Cheryl Strayed on Dear Sugar, her new memoir, and Snapple Lemonade
In Wild you talk a lot about fear. For a while you're telling yourself that you're not afraid and then people on the trail are constantly trying to tell you that you should be afraid. Do you think that that's because you're a woman that people were trying to impose that fear on you?
Yeah, yeah. I think that a lot of people were afraid for me. They're like, "you're a woman out there all by yourself, you shouldn't do that." I mean, really, "Don't go alone into the woods," you always hear that. And that's just heightened if you're a woman because we all know that women are the gender that we think of as the most vulnerable and the most victimized. Usually by men. And I don't mean to say that some of those cautions don't have some validity, but it's also true that if we listened to them women would never go do anything by themselves. So I just had to, if I wanted to do what I wanted to do, I had to rewrite that narrative and say yep, I'm gonna go by myself and I'm not gonna be afraid. I was adamant about doing that.
What do you hope that people get out of reading Wild?
That's a hard question. There's a reason that that's a hard question is I never write with that sense in mind, that I have a mission. I always just try to write the best that I can. So what I hope that they get is a number of things. One is a good time. I hope that they have that experience where they're reading it and they're just absorbed in the story and they wanna keep turning the pages and they have a hard time putting it down and when they do put it down they think about it. I love that feeling. As a reader to me that's the best feeling. So I hope that I created that experience for readers. And I also hope that in writing so deeply and honestly about my life that it compels readers to reflect on their own. I hope that they recognize themselves or see themselves in my story even if it's an entirely different life than theirs. And I think that's the interesting thing about personal writing, about memoir or personal essays or even the Sugar column where I'm writing about me or I'm addressing a letter writer and yet thousands of others see themselves or they identify with it in some way and are moved by it. I want people to be moved by what I write.
One particularly moving part in Wildwas where you start to list your mother's faults. Can you talk a little bit about that part?
That was a really really important chapter for me, even though when I first wrote it I just felt terrible. I was like, oh my god, I can't do this. I can't write this about my dear mother because I love her so much and she was so good. But I also realized then how important it was. Because I think sometimes we forget that even the people we love the best, people who are just wonderful people in our lives, that they have faults. And especially a parent/child relationship. There's no parent that hasn't in some way done something that the child is disappointed about or angry about. It's almost like the job of the child to critique the parent and then move on. It's part of growing up. And what I missed out on because my mom died when she did is, you know, I was a surly teenager just like everyone, so it wasn't like in my teenage years I was like "Mom, you're so great! You're so wonderful" I was, like, rolling my eyes at her and all that stuff. But I do think that there's this thing that happens in most people's twenties where even if you're very close to your parents or love them you also stand back from them and you do that ruthless analysis of their faults. And I didn't get to do that because my mom died and then suddenly it was like this sacrilege to say anything negative about my mom, it was really unbearable for me to complain about her in any way because it did feel like, how could I say this about this person who's so dear to me? And I think if she were alive obviously I wouldn't be grieving her. She'd be this living, breathing person.
So when I was at that point on the trail I unconsciously realized that that had been taken from me and I needed to have it. I needed to process the things about her that made me angry, or that made me feel disappointed or betrayed or let down. And so I went into my anger. I had suppressed, I guess, my anger towards her and then it all came out that day that it was her 50th birthday and I was so pissed, how could she dare be dead? And I was just so mad. And it was really I think a healing moment for me. And writing about it, what's funny is that there's life, which is an experience, but then writing about it was also really cathartic, because I hadn't really expressed that out loud on the page. And like I said, when I first wrote it it felt like a betrayal, but then I realized it was a necessary betrayal. And I think anyone reading it loves my mom probably even more after I go through all that. Because I present her as more human, you know. Right?
Definitely. She becomes a real person at that point. It's also interesting that you didn't reveal her name until that chapter. Was that a conscious decision?
Yeah, it was a conscious decision because in that chapter it really is when I was that day on the hike I wrote in my journal this whole thing that I addressed to Bobbi. I named her. I gave her her name. And that was important to me because with our parents they're Mom or Dad. In some ways they really don't have an identity that's separate from us until we're grownups and we can kind of realize, wait a minute, they're actually their own separate person and they don't belong to me even though it feels like they do. So for me at that moment in the book to finally tell you, I wanted the power of me telling you her name in that place, because that's where the first time that I guess I really did see her separate from me. Because it was like I could assess her and forgive her and move on in some ways. So yeah, I held back that name. It also wasn't hard to hold it back. It just didn't come up very naturally anywhere else in the narrative anyway. But then in that chapter naming her was really powerful. And I named my daughter after her.
Do you feel like you were redeemed through the journey?
I think I was redeemed, but not in the way that we generally think of as redemption or we want to believe that redemption is. I think that so often it's been presented as a more tidy experience, like you go from being this wrecked person or this sort of outside, bad person in some way and then everything is forgiven and the birds start tweeting and the butterflies fly out of your ears and you're all good and happy. And that didn't happen. And I don't think it really ever does. So I wanted to write a store that showed you that I'd grown and I'd let some things go and I'd had a perspective shift and I sort of gathered myself back again and I was gonna go forward in my life, forever changed because of it. But I was still the same person. And I still had all this other stuff to do. I would still have to grieve my mom and forgive my dad and figure out how to have relationships. I would still have to struggle with all the things I was always struggling with. It was just that I felt more in my strengths, in my ability to do that. And I think that's what redemption is. I think that redemption is really forgiving yourself enough and accepting the facts of your life enough that you can go on in ways that are constructive rather than self-destructive. It's a much humbler and plainer and smaller thing than this grand tale of you know, now you're the Buddha.
Cheryl Strayed will be reading from and signing Wild Friday night at 7:30 p.m. at the Tattered Cover Colfax, and giving her writing seminar "The Story You Have To Tell: Writing from the Urgent Place" at the Lighthouse Writers Workshop on Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. Tiny Beautiful Things, a book of her collected Dear Sugar columns, will be out in July.