that’s a really important tenet of my life and Sugar’s worldview. The Sugar column is what I did with my grief that’s the way I’ve made something that was ugly into something beautiful.

It’s interesting because you go to that place of beauty but you don’t do it with any denial or delusion; it’s very real and honest. It’s not a superficial beauty.

Well, thank you.

This is an odd question, but what makes you feel hopeless?

I think Sugar makes it apparent that people ask me for advice about things I’m also struggling with. I think in my life there are all kinds of struggles in every direction: parenting, for example. I have two little kids and just in the last couple days, Brian, my husband, Mr. Sugar, and I have said to each other, What do we do? Why is this thing not working with one of our kids -- or with our marriage? We’ve been together almost 17 years, we’ve had all kinds of struggles about, like, monogamy, keeping the sexual stuff alive in the face of everything.

And, professionally, how do I achieve balance? All these people want Sugar to write these columns every week and I’m totally overcommitted and struggling. Should I stay up all night writing the column and deny myself sleep and exercise and nutrition? Because I do that. Is that what Sugar would tell someone else to do?

Every question in every direction, I too have those questions. It’s not so much that I ever feel totally despairing but that I’m often filled with more questions than answers.

Do you ever find the voice of Sugar guiding you in your own life?

Sure. Sugar is just my best self. We all have that: our worst self and our best self. Sugar is the voice inside my head who tells me the right things to do -- that doesn’t mean I always do them. I think some feel so buried that they don’t have that best self -- I mean they have it inside them but they can’t hear it talking. I would say the biggest thing in my life in just growing up and reaching new levels of maturity is that I can hear that voice more readily and follow it more often. And that’s the voice I write with. I try to write out of that place.

So ... the inevitable Oprah question: What’s it like for you to be suddenly linked to one of the most famous and powerful people in the world?

It’s amazing. It’s overwhelming in a big way. My cellphone rang completely out of the blue and it was Oprah. I went to her house and spent the day with her and looked into her eyes and had an hours-and-hours-long conversation and what the experience of it was was that Oprah Winfrey all-in-caps fell away and she was this really wonderful, smart, articulate woman who happened to be named Oprah. She’s totally authentic and sincere and what she saw in “Wild” is what any reader who fell in love with the book did. It was pretty spectacular to break through that fame thing and just experience her as a human being.

So the first that you heard that she restarted the book club for your book, she called you?

Yes. I was on my book tour in April in Milwaukee and my cellphone rang and I didn’t recognize the number and almost didn’t pick it up, but I thought, well, I’ll just see who it is. I picked up and said, “Hi, this is Cheryl,” and she said, “Hi, this is Oprah.” I paused because I recognized her voice, so I said, “Oh my god, it is,” and she laughed. She just launched into how much she loves “Wild” and before I knew it she was describing how she was going to restart the book club because of “Wild.” Without even knowing it, I just went down onto the floor of the hotel room, I was just lying on the floor talking to Oprah.

All right, one last question for you: Based on the letters you’ve gotten, how would you distill the majority of people’s worries and problems? Are there themes you can pinpoint?

Yeah, I think people need an enormous amount of reassurance that they’re OK, that the things they want or feel or think are OK. A thing I sense over and over is, “Why can’t I get over this or why I can’t be like this or why can’t I accept this?” -- people really thinking that they’re alone in their feelings and that they’re somehow invalid. I also think people really want to feel inside of things and included in things and a lot of times people feel outside of things. We all assume other people are feeling confident and comfortable when really what’s happening inside of them is the opposite. So there’s that struggle between what’s inside and what one actually shows to the world.

We all really want love, big time. Relationships -- pretty much every letter was about a relationship, not necessarily romantic or sexual. Those are the things we’ll be thinking about when the plane goes down.

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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