Before I read Cheryl Strayed’s New York Times Bestselling, Oprah-Book-Club-restarting memoir, Wild – before I read her novel Torch – I was taken with her brave, self-reflective writing. A longtime subscriber to The Sun, I’d read her unflinchingly candid essay, “The Love of My Life,” in which she fully owns sabotaging her first marriage with infidelity, attempting to sublimate her pain in the wake of her mother’s death with mindless sexual exploits, and dabbling in heroin. I’d also read other of her pieces here and there. But mostly, I’d read her column here – Dear Sugar.
Typically an advice column might not be the first thing to come to mind when considering examples of fearless first-person writing. But Cheryl’s Dear Sugar column is a major exception in that way. In the majority of her column entries, she boldly delves into her own life, to places where she’s had to overcome obstacles similar to those her letter-writers have experienced. Her understanding and compassion are real and hard won, rooted in her own experiences. And so is her sometimes butt-kicking advice. “If I was able to do this,” she seems to be saying, “so can you, sweet pea. Now get off your ass and do it.”
The stakes may have seemed lower when she was writing the column anonymously. But Cheryl says she always knew she’d eventually reveal herself – which she did in April. Now many of her best Dear Sugar columns have been gathered into Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection that goes on sale this week (and is available through The Rumpus). Her name is on it; the revelations, the fearless admissions are hers. And I’m awed.
I spoke with Cheryl via Skype last week, about how she keeps finding the courage to be honest in her work – about herself and others around her.
The Rumpus: I was reading on Oprah’s site the other day about the things that you left out of Wild, and it just dawned on me how mind-blowing the whole Oprah thing must be for you. I mean, that’s like the kind of wish you paste onto your “vision board” collage when you’re doing The Secret™: “Oprah restarts her book club for my book…” accompanied by magazine cut-outs of Oprah and some books.
Cheryl Strayed: Yeah, it’s sort of beyond whatever I had let myself fantasize about. It was very exciting. She called me on my cell phone just out of the blue in April and told me she loved Wild and wanted to restart her book club for it. And then I had to keep it a big secret until the news was announced in early June. That was tortuous.
Rumpus: I know what you mean – well, this is hardly on the same scale, but I knew for a long time that you were Sugar, and had to keep that secret. It wasn’t easy. I can be kind of a yenta, but I managed to keep that under my hat. I’m actually very proud of that.
Strayed: You know, it was really fascinating; some people were terrible at keeping that secret and other people were just great at keeping it. Toward the end, a lot of people were figuring out it. If they read the work I’ve written as Cheryl, and then read Sugar, it became pretty clear.
Rumpus: So, your first book, Torch, is often described as an autobiographical novel. One of the things I personally wrestle with is whether or not I should fictionalize my own story. To some degree, it would be an artistic choice for me, to give myself lots of creative latitude, but the biggest factor is always protecting people close to me – either from what they might learn about me, or from having things revealed about them that they’d rather not. When you wrote Torch, was it an entirely artistic choice to make it a novel?
Strayed: So many people ask about this and it’s so interesting because I never, ever, ever, ever, ever thought of Torch as anything even remotely resembling a memoir. It wasn’t as if I took real life and then I fictionalized it to make it a novel. It was more the reverse – I was writing a novel, and then I used parts of my life in it. A memoir is your story, and in Torch I wasn’t interested in telling my story. There was one young woman character with whom I have a lot in common, but she’s absolutely not me. I mean, the situation in the story is very similar to a situation I was in, my family was in. Obviously my mom died of cancer, and I would say that that piece of the novel, which is a big piece – well, if you read Wild, you can see the echo.
Rumpus: Yes, you can.
Strayed: In some ways, in a couple of cases, it’s almost like the same scene, but slightly different. In Wild I stuck to what really happened and in Torch I did whatever I wanted. But because there’s that situation, the death of the mother, and also the setting is a fictionalized setting based on the place where I grew up – because there are those two big, bold kind of sweeping autobiographical elements – people read all the rest as if it’s nonfiction or close to it, and that’s not the case. To take you back to my process, when I first was writing, nonfiction wasn’t on my radar. I wasn’t thinking of myself as memoirist. I was really very much a fiction writer and I felt free, the way fiction writers throughout time have, to draw heavily on experiences in real life. That whole “write what you know” thing. It was only once I was pretty deep into Torch that I realized I was sort of forgetting who my actual mom was because I had so much made her into this fictionalized character, Theresa. So my nonfiction was born out of that fear. I woke up on the fourth of July in 1997 and I realized I was conflating my mother and Theresa, and I didn’t want to do that. So I spent the day writing the real story of her death, and what ended up coming out of that was that my first essay, “Heroin/e,” which was later published in Double Take and in Best American Essays 2000. That’s when I first started thinking, oh, okay, I can use real life that way in my literary work. But it was still long before I ever really thought, I’m going to write a memoir.
