A year ago today I met Cheryl Strayed, a writer I have adored for years, at Emirates Lit Fest on International Women’s Day. I wrote about it, and then, because I am the queen of self-doubt and self-sabotage, decided to hide it from the world forever, thinking I’d one day pitch it (I didn’t) or publish it on my own blog (which remains non-existent).
Fortunately, my ride-or-die BFF Lily offered me her platform The Cave Women as a place where my story could live. Because she is the master of helping me get my shit together.
Cheryl talked to me about International Women’s Day, feminism, writing, self-doubt and more, and everything she said remains relevant today. She gave me a hug and it was magical. I hope she likes this, and I hope you do too.
Cheryl Strayed: An Interview
In Moranthology, the British feminist writer Caitlin Moran talks about the time she interviewed Paul McCartney and how she wasn’t expecting to cry but couldn’t help it. The moment she steps into his room and McCartney asked her if she’d like a cup of tea, the floodgates open. “In a way, I’m not really surprised I’m crying,” she writes. “I’m a godless hippy, so the Beatles are the grid by which I understand the Universe.”
That’s a bit how I feel as I wait in line to meet Cheryl Strayed, my eyes welling up as I attempt to quell the tsunami of emotion that threatens to escape if I don’t get my sh*t together. Because in a way, Cheryl Strayed IS my Beatles. I have read Wild and Brave Enough and Tiny, Beautiful Things over and over and over, in the same way that I have listened to Abbey Road and Rubber Soul and Revolver on repeat. Like the best songs, her art is a balm, a comfort and a compass all in one.
She embraces me in a warm hug as we settle in to chat. Cheryl (can I call her Cheryl?) is in Dubai as part of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature 2018, appearing on a panel for International Women’s Day.
“You know, I truly believe that at no other time in history has there been such a global movement for women’s rights,” she says. “I was so surprised to learn that women in Saudi Arabia and the UAE were so aware of things like #TimesUp and the #MeToo movements, which seem like such Western women’s concerns, but they are so switched on. Even though we are all fighting different battles, we are all connected. We’re linking arms across the globe.
“I’m hopeful, I really am. And I feel like we’re leading the charge too. I think it’s the patriarchy that’s on the defence, not feminism. So take heart.”
Later on today, Cheryl will hold court in a packed room where fans will squeeze in clutching copies of her books, sharing chairs and lining up against the walls to hear her talk about Wild, the bestselling memoir that followed her transformative hike through the Pacific Crest Trail. I ask if she’d always known, even during the darkest moments of that journey, that she would one day write a book about it.
“You know, I didn’t write Wild because I did this hike. I wrote Wild because I’m a writer. And my job as a writer is to build a bridge between my life and yours. That’s why I didn’t write it straight away. I couldn’t write it, not until I could tell that story in a way that had a deeper meaning that others could relate to. I had to be able to find something to say about my experience that was about more than just me.”
The first book Cheryl wrote after she hiked the PCT was, in fact, her first novel, Torch. It was only many years later that she would publish Wild, which would go on to be adapted into an Oscar-nominated film with Reese Witherspoon in the lead. (“I’ll say this, I NEVER thought I’d be played by Reese Witherspoon!”) But in fact, Cheryl has been writing since she was 19. How did she have the confidence to call herself a writer at such a young age, I wonder. Didn’t she suffer any creative self-doubt?
“Oh my god, that’s hilarious!” She laughs. “I have nothing BUT self-doubt, even now. Self-doubt is just a part of my creative process. It’s always hard for me to write, I always think I’m a terrible writer!”
But, I ask, half-laughing and half-despairing, if she doesn’t think she’s a good writer, what chance do the rest of us have?
“You know, it wasn’t even about confidence that pushed me back then. It was just this sense that the greatest gift I had to give to the world was my writing. As a writer, you can sometimes feel like you constantly have to justify your profession, especially in the beginning. I can’t tell you how many humiliating, condescending conversations I had to endure.”
“I would feel kind of embarrassed and kind of small, trying to convince people that yes, I am a writer.
“The best piece of advice I can give you is that you have to find a way to believe in yourself because nobody else will. At the end of the day, you have to have that core truth within you, that little inner voice that says, ‘This. Is. My. Calling’. Then the only way you can fail is if you don’t answer the call.”
She leans forward conspiratorially for a moment. “You know, I teach a lot of writing classes, and let me tell you: A clear sign that you’re a terrible writer is if you think you’re just great!” She laughs.
Before she leaves, she signs my book with one final piece of advice.
Write like a motherf**ker. Do everything like one.
♥ Cheryl Strayed.”