Three books by Cheryl Strayed have been published in 2012. Wild, the bestselling memoir of a solo journey on the Pacific Crest Trail that inspired Oprah to restart her book club. Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of pseudonymously-written Dear Sugar literary advice columns from The Rumpus. And most recently Torch, a new edition of a lyrical novel first published in 2006 about a family’s struggles with the loss of the wife and mother who was its emotional center.
It is ordinary and human to fall down and to make mistakes, and it is courageous to get back up. Throughout her writing, but particularly as Sugar, Strayed rummages through her failures and sorrows as though they were a sack of Christmas presents, offering each story as a gift of compassion that seems so well-matched to each letter writer that readers can’t possibly overlook the message that our lives — not just at their best moments, but also our worst — are of great value.
People want to talk to Cheryl Strayed for many reasons these days; mine were mostly personal: she’s a writer in her 40s who lost her mom to cancer and struggled for years to come to terms with that loss. We have very different lives, but those words describe me, too. I asked The Millions to host our conversation, and what follows is an edited transcript of our 90-minute telephone call.
Robin Grearson: Jessica Weisberg described you in The New Yorker recently this way: “Her comfort with her own imperfection is a small example of feminism’s accomplishments; she is a reminder that anyone with a troubled past could one day become a voice of authority.” I wonder if you want to comment on how that feels, becoming a voice of authority?
Cheryl Strayed: I really liked that piece a lot. It was fun to read about the history of the advice column. A voice of authority, I had two responses to that. It’s really important to me that people, for example who have experienced big grief, can say to me, thank you for writing what I feel but couldn’t write. It’s not as if the writer has invented these feelings; it’s that the writer has managed to convey them on the page in ways that maybe people who aren’t writers can’t. And that’s the way I read that. Not that I am the expert on things that other people aren’t the expert on. But rather that I’m able through storytelling to reveal a part of the human experience in literary ways. And that’s exactly what I’d always hoped to do and achieve.
You know, as Sugar would say, like if I were writing a Sugar column, I would look up the word authority and ask, Where does that come from? We hear that word, authority, and we think it is that kind of power over, or superiority. I don’t think it means that. The meaning I take from it is, that I have been writing long enough that I get at this kind of work of delving into the human experience through writing, that’s maybe what she’s identifying in that piece. The other thing I want to say is, so often we think that people who have had difficulties or grown up poor like I did, that, somehow we don’t have a voice in the culture. And the many people who have gone on to have a voice in the culture are people who persisted and who kept talking. And in some ways I guess that’s what I’ve done all these years, just writing and writing, come what may, and keeping the faith with that.
RG: I found Dear Sugar and The Rumpus around the same time that I moved to New York, so for me, Sugar was a New Yorker, I was sure you lived nearby.
CS: Sugar was like a character in a novel. Some people imagined her tall and skinny and roaming Brooklyn. A lot of people have said, I thought you were this African American writer living in, like, New Orleans or something. So people project whatever it is maybe that they are or what they want or something, onto Sugar.
RG: Did your friends always know you were Sugar?
CS: I had no idea when I began that this would become what it has. So at first I didn’t really think of it as this huge secret. And then once it started to gain a following, I thought, oh, maybe I should just really not go blabbing around to everyone. But Stephen Elliott and Isaac Fitzgerald at The Rumpus, they would sometimes tell people. Isaac is the managing editor of The Rumpus, he’s this young, handsome guy, and he would joke that he would tell women to get them to sleep with him. He’d say, like, I’ll tell you who Sugar is, if —
RG: Did that work?
CS: I think it was pretty effective. [LAUGHS] But it probably doesn’t hurt that he’s young and handsome and sweet. So it became, you know, if I’m gonna do this, I’m gonna see what it’s like to try to maintain anonymity.
RG: Do you ever do something and think, Sugar would kick my ass for doing that. Is there any kind of interaction with her as an other, an alter-ego?