Rumpus: But it’s interesting that there is some clear overlap between the two books.
Strayed: Well, that story of my grief around my mom’s death, it’s like I’ve just had to keep telling and telling and telling and telling that story, and anything that I was writing, it would appear in. It would appear in Torch, in Wild, in numerous essays I wrote, in several Dear Sugar columns. It’s been like my obsession, this story that wouldn’t let me go. In one of my Dear sugar columns, I write about the death of my mother and how the last word she said to me was “love,” and I say that’s like my Genesis story. I think that’s true. In some ways it’s like every story I tell winds back to that one. And so I keep having to tell it, even though the form varies. You know?
Rumpus: Yes, I do know. There are certain stories that I always just keep coming back to and back to, in things I’ve published, and in things I’ve not yet. And I think if I do publish a memoir, I will still have to write about them.
Strayed: A lot of writers do that. You look at the bodies of work of some of the writers I admire most – Mary Gaitskill, Alice Munro. They’re each telling like a family of stories over and over again. I mean, some writers manage to be incredibly diverse. But most writers have a sense of what their territory is. And not that they don’t deliver something unexpected – they do – but they deliver something unexpected within the context of what we know belongs to them.
Rumpus: You describe in Wild how you chose your last name – Strayed. I wonder though whether to some degree you were also choosing it as a pseudonym, knowing you were hoping to write. Was there any aspect of hiding from people from your past?
Strayed: No, no. I never thought of the name as a pseudonym. I thought of it as just a name change. And I broadcast it to everyone. I sent out a missive saying, “Now my name is Cheryl Strayed.” Actually, one of my fears when I changed my name was that I didn’t want people to lose track of me.
Rumpus: The idea of a pseudonym is something I toy with a lot. I just recently published on xojane.com a very revealing piece about myself. My father is a clergyman and also a former school teacher and he’s got all these very worshipful former students and bar/bat mitzvah kids. Today got an email saying, basically, “I love your piece about how you hate condoms and cheated on your first husband! By the way your father bat mitzvahed me, and I love him!” Oy. So, I wrestle with being this daughter of a clergyperson and writing really very raw, personal stuff, and also revealing stuff about myself that I think that my family probably would rather not read. But I also feel like, fuck, I don’t want to have to change my name, I don’t want people to not know it’s me. I want to have the courage to own this shit. But if I changed my name, I might feel as if I get to say whatever the fuck I want. Anyway, this is challenging for me!
Strayed: It is. You know, I’m always talking about taking risks and being fearless and all that stuff, but also always acknowledge that different people have very different situations – family situations. One of the liberations of having a dead mother is that your mother is dead. One of the liberations of having a father who is not in your life is that your father is not in your life. Those are hard and sad things that I’ve had to come to terms with over the course of my life, but as a writer they are frankly liberating. I get to say whatever the hell I want to say! Of course, I mean I’m overstating that. I should amend that and say there are absolutely things I don’t write because I fear I would hurt someone’s feelings, invade their privacy. So there are lines I draw. Trust me, there are many, many, many stories that would be very interesting to readers that I didn’t tell in Wild because they have to do with certain people – family members and such. I didn’t write everything there is to say about all of the people I mention in Wild, and it was because I had those considerations. I try not to hurt people’s feelings, I try not to expose people who aren’t asking to be exposed. I do think people have a right to privacy, and that if I’m going to expose anyone it’s going to be me. Of course, what happens is sometimes when you expose yourself, you end up having to write about other people, and that’s what’s complex. But like, in your case, you have this very different family system than I have. Your father has this public role. There’s a different kind of fallout and different consequences.
