Cheryl Strayed on Dear Sugar, her new memoir, and Snapple Lemonade
How do you think the experiences of losing your mother and then hiking the PCT affect the way you give advice in your Dear Sugar column?
I think that everything I've ever experienced or done influences me. Those two things are big things, but so are having children, becoming a mother, having been married twice and divorced once and being 43. I really bring myself into the column in a way where I try to draw on things I've observed or things I've experienced or witnessed or learned. And I try to write that column very much from a place of being among people, not as a figure who knows everything and is gonna be able to just tell you what you should do. I'm always really using story to explore more deeply the questions we all need to search for answers to within ourself. So I think all of that contributed. My whole life has contributed to what I bring into the column. And so has my years as a writer. That's what I'm really giving readers. I'm spinning stories that ask us to look more deeply into our lives.
How has the experience of writing that column changed you?
As a writer I think it allowed me to explore a whole new form. I think it's always a good idea to do new things or do different things. And so when I said yes to that column it was this leap into the unknown. And I was very nervous that I was actually going to not do such a great job, you know what I mean? And I think whenever we're sure of ourselves that's when it's kind of the least interesting. So I was filled with doubts and I was changed in that I took something that I was doubtful about and I really made it mine and I made it into something that I feel proud of. I think that is some of my best work in that column, which really came as a surprise to me. It also put me in touch with, I mean I knew this already, but it was a real reminder how much we all really aren't as we appear. That so many people we see, like couples that we think "Oh, they're so great" or "they're so happy." As Sugar I could just see the underside of that. I get to see that the man is questioning whether he should be in the relationship and the woman is having an affair, or I think too I see people's fragility and their need for love is on full display in the letters that I get.
And your responses are so loving, too. There's something really exciting that you're doing with that column by giving people love rather than judging them.
Yeah, I never fit in to the sort of age of irony and snarkiness and all that stuff even though I actually enjoy reading sometimes that kind of writing, you know, because it's funny. But I've always been very sincere and earnest and loving. And that's sometimes been a little embarrassing, like, oh that's not cool, I don't have that aloof distance. I'm not that cutting, snarky person who's gonna come up with the wittiest, sharpest, cruelest thing to say, you know. I've just never been that person since I was, like, born [laughs]. I think so much about writing well is giving yourself over to that person you really are and finding that voice and trusting it. And so yeah, it's interesting. Finally, after just trusting it all these years, sincerity has won out and people really responded to that. They like it that I'm sincere and loving. I'm not putting it on, it's not a pose, it's not a persona, I'm really just writing what I feel in my heart and mind. So it's cool that people respond to it positively.
Did you have any idea when you started writing the column that people would respond so well?
No. I mean, I thought that some people might enjoy it. I had no idea it would become like what it has, absolutely not. And you know, you can't. If you go in going, this is gonna be great. Everyone's gonna love it. I mean, you're just dead. So I just did it, come what may, and what came was just this incredible audience that really made a community.