Cheryl Strayed on Dear Sugar, her new memoir, and Snapple Lemonade
What's striking about Cheryl Strayed's writing is its radical sincerity and vulnerability. She pens personal essays as responses in her advice column Dear Sugar (which was written anonymously until recently), dishing out loving, thoughtful advice to questioners she addresses as "honey bun" and "sweet pea." Her new memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, which she'll be reading from and signing Friday night at 7:30 p.m. at the Tattered Cover Colfax, lays out another aspect of Strayed's life: her daunting 1,100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. Fresh from losing her mother to cancer and getting a divorce, the young Strayed decided to complete this arduous hike as a way to get back to herself. And through the course of the beautifully-written book, she does. We caught up with the Strayed about her new memoir, giving advice, and her love for Snapple Lemonade.
Photo of Cheryl Strayed by Joni Kabana
Westword: When you set out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail did you ever think you'd write about it?
Cheryl Strayed: I didn't, really. I didn't think of it consciously but probably the most accurate answer is, you know, I didn't know. As a writer I've always tended to kind of live my life and then things come out in the work later in ways that I can't predict ahead of time. I don't know that I've ever had an experience where I went into it thinking "I'm gonna write about this," you know? And also at the time I really thought of myself as a fiction writer, so I wrote in my journal about it but it wasn't something I was gonna write about and then it just sort of came up all these years later as a topic I wanted to take up.
What made you want to write about it?
So often what I find in my writing, whether it's fiction or nonfiction, is I really just start writing and I find the story. Back in 2008 I had already by then published a dozen or so personal essays and I had this idea of maybe putting them together as a collection. When read together they sort of loosely tell the story of my childhood and my 20s and early 30s and I thought, well, okay, I'll write the one missing link. The one essay that hadn't been written was the essay of my hike on the PCT. So I started writing it thinking that I was writing an essay, which I now think of as ridiculous because it's like, obviously there was this huge story. But it's funny, you don't always see that stuff. And I started writing it and I kept writing it and writing it and writing it and pretty soon I'm like, okay, this is pretty clearly a book. So that's how the book was born.
You write in the book about being constantly inspired by Adrienne Rich's poem, "Power." Why did that poem have such a big effect on you?
Well, it's that poem and also the whole book. The last lines of that poem she's writing about the scientist Marie Curie, and she worked with radiation and really discovered some important things, but that's what killed her is radiation exposure. But she always denied that. And Adrienne Rich writes about Marie Curie being a woman who denied her wounds came from the same source as her power. And I was so inspired by Adrienne Rich's work because she didn't deny that. She always said that our wounds were the place where we take our power. And I think that was really a message that I needed to hear at that time. I was suffering and I was so bound up in my sorrow over my mother's death and I think that it took me some time to realize that that was also going to be a great source of my strength in my life. I think Rich just gave a lot of readers, and certainly me, that message that suffering is part of life and we can still have so much beauty in that. That book, The Dream of A Common Language, ends up being the sacred texts of Wild. Because symbolically I carried it the whole way.
Along the way on your hike you had to burn the books as you went along because you couldn't carry them with you. Was that hard for you as a writer? Was it sad?
Oh, yeah. I love books. Books have changed my life over and over again. They are really the place I go when I wanna be entertained or moved or consoled, all of those things. So I didn't take it lightly. And I did it with a real sort of prayerful intent. That it was something that I needed to do but I felt like I was doing a serious thing. And it's really funny, because of course I would never advocate the burning of books [laughs] in any other context. And I think the reason we recoil from it, because really it's just okay, I'm burning this paper, right? But I think we recoil because so often books have been burned in a totally different context, where people are actually trying to destroy words or censor or block writers from speaking their truth. And of course I wasn't trying to do that. But I could definitely sense that history.
In the book you talk a lot about craving Snapple Lemonade on the trail. Do you still drink it?
You know, it's so funny, they stopped making it. At least, nobody can find it in the stores. As you know, I was obsessing about Snapple lemonade, and it wasn't like I got off the PCT and then I was drinking Snapple Lemonade every day. But over the years I continued to occasionally have a Snapple Lemonade and I always thought of how much I hungered for it on the PCT, but what's happening is all these people on my book tour are bringing me bottles of Snapple to my readings [laughs]. And they're like "I couldn't find lemonade, they stopped making it." And so they're bringing me like Kiwi-Strawberry and all these things, so I don't know. Why would they go out of the lemonade business? I mean, what I don't understand is like, it's so good. I think they might have discontinued it but I would say bad timing, huh? Wild is like this huge advertisement for Snapple Lemonade.