writer + artist

Cheryl Strayed

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“We are all responsible for finding beauty in our lives even when things are difficult.”

-Cheryl Strayed

At the end of May, I was lucky enough to sit down with Cheryl Strayed and interview her for the Women’s Wisdom Project. Cheryl and I had met a few times over the years while attending Mountainfilm, and I was honored that she graciously offered to spend an hour with me talking about all things related to wisdom.

Of course, I knew that this conversation would need to go a little above and beyond just a papercut portrait, or even a Q&A. So I asked my friend Gale Straub at She Explores if she would be interested in having me record the interview and we could turn it into a podcast. I got another yes, and soon found myself nervously preparing to record an interview with a new recording device that I had never used.

I say this because I think that context is everything. There’s always a back story, and in this case, the back story was that I wanted to doing something that I really didn’t know how to do (audio recording), and doubt and fear immediately kicked in at the back of my mind (“what if you ruin this audio entirely?”).

I dove in anyway.

Cheryl and I had a wonderful conversation. It’s a conversation that I have thought about so many times since. As for the audio? Well, it wasn’t perfect. But Gale (with a lot of work, that I am very grateful for) managed to turn it into a podcast episode, which you can listen to here.

It was a reminder that you have to push past fear. That things won’t always be perfect, but you’ll learn along the way. That’s a lot of what Cheryl and I talked about in our conversation. I replayed this part of our interview a few times as I was working on putting this piece together:

“One of my quotes in Tiny, Beautiful Things and in Brave Enough is that you give fear a seat at the table. You say, ‘welcome fear, your presence is an indication to me that I’m doing the work I’m meant to be doing.’ Because fear is part of our best work.”

Fear is part of our best work. Remember that.

I encourage you to listen to the podcast, but I wanted to capture some of my favorite parts of the interview here so that you could read them as well (including a couple of things that didn’t make it into the podcast).

I listened to this interview several times, wondering what bit of wisdom I would pull from Cheryl to use as the quote in her papercut. That’s the thing about quotes; they are always snippets, and this conversation was so rich, there was no way to boil it down to one sentence.

But there was one that stood out: “We are all responsible for finding beauty in our lives even when things are difficult.” Even Cheryl will admit that this bit of wisdom isn’t hers. It’s her mother’s. I chose it, because I think that it embodies the fact that wisdom is all around us, that it’s never just “ours.” Wisdom is passed down, it evolves, we offer it to others, and they pass it along to someone else.

We have so much to share with each other, and most often, the most meaningful wisdom and advice that guides is doesn’t come from a notable public figure, but in fact, from the people closest to us.

Anna: You are a prime person to talk to about wisdom, because I think a lot of people seek wisdom from you. 

Cheryl: It’s always strange for me to hear that I’m some sort of fount of wisdom and that’s always been the funny, an uneasy position that I’ve been in, not just as an advice giver as Dear Sugar, but even my other books Wild and, and my novel Torch. My books have always been read in this way that people take from them advice. So much of what I’ve been interested in as a writer is our emotional lives, our relationships, the ways that we love and lose and suffer and recover and grapple with how to be in the world.

What ends up happening is because I have spent so many years really examining that and thinking about that and writing about that, I ended up seeming like this figure, this wise woman. And I have to say, it makes me laugh because because I’ve got so much to learn. I think maybe part of the thing I feel grateful about when it comes to wisdom, it does come from that place of having a lot to learn and it comes from that place of being somebody who has had to do a lot of living and a lot of experiencing and a lot of loving and losing and making mistakes and making amends and trying to figure out the better way.

I’ve always been awake to the better way and I think that’s what wisdom is: being able to say, “I want to try to be the best version of myself that I can be, how do I do that?” and being really conscious about it. To me, the wisest people are not the people who have always done everything right, but the, the people who are aware of what they’ve done and they’re aware of the relationships they’ve had and they’re looking back to the past mistakes they made, or the past victories, they had and really reflecting on it and bring it into their present life.

We all have so much wisdom to give, and that is always something that has come across to me when I have read your books. It always feels personable and real, like a counterpart giving it to you, not a top down, “here is my soapbox and here is what you should do.” Instead, it feels very much like sharing human stories that we all can connect to. And in that sense, we all have so much wisdom to give to each other. 

Absolutely. I have never liked a guru. I’ve always been repulsed by that. But I’m an accidental self help writer. I never set out to be like, okay, gather round people, listen to me. I can tell you how to live. That really is not me.

The way Tiny Beautiful Things came to be is I wrote this column called Dear Sugar, and it was very much what you’re describing, a horizontal relationship between me and somebody who wrote to me who said, well, what do you think of this? And it very much was like a long walk with a friend and the friend is like, “listen, I’m, I’m in trouble right now, I need advice.” You listen and you talk and you have this exchange. And that’s what I did in Dear Sugar. It was not ever me coming from above saying, “I’m the wise one and you have to sit at my feet and listen.” I really think that’s that old fashioned model about advice, the reason I use that word “guru.”

I think a lot of people think of their own path to spiritual enlightenment being via somebody who is in this exalted position. And I find that almost always abusive and fraudulent. You already know the answers, you already have that wisdom within you. If they’re saying, “I’m the wise one, listen to me,” there’s always something inherently fraudulent about that.

