Describe your path to becoming a writer.
Oh my goodness! That’s a whole book. The path began so long ago—when I was a child. I had an epiphany when I was about seven. I went to Sunday school with a friend one week—my own family didn’t attend church, so this was new to me. At Sunday school I was given this little book of lyric poems. It wasn’t even a book; more like a booklet. I remember reading the poems inside and not even knowing what this feeling was that I had; it was almost like ecstasy. I felt so pierced by those words. It was just these little poems that described the beauty of flowers and butterflies and the wonders of nature. I was profoundly moved by what words could do, how they could make me feel, and how they could make images come alive. I remember thinking that that was just the most incredible thing and I wanted to figure out how to do that myself.
I didn’t know that I could be a writer. I grew up working class and poor. I wasn’t around educated people or people who would ever dream of going off and being an artist of any sort. I had no awareness of that, but I became an avid reader. I read beyond my years, always reaching for the next thing. Then I went to college and that was the huge shift for me. It was not just the shift where I could suddenly take my writing more seriously and be exposed to things I hadn’t been exposed to before—certainly, that was the case—but culturally, it was the first time I was around people who made their lives with words. People were calling themselves poets; they were professors; they were writing short stories and essays and novels. I didn’t know anything about that life until I went to college. And then it absolutely riveted me and I knew that that’s what I was going to do.
I began college when I was 17 and during those first years, I was asking myself, “Can I do this?” By the time I was 19, I was saying, “I’m going to be a writer. This is my path.” I dedicated myself to that. I read voraciously and took my writing seriously. I used books to teach me how to write. I would memorize the sentences of writers I loved. I would study the way a poet made an image and I’d try to copy it. I would examine how Mary Gaitskill put a paragraph together and then I would write the same paragraph, but add my nouns and adjectives. It wasn’t something I would then go and try to publish; I wasn’t trying to plagiarize her. That was my way of seeing what she was doing.
What happened after that was that I spent my 20s trying to pursue my work. Sometimes I did it more successfully than others. Sometimes I would work as a waitress and say I was going to write during the day and I actually would write during the day. Other times that was more of a theory than a practice, but at least I was throwing myself in that direction. It’s funny; I think in some ways, even that meant something. The days when I wasn’t really writing, but was just saying I was writing—that actually helped me become a writer.
I didn’t focus much on getting published. I focused on applying for things that would give me time so I could write more—grants and residencies so I could go somewhere for two or three months and write. That’s how I became a writer. By writing.
That’s the beginning of the path and there’s a whole other gnarly story about how I actually finished my first book, but I don’t know if I’m going on too long. What do you think?
Let’s hear it.
When I think of my path to being a writer, there were different stages. There was the childhood phase when I knew this was amazing and beautiful and I wanted to be a part of it. Then there were the college years and my early 20s when I was saying, “I’m serious about this and I’m really going to do it.” And then there were the more tortured late 20s and early 30s when I thought, “Okay, I need to write a book.” It was so hard because I kept thinking that somehow, magically, the forces would combine and there would be my book. It was so much harder to write a book than I ever dreamed it would be.
When I turned 30, I decided to apply to graduate school to get my MFA in creative writing. I only applied to programs that gave full funding and tuition reimbursement to students. It’s essentially a modern-day way to have a benefactor. The school will support you for two or three years while you write your book. I applied and got into several schools and decided to go to Syracuse University. There, I wrote the first half of my novel, Torch, which is my first book.
What was so great about graduate school was that it was the first time I was just a writer. After graduate school, I didn’t get a job. My husband and I lived off of the little bit of money he was making and we went into serious credit card debt so that I could finish Torch. It was really just a gamble. We knew we’d either regret the credit card debt or, if the book sold, we’d pay it off. I’m glad to report that the latter happened. I finished Torch a year and some change after I got my MFA and I sold it within a month or two of finishing it. Every penny of the first portion of my advance went to paying off the credit card debt I accrued so I could write Torch.
