Dear Sugar quote from The Rumpus

Cheryl Strayed: On "Binge Writing," Doling Out Advice & Finding Clarity

Cheryl Strayed believes she was put on this earth to do one thing: write like a motherf*cker. She wrote through her mother’s death, through a divorce, and through a grueling, 1100-mile hike up the Pacific Crest Trail. Yet, when her 30th birthday arrived before her first book, she felt like a failure. Creation for creation’s sake wasn’t enough. She needed to share her art with the world. She needed to publish.

Today, Strayed is the author of the bestselling memoir Wild and a new book called Tiny Beautiful Things, which collects the best work of her alter ego, advice columnist Dear Sugar. I chatted with Strayed about how she finally birthed her first book, what she learned by being “Sugar,” and how we can all use writing as a tool for self-discovery.

What kept you going during the years when you hadn’t realized your dream of being published yet?

I was writing. I just wasn’t writing my book (though I thought I was). I kept trying to direct my writing by thinking it all had to become something – a book. But really I needed to do work that would lead up to my ability to write a book. I was learning to write by writing and reading and journaling. I was also growing up, doing that work we all need to do in order to find our place in the world.

I’ve written my whole life, but I would go for months where I wasn’t doing enough. I’ve always been a kind of “binge writer” even in my waitressing days. After not writing for a few months I’d apply to a residency in an artist colony and just go and write for months.

A big part of your Dear Sugar persona has been about encouraging your readers to write. Why?

I often recommend writing as a tool for self-discovery because it’s helped me so much. I use writing in different ways: I write as an artist but I also write when I’m just trying to work through something or make a tough decision. And I think, a lot of times, even people who aren’t writers will write in crisis. They’ll write in their journals after breaking up with someone, even though they haven’t written for two years. That’s because it’s a way to essentially practice your thoughts and see what’s there. Writing forces you to locate your clarity.
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Cheryl Strayed after 10 days on the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995.

How did you become Sugar?

The writer Steve Almond wrote the first 26 columns that are posted on the Rumpus and he just wasn’t that into doing it, so one day he wrote me and  said, “I’ve been writing the Dear Sugar column and would you like to take it over? It doesn’t pay anything, you’d have to do it anonymously, and I don’t know why you’d do it, but there you go.” And I was like, “Okay, sounds good!” It’s always been really interesting to me to just go in a different direction and find that new thing I’ve never tried before. I felt a little scared doing it, like, “Who am I to give advice?” But I think that fear just means there’s something really exciting on the other end.

Writing forces you to locate your clarity.

What did you think it would be like to write a weekly advice column?

I didn’t understand that it was going to be as big as it was. In the very beginning I thought, “It’s an advice column, I can write it in a half hour.” Then, of course, when I struck on this idea of really writing essays it became an hours-long endeavor. As the column got more popular, it became more time-consuming to simply answer emails, maintain a Facebook page and a Twitter feed and all that. If I had known at the outset that it would take this much time, I probably would have said no, so it’s a good thing that it developed as it came along because I became invested for reasons that weren’t financial – and that’s still the case.

Is Dear Sugar a character or is it you?

I always knew that it was me – everything I’ve written in the column about myself has been true. But, at the very beginning, I definitely thought of her as more of a persona. In one column I say, “Sugar is me after a glass and a half of wine,” like a little more unbuttoned. But, as time went by, the difference between that persona and me shrank. I don’t get specific about particular details in the column as I would in other things that I write – things like I live in Portland or my husband’s name is Brian – but Sugar is me.

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Cheryl Strayed.

How has the Internet affected your writing?

It’s both glorious and terribly unnerving because even though I work many hours on a column, it’s often the hours that are immediately before it goes live. Most of the time, I finish the column and it’s live on the website in an hour and, within a few minutes after that, people are commenting. I write it, I put it online and there it is, boom!

Whereas with Wild, I finished the first draft in February of 2010 and then the revisions were done about nine months later, so it was essentially done a year and a half before it was published and there I am with this book that’s finished and I want people to read it because I wrote it so long ago but I think that’s what happens, that’s the difference between writing a book and writing for the web. There’s a legitimate criticism that a lot of online writing is sloppy and could use an editor, which I agree with, but that’s the mix that you get when you have that power to put stuff up that isn’t quite really ready to go.

Another thing about writing online, or at least for the Rumpus, is that there’s never any word count. I can write a column that’s 75 words long or 7500 words long and that’s a hallmark of my column – I go deeper and deeper.

You also teach writing classes. What are those like? How do you teach people to write?

How I learned to write was basically my love for writing and reading, and I would try to emulate the writers that I loved, and I tell people that. I can’t sit down and explain to someone how to write a sentence, but I tell people to read a lot of good sentences until they’re basically in your bones and you can create one yourself. We talk craft and I’ll point things out, like “isn’t this an incredible image?” or, “look at these great choices the writer made.”

But really I find the most important thing for aspiring writers is for them to give themselves permission to be brave on the page, to write in the presence of fear, to go to those places that you think you can’t write – really that’s exactly what you need to write. In the way the Sugar in her advice tries to get people to think more deeply about the layers of any given situation, I try to do that when I teach writing, too. I talk to people a lot to uncover what their stories are really about. I ask people to really go deep sea diving into their own lives to get to those more meaningful places. The stuff we write has to matter, and I’m always pushing to the core, the heart of that.

The most important thing for aspiring writers is for them to give themselves permission to be brave on the page, to write in the presence of fear.


Was it hard to give up creative control with Wild? What was it like to work with an editor on something as personal as a memoir?

I don’t think having an editor means giving up creative control. In fact, with a good editor, the opposite is true, A good editor helps a writer see and express his or her vision more clearly. I had the same editor on both Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things, Robin Dresser. She so deeply considered every word in both of my books and sometimes that’s annoying when she came to me and said, “well, I don’t know if this sentence is quite right” or “I don’t think this joke works” or “this sounds like you might be bragging,” and all of these things that she pointed out that aren’t necessarily what I wanted to hear all the time, but she was absolutely right. She really helped guide me down a path, and I trusted her enough to follow.

With three books published, you’ve firmly established your identity as a writer. What now? Are you satisfied?

The “what now?” is always another book, another essay or story. I don’t believe I’ll ever be done as a writer. I’ll always want to find out what else there is to say.

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Write Like A Motherf*cker mugs, by theRumpus.net

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Jenn Godbout

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Jenn is the Associate Director of Partnerships for Behance, working with clients like Pantone, AOL, RISD and Wacom. Prior to joining Behance, Jenn was the Sr. Marketing Manager for The Drake Hotel in Toronto. Say hello on Twitter
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