Episode 22 - Cheryl Strayed
What if your story has the potential to reshape the world?
Cheryl Strayed is the author of the #1 New York Times bestselling memoir Wild, the New York Times bestsellers Tiny Beautiful Things and Brave Enough, and the novel Torch. Her books have been translated into nearly forty languages around the world and have been adapted for both the screen and the stage — winning numerous awards along the way.
Cheryl recently sat down for a Q&A with Mental Note where she shared special insights on why it’s so critical to be the author of your own journey.
Ellie Pike: The act of sharing your story can seem simple or even unimportant when compared to "bigger things". What if your story has the potential to reshape the world? Wouldn't sharing it become suddenly more important?
Cheryl Strayed: When I talk to people about that leap that, "Okay, I want to tell my story, but then I'm afraid, so how do I do it?" My advice is [00:00:30], you have to do it.
Ellie: Well, today's podcast guest believes that your story is that important. She's a transformational speaker, thinker, and author whose work has touched millions. Cheryl Strayed is the author of the number-one New York Times best-selling memoir, Wild, the New York Times bestsellers, Tiny Beautiful Things and Brave Enough, and the novel Torch. Her books have been translated into nearly 40 languages around the world, and have been adapted for both the screen [00:01:00] and the stage, winning numerous awards along the way. Cheryl and I recently sat down for a Q&A in Denver, where she shared special insights and why it's so critical to be the author of your own journey. You're listening to Mental Note Podcast, and I'm Ellie Pike.
Cheryl: I'm Cheryl Strayed. I'm the author of Wild, Tiny Beautiful Things, Torch, and Brave Enough. [00:01:30] I also used to have a podcast of my own called Dear Sugars, which I co-hosted with Steve Almond. We just recently ended the podcast. I do various things. I write a column for the New York Times, and I'm working on my next book. I'm a writer.
Ellie: Fantastic. Well, I'm honored to speak with you. Thank you for your time.
Cheryl: Thank you. I'm glad to be here.
Ellie: Everyone should check out your podcast. It is pretty fantastic. It'll keep running-
Cheryl: Well, thank you.
Ellie: -even though you're not making new ones, right?
Cheryl: That's the great thing about podcasts. They're [00:02:00] like books. You make it and it's there forever as long as the internet lasts.
Ellie: That's true. We think it'll be around for a while.
Ellie: Well, I'm just curious what compels you to share your story, so vulnerably and so transparently?
Cheryl: I think what compels me most deeply is the examples other people have set for me. When I think about the places that I've felt the most heard and known and seen and consoled, [00:02:30] it's really in the pages of books, in literature where you read about the lives of other people, whether it be a novel, a poem, an essay, a memoir, in all forms and plays, and music. This is where we find ourselves, in the stories of other people. I always felt that truth and beauty were there, and I wanted to be part of it ever since I learned how to read books. I wanted to be part of the group of people, the tribe, who uses the word, language, and story [00:03:00] to make people feel less alone and more human or connected. I made that my mission from early on. I'm one of those writers who feels called to that work, even though sometimes I do it kicking and screaming. I feel sometimes challenged by it, sometimes afraid of it. I always return to it. It's the really unbroken thread in my life. That's what makes me brave, is seeing the ways that other people have done it, and the ways that it's helped me in my life.
Ellie: [00:03:30] It sounds like you can relate to other people's truths, and you're hopeful that through your truth, you're speaking this grander truth for others. I feel like that's something that you talked about a little bit earlier when I got to hear you speak. I'm curious what advice you have for other people who are listening, who are like, "Gosh, I want to share my story but then where do I even start?"
Cheryl: Well, I think a lot of people, they begin from that impulse. I want to share my story, but then they're like, "Okay, but I'm afraid. I'm afraid of telling the truth because if I tell the truth, people won't like me. [00:04:00] People will judge me, people will think I'm this or that or the other thing." The deal about truth is that there's no like halfway. You actually do have to tell the truth about yourself if you decide to tell your story. Some of that is going to be contrary to the story you really want to put out there, as you're public facade.
Literature is not about the public facade. It's about what's happening inside of you. What you have to do is keep the faith that you're [00:04:30] wrong about your idea of what gets people to love you. People don't love you because they think you're perfect. If anyone ever thinks you're perfect, usually what they think is you're faking it, that you're lying. That there's something actually inauthentic about you.