It was the same with Wild. In my acknowledgments, I always feel like I should rightly thank MasterCard, Visa, and Discover for their support while I wrote the book. (laughing) A lot of interviewers will say to me, “Oh, you’re so honest about money.” I keep vowing not to talk to anyone again about money and here we are talking about it. I think it’s absolutely fascinating how in our set of artistic and creative people, we tend to be pretty comfortable talking about intimate things—our love lives, our sex lives—and yet money is still such a taboo subject. What I’ve found is that when you speak a little bit of truth about what your reality is, no matter the subject, people will say, “Oh my god, I’m so glad you said that. Me too.” When it comes to money, there’s this whole territory that we’re not discussing openly.
That’s part of what we’re trying to do with the site and why we encourage people to share openly about their stories. We want people who are pursuing a creative living to hear what it’s really like and know that, even though there are challenges, it is possible.
See, that’s the other thing that’s interesting about money. From my vantage point, I have two messages: One is that you will be poorer than you think—even when you’re successful it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be rich. And also, that it is possible. I’ve supported myself as a writer for about ten years now. I’ve taught and written for magazines and done this and that. I’ve had to sometimes do things like sell my books at Powell’s bookstore to raise $20 to go buy groceries for dinner, but there’s a way to patch it together.
I think a lot of writers who are coming up get this false idea that once they get that $120,000 book deal they’re set, which isn’t the case. When I was in graduate school, I thought that was the case. But it’s also not the case that it’s impossible. People do support themselves as artists and writers, so there’s no need to be all doom and gloom about it. You just have to push forward. You have to follow your vision and hope for the best. You have to write for love.
“People do support themselves as artists and writers, so there’s no need to be all doom and gloom about it. You just have to push forward. You have to follow your vision and hope for the best. You have to write for love.”
Was creativity a part of your childhood?
My first impulse is to say absolutely, but not in these culturally exalted ways that we associate with educated classes. I had no exposure to the fine arts. I was 19 the first time I went to a museum. The library in the town where I grew up was this little room that was open two hours a week. There would sometimes be a school field trip on a rare occasion and that was pretty much it, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t have an artistically vibrant childhood.
My mom was really, really creative and she started reading to me when I was three or four. I wasn’t a kid who had tons and tons of books and I missed out on a lot of the childhood books of my generation, like Shel Silverstein and Ferdinand the Bull—I didn’t read any of that as a kid. My mom would read full-length novels out loud to me—novels that, now that I’m grown up, I realize were actually not for kids. The two books I remember were Black Beauty and Bambi. They were made into Disney stories for kids, but my mom read me the full-length books that were meant for adults. These were serious books that involved bad things. Black Beauty was a novel about this horse that was abused in the streets of London and when that book came out, it was a sensation. My mom read me the full-on, published in 1877 version of the book. And in Bambi when Bambi’s mother is gunned down—I never forgot those things. I remember feeling horrified and crying and weeping. All those things that we try to protect our kids from, whether it’s danger or fear, my mom gave that stuff to me.
My mom also made stuff. She made a lot of our clothes and she would also pretend. I remember when we didn’t have enough money for her to buy juice or Kool-Aid and she would just put food coloring in water and pretend it was a fancy drink. She’d speak in a British accent and make a whole party, but it was really just water. I think that was very creative.
Tina: I can relate. My family didn’t have a lot of money and I spent a lot of time playing outside, making forts, and using my imagination to fill in for the things we didn’t have.
I think that it’s really interesting. As a child I often heard the phrase, “Go out and play.” It was up to me to figure out what to do. Or if I said I was bored, my mom would say, “I’ll put you to work.” I try to parent my own kids with some of that spirit, but there are so many reasons that it’s hard to do that now.
You touched on one of your “aha” moments. Were there any other moments when you knew that writing was what you wanted to do?
