FTAG 1 TTIMG 1 TT Fluorescent tracer presenting the flow of CSF in mice given different dosages of alcohol. Lungaard et al ./ Scientific Reports, 2018 Cheryl Strayed on ache, letting run, and self-help for Donald Trump.

20 days ago

Cheryl Strayed didnt start out to be a self-help writer.

In 2012, she was poised to be best known as the author of the forthcoming memoir “Wild”, a book that sparked the return of Oprah’s famed Book Club and would ultimately be was transformed into an Academy Award nominated film starring Reese Witherspoon.

Cheryl and Reese at the 2014 Golden Globes. Photo by Steve Granitz/ Getty Images.

But one month before the book’s release, the writer uncovered herself to not just be a woman “whos been” traveled the Pacific Crest Trail and written about it but also the anonymous columnist behind the wildly popular online advice column Dear Sugar . She would now forever be known as more than simply a talented writer. She was the woman who had helped thousands of strangers deal with some of the most intimate problems in their lives with unflinching honesty, humor, and compassion.

Most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes youll put up a good battle and lose. Sometimes youll hold on really hard and realize there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.

Shortly thereafter, a selection of those columns her responses to letters about everything from heartache, wedding, and incest to addiction, money, and sex were compiled in the the New York Times best-selling “Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, ” a volume I’ve read so much the cover-up is hanging on by a thread. New York magazine called “Tiny Beautiful Things, ” “the self-help book girls can’t stop giving to each other” and it’s now the basis for an upcoming HBO series of the same name.

Whether she planned to be or not, Cheryl Strayed has become an incisive, literary life advice guru with a cult-like following. And I am a proud member.

When she agreed to an interview, I was eager to talk to her about her new book “Brave Enough, ” a collecting of her most beloved quotes. I had no idea we would somehow end up talking about everything from her relationship with her parent and forgiveness, to detecting an authentic voice, and even( brace yourself) thinking differently about Donald Trump.

But that’s what happens when you talk to a woman whose main job is to study life, think about its lessons, and then share them. And so she did.

“OK, Erica. Do not act like a fan.”

This is what I told myself as I prepared to call Cheryl for our interview.

“Don’t babble on and on about how much her volumes have inspired you, and don’t tell her how many of her quotes you’ve memorized.”

Once I had sufficiently ticked through the listing of don’ts in my head, I cleared my throat, got into professional interviewer mode, and dialed her number.

“Hi, this is Cheryl.”

“Hi-Cheryl-it’s-Erica-from-Upworthy-thanks-for-talking-to-me-today-I’m-such-a-fangirl.”

Welp. So much for maintaining it cool.

Thankfully, Strayed was incredibly warm and approachable, radiating humility. I wanted to know how someone so humble felt confident devoting life advice to thousands of people.

On what it means to be human:

I asked whether she ever suffered from self-doubt and how she, person not developed as a therapist or a counselor or a life coach-and-four, came to feel “qualified” to teach people important life lessons based on her own experiences.

“We get great and terrible advice from all sources all the time, ” she answered. “From your best friend who said something really important to you one time that really altered your way of thinking and the next dialogue can say something that is idiotic and doesnt make sense. We get advice from strangers, volumes, our mothers, friends all sources. I’m simply one source . I never said that people need to do what I think they should do. I very seldom focus on instruction. I dont feel that my main role is to say do this or do that. My main role is to help illuminate the question that theyre asking by investigating various avenues of seeking the answer .

It’s about asking ‘What does it mean to be human? ‘ And in particular What does it mean to be human in this situation? In this struggle? ‘”

I virtually missed what she said next because I was so stuck on the phrase “What does it mean to be human? ” It seemed to encapsulate all of those issues that we humans ask ourselves every day ( How should we behave? How should we react? What should we guess? What should we feel ?) in seven words.

I feel like she could make anything sound good, meaningful. But it also made me wonder how she, or anyone for that are important, knows what the right takeaway or lesson is. What is the best decision to make at any given moment in a complex situation or in a complex life if anything can be made to sound inspirational or “right”?

She paused and supposed on that for awhile.

“Right before you called me, I was on a stroll with my husband. I was grappling with a negative interaction I had with an acquaintance and impression actually riled and angry. But then there was also this other impression of compassion for this person because I know[ what she did] altogether isnt about me. That what she said is completely about her own sense of want and sorrow and anxiety. And so I have two experiences of the same interaction .

One of the great struggles of my life is which one do I land on? Do I land on the one thats like ‘F–k you bitch’? Or should I land on the one thats like ‘I understand that youre suffering so I will let it go.’

Now that seems like a small thing but apply it to a big thing my father being a terrible parent, for example. Do I stay with rage, sorrow, and absence and agony, or do I land on forgiveness, compassion, adoption, and moving forward ? We always have that choice.”

I agreed. But I also believe that we teach people how to treat us. I worry that if we offer nothing but “niceness”in response to mistreatment or cruelty, we’re in some ways letting them off the hook. And if we do that, will they ever learn the lesson? Without me even asking, she had an answer for that.

