Cheryl Strayed is the award-winning author of Wild, the #1 New York Times bestselling memoir that was made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Reese Witherspoon.
Cheryl has written several New York Times bestsellers and her books have been translated into forty languages around the world. Her memoir Wild chronicled her 1,100 mile solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail, the despair that drove her to it, the challenges she faced along the way and the profound reset that ensued. Cheryl’s essays have been published in too many publications to list including the Washington Post and Vogue. Until recently, she ran a podcast called Dear Sugars, inspired by her popular advice column Dear Sugar.
We talked about the experiences that shaped Cheryl, from her unusual rural childhood to her mother’s untimely death. Cheryl shared what she learnt from giving advice to people on both her podcast and column, and how we all “bear the unbearable”. We discussed the power of acceptance and the difference between loneliness and aloneness. A surprise Mother’s Day treat came up too! Cheryl explained her writing process, the difficulties of starting a new piece and her devotion to her craft.
Cheryl has been profoundly influenced by numerous women, from her mother to female writers from all over the world. A book she read recently that she would recommend is: Educated by Tara Westover.
You can find Cheryl at www.cherylstrayed.com or follow her on Instagram
Read the Transcript
Rana Nawas: (00:00)
Hello ladies and gents. My guest today is the award winning author of Wild, the number one New York Times best-seller memoir that was made into an Oscar nominated movie starring Reese Witherspoon. Cheryl Strayed has written several New York Times bestsellers, and our books have been translated into 40 languages around the world. Her memoir, Wild chronicled her 1100 miles solo hike along the Pacific crest trail, the despair that drove her to it, the challenge she faced along the way, and the profound reset that ensued. Strayed’s essays have been published in too many publications to list including the New York Times, the Washington Post and Vogue. Strayed ran a podcast called Dear Sugars, inspired by her popular advice column, Dear Sugar. We talked about the experiences that shape Cheryl from her unusual rural childhood to her mother’s untimely death. Cheryl shared what she learned from giving advice to listeners on both her, podcast and column and how we all bear the unbearable. We discussed the power of acceptance and the difference between loneliness and aloneness. A surprise Mother’s Day treat came up here. Cheryl explained her writing process, the difficulties of starting a new piece and her devotion to her craft. So let’s get into it. So Cheryl, thank you so much for coming on when women, I really appreciate you taking the time.
Cheryl Strayed: (01:33)
Oh, thank you. It’s wonderful to be here.
Rana Nawas: (01:35)
I was wondering if we could start with your youth. I read something somewhere that in your teens, you and your family built your house to live in and there wasn’t electricity or running water. Is that true?
Cheryl Strayed: (01:46)
That’s right. Or indoor plumbing. I actually grew up with an outhouse. My mom and stepfather didn’t get a toilet until I was a sophomore in college. So yeah, we, we grew up kind of back to the land style and a lot of people misinterpret that to mean that my mom and stepfather were hippies, and you know, making that move because of an ideological belief. And, you know, my mom had a little bit of a hippie in her. There’s no question that she, you know, was drawn to those kind of, that more natural way of living, if you will, but really, that youth in the woods without modern amenities was far more born of being poor and just my parents not having enough money to get the electric lines, you know, wired out to the down the dirt road that we lived on or getting that toilet installed or that well dug. Every one of those things cost a lot of money and it especially cost money if you’re off the grid and not surrounded by other people, other houses. Our house was on 40 acres of land in northern Minnesota and the nearest town was 20 miles away and that town only had 400 people. So yeah, we were, we were out. I really was, you know, I spent my teenage years in the wilderness. I feel like in so many ways it was that experience that prepared me for the hike I chronicled in my book. Wild.
Rana Nawas: (03:18)
Yeah. So let’s, let’s go there. I mean, fast forward a couple of decades or so, and you’ve written your memoir, Wild and you’re going about your daily business and then you get a call that says Reese Witherspoon wants to option this and potentially make a movie. I mean, that’s a big change from the background that you had. So it’s an incredible path. I mean, what do you think were the one or two key choices that you made that took you down that path?
