An Interview with Cheryl Strayed: Writing as an Act of Transformation

Cheryl Strayed describes herself as a “writer, mother, feminist, traveler, light-seeker, wild woman, extroverted hermit, Virgo.” She’s the author of Brave Enough, a collection of quotations; the best-selling memoir Wild; and Torch, a novel. As Dear Sugar, she gave heartbreakingly good advice in podcast and prose form, collected in Tiny Beautiful Things, a book I’ve held dear since its publication in 2012. We talked about the ways in which honest, self-reflective writing can break barriers, build community, and serve as a political act.

I’ve been re-reading your books in preparation for this interview, and I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Tiny Beautiful Things in my car. I have to say, it’s a little dangerous—I’ve been bursting into tears as I drive.

I’m sorry for making you cry in the car! But I love that. It’s such an honor when someone cries over something I wrote. Because it means I went there—I went where the writing was supposed to go.

In your programs and workshops, you explore the barriers that keep us from fearlessly accessing our creative voice. I think so many of us struggle with that. Where do you think those barriers come from?

One is the inner voice that many of us have that is informed by the culture or our families or messages we’ve somehow absorbed. We think our stories aren’t valid or our stories will bring shame and condemnation or they’ll embarrass someone else or we’re stupid and we’re the only people who think this way so we should hush up. All of those voices in our minds—we get them in part because of the messages we receive but so many of us have internalized this message for any number of reasons—that we should keep quiet about what we have to say.

One of the things I talk about when I teach, and in my work with Dear Sugar, is that we have a lot of clarity within us. I really do believe that. So many times when I answered letters from people in Dear Sugar, whether it be for the podcast or for the column, I would say to them, Here’s what I think you should do. Not because I think you should do it, but because you think you should do it. You said it. This is what you know. And of course, so many of us are afraid to trust what we know and follow though with what we know because it requires something of us that may be harder in the short term than just going along.

So much about leaping over the barrier to trust your story is listening to yourself. It could be any number of things: I’m going to write a book, or I’m going to leave this relationship or I’m going to take a chance and go for that relationship—once you actually know what it is and trust that clarity, trust that inner voice of truth, it acts as a key to unlock the next door of the passageway of your becoming. It unlocks the next thing you need to know and trust.

Here’s a testimonial I read from one of your students: “A class with Cheryl Strayed is not a class. It becomes a community of support and love and belief in one another.” How does this work? How does a sense of community help with unblocking the barriers, either in your classes or in your own work?

At the beginning of every class, I say, You know, when we’re done here, things are never going to be the same again. Things will have shifted. When I write something important, what I always want the reader to feel is that the invisible last line of the piece is, And nothing was ever the same again. There’s something at stake. Something has changed.

When we come to the end, even though they come from different places and ages and cultures, they say, “This was magic.” They always think that their group is the exception, that it was an amazing mix of people, and I say, “No, that’s what happens when a bunch of people come together and work on being brave and vulnerable and telling stories.”

When we share those kinds of things and listen to others share those kinds of things, what we can’t deny is our deep bonds with each other, those universal threads that connect us against every divide. Just recently two women who met each other in one of my workshops had a baby together. I’m like, yup, that baby was born because of how deeply they connected. And all the people in that workshop are still dear, dear, deep deep friends. It’s pretty cool to see.

Kripalu’s mission statement is “to empower people and communities to realize their full potential through the transformative wisdom and practice of yoga.” Is that your mission also—to empower people and communities, through telling their stories?

I do feel a sense of mission as a teacher. When students leave the class feeling changed, it’s for the better, and it will have a legacy not just through their own lives but beyond. I love the idea that change in the world begins in us. Service to others is a really important part of it, but I also think personal transformation is a political act. When people don’t heal what harmed them, they harm others. So the ways that we heal ourselves and enrich ourselves and learn how to be more openhearted and compassionate, the better off our world will be.

Lara Tupper, MFA, is the author of two novels, Off Island and A Thousand and One Nights, and Amphibians, a linked short story collection forthcoming in 2021.

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