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Cheryl Strayed Says All of Us Have Experiences that can Help Others
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Cheryl Strayed says she has, on occasion, checked into the cheapest motel in Portland so she can spend 48 hours alone writing.
   
Thursday, March 21, 2024
 

STORY AND PHOTO BY KAREN BOSSICK

Cheryl Strayed likes to say that she wrote "Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar" by accident.

She had just sent a draft of "Wild," her story about spending 94 days hiking 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail through California and Oregon, to her publisher. And, since she had not yet received a response from her editor telling her all the changes she needed to make, it was at that time the perfect book in her mind.

That's when her friend Steve Almond asked if she wanted to take over an advice column he had started for The Rumpus online literary magazine. No one had asked him for advice, Strayed recounted, and the job came without pay, but she jumped right in.

"My husband is a documentary filmmaker, which is not a lucrative profession, and we had two kids and mounds of debts. Why would I take a job that didn't pay?" Strayed asked a full house at the Community Library Tuesday night. "But I took my own advice," she said, telling how she leaned into the idea of plausibility.

Strayed drew from her life experiences, without sugar coating things despite her "Sugar" moniker, from 2010 to 2012. She continued her Sugar persona in a podcast called "Dear Sugars," which ran for four years and was revived in 2020 in a new podcast called "Sugar Calling."

"I'd never taken a class in psychology, I'd never been through therapy but I quickly realized that every one of us is qualified to give advice," Strayed said. "Every one of us has experiences that can help someone down the path. I also realized that a glorious part of being paid nothing is you can do whatever you want."

Company of Fools staged the play adaptation of "Tiny Beautiful Things" and Hulu adapted a TV series based on the book, premiering it in April 2023.

Strayed told the audience that she decided to embrace every answer to the questions people wrote as a story.

"My religion is literature--books saved my life over and over. When I'm suffering, feeling alone, I find myself in books."

She ended up addressing everything from the death of a child to jealousy. Her advice included:

* "Forgiveness doesn't sit there like a pretty boy in a bar. Forgiveness is the old fat guy you have to haul up a hill."

* "You don't have a right to the cards you believe you should have been dealt. You have an obligation to play the hell out of the ones you've been holding..."

* "Nobody will protect you from your suffering. You can't cry it away or eat it away or starve it away or walk it away or punch it away or even therapy it away. It's just there, and you have to survive it. You have to endure it. You have to live through it and love it and move on and be better for it and run as far as you can in the direction of your best and happiest dreams across the bridge that was built by your own desire to heal."

*"Trust yourself. It's Sugar's golden rule. Trusting yourself means living out what you already know to be true."

Strayed said she was buoyed as she heard three of the writers she most admired talking about the "Dear Sugar" column.

"I wanted to fall on the ground and shriek, 'It's me!' " she said. "I shared so much. The only thing I didn't share was my name. But I wrote it like my name was every poem knowing I would share my identity some day."

Strayed, who grew up in Minnesota and now lives in Portland, Ore., said writing the column taught her the purpose of literature. Rather than focusing on highfalutin discussions in literature classes revolving around what various things in a novel symbolize, she only cares about writing stories that make people feel, that make people feel more connected.

"So many people came up and said, 'Wild' saved my life, 'Torch' saved my life. With 'Tiny Beautiful Things' I felt like labeling it, 'This book will save your life.' "

Strayed said the aphorisms her mother continually quoted, such as 'There's always a sunrise and always a sunset,' helped her write the advice column. Doing the advice column has been an education and a privilege.

"Doing 'Sugar' makes me so much a better person," she said. "As i give others advice, i love reminding myself I have to do that, too."

A foundational truth, she added, is that you have to cultivate courage, that you have to do things you don't think you're capable of."

"I've had a lifelong struggle with writing--it's my calling, yet it's agonizing," she continued. "When I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, I knew that the thing that could potentially stop me was fear. I needed to say, 'I can't make the fear disappear...I acknowledged, 'I feel afraid but I AM NOT afraid."

"When I sat down to write today, I was fearful. I said to fear, 'You're going to show up and have a seat at the table, and I'm going to write.' It's a mindset. I also tell myself I'm successful, how amazing it is that everyone is waiting to read what i write."

The movie "Wild" came out in 2014, casting Reese Witherspoon as Strayed, who was recovering from the death of her mother at 45, as well as heroin abuse and an ugly divorce.

Strayed said she does not get upset about seeing ways that the film strayed from her book.

"When films are adapted, that means other artists are lending their vision to the story. You can watch a film and get one version of my story. You can read my book and get my version."

Strayed encouraged people to follow their calling: "When you answer that deep call of life, it almost always leads outward to generosity and other acts of kindness."

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