CS: Oh, all the time. Sugar is, like, the best version of myself. Like, what is the best or right-est thing to do in any given situation. And that can be really hard to do. Like, just to speak honestly to a friend or a parent or a lover. I experience those things as stressful and hard, too. And sometimes it’s easier to be kind of dysfunctional, or to allow a dysfunction to continue. The reason we use denial, for example, it’s a great survival mechanism. So many of us get into trouble with setting boundaries, have chosen not to set boundaries for our short-term survival or benefit. But ultimately that comes back and bites you in the ass. I have to remember that all the time and remind myself of that. There’s still lots of stuff I’m constantly struggling with. And the whole deal with Sugar, is, I always say, look, I’m not giving you advice from this position of superiority or perfection.
RG: Sugar offers Cheryl’s mistakes as a light in the tunnel of someone else’s journey, lets the reader see someone’s failures, but there’s a key element in that, she never apologizes to the reader. My way of understanding that, even if you did something you felt was wrong, your apology would have been to that person. There are so many ways females can be torn apart when they try to be multifaceted, and publicly. So much dignity comes from Sugar and Cheryl. In your essay “The Love of My Life,” there is a dignity that comes from claiming responsibility for your behavior and saying, I’m not going to defend myself, I’m not going to apologize for myself. Have you always had that? You have to fight to have that, I think.
CS: Thank you so much. Nobody’s quite articulated it in that way before. I think you’re right. That is a really important thing to me, not that I’m not sorry about things, I’m very — but that, I’m sorry about them to the person who — I mean, I apologize to the person who deserves the apology, not to the culture that thinks that women shouldn’t have abortions or have sex with people, you know what I mean.
CS: I’m not going to apologize for being female or human. But I will apologize to the party I’ve wronged. About a month ago, I posted this video on my Facebook page about being pro choice and why. There was this conversation that ensued in the comments about whether abortion should be legal. And this man who is a fan of Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things said, well, I’m against abortion, but I do think it should be legal. And Cheryl, the thing about you is, you had an abortion but you regret it. And you’ve told us how that does stay with you and how many regrets you have about it. And I was like, uh, no I haven’t. I thought, I can’t let that stand. I said, actually, you’re mistaken. I do not regret it. I wish I hadn’t gotten pregnant. I don’t think it’s this great, exciting chapter of my life that I treasure. But I certainly think that having an abortion was the best thing I could have done in that situation. And I have absolutely no regrets whatsoever, nor am I scarred by the experience. I think it’s really important to assert that. Because the generation of women before us, they could do things like have an abortion or have sex in ways that are conceived as promiscuous, so long as they felt bad about it afterward or have been, like, oh, but what I was really looking for was love. When really it’s — a lot of times what I was really looking for was sex. You know what I mean?
CS: So it’s up to us, it’s up to our generation, to just not ask for permission. I think that not asking for permission to be human is a really big part of being a fully actualized human. I think with all humility, you should be accountable to your actions. But also that, with that apology, be able to report what your actions were.
RG: I was my mom’s caretaker as you were for your mom, and after she passed away, I experienced this, I guess, hypersexuality. I never knew where to put it in my life, to relate to it without apologizing or saying, yeah, that was not me. But it isn’t my self-definition, either; it was complicated. Grief just broke my life. But specifically that piece of it, that piece of, yes, I did this. There’s nowhere that is discussed. And you write about that.
CS: It’s fascinating, many women have said this to me, about this hypersexualized thing in their grief. I think it’s pretty common. “The Love of My Life” was published in 2002. Many people would say, I think I even say it in that essay — I certainly say it in Wild. I would say of myself, I’m more like a guy — I’m more like a man than a woman sexually. Because I did want to just have sex without emotional connections. Like, that was actually very much what I wanted. And what I’ve come to understand is, no, no. I’ve talked to enough women now, that — like, no, no. I have the sexuality of a woman, it’s just that women have never been allowed to publicly say that that can be part of our sexuality. Though, of course, the most meaningful sex is with emotional connection. I’m not saying that those were the greatest experiences of my life. But they were experiences, and they were necessary. And they were part of who I am. I think that when we don’t allow women to have that be part of who we are, when that’s defined just as male, as I did, because I didn’t know any other way to define it, we’re robbing women of their full humanity. And so, by saying, I was this way, and I am a woman, and I’m not the only woman who was this way — you know, without apology — this is in some ways restoring just really what’s ours, and what’s there.