It is so much more compelling. We feel so much more connected to people who are vulnerable enough to say, "This is me. Here are the places where I'm strong and powerful and wise. Here are the places where I'm still learning. Here are the places I failed. Here are the mistakes [00:05:00] I've made." It works every time.
Cheryl: When I first started writing really honest pieces about my life, I had that same terror. I just thought, "Okay, I'm going to have to buy every issue of this magazine that this essay has had where I'm writing about being sexually promiscuous or using drugs or any number of the other things I've written about myself. Always, I'm wrong about that fear because what happens is this onslaught of people [00:05:30] walking up to me and saying thank you or sending me emails saying, "Thank you. You told my story when you told yours."
Ellie: I resonate with that because as I read your book, and I cried my way through parts of it. Then I spoke with you on the phone over about this podcast. I felt like I owed you my journals. It felt like I was able to connect with you so much so that you became a safe space where I could have just handed you my journals.
Ellie: I absolutely understand what you're [00:06:00] saying about that connectedness. That leads into my next question about-- I think something people can connect with you about is how you chose your name. For a lot of us, names have so much to do with our identity and labels have so much to do with our identity. After your mom's death and after your divorce in your early 20s, you had the chance to choose what you wanted to be called. I'm sure you could just open the dictionary and pick any [00:06:30] word and you chose strayed. I'm curious what that process was like for you and what that means to you.
Cheryl: Well, of course, as a writer, words matter a lot to me. Language matters a lot. You're right, I was married in my early 20s. My ex-husband and I had each taken on each other's names so we had this long hyphenated name. When I was getting divorced, I knew I wasn't going to keep that name. I didn't want to go back to the name I had basically as a kid. It was my father's last name. I don't have a relationship with my [00:07:00] father. He's abusive. When we did have any relationship, it was a negative one.
I knew that the one way of stepping forward into this next era of my life would be to name myself. My mother was dead by then, so I was an orphan. I didn't have that family heritage of-- My relationships with my father was broken. My mom was dead, so who am I now? That was the big question I was asking. I was getting divorced. We got these divorce forms. Really I have to say I had that [00:07:30] form to thank for the idea because it said on the form, my name after the divorce will be, and it was blank. This blank line. I just thought, "Wow, what am I going to write on that line?"
I started to cast around for words that would in some way meaningfully express not just who I was at that moment. I was mindful that this was going to be a name I would have all the rest of my life. [00:08:00] I think sometimes people misunderstand that. When they hear my name is Strayed, they're like, "Oh, but do you want to change your name now to like Found?" and I'm like, "No," because Strayed doesn't mean to me lost. That's one piece of the name.
Really, to me, a stray is somebody who moves through the world by his or her own wits, and strength and wisdom and sets out on a new course without a mother and the father, which is what I was doing. I've really grown into my name. I've [00:08:30] had my name Strayed longer than I had my old name, Nyland. It's really like the heritage I created on my own. It's fascinating to talk to people about it because and to hear people's responses to it because so many people will say, "Well, that's not your real name." I always say, "It actually is."
What makes something real? Women change their names all the time. Women are expected to change their name when they get married, and in most circles, they expected [00:09:00] that and we don't even blink. We never say to the woman that's not your real name bcause we're just used to women taking on the name of a man who they are wed to in marriage. I always try to remind people that this is not a radical notion. It's just that I've done it, I put a different spin on it. We all have the right to name ourselves. I think it's a powerful act. I'm really glad I did it. I love my name more with each passing year. It feels more like my name.
Ellie: I like that you're a writer and words mean something to you. Do you believe in it forming your own narration of your life story, and so choosing your name was part of that for you?
Cheryl: Yes. Obviously, I'm not like a fantastical writer. There's a certain point where like, "Okay, you can't just make stuff up," but I think a powerful act in any kind of life is [00:10:00] to remember that you are the author of it.
There are so many ways that we have to write our own narratives if we are to live whole rich meaningful authentic lives. Imagine people who grew up in a religion, for example, that said it's perverse or evil to be gay or lesbian. You have to-- If you're gay or lesbian you have to rewrite that narrative and say, "I'm not evil, this is who I am. [00:10:30] Women have to rewrite narratives about what capacity we have."
Ellie: All the time.