“What other people go through is not up to us. What we’re going through is up to us. I’m not talking about denial, ” she assured me. “You still have to carry the story with you when you choose forgiveness, but the decision youre constructing is to carry it with you forward into whatever beauty awaits. The deal of life is that life is always going to be full of suffering and joy. And I believe when you focus on the suffering, you forget how much joy there really is. Always. Theres always exhilaration. Its always available to us, even in the darkest days . ”

Even in the darkest days.

The darkest days. That phrase stuck out to me because it drew my intellect not only to personal life struggles but to all the hatred and violence and oppression and fear that imbues our present social and political landscape. Mass shootings, Islamophobia, police barbarism … And truly. Is there any other style to describe Donald Trump’s candidacy other than the phrase “dark days”?

I asked her if the themes her quotes touch on, which are so often focused on people’s personal lives, could apply to those big societal issues too . “Yes, ” she said. And she picked our favorite cartoon villain political nominee to illustrate how.

Him. Photo by Ralph Freso/ Getty Images.

On Donald Trump and the big things:

“We be borne in mind that Donald Trump the guy saying all that awful stuff thats one human and that nasty stuff rises from his heart. And the only route to change the world in the grand scale is to change the hearts and minds of individuals . So what if this guy really took a deep look at his own wounds? Hes an example of someone who has decided to stay in rage, just like I was talking about earlier. So for him, got a couple of people of the Muslim faith shoot up a centre and[ that behavior] now applies to people of that faith. Hes decided to tell a story that is about hate and ugliness and rage . What if he were the various kinds of person who could attain that tiny switch I was just talking about in my life, where you say ‘am I going to stay in fury or am I going to go to that other place? ‘ I dont suppose Trump has ever built that leaping likely in anything in their own lives. So it begins as a tiny thing. I dont know him. I dont know what happened to him in their own lives. But I know that probably all along the way he chose to tell an ugly, small, rage-filled narrative about himself and the people around him . And then its like a stone you throw in the water that resonates outward and beyond. And now it’s on a massive scale. Thats why its so dangerous to give people power, to elect someone who doesnt have a consciousness that is steeped in compassion and love and light.”

I sighed. She was right. I’m not evolved enough yet to think about Donald Trump’s wounds, but I made a mental note to revisit the idea post-election.

I was about to move the conversation forward, but something in my topic about what some would call the “bigger” social issues had triggered her. She jumped back in.

“Also, I hate this idea that the culturally significant stories are about ‘the big things.’ Women are always up against that notion that our stories are small or unimportant . I guess writing the truth about one life is a big thing . For four years there hasnt been one day that a whole bunch of people havent told me ‘your book changed my life.’ And when you change someones life, you change the world. To believe in that change that we can attain in our own lives is what leads to the culture altered in our world.”

That sentiment echoes the late Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs who famously said, “To make a revolution, people must not only struggle against existing institutions. They must make a philosophical/ spiritual leap and become more ‘human’ human being. In order to change/ transform the world, they must change/ transform themselves.” I shared this with Cheryl.

“Yes! Yes! ” she said.

Then she thought about it for a second and said that there was a myth she wanted to dispel.

“Transforming the self can easily be construed as this incredibly narcissistic activity.”

I knew exactly what she entail. The me, me, me, navel-gazing, optimize-your-life culture around being your “best self” is everywhere. And it is feasible to pretty insufferable.

“This idea that the most important thing is whatever it is YOU need, what YOU want, because you are developing your intellect and your body and whatever. Thats bullshit. Thats not what transforming yourself is . It isnt about having the perfect ass and a world that never blows your head open and challenges you and transforms you. It’s about participation, questioning your motives and notions, your biases, and its about fight . And this is the kind of self-help that Im signing up for and that I hope to contribute to .

Its a grittier, messier way of looking at transformation. Not simply sitting in a bathtub with candles burning, but thats where you objective. Its not the journey. The journey is a lot rougher than that. Its about being interrupted from your complacency.”

On real self-help:

But that grittiness and messiness isn’t what most of us think about when we hear the term “self-help.” We often think of positive affirmations and “five steps to a better life, ” quick fixes. As novelist who’s a bit insecure about the fact that my own first volume will likely land on the self-help shelf also, I urgently wanted to know: Is she comfy being lumped into that category? How does someone who grew up obsessing over “the great writers” and began her career in fiction and literary nonfiction feel about her run being stuck with the label of a genre that is so often mocked?

“Not only did I never intend to be a self-help writer, ” she said , “I still dont actually think of myself in that style probably because I have the same recoil that so many people do when we hear ‘self-help.’ “I think when we think of self-help negatively were thinking of a book that simplifies and glosses over the complexity of the real, gritty problems of life that we all have. And instead of saying ‘OK lets get down in the muck and face these things, ‘ it sort of stimulates silly metaphors out of things that are deep and important and big.”

I nodded in agreement. She reached the nail on the head.

“Have you ever seen that famous SNL skit with the guy who goes ‘Im OK, and youre OK? ‘” she asked.