RG: Yes. My mom passed away, and a four-year-long relationship ended a week later. I felt like I needed to teach the world that I wanted to be excused from being a responsible adult. I felt like I regressed back to this teenager’s behavior because I just wanted to say, you see someone who’s 30, but really, I cannot act like 30 right now.
CS: Absolutely. I really relate to that teenager thing. You know, ’cause I honestly think that that’s also why I got involved with heroin. I couldn’t see it then, even though I could feel it in my body. I was just trying to be really kind of bad, and rail against — not even the culture. Like, life could not go on as normal without my mom. You know.
CS: And I was not gonna just be, like, well, that was really sad, but here we go, forward. And of course, in the end, that’s what I had to do. That was actually the big lesson. At the end of Wild, it really is, it’s that moment in my life where I was, like, okay. It is sad that my mom died, it’s terrible. And it will always, always be terrible. And yet, the deal is, is I have to go on. I have to go on living, and I can’t go on living like a little petulant teenage brat anymore. Because it’s ruining my life. But I did need to not have a normal life for a while there. I had to just in some ways self-destruct. And some of it was just to get attention and some of it was just to sort of act out some of my sorrow.
RG: I read that grief’s end can be signified as a time when the relationship transforms from a focus on what you’ve lost, to an acknowledgment of gratitude for having the person in your life as long as you had them. Was coming to the end of the trail when you recognized that part of the grieving process was behind you?
CS: Yeah, I think it’s complicated. Because it’s not one moment; many moments over many years have given me a deeper and deeper sense of acceptance. And I am really grateful for my mother, but what’s complicated is, I always was really grateful for my mother. I literally did not know how the hell I was to be expected to live without my mom. And it’s awful. It’s awful, awful, awful, that I’d have to live without my mom. It still is terrible. When I think about it I still can get just appalled by it. And yet, it’s also like, well, she just gives me so much. And I am so lucky she was my mom. We started off talking about this being this way that I kind of stepped outside of the sort of expectations of women and what’s considered good behavior and bad, that I behaved badly, and this feeling that I don’t need to apologize for it. I feel really strongly about that. And I feel it not just on my own behalf but on behalf of anyone who’s really ever had to come to grips with something that was tremendously difficult. People do all kinds of unexpected things in these transitional times of their lives. And they don’t need to be sorry for it, because it is part of being human, and it isn’t about being a good person or a bad person. I think just telling the truth of that is kind of important and revolutionary.
RG: After I lost my mom I felt, I can’t continue, I can’t imagine anyone would expect that I could. But I felt overly empathic, too, like, I felt other people’s suffering so acutely that I tried to shelter everyone from going through what I felt. Cheryl and Sugar seem to write from that, that compassion of remembering how awful it was.
CS: I still feel it. So many people come up to me at my readings, they’ll look me in the eye and say, oh, my mom just died two months ago. Or, my mom has cancer and she’s dying right now. And they start crying. And I just want to absorb them into my bloodstream or something. It pains me profoundly to know they’re in the midst of that. But this is what I really try to offer as Sugar. Through what I write about that experience, it helps people feel not alone. If I’m a little further down the grief path, maybe it’s a little bit of comfort to know that you can feel this way, at this point, and come out the other side and feel this other way. That’s just what I really try to do, to offer that understanding and compassion and perspective. Like, it’ll be okay. I would say that’s the central message of Sugar. It’ll be okay. ‘Cause it usually will be okay, even if it’s pretty awful.
RG: That comes across when you talk about Mr. Sugar and the baby Sugars. That gives the feeling of, there’s a happily ever after, there’s something after where you are now, because there was for me.
CS: I’ve always thought that the important thing is to turn our suffering into beauty. And the image of the phoenix rising from the ashes has always been super-cool to me, that idea of our greatest beauty and strength rising out of the things that have been destroyed and have been lost. In Wild I talk about this book that I carried all the way with me, this collection of poems by Adrienne Rich called The Dream of A Common Language. And on the trail in Wild, I read that first poem, it’s called “Power.”
