Q and A: Cheryl Strayed

Jennifer Sky

Much has been written about the Triple Goddess: Maiden, Mother, Crone. Pagans worshipped her, Carl Jung pondered her, and Margaret Atwood parodied her. Is is rare, however, to find an author whose writing embodies all three virtues.

Cheryl Strayed possesses the youth and beauty of the Maiden, the sexuality, stability and power of the Mother, and the wisdom of the Crone. Throughout her essays, collections, and books, the Portland author displays a uniquely feminine and empathetic voice.

With the release of Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar , her collected essays from The Rumpus’s Dear Sugar column, Strayed marks another milestone in her career: highlights from her beautifully daring column available in book form. Add this to the news that Strayed’s bestselling memoir Wild was chosen as the inaugural title for the relaunch of Oprah’s Book Club and it seems certain Strayed is set to reach a new legion of fans with her supernatural insight.

Photo by Joni Kabana

On a February afternoon in Chicago, I sat down with Strayed. We discussed metaphorical mud pits, maps, telepathy, champagne in Paris, and how to keep your humanity when humanity is lost.

Cheryl Strayed: Sugar…

Jennifer Sky: How did that happen?

CS: Steve Almond was the first Sugar. He wrote the first 26 columns. One day he emailed me and told me he’d been writing the “Dear Sugar” column on The Rumpus and asked if I wanted to take it over. He knew I was familiar with the column because I’d written Sugar a fan letter, not knowing it was Steve. He told me the gig paid nothing and it would be written anonymously. He understood why I’d say no because he knew I was busy writing and mothering and such. There was no actually good reason to say yes. But I said yes.

I decided to put my whole heart into it from the beginning. I was scared to try out a new form—one I knew little about—but also invigorated by it. It wasn’t long before people started to pay attention. It was pretty amazing to see how the column grew. Its success wasn’t the result of publicity or marketing. I couldn’t even post a link to it on my own Facebook page or Twitter feed because I was writing it anonymously. It was this completely organic thing. People would read the column and then tell their friends: you have to read this. That’s how Sugar made her name, which is so sweet, so beautiful. It warms my heart. No amount of money or success trumps that. The most important thing to me as a writer is moving people, reaching them.

JS: A collection of your columns—TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS—is coming out in July. Just to have those collected pieces is going to be extraordinary, because I’m sure that people have printed them out en masse or made their own little books.

CS: Thank you.

JS: One of my very favorite Sugar columns is one titled “How You Get Unstuck.” In it you share a story about being a counselor for young women.

CS: My job title was “pregnancy prevention youth advocate.” Part of that job was counseling. Part of it was to take the girls I worked with to do fun and interesting things with the goal of empowerment. We went rock climbing and visited museums and such. My mission was to expose them to things that would make them feel good, in hopes they would opt to honor themselves in ways that are hard for girls to honor themselves in our culture—especially for those girls, who were growing up in the kinds of environments they were growing up in, with parents who were drug addicts or imprisoned or sometimes just plain living in poverty, with all of the challenges that entails. Many of them were having sex by the time they were in 7th grade, often with men who were in their twenties. They were so young, these girls, but so old too.

JS: Promiscuity and sexual abuse seem to be reoccurring themes in your work. Are these haunting things for you?

CS: I wouldn’t say I’m haunted by them, so much as I’m interested in writing across the human experience and part of that has to do with sex in all its forms, whether that be abuse, self-abuse, ecstasy, love, boredom and so on. And In Wild and in Tiny Beautiful Things, I very much wanted to write narratives that capture the complexity of actual life. I think sometimes when we transform our lives onto the page, things that are complex are overly simplified. So, for example, if you write about sexual abuse or deep grief—both things I’ve experienced—and then you draw a direct line from them to sexual promiscuity, I don’t think that’s really true, at least not in the big sense that literature strives for. I don’t know that direct lines can honestly be drawn, even though I absolutely feel that those experiences informed the way I conducted myself sexually in my twenties. But I think that there are a whole bunch of other lines that led to that too. Some of the choices I made about sex had to do with just being young and female. It’s not a unique situation to get attention for how you look and then opting to cashing in on that in one way or another. Many girls and woman use sexuality to get what we think is power because that’s how our culture grants girls and women power, through enforcing conventional ideas about beauty and sexuality. When I did the things I did as a young woman, sexually speaking, I was seeking power and approval, but most of all, I was seeking love. I was also probably trying to heal the wounds from my sexual abuse experiences and also the loss of my mother and the fact that I didn’t have a good father. What’s interesting to me about that as a writer is all that stuff is there down in the metaphorical mud pit. All these things sit together, side by side. In my writing I want to present fully complex characters and situations and not say “oh because this happened, then I did this.” Because that’s not true, that’s not how life works. I want to tell the stories and let them simply unfurl.