I can think of about four or five “aha” moments. There was that big one that I described earlier, about reading that booklet of poems when I was seven. Another one was when I was 19 and took my first creative writing class. It was an introduction to poetry writing taught by the poet, Michael Dennis Browne, at the University of Minnesota. Every day when I went to that class I felt like my head was being blown into ten million smithereens because I was just so amazed.
I’ve always had two desires: one is to write and the other is to help people and actually have an impact on the world in a political/social realm. After college, I had a full-time job as a political organizer for this feminist peace group called Woman Against Military Madness, or WAMM. We worked against militarization, but we also worked on anti-racism stuff and all kinds of feminist issues. I remember feeling like the work I was doing was so important. I also did stuff with the Minnesota National Abortion Rights Action League. There was no question that this was valuable work, but what I kept feeling was, “But this isn’t the work I’m here to do. I’m really here to be a writer.”
I made a conscious decision that I couldn’t keep doing these sorts of serious, satisfying jobs and also be a writer. I had to choose to be a writer because that’s what really was in my heart and that was going to be my contribution to the world. In order to do that, I couldn’t also save the world by being a political organizer. I would have to serve the world by being a waitress or something that demanded less of my spirit so that I would have it to write.
That was a huge “aha” moment. It actually happened right before I was going to move to New York when I was 24. I had applied for a job with a non-profit in New York that was perfectly suited for my passions and interests. They called to set up an interview and I just had that sick feeling in my gut because even though part of me wanted the job, another part of me knew I shouldn’t take it. I called them and rescinded my application and moved to New York and became a waitress instead.
Tina: That’s interesting. In your “Dear Sugar” column #44, “How You Get Unstuck”, you talk about your work as a youth advocate and that totally hit home with me. I have a bachelor’s degree in social work and just spent the last twelve years working with runaway and homeless youth. I left that job when we moved to New York and now I’m freelancing as a writer.
When you described the kids you worked with, I thought, those are my kids. I miss them, but it is very demanding work and more often than not, you can’t help but take it home with you. I’ve noticed that I’ve had more creative energy to invest now that I’m not doing that full-time, yet I still miss that work because I care so much about people and I want to help in a tangible way. I wonder how I can make that same, tangible impact on the world using creativity. I don’t know the answer to that yet.
I know exactly what you’re talking about. What you were doing—it’s always overwhelming. All those kids you met and all those kids I met—we’re just a drop in the bucket, but it is a drop. You probably actually changed the lives of some people, for the better. It’s the same with the girls I worked with; some of them are better off because I worked with them. It feels great because your impact is so direct, whereas with writing, it feels diffused and it also takes longer to make an impact. I struggle with that.
It’s interesting that you bring that column up because that “aha” moment I just described about deciding not to take that job when I moved to New York—that was when I was 24. Fast forward to when I was living in Portland at age 28. I had been writing and I saw that job posting to work with the girls. I was so bitter about waitressing. I was so sick of bringing people food and drinks and there was no meaning to that life. I applied for that job as a youth advocate and got it. There I was, giving to those girls and it was amazing, but I still had that feeling. That’s when I said, “Cheryl, you have to trust this. You have to do this. You have to know that even though there are other crosscurrents saying you need to help people, what you are really here to do is write.”
I wasn’t conscious of this when I took on the “Dear Sugar” column, but what happened was that finally, my two worlds collided: I’m actually helping people with my writing. Thousands of people have written to me to say “Dear Sugar” has helped them or changed their lives. It’s amazing. I didn’t know that would happen.
Since we’re on that topic, do you want to share about your new book, Tiny Beautiful Things?
Sure. I took on “Dear Sugar” on a lark. I did it because my friend, Steve Almond, asked me to take it over. He was writing the column for the year previous to me—I started in March 2010—but he wasn’t terribly into it. I had been reading the column and loving it, but I didn’t know it was Steve because it was anonymous. One day, Steve emailed me and said, “I’m Sugar and would you like to take it over?” I said, “Sure.” Then I quickly thought, what the fuck am I thinking? I didn’t know about giving advice or writing a column and it paid zero.
