‘Wild’ author Cheryl Strayed cuts to the chase on life, people and writing

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‘Wild’ author Cheryl Strayed cuts to the chase on life, people and writing

Cheryl Strayed once said, ‘the best thing you can do about life is to tackle the mother-fucking shit out of it.’

Strayed has built her life and career doing just that, from her advice-column-now-podcast Dear Sugar, and her 2012 memoir Wild.

Starting in her early 20s after her mother died suddenly from lung cancer, Strayed naturally found her life upended. Isolated from her siblings and her husband, she found herself dabbling in Heroin and her life quickly spiralling out of control.

By 22, she took to the 4,000km Pacific Crest Trail in California, hiking through the yards of national forest with no hiking experience and nothing more than a backpack affectionately named ‘Monster’ and her grief.

Detailed in her memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Strayed talks about her 1995 journey, the physical challenges she faced and the spiritual realisations she learnt – a journey she probably never thought would lead to her book being picked up for Oprah’s Book Club or made into an Academy Award nominated film with Reese Witherspoon playing herself.

Now Strayed will be attending the Bendigo Writer’s Festival to discuss bravery in writing and taking creative risks. Talking with Strayed about Wild, she discusses the way good writing in general has the ability to relate to the human condition on a universal level.

“When I write about myself, or as any other good writer who writes a story about themselves, you’re really just trying to tell a story about what it means to be human and you’re just using yourself as a conduit. It’s a far more universal story. It’s not only about my journey, but about what happens when we go on journeys – we being all people throughout all time. You know, me writing about my grief about my mother is not to say that my grief is any more magnificent and harrowing than anyone else’s grief. But I’m saying I want to tell you the truth about how I felt, because I have a feeling that people have felt throughout all of time when they have lost somebody who is special to them. And you know, there’s something right about that – the reason people relate to Wild is because they see themselves in it.”

Further chatting about the success of Wild, Strayed says, “I think that’s the power of art, you know that we’re always making connections. We’re using the very particular, the very specific and the very intimate in order to tell a universal story that doesn’t stop at gender and time and race and age and sex and it’s a cool experience and a cool thing to see.”

You can’t deny that Strayed has a way with words and her ability to empathise with people on a global scale is what has made her podcast Dear Sugar so popular. With hundreds of thousands of listeners tuning in weekly, Strayed and her co-host Steve Almond answer poignant questions no matter how deep or dark. From episodes titled “Can a Sexual Assault Survivor Love a Rapist?” to “How Do I Stop Lying?”, it’s hard to believe that questions like this don’t weigh down the soul. But for Strayed, it does the opposite.

“I wonder, why am I not just able to write to people about these hard things – I write these hard things about my own life, but I feel driven to. I feel like this is what I’m here for. I really feel like this is my work, this is what I need to do.

Part of what I’m trying to understand about myself is that I love, in caring for other peoples pain, I’m helping them. You know, I’m offering relief. I don’t feel burdened, I don’t feel like I would really contemplate someone’s deep sorrows in the sense that I’d take it into my own life anyway. In fact, the opposite is true. I feel like I’m saying ‘Ok, I’m going to help you bear this by bringing it into the light, giving it some air and talking about it.’”

But when it comes to writing and being brave in taking those creative risks and showing your flaws, how do you get past that instinct to put up a facade of perfection?

“I think that there’s always of course that fear of ‘will people accept me?’ or ‘is this too much?… but what I’ve come to realise is if anything, that makes me like someone more when they show their flawed parts. I mean most of us are pretty turned off by people who seem to be perfect, we immediately think ‘ok I know they’re lying to us’.”

And for those who still find it hard to write about their true selves? Strayed has one piece of advice.

“You just have to get over it.”

Written by Caitlin Haddad

When & Where: Cheryl Strayed has since been cancelled due to family emergency, but you can still see Benjamin Law, Isobelle Carmody, Ita Buttrose and more this August 12-14. Visit www.bendigowritersfestival.com.au for times and info.