What Cheryl Strayed Would Do If She Were President of the US (Hint: It Involves Pajamas, the F-word, and Guns)
An interview with the bestselling author of Wild about her new book Brave Enough, posttraumatic growth, and running for president
Michaela Haas: One of your most famous quotes is: “Write like a motherfucker.” At the last writing workshop I attended with you, we were given wristbands with that quote. Now that you`ve published a book with your most popular quotes, how does one quote like a motherfucker?
Cheryl Strayed: This book was essentially crowdsourced. It began with my publisher`s observation that so many people were making use of my quotes in a way that was helpful to them. I think quotes are less about the person who spoke them, but rather about the person who loves them and applies them in their lives. When people take on a quote, it becomes their personal anthem rather than the wisdom of the original writer. When we talk about what is powerful or which books changed our lives, it is really about the connection. We make these words meaningful in our own lives.
People go as far as tattooing your quotes on their skin. What is the most popular Cherylism?
One of the most popular quotes is the last line of Wild, “How wild it was to let it be.” That sentence absolutely belongs at the end of Wild; it is a culmination of all the sentences that came before it. I didn`t realize it would be singled out and made into an anthem in so many people´s lives. Hundreds of people have that line tattooed on their body. What I find fascinating is that this line in isolation means something different to each person who takes it on. That`s the power of art. It becomes the story of our own life. I have certainly done that myself, taken lines somebody has said or from a book, and they have become my life line.
You describe quotes as “mini-instruction manuals for the soul.” What`s a quote that became your lifeline you held onto in your darkest hours?
When I was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail I remembered Winston Churchill`s “Never give in.” A quote doesn`t have to be incredibly complicated or profound to have a profound impact. It can be something as simple as, “I can do this!” This might allow you to do something that you think you can’t do. The quote I essentially made up for myself on the hike is just a statement, “I`m not afraid.” When I felt fear at the outer edges of my imagination, I decided to push it away with that sentence. One of the most important quotes in my life came from my mom, “Put yourself in the way of beauty.” When my mother first said it to me, I would greet it with a sense of impatience, but later it would become a sentence that helped me become resilient, to look at the bright side, and to reach for beauty even when it felt hard to do so. My mom gave me the tools to save myself.
I love how you say that quotes almost always “shout yes!” In Brave Enough, one of the quotes that speaks to me the most is, “It`s folly to measure your success in money or fame. Success is measured only by your ability to say yes to these two questions: Did I do the work I needed to do? Did I give it everything I had?”
That quote really, really, really─I can’t say enough really to emphasize this enough─helped me being okay with being a writer. One of the most common questions I get is that people are curious how the success affected my life. I went from being a regular writer to someone who a lot of people know around the world. I think one of the main reasons why I remained relatively even-keeled throughout this whole gigantic experience is that a long, long time ago I let go of the idea that fame and money were my measurements of success. I am obviously incredibly grateful, and the success has had a deep impact on my life, but one way that it hasn’t touched my life is that I don`t feel any differently about my writing. I really do use a different measuring stick. I do believe that the only measurement is if we can say yes to these two things. What happens when we`ve given it all is not up to us and it is none of our business. Of course we can promote it, but most great books are not great successes in the market place, and this doesn’t devalue their greatness as books. This thought has helped me a lot as a writer and frankly, as a human. Because we live in a culture that conflates success with money and fame. There are so many professions for which this is not an adequate measure stick. In fact, most of them.
In Brave Enough you say,
“When you recognize that you will thrive not in spite of your losses and sorrows, but because of them, that you would not have chosen the things that happened in your life, but you are grateful for them, that you will hold the empty bowls eternally in your hands, but you also have the capacity to fill them? The word for that is healing.”
To me, this is a very poignant description of posttraumatic growth. You don`t use the term, but combatting your grief over the death of your mom by hiking the Pacific Crest Trail is an inspiring example of it. I´ve researched the science of posttraumatic growth for my latest book Bouncing Forward, and explored the potential to emerge from adversity stronger, wiser, and more compassionate. What do you think helps us thrive not in spite but because of our losses?
I feel like I have written about posttraumatic growth in all of my books, I just never have given it that lovely name. Frankly, that`s the story of my life. It is the story of so many people who have overcome. I hate the word overcome, actually, because it sounds like a negation of the experience. The key to my ability to move on with a sense of life and beauty has to do with the fact that I always carry my suffering with me. Part of what I was struggling with when I was grieving my mother, was this idea that I should “get over” this loss. And of course, when you do have a big sorrow, you will never get over it. Instead I learned to say, ‘This is never going to be okay, but I`m learning to carry it with me.’ Once I learn to say, yep, here is this part of my life that is sad and hard and unfortunate, I can make room for other things, things like happiness and contentment and peace. In so many ways I learned to look at that burden, that suffering I had to carry, as a gift, even though it is a gift I would gladly return to the store. The fact is that this gift is mine and that I need to make something of it. I`ve made a lot of progress in my life in part because I decided to strive to turn that ugly experience into something else, something beautiful. Every time somebody writes to me and shares that my book helped them, I`m making good on that idea. That`s a big deal. I know more about myself and other people, because this experience of suffering and loss allowed me to see something I couldn’t have seen otherwise.
But it took some time, right?
I think it`s perfectly legitimate at the beginning to experience something as negative. After my mother`s death, I was deeply sad. I wasn’t capable of seeing the positive aspects of such a loss and I think it’s unhealthy to be capable of such a thing when you’re in the midst of deep sorrow. But then there comes a time when you say, “Will I let this rule my life or not?” Will you lead your life letting your sorrows and losses dominate you and rule you and essentially narrate your life story? I just say no to all these things. I wanted there to be a better story. I made it so. Just like we all have to make it so.