Now that doesn’t mean that we don’t meet wise people sometimes who we can learn from, who we can say, “I admire you so much because I was lost and you’re found right now, how did you get found?” I think that that’s a totally valid exchange, but if that exchange can’t be flipped the other way, the next time you meet, that’s what I’m talking about when I say fraudulent, where it’s always somebody in the guru position, somebody in the seeker position. I’m a seeker and I always will be.

Is there an influential woman in your life who passed along a piece of wisdom to you? Who and what?

Anyone who has read my work knows that my mom was such a huge influence on my life and still is. There are so many ways that she influences me, that it’s hard to encapsulate one, but I would say that the most powerful and important one is her sense of optimism and her sense that, that we are all responsible for finding beauty in our lives even when things are difficult.

She did this in so many different ways. The one quote in Brave Enough that I did not write is, “put yourself in the way of beauty.” That is my mom’s quote. What that means is you know there will always be difficult things in life, putting yourself in the way of beauty is not to diminish that sorrow and that pain, but to say, you have a choice. She would always say there’s always a sunrise and sunset and you get to decide if you want to be there for it. I didn’t even think about the power of that truth until I was on the Pacific Crest Trail and hiking and, and waking up every morning to the most magnificent sunrises and going to sleep after the most magnificent sunsets and really feeling like the world could never be only sad when there is the presence of that kind of beauty.

There was a Dear Sugar podcast ages ago about a writer who had written in about their fear of rejection. You had made a comment about a friend of yours who had written a book, who had gotten a review online that said that they had written the “worst book ever.” And you told the writer asking for advice, “it’s great, my friend already wrote the worst book ever, so you can only do better.” I think about that a lot. When we put our honest real selves on the table, we have done our best, and if someone is going to judge that, that’s on them. You have done what you can do, and you are being who you are and then you have to be able to let the reins go a little bit, because you don’t have control over others.

You don’t! It’s about growing up emotionally. What I realized as a writer, is that ultimately, it’s a really needy and narcissistic stance to say, “I have written a book and everyone should love it.” There is not a book in the history of all books that everyone loved. Some people are going to love your book, some people are going to hate your book, and most people aren’t even going to know that your book exists. Your job is not to get them to love you, or pay attention to you. Say, “ok,I did my best.” And that’s all you can do.

“Was I kind? Was I honest in my relationships and interactions with people?” If you can say yes to those two questions, I think those are really valuable barometers, not, “did you make somebody happy because you gave them what they wanted?”

That’s true when it comes to the work that we make too, the art we put into the world. Not every piece of art is everyone’s cup of tea and it couldn’t be, that’s what makes it so beautiful. When you do love work by somebody, you are meaningfully connecting with them, but part of why you love it is that it’s about you. It’s your projection. Just like if someone hates my work, they’re projecting. If someone loves my work, they’re projecting too. In so many ways, they are bringing themselves into what I have made, which is a beautiful thing.

In this digital age, it feels like everyone is always trying to put on their best self, and we have this expectation of perfection that is totally false. I often think of people creating and making art, and I do think that there is a lot of stuff that is created with the end consumer in mind. As opposed to the artist creating the art because they have to dig deep and create that work. It reminds me of Elizabeth Gilbert in her book Big Magic when she writes about Eat, Pray, Love and that if she set out to write a book that would be life changing for so many women, she wouldn’t have done it. But she wrote the book that she needed to write for her, and as a result, so many women identified with it. Is that something that you think about when you think of new works that you want to bring into the world?

Yeah, it’s the only way that writing works, and probably all art making, frankly. You are always telling that story for yourself and finding the truth in yourself that you have to share with the world. Even if you delude yourself into thinking that you have any control over the outcome, you’re mistaken about that. When people say, “I’m going to write a bestseller,” I’m like, “uh, no you’re not.” [Laughs]

Because you don’t know what’s going to happen to your book. Do I hope that people love what I write? Absolutely. While I’m writing does the tiny mean, stingy voice in my head say over and over again, “you’re stupid and everyone’s going to hate this”? Yes. But I don’t write for that mean voice in my head and I don’t write for that imagined audience at the end that says, “you’re so amazing, I love this.”

I write. I can only write out of that little sort of voice within me that says, “you have to do this. Sit down and tell this story and trust that you’ll find your way through it.” It’s really hard and it never gets easy.

People assume it’s easier for me now that I’ve had success and that is not true at all. Writing has never changed for me. It’s always basically been hell and it’s also always been glory. It’s really hard, and then I hit some zone and then it’s amazing and it’s magic and I think, “why was I so hesitant and why was I agonizing?” And then the next day I’ll be agonizing again and I’m like, “well, how do I get back to that place where it felt like paradise?”

That’s what writing is. It’s always those extremes and a lot of it is just sitting down and doing the work and knowing that you’re going to feel anxious about it. You’re going to feel a lot of fear and doubt and come what may of the work, you just have to do your work.

This papercut and profile are a part of the Women’s Wisdom Project, a project focused on showcasing the wisdom of inspiring, insightful women by making 100 papercut portraits.

Written by Anna Brones

August 8, 2018 at 10:56

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