Cheryl: One of the things, when I was writing Wild and writing about the idea of me going into the woods walking alone, I was revising a narrative about women, that women are told, "Don't go alone, your pray you're going to be victimized," and what I decided is to tell a different story about fear in women and live it out. I think that we do this in all ways. Men do this too, I mean I'm obviously [00:11:00] a feminist but I think that feminism--
I think that men are one of the main beneficiaries of feminism. That we have such a tiny narrow vision of what it means to be a man in this culture especially a straight man in this culture. I think that they've been shackled for all of history in the same but different ways than women have. I think it really liberating act no matter what gender you are, no matter what sexuality you are, no matter what race you are is to say, "I'm going to take [00:11:30] those ancient stories that don't serve me and I'm going to revise them, then you do it by living it out."
Ellie: I don't even know where to go from there because I admire you for your journey-
Cheryl: Thank you.
Ellie: -in doing that. I want our podcast listeners to listen to your podcast. I want them to read your book Wild and in your book Wild, you talk a lot about that story. You've had a really messy life and you talk about your relationships and after your mother's death how [00:12:00] you coped maladaptively and through drug use or promiscuity. There also became this point where you decided to dig in and you chose to walk the Pacific Coast Trail. How many miles was that?
Cheryl: I hiked 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail.
Ellie: 1,100 miles, how many days?
Cheryl: 94 days.
Ellie: Pretty incredible. I urge anyone to read your story because I think is just-
Cheryl: Thank you.
Ellie: -so in-depth and rich but there was one quote that really stuck out to me and I wanted to ask you about it. You said, "I could go [00:12:30] back in the direction that I had to come from or I could go forward in the direction I intended to go."
Ellie: What does that mean to you?
Cheryl: Yes, it means a lot of things. In that moment in the book, it was essentially this sense of like I give up, this is too hard, I can't do it. I think that that's so often a moment of truth in our lives when we're like, "Okay, I just want to go, I want to go home, [00:13:00] I want to go back to what I've decided was that safe place," and often what that safe place is really become a lie. It's the thing that-- It's the story we've been given, it's the story we've been told of who we are.
When we revise our lives, what we're talking about is venturing into foreign territory, unknown land, and making it a home and that does contain some fear and that does contain some doubt. Every day, I think we have [00:13:30] to choose to put our foot forward into that direction that we intend to go even when it's difficult, even when it hurts. Keeping faith with that, what happens is you actually transform your life instead of staying stuck in the place you were.
I think that it's really powerful what I was I guess trying to get out in that scene is that really change does happen at foot speed. It happens on the micro level, it's one [00:14:00] foot in front of the other foot, in front the next foot after that. Which is I guess a little bit contrary to what so many of us imagine when we think about changing our lives. We imagine that victorious triumphant endpoint and really all along the way, it's much humbler and sometimes harder than that. The only way you can get to that triumph, that victorious moment is to take those humble steps.
Ellie: Thank you. I felt that as I read your book, the [00:14:30] choice by choice each moment by moment and even as you finished the trail knowing that the meaning wasn't even all there yet and I found that to be so beautiful. That you're still understanding the meaning behind that trip and you're still understanding the meaning behind your whole story. I think that that really empowers others to give themselves that self-compassion to just be aware and to let it in and not judge it and notice and also narrate their story the way they want [00:15:00] to grow and learn. Well, thank you so much for your time. It's just wonderful to speak with you.
Cheryl: Thank you. I'd loved talking to you.
Ellie: Thank you for listening to Mental Notes special Q&A episode with author and sage, Cheryl Strayed. She has penned Brave Enough, Wild, Tiny Beautiful Things, and Torch. She's also the host of the Dear Sugar podcast and author of the New York Times advice column, The Sweet [00:15:30] Spot. You can access her numerous efforts via cherylstrayed.com and you dear listeners, how did this interview connect with you?
Grasping the power of your own story is one of the greatest tasks we can do in life. I'm so grateful that you and I get to share the space of this podcast together and I look forward to hearing from you about your journeys. If you'd like to share your recovery path with us, visit my recoveryletter.com I'll be selecting some of the [00:16:00] letters to be shared on the podcast in May. As always, our show is sponsored by the dedicated folks at Eating Recovery Center and the Pathlight Behavioral Health Centers. They are trained passionate and able to help you find recovery. For a free consultation, please reach out at 877-411-9578. Today's show was produced by Sam Pike, recorded by Kevin Larkin, edited by Josh Wright, and I am Ellie [00:16:30] Pike, till next time.
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