Cheryl Strayed: (03:46)
Well, I think that the most, you know, you say one or two and it’s funny because the thing that my mind goes to is really only one and that is I kept faith with my writing and by that, by saying keeping faith – I don’t mean I believed that I would somehow magically one day, you know, have a movie made about me starting a big Hollywood movie star. The faith was about doing the work and apprenticing myself to the writer’s craft and working really, really, really hard for many years on end. And my goal wasn’t that it would culminate in a movie or a bestselling book. My goal was always that it would culminate in me producing work that I felt like was the best I could have possibly done, you know, that work that to which I gave everything I had, and I really did that. I took myself quite seriously as a writer from the very beginning, from the time I was like 18 or 19, I was saying I’m a writer and I never let go of that.
Rana Nawas: (04:50)
And how do you choose your topics as a writer? You know, why did you decide to write Torch and then Wild. What inspires the topic?
Cheryl Strayed: (05:00)
I think that a lot of times my topics choose me, which sounds kind of strange because you’d think, well, wait a minute, you know, you’re a conscious being, you get to decide what you write about, but what happens is, you know, I find myself really finding my way as I write and there’s no question that when I was writing my first book Torch, I was just really, you know, so much of my twenties had been defined by having a mother who died young and not having a father and having essentially a family that disintegrated in the wake of my mom’s death. And I was really very much trying to find my way in the world as an orphan, and also trying to heal my heart. And there was no other thing I could write about. I began Torch, Torch is a novel. So it is fiction. Those are characters in that book. A lot of people don’t quite believe that because those characters do have a lot of things in common with me and my family. But what I can tell you is, you know, in the grand tradition of American literature, you know, my first novel, like many people’s first novels, yes, it was drawn a lot from life, but also a lot, you know, I did invent those characters by way of working out, I guess some of the things that I was grappling with and trying to understand and, you know, I don’t feel like it was this intentional. I didn’t say, okay, I’m going to write a novel about grief. I’m going to write a novel about a family that has to redefine itself after the mother dies. But, you know, that’s what happened. There was nothing else I could write about. And, you know, Wild was a little different in that for a while, I kept resisting it. I kept thinking, well, this was an interesting hike, but will it make an interesting book? I always sort of challenged that. I don’t think that having a wilderness adventure is necessarily equivalent within you’ve got to write a book about it. You know, we all have adventures. Not every one of those make good books, so I had to be convinced that I had something bigger to say about that experience. It took me some time to come to it, to find that.
Rana Nawas: (07:08)
And it was you who convinced yourself or was it somebody else?
Cheryl Strayed: (07:11)
Well, again, you know, it’s interesting. It’s the writing that convinces me, the way I find what I’m writing is through the writing. When I teach writing or when I talk to people about how writing is done, you know, first of all I say it’s done all kinds of ways. Some people do get an idea and they research it and they make all kinds of outlines and plans and maps and so forth. And then they sit down and write it. I do the opposite. I have a feeling, I have an impulse. I have sometimes an image or a scene or a single, you know, an experience in my mind, and I start to write and I see what the writing reveals. And that is definitely, you know, Wild was actually my intention when I started writing. What became Wild was that I was writing an essay, I thought I had about 20 pages of things to say about my hike on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Rana Nawas: (08:08)
Okay, so you didn’t expect a New York Times number one best seller and an Oscar nominated movie?
Cheryl Strayed: (08:15)
No, I mean, that’s, that’s always the hard and interesting question because the answer is absolutely not. But it’s also, I also didn’t not expect it. Here’s what I mean by that. By the time I wrote Wild, I was old enough and experienced enough as a writer. I knew enough writers all around the world that I knew the writer’s life wasn’t one in which you get to sit down and decide that you’re writing a New York Times best seller, right? You always have to decide to do the best you can and to write the book that you have in you, or the essay you have in you, or the poem you have in you, or the, you know, fill in the blank, right? You have to do that work. And then what happens to it in the world is not up to you. Yes, it is up to you to promote it, to share it, to give it its best opportunity, but it is very much like a child, like you have to give it your all, but then the child gets to have their life and, you know, it’s not really up to you what that life will be and so, you know, I didn’t, by the time I was writing Wild, I didn’t attach myself to this notion of bestsellerdom, if you will.