If you’re going to actually support yourself as a writer, you need to write things for which people will pay you. Everything you take on is a block of time you can’t give to something else like paid work or mothering—I also have two little kids. I thought it was silly that I said yes and wondered who was even going to read the column because it’s just another thing online, but something inside of me told me to do it anyway.
What I’ve really learned in my 43 years is that the body does not lie; the body actually tells you what’s right and wrong. If you get a sinking feeling in your stomach or a heavy heart about something, you shouldn’t do it; and if you get a lifting, light feeling in your body, you should. I kept getting this excited feeling about doing the “Dear Sugar” column, so I did it.
When I began writing the column I realized that I didn’t want to knock off a funny, silly thing. I wanted to write very seriously to people about the deeper questions they were asking. I started doing that and people started paying attention pretty quickly. Within a few months, people were posting links to columns telling others to read it. People started knowing who Sugar was without “knowing” who Sugar was. When I took it over, I always knew that I would someday announce that Sugar was really Cheryl Strayed. I wrote it with that consciousness for two years before I revealed my identity on Valentine’s Day of this year. People would say, “Oh my god, now you’re not going to write with such openness.” I knew that that was wrong because I always wrote knowing that someday my name would be attached to it. The anonymity was just a temporary part of the experience.
What happened was that people read the column and not only responded to it, but also built a community around it on The Rumpus. Tiny Beautiful Things is a book I wrote by accident, essentially in response to that community. Readers kept saying, “You have to turn this into a book. I want a collection. I want to be able to hold them all together in my hands.” I had never thought about writing a “Dear Sugar” book until so many readers suggested it to me. Tiny Beautiful Things is a selection of columns that have appeared on The Rumpus, along with several that are original to the book.
“I made a conscious decision that I couldn’t keep doing these sorts of serious, satisfying jobs and also be a writer. I had to choose to be a writer because that’s what really was in my heart and that was going to be my contribution to the world.”
Very cool. Did you have any mentors along the way?
Yes, many. My first, most important mentor was Paulette Bates Alden, who taught at the University of Minnesota when I was a junior and senior there. I took my first fiction writing workshop from her. She was teaching in the MFA program and I was an undergrad student and such an upstart that I asked her to let me in the class. She was generous and great.
My first serious story that I wrote was called “Grown-ups”. I remember that she read it and said all this positive stuff about it and I was so excited and I thought, “I’m a fantastic writer!” But then Paulette offered a correction. She said, “I want to be clear about this. Your story is good for where you’re at—for you being 21 and just beginning. It’s good, but I don’t mean to say it’s great. I don’t think you should send it to The New Yorker or anything.” I was crestfallen and yet, it was so important that she said that because it reminded me that I had a long way to go. Just because she praised me, it didn’t mean I was her colleague. It would take me years to become her colleague. She was really important to me and she still is.
At Syracuse, I worked with Mary Caponegro, Arthur Flowers, and George Saunders and they were all just absolutely amazing—amazing human beings and amazing teachers. There are a lot of people who can teach you good things about writing, but mostly I’ve learned how to write by reading and writing and trial and error. My mentors taught me important lessons about writing, but more than anything, they gave me support and love and a sense of belonging and respect that I needed on an emotional level. I think that so much of mentoring is loving people and being loving to people who aren’t as far down the path as you by giving them the sense that they’re part of the circle, even though they’re not all the way there yet. That was really powerful for me. That’s what Paulette, Arthur, Mary, and George all gave me. They welcomed me into the tribe.
Was there a point in your life when you decided you had to take a big risk to move forward?
Yeah—I think at every point I’ve taken risks. The most important are the emotional risks I’ve taken as a writer. I’ve pushed in directions on the page that scared me deeply, that exposed me, that pushed me into dark and difficult places, that demanded me to dig and reveal and really go all the way. I think writing is about moving forward via risk. That’s the engine to me.
