Podcast #45: Cheryl Strayed on Wild Success

By Tracy O'Neill, Social Media Curator
January 23, 2015

Subscribe on iTunes.

Recently, the film adaptation of Cheryl Strayed's Wild received Oscar nods for Reese Witherspoon (Best Actress) and Laura Dern's (Best Supporting Actress) performances. Wild, the story of Strayed's journey on the Pacific Crest Trail, has become a runaway hit both onscreen and off. Strayed joined NYPL to discuss the blockbuster memoir, measuring success, and good advice. 
Since Wild became a bestseller, Cheryl Strayed has become one of the most visible authors in the United States. Yet she is quick to note that this success is not the most important aspect of her work as a writer:

"I've spent my whole, I mean my whole adult life, really working on this thing: becoming a writer, becoming the sort of writer who would find an audience. And so, I never really, and I said this this morning too, you know, I never set my sights on fame or being on the bestseller list or any of those things because all of you in the room who are writers or artists of any sort know that that sort of external recognition is not the measure by which artists can measure their success. The way we measure success, and often for artists what looks like failure is often success and that it takes a long time to develop that craft and to do anything as simple as write a really bad book, you know. I mean truly, it's really hard even to write a really bad book. Trust me, I know. But I think that this fame thing, it feels in some ways, thankfully, very much separate from the work I've been doing all these years as a writer. My job was to write the best book I could ever write at that moment of my life, and that's what I've done with each of my three books, and then the thing that happens to it in the world is really outside of me."

Tiny Beautiful Things

Before Wild's publication, Strayed was perhaps best known for writing her Dear Sugar advice column in The Rumpus. The column has meant that she has seen her share of conundrums. Ultimately, she says that she can divide them into four basic categories:

"So if I put the letters into four stacks, it would be: someone central to my life or essential to my life died, and I don't know what to do with my grief. That's one category. And there's a lot of people like that. A lot of them write to me... The other category is essentially: I love someone and I'm cheating on him or her or she or he has just cheated on me, you know, the whole monogamy, sex, not being faithful, that's a whole category of it's own, and I have a lot of letters from people like that, surprising stories. And what else? You know, the 'What the hell am I gonna do with my life? Woe is me.' Do you know 'Woe is me' is the oldest sentence in the English language that's still in use, that's never gone out of use: 'Woe is me. Woe is me!' And I teach writing, and I started doing this writing exercise where I just wrote 'Woe is me' on the chalkboard, and I would say, 'Okay, write for thirty minutes something that has to do with 'Woe is me.'' And it's like the one exercise that no one's ever stuck. Everyone just feels so sorry for themselves. I mean, they have no problem. There's no problem coming up what they have woe about. So there's a reason, right? 'Woe is me' is a whole huge category. And what else? And then there's the whole 'What am I gonna do with my kids. I love them and they've messed my life up,' and that whole 'Should I have them? Should I not have them?'"

Strayed discussed the Write Like a Motherfucker tips to a letter writer Elissa, which she wrote for Dear Sugar. Sugar, she explained, encourages focus on working on writing instead of focusing on external criteria of success:

"Being a motherfucker is a way of life really. And it really is encompassed in that column. I'm going to try to loosely quote myself. It's about having strength, rather than fragility, or resilience and faith and nerve and really leaning hard into work rather than worry and anxiety... You have to get your ass on the floor and get to work."

You can subscribe to the New York Public Library Podcast to hear more conversations with wonderful artists, writers, and intellectuals. Join the conversation today!