Rana Nawas: (09:24)
I’d really like to go into a couple of themes of Wild, but before we do that, you’ve given a couple of practical tips for aspiring writers, and during your course, what other advice do you have for these people?
Cheryl Strayed: (09:39)
Wow. Writing advice. Okay. You know, I’m known for writing and advice. Right? So I’m kind of on the line here.
Rana Nawas: (09:48)
You’re also known for feminism and advice. I’m coming to you for that as well. Let’s start with writing.
Cheryl Strayed: (09:53)
No pressure. Right? I’m a little intimidated. Okay. So first of all, I just want to say, you know, obviously I have so much advice in so many different directions about writing. It would take me like a year to tell you everything I think, but you know, I think that first principal that I’ve already discussed is a big one, which is, you know, get focused on the work itself. So many people really put the cart before the horse in when it comes to writing and they’re immediately concerned with publishing and getting their work out there, and you know, essentially that sort of the public life of the published writer, published author. And I always caution people about that because for two reasons. One, is almost always, if you rush into that, the work isn’t really ready and you’re going to regret it later, and you know, it’s so much more meaningful for you to take that time to really make work that is worthy of being out there and read by others. Right? So don’t rush to that publication. And the other reason not to do that is what you’re creating when you do that, when you begin writing and you start thinking, everything I write needs to be published and tweeted and responded to by people on the Internet, is that you’re setting up a cycle within yourself that the validation is always coming from others. It’s always coming outside of you. And I think that that’s really dangerous because so much of a writer’s life is about emotional survival. How do I do this over the long haul knowing that any kind of art making but surely writing is essentially a risky career path, right? There’s no guarantee of money. There’s no guarantee that anyone will read your work. There’s no guarantee really of anything. It’s all on you. You do have to start adopting a different way of defining success and validating your work. And I’m not saying that it’s not obviously amazing to publish your work and have it validated. I do think there’s a time that you let it into the world and some people have that opposite problem where they never will let it into the world, but what I’m talking about is really, you know, do apprenticing yourself to the craft. I’ve used that word now a couple of times, and to me it’s a meaningful one. The other bit I have, on the other end, when you do, when you have written that best work, you can, you know, do that thing, get it out there, see what happens and then move onto the next thing. Keep going and know that writing is a lifelong endeavor, that you’re always going to learn something new and also it’s never going to get easy. A lot of people assume that I just basically sit down at my computer now and just like type away and it’s just like la la la. That’s not the case. I wish it were, but it’s not, it’s always hard for me too.
Rana Nawas: (12:54)
Wow. Well that’s reassuring. So let’s go into Wild, Cheryl. Let’s talk about a couple of themes that came out. I’ve read the book and I’ve watched the movie and I loved them both. Something you said in one of your interviews really, really struck me, which is, you know, we’re all in some way trying to bear the unbearable, you know, and for you, I’m guessing from Wild, you know, there was your mother’s passing that you were dealing with. There was the divorce, there was the literal sort of heavy bag. What do you mean by bearing the unbearable?