Are your family and friends supportive of what you do and who has encouraged you the most along the way?
My husband, Brian Lindstrom, is my biggest supporter. There’s no doing it without him. When I was writing Torch, he believed in me more than I believed in myself. He’s always, always, always been there for me, every time I needed him. He encourages me. He believes in me. He’s supported me financially at different times—some of it was Visa, MasterCard, and Discover, but the other part of it was Brian Lindstrom, with his measly paying job as a documentary filmmaker. That’s a piece of advice I have for writers—marry a surgeon! (laughing)
I’m joking, of course. Brian makes films about people who live on the margins. His most well-known film to date is probably Finding Normal, which follows the lives of people who are just coming out of prison and detox for the first time ever. They are paired with recovery mentors and Brian followed them for several months with his camera. Right now, he’s finishing a project called Alien Boy: The Life and Death of James Chasse. James Chasse was a schizophrenic man who died in police custody after they’d beat him on a Portland street in 2006, though he committed no crime. The film is almost done and I couldn’t be more proud of Brian. He’s an amazing person and an amazing filmmaker. Many people ask us if we’re jealous of each other or competitive because we’re both artists. We’re always mystified by that because we support each other in every way.
“My mentors taught me important lessons about writing, but more than anything, they gave me support and love and a sense of belonging and respect that I needed on an emotional level…They welcomed me into the tribe.”
Are you satisfied creatively?
Yes. Yes, I am and I’m also chomping at the bit all the time. I really wish that I had more time. I have so many ideas and things bouncing around in my head that I’ve been wanting to write for years, but there are only so many hours in the day. I have books in me; I have stories I need to tell, both fiction and nonfiction; I have projects I want to do that would take me in different directions. I’m not a journalist, but there are some journalistic pieces I want to write. I’ve always been interested in exploring new things and I’d love to keep being able to do that. I hope and pray that I live to be very old and of sound mind and body so that I can keep writing and get all these books out of me before I die.
Do you have any plans for what’s next?
I do, but I also know that my plans go in unexpected directions, so I get nervous talking too much about them. I write very intuitively. I end up going down the path on the page and I don’t necessarily end up where I think I’m going to go. Before the Wild bomb went off and my life became this crazy hurricane, I had started writing a novel that was about four women who live in a house in Portland, Oregon and they each do different things and are different ages. I was really starting to delve into that. I’ve also been writing this long essay called “Places We’ve Never Been”. I don’t know if it’s too long to call an essay or too short to call a book. It’s about a trip I took before my Wild trip; not a hiking trip, but a trip around the American Southwest. I’ve written about 50 pages of that. I was fiddling around with it and then I had to stop writing because my life has become so crazy.
If you could give a piece of advice to a young writer starting out, what would you say?
Just give it to us straight, Cheryl.
(laughing) Write like a motherfucker would have to be my first bit of advice. What that means to me is that—as I say in the column—you really, really have to be a warrior and a motherfucker. And you have to be resilient and faithful. You can’t be a wimp. You can’t stand around bitching about how hard it is and how indignant you are that no one appreciates your work, about how no one will publish you, or how people at parties make you feel stupid, about how you’re really not only a waitress or whatever job you’ve taken, about how your parents don’t understand you, or any of the stuff I bitched about plenty myself. I don’t say this from a place of condemnation, but rather allegiance. You really have to buck the fuck up, do the work, and know that you’re probably going to have to do more work than you imagined you’d have to do to get to the place that you imagined as successful. And when you get there, you’ll see that “successful” feels less successful than you thought it would. Success in writing is about keeping the faith over a long, long stretch of time. This isn’t something you just do a little bit and then get a reward at the end of—it’s a life’s work.
I believe in that voice I trusted all along the way. I believe in writing as a calling. If you truly feel that calling in you, then listen to it and respect it, but don’t expect that anything is going to be given to you—you have to get it. That’s true of any art form; any artist will tell you that.