I laughter and told her that I had but didn’t admit that, at my age, I’d merely ever seen a 20 -second clip of it on YouTube. But I knew what she was getting at.

Thats what we think self-help is, she continued. “A kind of anti-intellectualism.”

“And I think thats really unfair to the genre. Because so many books, my own included, that are lumped into that genre are aspiring to do the exact opposite of that glossing over: espouse our intellects and our rational reasoning when it is necessary to figuring out our challenges and struggles , the relationships we have with others, and the complexity of the relationship that we have with our own past, our own selves, our own lives . So I think that what people see when they are reading my words is somebody who is willing to not turn away from that complexity .

Ultimately, she believes that[ her] readers experience work in the same route , no matter what the publisher-assigned genre: viscerally and emotionally. And they judge it simply on whether it changes their lives.

Photo by Amy Graves/ Getty Images.

On authenticity:

She’s a writer who isn’t afraid to talk about life’s intricacy. That’s important. But the truth is that her popularity and resonance isn’t simply because of what she says. It’s also about how she says it.

With quotes like this…

But the reality is we often become our kindest, most ethical selves only by ensure what it feels like to be a selfish jackass first.

…and this…

“You dont have to get a job that makes others feel comfortable about what they perceive as your success. You dont have to explain what you plan to do with your life. You dont have to justify your education by demonstrating its financial rewards. You dont have to maintain an impeccable credit rating. Anyone who expects you to do any of those things has no sense of history or economics or science or the arts. You have to pay your own electric bill. You have to be kind. You have to give it all you got. You have to find people who love you genuinely and love them back with the same truth. But thats all.”

…and one of her most famous…

“So write. Not like a girl. Not like a son. Write like a motherfucker.”

it’s easy to assure why Cheryl is known for communicating ideas in a way that is somehow equally compassionate and unmerciful, gentle and brash. And her words are both literary in their beauty but incredibly simple at the same hour. It’s hard to tell what has mattered matter more in her ability to connect with readers: her writing style or her big personality. So I ask her.

Its both , she replied confidently. “My voice, writing style, and personality are all one and the same.” She explained: “When youre a young novelist youre always in search of your voice, and for a long time I thought that meant conforming my voice to the great writers I love. ‘Im going to try to sound like Faulkner or Alice Munro or Toni Morrison.’ But what I loved in the work of the writers that I love most is that theyre relaxing and actually speaking with their own voice on the page. And the closer I could get to doing that, the better novelist I become .

Voice and authority: Its all about speaking out of your authentic knowledge.”

And she wants to make sure that her authentic knowledge is accessible to everyone.

“Ive always hoped that what complicates my work is the believing behind it , not the language that I use to convey ideas. Ive always wanted my work to be accessible to people of all backgrounds, regardless of their education. I love that you dont have to be hyper-literate to read my books. You can be, but you don’t have to be.”

As an example of what she called her ” approachability in public persona, on the page, and in actual life , ” she shared a moving memory 😛 TAGEND “At one of my reads in Santa Cruz, this woman came up to me. She was a Mexican immigrant; she was a maid at a hotel. She told me that she had been cleaning a room and someone had left a copy behind of ‘Wild.’ Instead of just turning it in like they usually do, she started reading it and objective up reading the whole book. At my read, she sobbed and said that shed never read a book before .

And I’ve heard that many times. So Im not interested in this idea of the writer as the exalted figure who’s above another person in the world.”

Photo by Joe Scarnici/ Getty Images.

On her favorite quote:

Later on in our conversation, as we discussed “Brave Enough, ” I realized she probably wouldn’t have judged me for knowing so many of them by heart. The attachment that readers have had to her terms is exactly what inspired the book in the first place.

“My publisher said ‘all the people on the Internet maintain posting your quotes everywhere we should collect them.’ The premise wasnt ‘Im so wise.’ It was crowdsourced! I believe that the power of art is connect . Its people taking a writer’s work and attaining it theirs. And thats what people have done with these quotes, and so I seemed to them for what should be in the book. I love the idea that a sentence I wrote told them something that they needed to know or hold in their heart.

I wanted to end my discussion with Cheryl by used to identify which pithy line from the collecting was her personal favourite, the one that she holds closest in her heart.

As it turns out, it’s the one that isn’t technically hers. It is her late mother’s quote. Her mother is a central figure in her work, and her too-sudden, too-soon death at age 45 not only shattered Cheryl’s world but also sparked the life-changing journey of “Wild.” When she mentioned her now, her words practically beamed, dripping with audibly noticeable adoration.

“Put yourself in the way of beauty.”

“That is something that my mother told me to do. It took me years to genuinely understand what that entail and to learn how to do it. My mama “ve said”, ‘It doesnt matter how miserable you are, how hard any particular day is, you can always choose to put yourself in the way of beauty. Theres always a sunup and theres always a sunset . And it’s up to you whether you want to be there for it or not. When its hardest is when you need to do it the most.’ And so I trust that. It’s been a guiding light . “

Read more: www.upworthy.com

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