Cheryl Strayed: (13:29)
Yeah, this idea is really connected also to this notion I was just explaining to you about how Wild came to be, finding this story by writing. As I mentioned, I thought, okay, maybe I have an essay in this hike and maybe I have about 20 pages. So I began writing about the hike and I pretty quickly came to that first day in that motel room. I had checked into a motel in the town of Mojave, California, cheap motel that was $18 for the night and I put all my stuff on the bed the next morning. That was to be the first day I was going to go hike on the PCT, and I’d never packed my backpack before, which I know is not the way to backpack. Just FYI, Wild is not a “how to” book, right? So I packed all of the that camping gear and hiking gear and all of the food and water. I was also beginning in a stretch of the trail that was dry and so I had to carry a lot of water and I got it all on my pack and found that I couldn’t lift it, that I honestly could not even budge my pack an inch. And years later, I mean, you know, in real life the dilemma was what am I going to do because I can’t lift this pack and I have to lift this pack. Those were the two things were true and they were opposite facts and when I was writing that scene all those years later, it was really honestly like one of those moments in your life where you suddenly just have this awakening and I could see that in that very literal physical conundrum. In that paradox of how do I lift a pack that I cannot lift, I was really finding the meaning. I think that the deeper meaning of Wild, and not just the deeper meaning, but the more universal meaning because you know, maybe I’m the only one who’s ever been in a motel room by herself in Mojave, California with a pack she couldn’t lift, but I know I’m not the only one who’s ever had two opposing facts be true. Who has ever had to say, I can’t do this, but I have to do this. And I realized that I was writing about how it is we bear the unbearable because that’s exactly what I did. And taking the hike on a literal way. I couldn’t bear the pack and I did, but you know, on the inside, that’s why I was taking that hike, as you say. You know, the real thing, the real question that I was up against all those years in my twenties and in, especially during that time of my life when I really kind of hit the bottom and decided to hike that trail is I was, I honestly could not. I could not answer the question, how can I live without my mother? I didn’t know how to live without this person who is so essential to me and I didn’t have a father so I didn’t have any sort of fall back. I just thought, how can I bear to be in this world without the people who, you know, the person who loved me the most. And so the question was, you know, one I grappled with that whole hike and, and you know, to some degree, I feel like that’s exactly, I mean, that’s what I figured out on that hike. That’s the biggest thing I figured out.
Rana Nawas: (16:44)
How to do it. I mean, it’s tough. I lost my dad about nine, ten years ago.
Cheryl Strayed: (16:49)
Rana Nawas: (16:50)
And still some days, you know, honestly Cheryl, I wake up, and I tell my husband, you know, I really feel like calling my dad. I really wish I could just have a chat.
Cheryl Strayed: (17:00)
I know, I know. I’m so sorry. I know exactly what you’re talking about and what I’ll say to you, Rana, is you’re not alone, but I know the experience of that is, there you are in the morning and you’re just, it’s you and that dad that you don’t have in this life anymore. And it feels so brutal. But what’s powerful about it is when you tell me that, and I get tears in my eyes because I connect to you and I write a book about it and millions of people all around the world read it and they understand their own sorrows. And you know, I think that that’s what I was trying to do in Wild. Obviously, my grief is particular and it’s about my life and my mom, but I never wanted to do that with any of my books. It’s never really about me or the characters I create. It’s always about us, it’s always about finding that universal thread because, you know, I had to bear what I couldn’t bear and so did you. And so do I. And so do you. And this connects us. This is a kind of kinship that isn’t about time or era or culture or gender or race or anything.
Rana Nawas: (18:10)
And I wonder when you were writing the column, the advice column, Dear Sugar, were you getting a lot of messages like this from people asking for advice on how to deal with this specific issue?
Cheryl Strayed: (18:23)
Yes, I would say what I have received in Dear Sugar when I was writing the column or the podcast, or I still do a column for the New York Times. It’s a constant range of conundrums that all fall into just very few categories, right? There’s loss, there’s dealing with the loss of a loved one from death. There’s dealing with the loss of a loved one through heartbreak. Somebody’s broken up with someone and say, you know, there’s always that feeling I can’t go on. I can’t bear this. There are other, of course, you know, dysfunctional families and you know, childhoods that, that harmed somebody and they’re trying to recover from that, right? There are so many different problems and yet there are only really in the end four or five themes in those problems. We all struggle and suffer and triumph and love in the same way, we all do. And that’s what’s so striking is in my work in Dear Sugar, and you know, the way I answer people’s questions, especially like in my book, Tiny, Beautiful Things. If you read those replies that I wrote to people, there was a certain kind of universal theme that started to run through them that even though I might be talking to somebody about how to get over their grief over their miscarriage, it has relevance to somebody who’s trying to get over their heartbreak or, or you know, any number of things, right? There’s the same way that our problems do tend to blend together in one big pot. So do the solutions.