That’s awesome advice. How does living in Portland impact your creativity?
Well, I think there’s a wonderfully open sense of the world here. I feel understood in this community. There are a lot of artists and writers here and I’m friends with many of them. I feel “held” in the Portland community and value that a lot. And yet, one of the things that I love about writing is that it is so portable; I could be anywhere doing my work. The work is done in solitude, so the place doesn’t seem all that important to me. The other piece of the work is that sense that you’re participating in a community and are a part of a circle of people. I think that Portland contributes to my general sense of belonging in the world and in an indirect way, it contributes to my writing.
Is being part of a community something that is important to you?
Yeah. I think so. I certainly feel like I’ve found my tribe in Portland. I have friends all over the world, but I love this feeling of belonging I have here. I love to write in isolation and go off where nobody can find me and I’m all alone because I’m so productive then. When I’m not writing, I love to be part of a community here because it feeds me. I belong to a writer’s group and there’s something about going and meeting with them and knowing that they’re up against the same struggles as me. Even though we’re all struggling privately, we come together collectively and there’s a feeling of support.
What does a typical day look like for you?
It depends on if you mean now or if you mean my actual, regular life. It’s unique to have two books come out so close together. Wild was published in March; Tiny Beautiful Things in July—that is not normal. It’s also not a normal scenario that what happened to Wild happens to people’s books. It did well in its own right and then Oprah read it and chose it to restart her book club. There have been a lot of exciting things around Wild and now we have Tiny Beautiful Things coming out. So much of my time lately has been traveling to do events, doing email Q & A’s, and talking to people.
I think that by the end of the year, my life will get back to the typical routine. I have two kids, so once we get them off to school, I tool around on email and Facebook longer than I should. Then I shut those things down and get to work. My husband has an office close to home and so around mid-day, we’ll usually take a walk together and have lunch. After that I work until I go pick up the kids up from school. Then when the kids go to bed, we work more—we work a lot!
Current album on repeat?
Right now I’m listening to Laura Gibson. She’s so awesome. She lives in Portland and makes beautiful music. Her new album is La Grande, named after a town in Oregon. I had heard her music in a few places around Portland and loved her and then we were on this radio show together a few months ago. She sang a few songs and I was being interviewed. She came up to me and said, “Cheryl, I’m a huge Sugar fan,” and I said, “Really? I love your music so much.” She gave me the CD and I’ve been listening to it ever since. I asked her to come play some songs at the Portland launch party for Tiny Beautiful Things.
That sounds like fun. Do you have any favorite movies or TV shows?
Since my husband is a filmmaker, you’d think that we’ve seen everything, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. We didn’t have a TV for years and then we had two little kids who interrupt all kinds of aspects of life. A couple years ago, we were so profoundly behind on the good shows that we were starting to lose touch with the culture, so we started watching shows on our computer. We’ve seen The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and right now we’re watching Big Love.
Your favorite book?
That’s such a hard question because I love so many books. My favorite writer is Alice Munro—all of her books. She’s a tremendous writer and has taught me so much about writing. She’s my favorite among many, many other books and writers I love.
What’s your favorite food?
I’m so bad at favorites because I like a lot of things. Let’s put it this way—if you left me on an island with a bottle of wine, a baguette, and a hunk of Brie, I’d be perfectly fine.
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
Without question, the only legacy that really matters to me is the one I leave with my children. I want them to grow to be fully actualized people who can give to the world in ways creative and otherwise and who feel my love in their hearts and lives always, no matter what happens—whether I live to be really old or die young, I hope that my legacy lives in them. As much as my writing is so important to me and it’s the work I’m here to do, by far the more important thing to me is the people I love. That’s the most meaningful work.
“Success in writing is about keeping the faith over a long, long stretch of time. This isn’t something you just do a little bit and then get a reward at the end of—it’s a life’s work.”