JS: Yes. Life is not A + B =, but if you go on a hike and follow the map you will arrive. We all need maps, time and again. That’s what Dear Sugar is to a lot of us, that’s what Wild is now too. To me, Wild is a book about getting on the map. Did the title just come to you? Wild. Wilderness.

CS: I called my book Wild not only because it references the wilderness, but because the book is about wild loss, wild love, wild joy, wild longing, that kind of wild feeling that I had during those years in my life when I needed take everything to the furthest degree so that I could figure out how to be in the world, how to live and how to be whole, how to become a whole person. It isn’t a tidy experience. At the end of the book, it’s not like I’m suddenly redeemed and everything is lalala from there on out. And yet at the same time, it is true that I did feel redeemed by that hike and that experience gave a lot of things back to me and changed my life for the better. But it was all part of this journey. It was one important piece.

JS: The “wild loss” and “wild love” you refer to is in reference to your mother, who died suddenly of cancer at 45. You were your mother’s primary caregiver at the end?

CS: My stepfather and I took turns taking care of her when she was sick, which was very brief. She was in the hospital for only a couple of weeks. I was a senior in college at the time is Minneapolis, but I arranged to only be at school two days a week so I could be with my mother in the hospital in Duluth. I would stay with her during the days while my stepfather worked—he’s a carpenter—then he’d spend the nights. My mom and her husband lived in Northern Minnesota and we had animals—horses, hens, cats and dogs, so somebody needed to be home to take care of the animals, so that’s where I’d spend my nights while my mother was dying. Alone in my childhood home, surrounded by animals I loved.

JS: There’s a piece of land in Northern Minnesota that you describe in Wild that’s a large acreage on which your family built a home, and that’s where your mother’s tombstone and ashes are. I know that you reference that in the book, but before you take your final leave to head west you went and visited her. Have you been back to see her?

CS: I’ve been back two times since then. Both times I just went for a very brief visit. I have two kids, they’re six and eight, and a few years ago I was going to be in Northern Minnesota, and I felt like I needed to take my children to see their grandmother’s grave. I needed to have them walk on that ground and see her grave. It was important to me, but it ended up being one of those things where you build this thing up, like this going to be so special! My kids are going to see my mother’s grave! But it ended up being a bit comic. It was late July, a hot sunny day, and my husband, and our children and I walked back into the woods to her grave and the whole time we’re being absolutely swarmed by mosquitoes and these terrible deerflies and black flies that bite. So we get back there and we’re swatting all these bugs, and I’m trying to keep the focus on what matters, I’m telling my kids, “this is your grandmother’s grave,” trying to be solemn and spiritual because it means so much to me. Meanwhile, my children are whining and jumping around because they’re being bitten by these vicious bugs. And there’s my mom’s tombstone. It’s untended, overgrown, so I pull some of the weeds that are growing beside it and when I do, I agitate a swarm of ants that had a nest in the dirt beneath it and pretty soon they’re swarming us too. So finally we all just start running. We run away from my mom’s tombstone shrieking. To this day, my children have a terrible association with that place. They say, “Please don’t make us go back there again.” And I just have to laugh because it’s just another way in which I’ve had to simply accept what’s true. What is. Which is different from what I hoped for. I can’t create ceremony in keeping my mom with me in my life. It’s going to come to me in more practical, everyday, mundane ways. And it does.