Rana Nawas: (19:55)
So what was an example of solutions then? Let’s go to solutions. Something happy.
Cheryl Strayed: (20:01)
Solutions. Well, you know, I think that one of the first things that I think helps us be whole again, is to accept that suffering is part of life and to decide that, there’s something about accepting sorrow and pain and hardship that I find really empowering because when you accept it, you’re saying, oh, okay, I’m not going to run from you anymore. I’m not going to be afraid of you anymore and I’m not going to sit around and wish that you would go away. I’m going to actually carry you. And, this is really, you know, what I said on my PCT hike, the biggest thing was figuring out how to live without my mom. And, and I think so much of that was acceptance. It was me saying, oh, now I get it. I will always sad that my mom died. That’s not going to go away. That’s just not going to go away. And, I get to decide. So here it is in my arms. It’s going to be in my arms all of my life. And I get to decide how to carry it. Am I going to carry it with grace? Am I going to carry it in a direction that maybe helps other people? Am I going to come to see it as a blessing or am I always going to view it as a burden? And I think this is true of really so many of our problems. You know, that first idea of saying, I’m going to accept that hardship is part of life. And then now I get to decide what to do with it. Does my, you know, does my dysfunctional abusive mother or father get to be the person who defines how I live my life? Does that heartbreak, that person who left me and lied to me and betrayed me, do they get to have my love and attention for years after our relationship ends? Do I decide to feel bitter and angry and resentful that I didn’t get the life that I thought that I deserved or do I get, do I decide to make my life as good as it can possibly be? Do I surround myself with people who love me or people who shame me? You know, these are all decisions that, that we are capable of making. And I say this obviously with, you know, a lot of awareness that it’s not so easy and that different people have, have easier access to change their lives. Privilege is real. All of the privileges that exist, racial, economic, gender, all of those things are real and they give you easier access to escape hardship. But what I also know is that everyone has the capacity to create their life to some extent, to change for the better, to revise the narrative that they’ve told themselves or that the culture or their families have told them and step toward a greater happiness and greater wholeness.
Rana Nawas: (22:48)
It’s funny, I took on the subject of accepting suffering, I took a Coursera, an online training course on Buddhism. I was just curious. And I love this thing they have about impermanence, you know, and that suffering is so normal and it’s impermanent just like everything else. And so it’s the acceptance of impermanence as well, which I found personally to really help.
Cheryl Strayed: (23:14)
Yeah. I’m not a Buddhist, but every time I read about those kinds of Buddhist beliefs around acceptance, I find that I resonate a lot with those beliefs.
Rana Nawas: (23:28)
Yeah. Me Too. If we could go back to Wild for a minute, Cheryl, or in in fact, your experience on the PCT, and to you, is there a difference between loneliness and aloneness?
Cheryl Strayed: (23:42)
Yes. There’s a big difference between loneliness and aloneness. One is a state of being, aloneness to be in solitude, I think can be one of the most wonderful things in the world. In fact, if I don’t have plenty of aloneness, I sort of go crazy. I don’t think I’m alone in that. And loneliness is, of course, being alone and wishing you weren’t or feeling alone and wishing you weren’t. There’s nothing more lonely than feeling loneliness when you’re in the company of others, and I think so many people have felt that way. It’s in stark contrast to the reality here, you are surrounded by people and you don’t feel seen or heard or understood or welcomed. That’s a painful feeling. Aloneness is a feeling of being satisfied with one’s own company and one’s own thoughts, and I treasure that. I do think that there’s really a long tradition of solitude being a way for us to oddly feel more connected to others. You know, that we have to go inward in our solitude, in our aloneness, in order to see those ways that we are part of the world, I think, and that, that to me was a powerful teacher on the Pacific Crest Trail. I loved being alone for days on end.
