In "The Love of My Life," her 2002 essay for literary journal The Sun, Cheryl Strayed is the 22-year-old woman who fell to her knees after seeing her mother dead in a hospital bed, then pressed those same bruised knees into a strange man a week later, unbeknownst to her devoted husband. She is the woman who numbed her grief with heroin and infidelity, then decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail alone, a three-month journey for which she was sorely unprepared.
That essay laid the foundation for Wild, her 2012 novel about the journey. Strayed is an honest narrator, and we experience the emotional gut punches (the scene where Strayed calls out after a red fox, whispering, "Mom.") and physical changes (toenails falling off, hips chafing) along with her. This is not Eat, Pray, Love, as some have lazily compared. Strayed is not pining for some Italian beefcake while she eats gelato in a sunbeam. She is in the dirt; her oversized backpack, affectionately called "Monster," is a symbol of the burden she must carry, and ultimately shed.
And yet, she tells us these intimate things not so we will feel sorry for her, or invite judgement, but to lay out grief as a universal right. It's that same honest tone that drew readers to Dear Sugar, her anonymous advice column for literary website the Rumpus, where "Write like a motherfucker" became a mantra.
It's what made Oprah Winfrey call Strayed personally, to tell her she was reviving her influential book club for Wild. (She also got to hug Oprah in the forest.) Reese Witherspoon recently optioned the rights, and will star as Strayed in the movie version, directed by The Kids Are All Right's Lisa Cholodenko.
"I am 44, and I have been writing a long time," Strayed says. "I've done it like a motherfucker, and what came was this whirlwind. And it's been stunning. Now there will be a movie, and there's a disconnect. How can that be? I could tell Reese knew the book, and could understand where I was at that time in my life. I trust her to do it well."
Strayed will be at the Dallas Museum of Art tomorrow, April 9, reading from Wild and her Dear Sugar collection, Tiny Beautiful Things at 7:30 p.m. The event is sold out, but there will be overflow seating. I called Strayed to talk about the new book, her thoughts on where we are today and what it means to "write like a motherfucker." Here's what she had to say.
Have you often been considered a good listener? I've always had a natural inclination, so that played into Sugar, but more than anything my work as a writer informed it. As a writer, we delve into what it is to be human. Even with my first novel [Torch], which was fiction, we show the public and private identities. So I approached each letter as a character.
Do you think the Internet has made people feel more isolated now? Is there more of a need for companionship from strangers? I've always been a really sincere person, and for a writer, that wasn't really considered cool. A lot of writers made their mark with sarcasm or being aloof... so when I got with [Rumpus editor] Isaac Fitzgerald, I told him how I wanted to do it. And it turns out that's what people wanted - a loving voice. Snark is entertaining, but it's ultimately kind of empty. Have you read the column?
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Yes, I read it a lot in the summer of 2011. I remember openly weeping in a coffee shop after reading one, and I suspect others have had similar experiences. I wanted to talk about matters of the heart - and I'm sure you can hear the silly music playing behind that remark. We cry when people speak truthfully; what you're experiencing is self-reflection.
You're involved with the non-profit VIDA, which just did its yearly "count" to show gender disparity in literary arts. We looked at some of the most prestigious journals and magazines, and how it breaks down gender-wise. On our website, for the last three years, we've done these thrilling pie charts, and the gender numbers were off. The New Yorker publishes such a higher number of men than women, for example. And there's been more consciousness around that.
The nominees for the National Magazine Awards were announced recently, and the number of female journalists nominated was up from last year. Do you think representation is getting better? Well, that's good, but it's not always conscious. We're looking at the longview; some years are different, some years are better, but over time what do we see? It does have to do with gender bias and sexism. There are a lot of women writing, a lot of women in MFA programs, but they're not being published in the highest journals.
Write like a motherfucker: Is it really that simple? What does it mean to you? It's putting in the work. That [column's] letter writer wanted to be like David Foster Wallace, and I said, "You don't get to be." The way to do that is quit your bitching and get to work. A lot of writers want success, but how many hours did you spend writing today? What it means to be successful in writing is to do the work. Write. That's the deal, focus on the thing itself. Do that hard, and truthfully. At the end of the day, writing is hard for everyone. It was hard for David Foster Wallace too.