JS: Both of my mother’s parents died before I was born.

CS: So you didn’t have maternal grandparents?

JS: No. The way my mom has given my grandparents to me, who were both extraordinary people, is through stories. Those certain stories, that is what your children will have. I have these images of these humans I have never met. I don’t physically have them but I have them.

CS: That’s wonderful and it’s comforting to me. So many people told me they have parents who lost a parent, a grandparent they never met. They say “don’t worry, your kids will honor your mom so long as you do.” And I believe them. You pass it on. You hold the piece of that truth in you. My kids know how important my mother is to me. They know her name. They know things about her. I think they love her in a way.

JS: Absolutely. I believe a little bit in that we send images to each other, telepathy. We speak to our animals with telepathy. And especially with the closest people in our lives we send images. So I see them, the images my mom has sent me, so I’m sure that you sent these images to your children too. And they have them.

CS: Yeah, they do. One of the most moving exchanges I’ve had—and if I burst into tears as I tell you this, please forgive me—was with my son when he was four. He was just beginning to understand that death was a possibility, just coming upon this idea that you can die. We were driving and he just said ‘when I die will your mom be there waiting for me?’ I just said yes, instantly I said yes, even though I don’t believe in heaven. I don’t believe my mom is some angel in some afterlife, and yet the minute my son asked me if my mom would be there for him after he died, I felt absolutely sure she would be. Isn’t that weird? And then he said, ‘but will she recognize me?’ And I said yes again and balled my head off. It was so sweet. That’s why people believe in heaven, right? Because they take comfort in that. To me, that was so moving because here is somebody he never met—someone who is just an idea to him—and he understood that she was going to be this person who would nurture and love him if he died. My mom.

JS: Sorry, I’m crying too.

CS: It kills me. It kills me.

JS: From the book, it seems like your mom was a huge animal lover, am I correct?

CS: My mom wasn’t a misanthrope, but she always said her closest friends were animals, they weren’t people. And when she was dying, I don’t remember if this even makes the cut in Wild—that’s the weird part of writing a book, you do these edits, sometimes you’re not sure what made it in the final draft. When she was dying, the last couple days of her life, she would not allow me to sit on the bed next to her because she believed that all these different animals she loved throughout her life were in the room with her. When I’d try to approach the bed, she’d say, ‘no Sake is sitting there, Max is here,’ and she’d pet them in the air. And I knew who she was talking about, the different cats and dogs we’d had over the years—many of them strayed or injured animals my mother had rescued. To her, they really were in the room with her. They guided my mom out of this world, absolutely, she felt that. That was really interesting to me.  Isn’t that crazy?

JS: Especially since the amount of pain she was in at the end…

CS: Yeah, she was in so much pain, and so that’s the thing, you can say that she was really delusional from the morphine and just so drugged up that she was barely conscious, just going in and out of delirium essentially, and not making sense. But she really believed the animals were there. It’s beautiful to me because it makes me feel like she wasn’t alone. After she died all the veterinarians in the area sent big bouquets of flowers to her memorial service. In the condolence cards they all said the animals had suffered a loss when we lost my mom.

JS: Wow, yes, that is beautiful. I’m going to remember that. Having been on the other side of the bed and having people care for me, I know how it is a team effort and I know how hard that is and what it does to the people who care for us. In Wild, your mom often said ‘I’ll always be with you’. One of the scenes I can’t stop thinking about is when you swallowed some of her bones.

CS: Yes. We were spreading the ashes and I couldn’t, I just couldn’t let go of them all, I couldn’t bear that. So when I put them in my mouth and swallowed them, I remember even at the time when it happened, I remember knowing that my mother’s death put me in touch with what I’m going to call my most savage self. I would have done pretty much anything to save my mom. I think when I swallowed those ashes I was my most stripped down primal self and I knew that I could not go on without my mother, and so it was my way of saying I’m not going to let go of every piece of her. As I’ve grown up and as I’ve come to terms with it and accepted it, the pieces of her that I keep are ephemeral, they are the things like how I love my kids. But then I needed a literal piece of her, so I swallowed the ashes of her bones, and it just seemed like the right, necessary thing to do.

