Last night I told Cheryl Strayed that I wanted to curl up in her lap and talk about life. What I meant was that I am a fan of her writing.
I had planned to enter the interview with a posture of professionalism, but very early on it became evident that in this instance the line between journalist and fangirl was as translucent as a watercolor brushstroke. She has that effect on people.
Her two recent books are Wild, a memoir about her 1,100-mile solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, and Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of essays from the popular advice column she writes for The Rumpus under the name “Dear Sugar.” Both books are current New York Times bestsellers.
Through these books, which are written with unflinching honesty about the good and bad moments of her life, Strayed has amassed an audience of readers who feel that they know her as well as, or maybe better than, they know themselves. Even Oprah seems to have felt this peculiar sense of intimacy after reading Strayed's work: She recently relaunched her famous Book Club out of enthusiasm for Wild, tracking down Strayed's cellphone number in order to call and break the news herself.
In last night's installment of the Eating Our Words series at Taylor De Cordoba Gallery, Strayed read from Tiny Beautiful Things to an overflow audience of similarly enthusiastic admirers. The series, hosted by poet Gabrielle Calvocoressi and gallerist Heather Taylor, pairs a writer of note with a tasting of local, artisanal food. Strayed (aka “Sugar”) was complemented by sugary confections from I Heart Pies and Carmela Ice Cream.
After reading an essay that both frankly and tenderly addressed body-image issues, Strayed compelled the audience members to take a second helping of pie. Then she answered audience questions about love and sex and God and Oprah (the latter two being separate entities) with the same generosity and tact that she does as Dear Sugar. I saw at least one person cry.
But before all of that, just down La Cienega Boulevard from the gallery, on the back patio of the Mandrake Bar, I sat across a wooden picnic table from the author. With a dish of olives and a tape recorder between us, we spoke about things both tiny and beautiful. Here is a pared-down version of our conversation:
Pie or ice cream?
That's brutal! My gut instinct is to say pie, but there's a caveat with that. My favorite pie, as Sugar has made clear, is banana cream. So if it's banana cream pie, I feel like I get that whipped cream, meeting the dairy need.
In one of your most popular Dear Sugar columns — the one from which the book Tiny Beautiful Things gets its title — you tell your 20-something self to “be brave enough to break your own heart.” You were talking about leaving a relationship in that instance, but I'm interested in how the idea might translate to creative work. When have you broken your own heart through the writing process, and do you think that's important?
I do. So often it is around romantic relationships that you have to say, OK, I love this person, but it's not right for me so I have to be brave enough to say no. But it applies to everything: friendships and relationships we have with family members, and also to the creative process. That statement is being able to say no to yourself in some ways so that you can say yes to yourself in a bigger way.
Is it a “kill your darlings” kind of thing?
Certainly with everything I've ever written, there's a moment that entails letting go of something that's valuable. It's about understanding that in order to make the whole better, you have to lose that piece. So you sacrifice things for the greater good, but you never know how that thing will come back to you.
One example is the column “Reach” in Tiny Beautiful Things, where I am advising this man who has become addicted to painkillers. At the end of that column I tell him a story about when my ex-husband and I were living in New York and hearing these sounds behind the wall, and we break through the ceiling and there are these two kittens who have been trapped inside the ducts of the building, and we release them. Honestly, that scene was originally in Wild. But when I got that guy's question, I realized that he needed that scene. So I took it out of Wild.
Would Wild have been a stronger book for that scene? Maybe, but I sacrificed it. I was brave enough to break my own heart in that regard.
So, you might leave a relationship, or you might kill a piece of a story, and then it reappears in a different way.
You've said that great memoir is using the self to tell the universal story. Can you talk about that, and about why that's important for the form? Also, how is that different from the Dear Sugar columns?
In Wild, I'm writing about myself in this really intentional way, where I am telling the reader my story — trying to illuminate who I was at that moment in my life, when I was 26. And I hope that in doing that honestly, people will recognize themselves. The details of their lives might be different, but the universal experience is the same. And I have been amazed by how much that is actually true.
In Tiny Beautiful Things, my intention is different. In those columns, when I tell stories from my life, I'm not searching myself. I'm searching the letter writer's problem and question; I'm trying to use myself to help that person understand their problem. I'm still trying to illuminate the human condition, but I guess my intentions are slightly different. I'm saying, “Here's an experience I had, and what I learned from it. I think it might be informative to you.”
With that kitten example, in Wild the way I used it was to tell the reader about me — about who I was in that moment, and who my ex-husband was, and what that meant to our relationship. But in the column, I'm using that same story in a slightly different way to achieve the same effect, which is to say, we all need help sometimes; we all need to be that kitten who steps out of the darkness and into the light.
Cheryl Strayed will read again tonight, July 30, at Book Soup in West Hollywood. 8818 Sunset Blvd.; (310) 659-3110; booksoup.com.