Rumpus: Yeah, I want to “write like a motherfucker,” but, I have to be careful not to be a clergyman screwer-upper. What about your dad? Do you think your dad has seen Wild or Tiny Beautiful Things – your collection of Dear Sugar Columns that’s out this week – or knows about them? I mean, you’re kind ubiquitous right now.
Strayed: I haven’t heard from him.
Rumpus: There’s an entry in Tiny Beautiful Things called “The Empty Bowl.” In it, you write about your father, and deciding you couldn’t sustain a sort of fake, surface-y relationship with him without any acknowledgment or resolution of the past. I feel like I’ve got an Empty Bowl-related conversation on my horizon.
Strayed: As I write in that piece, the last time we were in contact was that email exchange we had right before I turned thirty-nine. He’s tried to friend me on Facebook a couple of times since then, but I’ve declined. One thing that’s really true is I do not want to hurt my father. I have absolutely no interest in harming him. I wish him well, actually. I really do. I feel like I’ve really completely healed all of the difficult things I’ve written about when it comes to him. I’ve moved beyond it. When I think of him, I hope he’s well. I hope he’s at peace. I don’t want my writing to hurt him.
Rumpus: But you also feel like it’s important to write what you need to write about those situations.
Strayed: Well I can’t lie. I can’t pretend that I had a great dad. I think the fact that I didn’t have a great dad forms the person I am, and it tells a story that only I can tell. So I have to. I have to tell readers about that. Just, I have to.
Rumpus: I’m really glad you wrote all the father stuff, in both books, because that really informs me in a way that I need to be informed – I’m working some of that same stuff out myself.
Strayed: I want to say a couple things to you. I mean, I am Sugar, so I’m going to give you advice.
Rumpus: Oh, shit.
Strayed: One thing I will say is that you don’t know what will happen if you write the truth. You don’t know what will happen if you decide to write what you feel really compelled to write. You think that there might be this consequence but there might actually be a different sort of outcome, and it could be a positive one.
I was a little bit worried about my brother and my ex-husband’s reactions to Wild. In the case of my brother, there are some difficult things that are said, and he’s certainly in some very difficult scenes. And in the case of my ex-husband, I don’t say anything negative about him, but here I am writing for this national – really international – audience about our marriage and its demise. I just really felt like, oh my god, I don’t envy anyone who’s in anyone else’s memoir, even if nice things are said about them. There’s this funny feeling I imagine one would get because one is being portrayed by someone else. I could see how my ex-husband might think, oh, just please leave it alone. And so I felt kind of sick to my stomach about the idea of him having to read my book. But what happened was amazing. We haven’t been in touch for years, even though there aren’t any bad feelings between us. We’re just not in touch. But he sent me an email telling me he read Wild, he really loved the book, he thanked me for the way I wrote about him and us. My brother, too. He said he felt like we reached a new place of understanding. I hadn’t anticipated that, so, you know, you can’t necessarily predict people’s reactions.
Rumpus: Wow. That’s actually sort of comforting. And inspiring.
Strayed: I saw my stepfather in Duluth when I was there on my book tour, and you know, there are some painful aspects of that relationship that I write about. And he hugged me and told me he loved me. We didn’t talk much about the book. But what I mean to say is, you don’t always know that there are going to be negative consequences. All of those people I just named, I wrote about them with love. I wrote about them with a real sense of the fullness of their humanity and our relationship, and I’m so pleased to see that they understood that. They knew I wasn’t trying to go after anyone in my book, and I think that sometimes actually writing truthfully about something can bring people together or bring you to a new level in your relationship.
Rumpus: I think you’re right about that. I also think sometimes you have to weigh whether going forward with work that might inadvertently offend or hurt that one person is ultimately worthwhile, because there’s something really valuable for other people in your story. For, example I’ve written some things about my relationship with my dad, and with other people in my life, and I’ve had so many women write to me afterward and tell me that what I wrote resonated with them and helped them. But still, people get hurt. In the piece I mentioned on xojane.com, I tell a story about something that happened with my ex-husband more than twenty years ago. It’s not a story that’s flattering to him. I also reveal that I cheated – something I never told him. But we have been out of each other’s lives for twenty years. Before publishing it, I hemmed and hawed – do I need to drop him a line and say, “Hey, how have the past two decades been for you? Oh, by the way, at the end of our marriage, I cheated.” But a lot of women commented on that essay, saying they identified with my experience. And I got a lot out of writing – and publishing – it. Somehow I seem to keep flying under the radar. You know how they tell you in writing workshops, “Write as if everyone you know is dead”? Elissa Bassist once tweeted something about how she writes as if no one in her family knows how to read. I tend to write as if no one in my life knows how to Google, which is pretty much the case. But I don’t know for how long I can get away with that.