The poem is about Marie Curie, who discovered radiation. And she ended up dying of basically radiation exposure, this disease that had been essentially her greatest achievement. Marie Curie could never admit that’s what was killing her. And Adrienne Rich writes, she died a famous woman denying that the greatest source of her power was her wound. I’m paraphrasing it, but essentially it’s that. The thing about Adrienne Rich and what I was trying to do also in my writing career is to do the opposite, to not deny that our power comes from our wounds, that those deep wounds are the place of our power, and to really write from that place in my own life. That goes back to this earlier question about authority. That’s what authority is. When you’re actually writing from that deepest place within you, if you tell the truth, you’re using your greatest power and your greatest authority. That’s a key piece, not just doing that as a writer but when we talk about healing. Whatever the loss may be, not avoiding that wound, not trying to have it covered up and pretend it’s not there but rather to look into it.
RG: What happens to Sugar now?
CS: The idea was always to go back to the Sugar column, and I do hope to do that, but I just don’t know when, and I don’t know how that’s gonna look. I’d also love to start working on another book. I would love to write another novel. I’m kind of over myself at this point.
RG: I read an interview in which you mention living off of credit cards while finishing Torch, after grad school.
CS: Yeah, and Wild.
RG: It seems potentially irresponsible, but maybe the more responsible choice in being accountable to a bigger priority. How did you decide to take that kind of risk?
CS: I know a lot of people would think that’s just incredibly irresponsible. And it can be irresponsible if you’re not actually writing. If you’re saying that you’re working on your novel and you’re not really working on your novel and you’re just living on your credit cards, that’s probably a really bad idea. I didn’t just do it once, I did it twice.
RG: Wow. For how long?
CS: In graduate school I got a modest fellowship that covered a portion of our expenses. And my husband is a documentary filmmaker. So I said, after graduate school, should I get a job? I feel like if I just keep pushing on this novel — I was about halfway done with it when I finished graduate school. I felt like I could crank out that next half over the next year, roughly. And my husband was like, absolutely. Let’s just go for it. We had three or four credit cards. We just said, okay, this is probably completely crazy, but we’re just gonna do this. He was making enough so he could make the minimum payments. We were running up credit card debt so I could write this book instead of doing the “responsible thing” and getting a job that would then prevent me from finishing my book. And it surely would have. Because it was all I could do to finish that damn book. I did, a little more than a year after grad school ended. I finished it, and Houghton Mifflin bought it. Actually the way it pays out, you get four checks. What you’re really getting is over the course of four years. So that first check, the agent takes a percentage, and then there’s taxes. That whole first check that I got, we paid off our credit card debt. It wasn’t like we got that check and then we could live off that money. We got that check and we paid off the past debt.
RG: So you could get to zero.
CS: So we could get to zero, and then we were just back to being broke again. The first check that I got for Wild, too, the whole thing went to credit card debt. I would say, it’s probably not a good idea to do that if you’re a poet. Sadly, you’re not gonna get a book advance for your poetry. But, fiction and memoir, I mean, that’s the gamble, right? You could get zero, nobody could ever buy it from you. You could get a few thousand dollars from a small press, so that’s not gonna probably do much in terms of helping you pay back that credit card debt. Or you could get a solid advance from a publisher, a large press that will maybe allow you to pay back the debt that you’ve run up to write the book.
RG: Was there an idea, like, I hope I’ll get this much of an advance or —
CS: I wrote the book I wanted to write, and then I hoped that someone would want to publish it. But in both cases, I was fully prepared to have to deal with, if I didn’t sell those books, I was gonna just have to pay off this debt. A lot of people go get their MFA and they’re just at the beginning of their writing career trying to finish that first book. That’s when they have that full-time job teaching comp or teaching five classes or whatever. They hardly ever have time to write, and then years and years go by, and they never do finish that first book. So what I thought is, give me a chance. When I really got to the point where I really, really was ready to finish a book. I thought, just give me this space so I can see what happens when I finish. And I was lucky.
RG: My grandmother was the voice in our family of, you know, can’t you please work at the post office, just do the secure thing. You’d want to prove her wrong, but of course you can’t until you take those risks. My mother’s last lucid words to me were, “Never think you have to justify your life to anyone,” which, 11 years ago didn’t really have a context. But over the years, the words became a pretty profound gift. After my grandmother passed away, eight months afterward, I came to New York, where in many ways I’m just beginning as a writer.