Can you share what helped you when you were going through the grief and heart break? What makes you stronger?
I think the number 1 thing that makes us stronger is love. Sometimes even just the memory of love. When I was at my bottom, the thing that really pulled me through was that I realized so much of the negative feelings I had inside of myself, so much of that grief, or of that sense of ‘I can`t live’ or ‘I`m messed up’ had to do with just how much I loved my mom. And that ended up being an awakening: wow, grief is actually about love. So here again we have this ugly thing that is actually a beautiful thing. Grief is ugly, and yet we wouldn`t be grieving as fiercely as we do, if we didn’t love that person. Grief is only about love. Remembering that was really powerful to me, also remembering the love my mother had for me. Thinking I have to make good on this. Throughout my life, I was rich in love. That`s another thing my mother used to say that drove me crazy: “We aren’t poor, we`re rich in love.” My whole life I have been rich in love. And part of it was that I reached for it. Even in the hardest times I have always sought connections, and consolation from other people─sometimes in the form of people who are long dead, people who wrote books or poems or essay that I carried around in my purse because they spoke truth to me. That manifested itself as love in books.
Your mom was also such a beautiful example of, as you describe it, an “unbending spirit”, because though she experienced a lot of violence, she did not give up.
Absolutely. That´s a really good point. My mom was this optimist and such a powerful force in my life. When I asked her about my father who was abusive, she would never speak ill of him. She spoke of him in either neutral or positive terms, but not in a way that was glossing over things either. This idea of complexity, that you can have ugliness and beauty right next to each other, and in fact, you almost always do, right? Her very essence, her very way was a guiding light to me. We do have to reach for love is another way of saying, put yourself in the way of beauty. I think even in the hardest times there are ways we can find our way, even if we don`t know how that feeling will come. The reason I decided to hike the PCT was that I needed to find my strength again. The place where I felt the strongest was when I was in nature. So I knew to go there, even though I went full of fear and doubts and thinking, maybe this won`t work, but I thought, why not go and try it? Of course it doesn’t have to be hiking the PCT, it can be taking a hot bath or calling a friend or taking a walk, consciously making these decisions that allow us to lessen the sorrows we have or the burdens we carry.
Yes, or picking up a copy of Brave Enough or Tiny, Beautiful Things.
Absolutely, turning to books. I do that all the time. Sometimes you turn to a book that you know will make you cry. It`s not that it makes you feel better, but it opens you up to the gentleness in the world that you need to be open to.
When I interviewed Maya Angelou she spoke about the years after the abuse when she was mute. In these years, her friends were books, and she actually thought Shakespeare was a poor black girl like her because he described her suffering so acutely. What`s a book you turn to again and again?
Alice Munro is my favorite writer. Her mind, her stories, her ideas about the way we are always affect me deeply on both an emotional, intellectual and even a spiritual level. She somehow captures the essence of who we are in a way that really affects me to my core. Her books are like old friends to me. Especially when I read her book Lives of Girls and Women, I feel like how Maya Angelou felt about Shakespeare. I feel like, wow, Alice Munro must have known me when I was a girl. Even though in all these technical ways, no, I did not live on a farm, no, I did not grow up in Canada, but somehow she captures the essence of who I am and how I feel. it`s a powerful thing words can do, when we dare to tell story in which we are risking that level of honesty. When you dare to speak the truth of your particular life, you are speaking in the universal voice. And so when people write to me and say, you get me, it`s not even about me. We´re drinking from some river of wisdom that has been created by innumerable writers.
How did you become a feminist at the age of 6?
I don`t remember specifically when I learned that word. I only remember from as early as that age I was aware of feminism, and I was one! I could already tell that the world thought differently about me as a girl, and I just knew that I was every bit as strong and ambitious as any boy, and in fact more so than a lot of them. I was always an ambitious child. For no good reason whatsoever, from a very young age, for instance, I was declaring that I would one day be the president of the United States.
I`d vote for you!
I just always felt I wanted to be as much as I could be, and I found the idea that anybody would limit me outrageous. I felt that outrage not only on behalf of myself, but on behalf of all people, because I think boys suffer from sexism, too, frankly. Also, from a really early age I saw what happened between my mom and dad, and I heard the things my father said to my mom. There was this dynamic in the world that gave my dad power and stripped my mom of another kind of power. I knew I would grow up and rally against that all my life. I never let go of that. I subscribed to Ms. Magazine when I was a teenager, it was the only magazine I subscribed to. I remember going head to head with my school teacher who was against legal abortion and I was fighting him in class, in front of my peers, which was risky, because the jury was very much out among that group. I felt passionate about women`s rights and feminism.
As president, you could change a lot of things.
Yes, I could change a lot of things. The first thing I would change is I would continue to work in my pajamas like I do now.
That would be revolutionary. Secondly, you could reach for gender equality and gun control.
That´s right. I was just in Australia when the Colorado Springs shooting happened. When the Australians talked about it, I felt very embarrassed. I`m just in so much despair, it is so sickening to me. I was blushing. I got defensive, saying things like, well, you know, a lot of Americans are for gun control. Everybody I know says we have got to something – and then we don`t do anything. I just don’t get it. It`s embarrassing.
I think you should run for president!
I think I`ll stick to writing. You can’t do anything right as the president. I feel so sorry for anybody who is president, honestly.