Strayed: I understand what Elissa is saying because I, too, think that when you’re writing that first draft, yes, write as if everyone is dead. Things are going to come out in the work that are really important. There’s that liberation – taking risks and just telling it like it is – and that’s really important. But I will say in the revision, that’s when you have to think, who isn’t dead? What are the consequences of what I’m saying? I think that you know there’s a place to ask those questions as well. But also, you say that so many people wrote to you because your work helped them, and I have that experience a lot as both Sugar and Cheryl. So, I agree. Sometimes taking that risk and hurting that one person’s feelings because you’re telling the truth about a relationship, is really worth the good that comes about from your writing. I will say, too, a lot of times the people who object to what you’ve written? They would object to anything you’ve written.
Rumpus: Yeah, I think that’s true. I’ve experienced that. Some people are also just not fans of memoir and first-person writing. The whole idea of it makes them uncomfortable.
Strayed: You need to assess that. Like, is someone rightfully saying, why would you say such a nasty thing about me, or what right do you have to write about my cocaine addiction or whatever? If you’re writing about a sibling or a cousin or whatever and you’re telling about all the terrible things they’ve done, I think maybe you don’t have a right to expose that person, who really isn’t a public person. On the other hand, if you’ve got a family member who essentially just wants to silence you – who, unless you write, oh we just had such a happy family and my childhood was just great, is going to complain – then you can’t listen to that person. They’re not going to be any kind of accurate gauge of what is reasonable and you need to just move forward and do the work you need to do.
Rumpus: Part of me wishes I could just publish my memoir or collection of stories as a series of Rumpus Letters in the Mail. It was such a good experience writing the one I did – partly because I knew I was writing to a very limited audience of 2,400 subscribers, none whom, as far as I knew, were related to me, or exes of mine. I felt like I could put some really personal stuff in there.
Strayed: Maybe you can. Or at least you can trick yourself into taking risks by telling yourself you’re just writing Rumpus Letters in the Mail. And when you’re done with it, you can see what you have, and where you can take it next.
I do think that when it came to writing personal, intimate things in my own work, it wasn’t like, rip the band-aid off all at once. I did this, and then I did that, and then I did the next thing. It’s like anything – you build a muscle. You build a sense of strength around it, and you also learn how to set boundaries. Where have you crossed that line that you don’t want to cross? People are always asking, how do you write so openly and intimately, and I’m always like, well, what the hell else are you suppose to do? I don’t understand how to write any other way, and maybe part of that is really just borne out of years of practicing doing it. Maybe your secret is the Rumpus letters; you know, you write a collection of them, and see where it takes you.
Rumpus: Yeah, maybe. That could be the way to at least frame it in my mind.
Strayed: Letters to two thousand and four hundred people.
Rumpus: Oh, yes. That’s my title: Letters To Two Thousand And Four Hundred People! So, back to the idea of using pseudonyms versus writing under your own name. In April, you revealed yourself to be Sugar. Now Tiny Beautiful Things is out there with your name on it. When you first started writing that column, did it occur to you that you might at some point reveal who you are? Because you really reveal as much about yourself in Tiny Beautiful Things as you do in Wild, if not more.
Strayed: Oh yeah, I knew from before I started writing the column that I was going to reveal my identity some day. There was never any question about that. I definitely always wrote it with the consciousness that you would know who I was some day. When people knew I was going to reveal my identity, some would say, oh, no, don’t do it! It was because they were so afraid I would write the column differently and be more hidden, and I was always like no, no you don’t understand. From the very first column, I wrote it with the consciousness that my name would be on it eventually. I didn’t write it from the vantage point of a secret person who could say anything and never have people know who she was. No, I always wrote it as Cheryl in my heart, and I just put the Sugar name on it. And I knew I would step out someday.