CS: That’s the trick about artists, most of us, not just in our own families but in the whole world, it’s, like, okay, why are you being so unreasonable and irresponsible by not getting a secure job? What do you mean you want to write? Those people have good intentions. What your grandmom is saying is she wants you to be safe and secure and happy. But it’s not gonna ultimately make you happy because you’re not doing what you really are here to do. There’s this wonderful quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald that I love, nobody wants a soldier who is only a little brave.
And if you’re gonna be a writer, you just truly have to be a writer. You have to throw yourself into it and deal with the negative consequences of that. And there are negative consequences. I mean, there are. But, it’s also true that you wouldn’t be interviewing me right now if I had worked at the post office. You wouldn’t. I would be still writing, but I wouldn’t have gotten as far as I’ve gotten, because I wouldn’t have had the time. I just wouldn’t have, I have two little kids. You do have to take those risks that other people are not going to think are reasonable or good risks to take. And the advice that your mom gave you, to say you don’t have to justify your life, it’s all about that. Every artist at some point had to decide that they didn’t have to justify themselves to the people around them. It did feel frivolous to me, to be a writer. But I had to always say, but trust me, this is important work.
RG: My mother’s advice reminds me of the Dear Sugar column you wrote about the little girl’s dress your mother wanted you to buy.
CS: Oh yeah, totally. That was amazing, what a treasure that I have that dress. My mother just having the wisdom, at that moment in my youth, I’m, like, I doubt I’ll even want kids. And she knows, it doesn’t really matter what I’m thinking at that age. She was just very, just get the dress, put it in a box and wait. And I think that “put it in a box and wait” idea of her buying this dress and giving it to me, and I put it in a box and waited. That’s such a key, key, key, piece of wisdom that is true in all of these different parts of our lives. So many of us, we feel really in a hurry, we want life to be really good and perfect every day, and I want that too. But we don’t know what will come to pass. And this has everything to do, too, with this writing thing that we’ve been talking about. Like, me just deciding to live off credit cards to finish Torch. It’s totally, put it in a box and wait, just doing the work and seeing what happens as a result of it. If I just sat around eating tacos that whole time, running up my credit cards, what I have put into that box wouldn’t have delivered. I would have opened that box later and it would have been, okay, well, I didn’t write my novel, I just ran up my credit card bill.
CS: But I did write my novel. And I ran up my credit card bill. And what happened when I opened the box is, I got a check that paid the credit card bill. Metaphorically speaking, I think that happens in marriages and friendships and in all different ways in our lives, you know. So I would say that’s pretty good wisdom from my mom.
RG: You wrote about how your first published story won a contest and was published in a book. I have an impression that you haven’t had many of your essays and stories rejected.
CS: I have had successes all along the way and I’ve had rejections all along the way. I think that’s just true, and it will remain true for all of my writing life. The other day I ended up just sitting down and spontaneously writing this essay called, “How to Get Published.” And it tells the story, the trajectory and essentially the back story of “The Love of My Life.” Where I sent it and who rejected it and how, or what they said, and how it found its home. But it was rejected by, like, five places before it found its place at The Sun. There are very few times that the first place I sent it was the place that took it. Now it’s a little different. I’ll be invited to write something, and unless they really hate it — which has also happened.
The Washington Post Magazine, a few years ago, they asked all these fiction writers to write nonfiction for their summer issue. It could be anything, it just had to happen in the summer. I wrote this essay called “Baby Weight,” about the first summer I was a mother. I sent it to the editor, and he said he was hoping for a story that was a little more universal. Which makes me laugh, because, really? So he rejected it, he said no. And he had commissioned me. I said, well, I’ll just write you something else, and we talked about different ideas. I ended up writing a different essay called “Splendid Isolation” that was about the incredibly universal experience of me spending a summer with my family living pioneer style, off the grid, in this shack while we built our house and didn’t have, like, plumbing or electricity or running water. So that was published. I think that is a great example of, like, okay, even when you’re invited, you still can be humiliated sometimes.
Photo courtesy of Cheryl Strayed