Tell me, how bad is it to end Women’s History Month with one of my favorite writers? I could not resist the temptation to showcase Cheryl Strayed, not that she needs the coverage. Lately, she’s been all over every major magazine from The New Yorker to People and in every major news publication. There’s a reason for that.
I hit the jackpot when I met this talented, arresting woman whose candor and countenance set her apart. I cannot admire Cheryl Strayed more, both for her writing and who she is– which is closely tied to her writing. I have to tell you what she’s like in person: much more dynamic and also much more normal than you might imagine. Despite her renown and her fierce talent, Cheryl Strayed is what we call a “down-home” person, and she never comes off as anything but real. She is casual and fun, yet intense. She’s principled. She’s brazen. She’s gentle. She’s not self-conscious. She’s more authentic than most of us, evidenced by her willingness to lay herself bare on the page. (Obviously, she’s determined and responsible– or she wouldn’t have made that hike and she wouldn’t have written three books.) The real Cheryl Strayed is standing up.
I recently read a blog about journaling she wrote for Powell’s Books in 2012, the day her memoir, Wild, was published. She writes about the journal she kept on her hike and why it was useful to her in writing the book while her letters to others were not. “In it, I told myself the truth. Every last inch of whatever the truth might be. I didn’t attempt to cast anything in either a better or worse light. On those pages not meant for anyone’s eyes but my own I did what every memoirist must do years before I knew I’d ever become a memoirist: I gave myself a long level gaze.”
I am not able to do that. I can’t even come close. Can you?
I have tons of journals kept over the years, and I’m sure you do too, if you’re a writer. None of my journals say exactly what I was really thinking or feeling. I hedge on anything that could become a sticky wicket. I can’t be honest on the page, not even for myself. This could be because of what happened to me when I was in 6th grade. I kept a diary. Sure, I started every entry with “Dear Diary” the way we all did as girls, but the words were meant for my eyes only. You know the kind: pink, with “Diary” stamped on the front in gold, and a little gold lock and key. And a tab that can be cut with scissors. Which is what my brother and one of our classmates did. Then they embarrassed me on the bus and at school by telling everyone what I wrote. What were my secrets? Nothing that seems huge now. I was in love with Andy Gibb. I was taller than Andy Gibb. I wanted to kiss Andy Gibb and marry him. I had a crush on Kevin Keikes, another sixth grader (with sable hair and blue, blue eyes– oh my, that crush lasted a long time). But when I was eleven, these things were monumental secrets that, once splattered like blood across my young world, shattered me. When I told my mother what my brother had done, expecting him to be in trouble, she pointed her finger at ME and said, You should know better than to write down something that you wouldn’t want the whole world to see! We don’t need a mental health professional to connect the dots between her reprimand and my reticence. Can I shake it? I am working toward shaking it.
Hey, this wasn’t supposed to be about me! But isn’t that part of what a good writer does? She prompts us to examine ourselves in a way that allows us to change and grow and better understand our singular place in the universe. Cheryl Strayed has done that for me like no other writer I can remember. (If I were to stand up as my real self like she does, I could tell you exactly what in my life I’ve examined because of reading her work. But I’m still sitting.)
I found out through Lezlie Laws, a kick ass writing professor I was lucky enough to take several classes and workshops with, that there was this great, powerful book called Tiny, Beautiful Things. A recommendation by Lezlie is all I need; it’s thanks to her that I read Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, Frances Mayes’s Under the Tuscan Sun, and Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, all books that gave me the gift of self-discovery.
Traveling to an event where I knew I was likely to meet Cheryl Strayed, I was reading her book, Tiny, Beautiful Things that I had just learned of. I had no idea she would be on the small plane with me, but there she sat across the aisle facing me (okay, it was a small jet), wearing very little makeup and casual clothes– a black blouse, black jeans, and black, comfy shoes. She shared a warm, easy smile while getting to know her fellow passengers. This is a woman who a year later more than held her own next to Reese Witherspoon on the red carpet, but she doesn’t need glitz and glam to shine. Our flight attendant (who happened to be the step-mother of Alicia Keys, she confided to us) brought us platters and platters of food– more than we could possibly eat. “I feel bad,” Cheryl said, “I don’t want this to go to waste.” She was already a big star. Not a red carpet-walking star, but a literary star, a woman who had come into her own and had become a powerful earner. She was concerned about wasting wraps, sushi, and petits fours. Whoa.
Already her book had rocked me, sending me into spells of weeping. I hadn’t tried to wipe my tears. I let them run down. As satisfying and transformative as those tears had been, I hoped that wouldn’t happen in front of her. I had to tell Cheryl that it was awkward to me to be reading her book in front of her– but I wasn’t going to stop reading it. (Now it’s just “Cheryl.” See how easily that happened? And it’s absolutely not a lack of respect.) She made me feel not at all awkward and also a little like I knew her in a way that I couldn’t possibly know someone I just met. And I’m not talking about how readers conflate their having read a book with “knowing” the writer; that’s always a wrong assumption, in my experience. It was just this… thing, and I’m grateful for it.
Over the course of the next three days, I watched as Cheryl went from person to person like a hummingbird gathering nectar, engaging people as though she were truly interested in them– and I’m sure she was. She told me that she asked so many questions of her mother’s friends and house guests when she was young that her mother gave her a limit of how many questions she could ask each person. What were the types of questions she asked? “Who do you love? Why do you love them?” All questions of the interior life. Imagine a five year-old engaging you in such a conversation. With that curiosity and her quest to understand people, she was a natural to become a writer.
I keep thinking I should even out this post by adding some unflattering things about Cheryl. Where is the tension?! But the only unflattering things about her that I know of are things I read in Wild. (I’m not giving details about Wild, I’m not giving details about Tiny, Beautiful Things, and I’m not giving details about her novel, Torch. If your curiosity is piqued, read the books!) I don’t know enough about her to know if she feeds her cat in a clean dish every time (as I do) or if the bottom of her closet is covered by clothes (as mine is) or if she owes three people letters and lots of people phone calls (also me). What can I tell you? She is certainly a complex person. Is she complicated (in the pejorative sense), too? Maybe. But if I knew, I wouldn’t tell. This is all praise for Cheryl Strayed, the real Cheryl Strayed, one of the strongest women on the planet. And our tribute to Women’s History Month is perfectly served, I think, by acknowledging one of our contemporaries. Especially when she’s standing up there in front of God and everybody, saying “This is the real me.”
Click on one of the books below if you want to find out more.