When I teach memoir I’m always recognize when somebody is writing out of necessity. I’m not saying that all writing can do that—I mean sometimes you write just a nice little piece—but when you are really saying what you have to say, the reader knows. I can think about pieces that others have written and also that I’ve written where I know I’m writing out of that place, where there’s nothing to lose because you’ve got to tell that truth because it matters so much. It’s always a scary thing to write. I was scared to even tell people, to write that line, to say that I swallowed my mother’s ashes. It’s one little line in the book, but oodles of people have talked to me about it since Wild came out. They paid attention to because it’s a bit too much, a bit too true and readers recognize themselves in it. They know I’ve actually told them the truth. I think that’s it means to write like a motherfucker. It’s actually about going all the way and telling that one thing that might be too much. A lot of times writers will want to take that one thing out, because it’s scary. But if they leave that in, that’s when people understand it and feel it the most profoundly.

JS: But how? How do we do this when our deep belly instincts are saying, ‘that’s a secret you need to keep?’

CS: Yes, it entails being fearless, which isn’t the same as being unafraid, but rather being willing to write in the presence of fear. You know you are afraid but you are going to do it anyway, that’s what it takes. And that was constantly with me on my hike, constantly with me in my writing. You can’t think, ‘I’m afraid, ok, so that means I don’t do it.’ Instead I try to say, ‘I’m afraid, so that means I will do it.’ It’s kind of like ballerinas, they dance and it looks so graceful and it looks like it doesn’t hurt, but any ballerina will tell you, it hurts. It hurts all the time. Several years ago I read this fascinating study about physical pain. The researchers were doing these tests to see which profession had the highest tolerance for pain. And they would do things like take surgeons and coal miners and secretaries and have them hold their hand in a bucket of ice water for as long as they could, and they’d time it. The one profession that could do pretty much anything short of sawing off a leg were the ballerinas. They could withstand any amount of pain. It’s not that these people don’t experience pain like you and I. They learned to appear to be graceful and unaffected while feeling a tremendous amount of pain, and I think that’s what we’re talking about when we talk about courage in writing. And when you think about courage that way, I think it gives you a more profound understanding of our connectedness as humans. Like think about people who truly have to have courage—people who live in war zones or who have had to do unimaginable things to survive or protect the others around them. They’re not different than us, they’re simply put in different circumstances and they decided to act with strength and grace in the presence of something frightful. So it’s really an interesting thing to think about. How to keep your humanity when humanity is lost.

JS: Deep conditioning. It’s a long time of deep conditioning. I know that as a writing student myself, I’m going to go forward and think about the bones in the mouth, making sure that I put on the page my own bones in the mouth moment. It’s very inspiring, and you continue to inspire us. Do you think your hike on the PCT was worth it?

CS: Short of marrying my husband and having my kids it is far and away the best thing I have ever done. I would do again and again. So many people who’ve read Wild who have also gone on a long hike, they say to me, ‘this is was my experience too,’ even though their hike was different, and ‘I would do it again,’ and ‘your book made me feel so nostalgic for that experience.’ What’s funny about that is the experience on the ground level is often miserable. You’re out there without most of the comforts of life, you don’t have the food you like, it’s freezing, it’s hot. You’re sleeping on the dirt. It’s funny because in that day-to-day way it’s not really fun. It’s more fun to go to Paris and check into a luxury hotel and drink champagne all day, but I can guaran-damn-tee you, I can guarantee you if you were two weeks in that fancy hotel in Paris or two weeks hiking on a wilderness trail, ten years later the experience that would be matter to you would be that hike. We have to suffer for most of the things that are ultimately meaningful. I like to drink champagne in Paris, don’t get me wrong. That has its place too. I’ve never even been to Paris, let alone drank champagne there. But I would like to someday. I aspire to that.

Jennifer Sky is a writer of fiction, nonfiction, and believer in magical things. A former model and actress, her work has recently appeared in print or online with The Rumpus, Interview Magazine, Electric Literature, 12th Street, and others. She is a contributing editor for One Teen Story and lives in Brooklyn.