Into the 'Wild' and Back
Cheryl Strayed is having a hell of a year
Cheryl Strayed is gracefully riding the roller coaster between her normal life and her stratospheric rise to mind-scrambling success courtesy of bestselling summer memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. "Even with all this great stuff that's happened, I still have to maintain a relationship with my husband, I still have to mother my kids, I still have to figure out how to keep the house clean," Strayed says. "It's not like I'm suddenly swimming with dolphins every day."
Following her beloved mother's death from cancer when Strayed was 22, a slew of familial and marital catastrophes, and a brief but tumultuous love affair with an addict and his intravenous heroin muse, life knocked Strayed far off course. A lost woman embarked on a journey and found herself, and the experience empowered a voice. Wild is the life map she created, a memoir of her 1,100-mile solo trek on the Pacific Crest Trail. Strayed taps into the universal core of human emotion simply by telling her own story in all its gritty, gut-wrenching glory.
And through her double life as "Dear Sugar," The Rumpus' renowned advice columnist whose columns were compiled in Tiny Beautiful Things (also published this summer), Strayed's raw techniques have changed the course of more lives than her own. "It wasn't the anonymity that gave me permission to be that candid. That's really how I've always written," she says. "People recognize their own humanity in my story."
Adult ideas and emotions drive her work, but Strayed says she believes "really strongly that people should read the books they wanna read when they wanna read them." The same goes for writing. "Write like a motherfucker," Sugar told a distressed advice-seeker. It is this "motherfuckitude" mantra that allowed Strayed to make a phoenix ascension from a pit of shattering grief to become a source of inspiration for many.
"When we think about writers who change the world, I think a lot of times we think about people who write about big political things," Strayed says. "But I also believe that we can change the world by doing things like writing about grief or sex or parenting. Any of those can be really transformative subjects as well."
A fellow admirer of Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn's book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide and "the consciousness they have brought to [women's issues]," Strayed paints an eloquent but brutal portrayal of her life in all of her work, including many events that affect women across the globe. "I write about having an abortion. I also write about cheating and being unfaithful and being sexually promiscuous. And I do both of those things without apologizing. I didn't want to hide that piece of my life. It's powerful to tell your story and to tell the truth."
So what frightens a woman who can bare her soulful underbelly to the world, endure rattlesnake encounters and extreme temperatures, and care for small children? "Everything," she says. "Life."
"Anything could happen to any of us at any moment. We'd like to think we know what's going to happen because it gives us a sense of control and power. It's not like I'm riddled with anxiety about what's going to happen next, but I always try to remember how little control we have."
Yet it is through her hard-won and deeply rooted respect for bulldozing through fear that gives Strayed's memoir and words of advice such authenticity. In addition to empathetic parallels, she gives readers gorgeous works of word art filled with humor and chutzpah. Her writing will knock the air from your lungs and make you ugly-cry, then lovingly bear-hug you back to safety.
Her epiphany-inducing voyage in the wilderness continues to motivate Strayed. "I feel passionate about how important it is that we have wild places and that we protect them and that we honor them for the treasures that they are. There's nothing like hearing the silence of the wilderness, and I wanna do something that really helps kids connect to that experience and make it a part of what they do in their adult life as well."
A Conversation with Cheryl Strayed
Moderated by Amanda Eyre Ward
Saturday, Oct. 27, 4-4:45pm, House Chamber
Lit Crawl Austin: Austin Bat Cave Presents the Story Dept.
with Jami Attenberg, Lily Raff McCaulou, Emma Straub, and Cheryl Strayed;
Moderated by Manuel Gonzales
Saturday, Oct. 27, 8-8:45pm,
Cheer Up Charlie's (1111 E. Sixth)