Rumpus: You reveal a lot about yourself in Tiny Beautiful Things, and also about other people– like for example, “A bit of Sully in your sweet” is about you learning that you’re husband, before he was your husband but was your boyfriend, cheated. So you’re revealing that about him, and now we know who he is! How does he feel about that? And were you concerned about that at all as you were writing?
Strayed: I asked him before if it was okay to write about it. I wouldn’t have written about it if he had said no. I knew that it was an important story to tell, and I was nervous about telling it, and he was nervous about me telling it. But we also thought that the greater good would be served. That it was a piece of our relationship that so many people could relate to and did. And so pretty quickly when I said I want to write about it, he was just like, “I trust you. It makes me feel a little sick, but I trust you.” Being involved with a writer does require some bravery. Luckily Brian, Mr. Sugar, understands the work I do. He’s an artist to. He’s a documentary filmmaker and he understands the endeavor and he really trusts me, that I’m not going to violate him or us in any way.
There are also a lot of things that aren’t in the column or Tiny Beautiful Things. One thing about writing really personally in Wild and in the Sugar columns and in my personal essays that I always remind people is, while there’s a lot of intimate stuff that felt very risky for me to expose, there’s also a lot of stuff that’s not in there. It’s not as if I take my entire life and open it up to public scrutiny. There are things that are private that I don’t write about or not yet, like maybe someday I will. Maybe someday I’ll be ready to tell this story or that story. I guess that’s the difference between confessionalism and what I do. That kind of truth telling in writing is not just about going online and blabbing everything that ever happened to you. It’s really about considering why you’re telling any particular story. And I had a good reason to tell the story of what Brian and I went through with his infidelity before we got married. The greater good was served, and so I did it.
Rumpus: You also reveal a bit about him in the “Thwack, Thwack, Thwack” piece, in which he mistakenly assumes you wanted to be spanked, which made me laugh so hard. I have been there! He comes off well in the end of both pieces. I’ve written about my current husband a couple of times too, and he’s been really understanding about that – a really good sport. Sometimes it’s just light stuff, but other times it’s been stories where something difficult has happened between us, and he doesn’t look so good at first, but he comes around in the end and he realizes what he was wrestling with. Like this one experience I wrote for an anthology about body image called FEED ME. Early on in our relationship he made some comment about how I was the most full-figured woman he’d ever been with, and how he never knew he could be attracted to that, and he was, like, so proud of himself for now being able to. He was trying to say that there was something different and positive for him in our relationship, but he was saying it in a way that was hurtful – that he didn’t know was hurtful. Like with the world’s biggest foot in his mouth. And what we came to was a realization that he had been as negatively affected as I had by the media’s obsession with certain body types. It was actually very eye-opening. Well, initially it was kind of maddening and heart-breaking, but then, we got to a place where it was eye-opening, and bonding. And it felt like a story worth sharing.
Strayed: By the way, that experience in “Some sully in your sweet,” as terrible as it was, I feel lucky for it. I think it made us stronger and it made us look deeper and it made Brian confront some of his issues. It’s not like the only hard thing we’ve come up against in our relationship. I think in some ways having that experience early on helped us get through other things. Just like what you just said about your husband and that conversation. As painful and hurtful as that was, it sound like he was speaking out of like an honest place. That allowed you to kind of go deeper, right? I mean, it could have been the place at which you just basically said fuck off, and broke up with him but it was this place where you guys decided to go deeper and that’s important.
Rumpus: It was really important that we went through that.
Strayed: It’s a good thing he said that – he was telling his truth.
Rumpus: So we are both blessed with husbands named Brian who don’t mind being written about. But there are inevitably going to be people who don’t want be written about. It’s nearly impossible to tell a story about yourself without having other people in there, at least for context. What’s your philosophy about where you have the right to tell your story?
Strayed: I think you have the right to tell your story and like I said I think you should do what you can to protect the privacy of those you write about. For example, in Wild I gave my ex-husband a different name and I wouldn’t tell you publicly what city he lives in, just in case he doesn’t want to raise his hand and be like, hey I’m the ex-husband in Wild! I want to respect his right to privacy. Now obviously it wouldn’t take many research skills to find out who he is and there’s legal records and such, so it’s not as if its some deep secret. It’s the same with my father. I don’t name my father in Wild and I have no wish to sort of out him in any way. So I did my best to just write about him truthfully while also not blatantly exposing him, if that makes sense. I think you can do those things. So, for you writing about your ex-husband, I would just make sure not to tell anyone who he is actually.
