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.
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.
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.
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?
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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.