Bodies, Forgiveness, and Tiny Beautiful Things: A Conversation with Cheryl Strayed
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Intimate conversations with our greatest heart-centered minds.
I first came across Cheryl Strayed’s writing when The Sun Magazine excerpted some of her Dear Sugar advice columns which had been previously published on The Rumpus. At the time, Sugar’s identity was anonymous but her tender, earnest, fierce words sunk deep into my core. And my core back then was in need of care. I was healing from head and brain injury and spent most of my days trying to survive a bevy of terrifying health issues and acute loneliness. No matter the topic, her answers spoke to my fear, isolation, and struggles.
A year or so later, Cheryl came forth as Sugar and Tiny Beautiful Things was published. While my health was improving, I was still thick in the throes of darkness and her words became one of my lifelines. Cheryl has a knack for acknowledging what is. I mean, really-really-really acknowledging what is, no bones about it. And then greeting it with clarity, kindness, humor, and the possibility of dismantling everything you know for a healthier, more truthful existence. This combination allowed me to see myself and my life in a different light: on one hand, less shiny; on the other, more hopeful—because as Cheryl writes: “Nobody's going to do your life for you…You have to do it no matter what is true. No matter what is hard. No matter what unjust, sad, sucky things befall you…It's up to you to decide to stay parked there or to turn around and drive out.” Slowly, I turned and drove. I’m not alone in this: Tiny Beautiful Things became a New York Times bestseller, was adapted into a play, is soon to be released as a Hulu Original television series, and the 10th Anniversary edition of the book was just published with six new columns.
After that I devoured all Cheryl’s writing. Her staggering essay “The Love Of My Life” about her mother’s death. Her novel Torch. And, of course, Wild, her account of her trek along the Pacific Crest Trail which has sold more than four million copies and was turned into an Oscar-nominated movie starring and produced by Reese Witherspoon.
Cheryl’s writing is wholesome and earnest yet primal and raw. One moment she’s talking about the possibility of forgiving even impossible seeming wrongs, the beauty of self-nurturing, the righteousness of trees, and the next about fucking under the kitchen sink and shooting drugs into her ankle. Yet rather than feeling dichotomous, it’s kindred. Her essays have appeared in Vogue, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, among others. She’s hosted two podcasts: Sugar Calling and Dear Sugars. She’s also written Brave Enough, a collection of cherished quotes. And has brought Dear Sugar to Substack.
Over the years, Cheryl has enjoyed tremendous success, and she’s used that to help other writers along their path. Back when I was so ill, I sent Cheryl an email sharing how profoundly her writing was helping me. It was a long email full of admiration and uneasiness. She wrote back the next day with words of support. Her kindness toward me during such a vulnerable time left an indelible imprint on my heart so I was especially delighted for this interview.
We chatted about bodies and forgiveness v. acceptance and why writers should be paid for their work.
There’s a lot of profound sorrow, fear, and grief in your work. As you're writing, are there certain places in your body that you’re experiencing this?
There are different stages of my writing practice. Before I begin, there’s this bubbling sense of beauty and wonder inside my body over all the astonishing things I'm going to write. Then as I get closer to the computer, there’s a growing sense of dread and anxiety. I wonder: Why do I have to be a writer?
That’s something physical I have to wrestle with a lot. I'm not alone in that. I think it's important that we writers talk about it. In my work as Dear Sugar, one of the core pieces of advice that I say over and over is listen to your body. If you feel that something is right or something is wrong, you’re correct. So, if you were taking strictly my advice regarding the writing, you'd say, Oh, well, I feel a sense of dread: Trust the body and don't write. But what I've learned is just as trusting pleasure or openness and relaxation in the body means you're in the right place at the right time, when it comes to writing, trusting my dread and anxiety and fear means that I'm about to do something hard and important. Something that matters a lot to me. The way I've reconciled those negative feelings as a writer, is I've learned to say, you’re part of my success because without you, dread and fear and anxiety, I probably couldn't write.
So you go from wonder, excitement, almost a sense of joy to dread, anxiety, and fear. Then you get to work and, if you’re lucky, you get to that wonderful place of losing a sense of the self and time. You reach a kind of transcendence. To transcend means to move from one realm to the other. I can't figure out if it's to move outside of the body or more deeply into it so that you and your core are at one with the universe. I don't think I've ever written anything where I didn't at some point reach that wonderful place of transcendence. That doesn't mean that everything I've written is transcendent, but rather that I’ve lost myself in the work so fully there is no difference between my body and the world.
That's so lovely. You and your body have been through a lot together. It carried you through the Pacific Crest Trail, through drugs, through what you describe as reckless sex and seemingly fantastic sex. Two births. Various weight scenarios. And probably much more than I know about! Do you feel comfortable talking about your relationship with your body these days?
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