Rumpus: I’ve changed his name. Of course, anyone who really knows me or him knows the identity of the guy who held the title of “first husband” in my life.
Strayed: But ultimately, what you’re really trying to do is tell the story of who you are. Sometimes you have to include other people, but mostly it needs to be about you. For example, I didn’t want to write about my father in Wild. I don’t enjoy the passage that I wrote about him where I tell about some of the difficult and painful aspects of my life with him. I took no pleasure in that, but I had to tell that piece of the story because I was trying to tell you who I was. You can’t write a memoir without accounting for your mother and your father – even if your father was absolutely never there. You have to tell who they are, what happened, what your relationship with them is and so I had to do that. We need to write about other people in our lives. What I always say is, you just have to do that, and then do your best to take out what isn’t necessary. Through every draft of Wild as I read it, I would take out a teeny bit more. Each time I went through, I would take out a little more about the people I wrote about, because it had to meet two tests. 1) Did the piece of information that I was revealing about this other person contribute to the story? And 2) was it necessary. Like, did you have to know that so and so was addicted to cocaine? If the answer is no, it doesn’t need to be in there. And also, are there consequences? If I do determine something is necessary, what are the consequences of including that – for me and also for that person? If you’re writing about somebody and saying that they are a cocaine addict, it actually might have negative consequences in their lives. To what degree are you willing to take their life into your hands in that regard? Those are questions I was asking a lot when I wrote about other people in Wild. And you know, I didn’t necessarily find a perfect path through it. But I think I found a pretty solid one. Nobody who’s in the book has written to me to complain about what I wrote about them.
Strayed: I gave a copy of Wild to my brother back in September just because I wanted him to have that kind of advance notice I guess. It was great because we got to have this really great conversation about the book and it was before it came out and before all of the more public things happened. But he’s the only person I sent it to ahead of time actually, for that purpose.
Rumpus: On a different note, I’ve been wondering how you decided which details of your life should have been in Wild, and which in Tiny Beautiful Things. For instance, in “The Baby Bird” in Tiny Beautiful Things you talk about what I would categorize as sexual abuse on the part of your grandfather, and it was interesting to read Wild and not see that there. I think that your character in Wild, I mean if I can call you a character, clearly has issues with sexual boundaries. Everyone I know who was sexually abused as a child has them. I wondered why you chose to leave that out of Wild.
Strayed: It was originally in Wild. What’s really fascinating for me is Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things were essentially written at the same time. What happened is I finished the first draft of Wild, sent it to my editor, and that same week, Steve Almond emailed me and asked me if I wanted to write the Sugar column. I was waiting for my editor to get back to me with her notes on the first draft which you know are always significant – you’ve got to do this big revision and everything and so that’s when I began the Sugar Column and I didn’t know I was writing Tiny Beautiful Things as I was writing the Sugar Column. The reason that the sexual abuse stuff is not in Wild is that it was everywhere I would put it. Like I kept rewriting it and putting it here and then putting it there and putting it elsewhere and it just kept coming up as too heavy handed and too much as if I were saying, I’m like this because I had this experience. And that really made me feel uncomfortable. It didn’t feel true that there could be a direct line drawn between what happened to me with my grandfather when I was so young, and the young woman I became and the way I behaved sexually. It just kept not working and my editor felt strongly about that too. It felt in the end not necessary. But it worked for Sugar. Tiny Beautiful Things, even though its full of advice and other people’s stories, is also full of stories about me, so it’s a kind of strangely anecdotal memoir. Some of the same stories are also in Wild. In a way, Tiny Beautiful Things gives a deeper sense of what was happening in Wild. There’s a very strange symbiotic relationship between the two books.
Rumpus: Yeah. It’s sort of like reading companion memoirs. And you were very brave in writing both of them. I draw a lot of encouragement from them. Although, of course, I’m still trembling, as always.
Strayed: One thing that I think is important when it comes to bravery, is that it’s not necessarily about doing something and not being afraid. It’s about doing something even though you are afraid, and I think that idea has been very powerful for me over time. Whenever I’ve written something that makes me scared, which I write an awful lot, I remember that being scared is not an indication that I shouldn’t do it. It’s actually an indication that I should.
Photographs by Brian Lindstrom.