Rana Nawas: (25:04)
Gosh, to me it seems like such a luxury, right?
Cheryl Strayed: (25:07)
Do you have children?
Rana Nawas: (25:09)
I do. And they’re two and four years old. Imagine what I’m talking about.
Cheryl Strayed: (25:14)
Oh my gosh, I can completely, you poor thing. I mean, that’s time of my life to that I was just like, I would just do anything to be alone. When my kids were that age on Mother’s Day, my husband was asking me, so what do you want to do for Mother’s Day and what do you, you know? And, you know, in the US, there’s this tradition of you take your mom out to brunch or you know, you have a picnic or whatever, and I said to him, I want to go have breakfast by myself with a copy of the New Yorker magazine, and I want to be out for like three hours, and so here I went to this restaurant, I was surrounded by families with squabbling children and tired looking mothers, and I sat there by myself at this table for one reading the New Yorker, drinking mimosas, and then I went and sort of went thrift store shopping and looking at little boutiques and I was like, it was the happiest Mother’s Day ever.
Rana Nawas: (26:14)
I believe it. I believe it. Okay. Let’s, let’s shift gears a little bit. Let’s talk about Dear Sugar. What inspired you to start a podcast?
Cheryl Strayed: (26:24)
Oh, what inspired me to start the Dear Sugar podcast. Well, it was really Steve Almond, which is kind of funny because Steve Almond was the person who asked me to write the Dear Sugar column way back in 2010 for the Rumpus. And some years passed and I wrote the column, it became a big success. The book came out, the collection of the columns, Tiny, Beautiful Things, and Wild came out, of course. And Steve called me up one day and said, I have an idea, you know, I’ve been asked to ask you if you would be willing to do a podcast with me and it would be the two of us giving advice to letter writers, the way that was done in the column, but also different because of course talking about things is different than writing about things. And of course it was the two of us. So he just asked me and I said yes. And we began. So it was December of 2014, was that first episode. So almost four years ago. And we just found our way into it. We didn’t ever know exactly what would happen and we certainly didn’t know so many people around the world would listen to it. And so many people would write to us, and all of the amazing guests we’d end up having on the show, but it was always great fun. And the way it was made is that Steve would fly to Portland, Oregon where I live, he lives in Boston, and we would just spend three or four days in the studio recording a whole season at once. And so it was so intense, it was like a block of 40 hours essentially where we would just sit in a little room and talk to each other about other people’s problems.
Rana Nawas: (28:02)
Wow. That sounds wild. And so what did you learn from doing the podcast? I know you stopped it now because you’d like to focus on your writing. You’re in the middle of another book. But that whole experience, was it positive and what did you take away from it?
Cheryl Strayed: (28:18)
So what did I learn? Great question. I learned again about this question of like, what’s what’s wrong with us? How do we fix us? Having to really contemplate other people’s problems so deeply is both an honor and an education, and it always gives me really an insight into the human condition, which I think when I first began writing the Dear Sugar column, I felt very much that that essentially what had trained me to give people advice was my work as a writer because of course that’s what writers do. We sit around and contemplate, you know, well, why would this character do this? Or say that or believe this. You really have to sort of build somebody from the bottom. Even if it’s yourself, you know, you have to make yourself a character on the page who other people understand whether they like that person or not isn’t the question. Is do they understand what motivates this person? So I used those writerly skills when I was writing the column and I think eventually after years now of being on the other end of other people’s letters, almost eight years, really no more than eight years now, almost nine years now. Those writers have taught me so much about the human condition, and the other thing that really was kind of cool about the podcast is that it was a conversation and there were so many times that I learned from Steve and he learned from me via the conversation, and you know, that I would say, well I think this, and he’d say I think this, and I’d say, well, oh that’s you’re right. That’s a good point. And then the advice evolved over the course of a conversation, we didn’t prepare in advance, yeah, we read the letters in advance obviously, but we would never discuss them in advance. We never said to each other, well, what’s your take and what are you going to say? And then I’ll say this and you say that. We always just talked and I think that was, you know, there was something about conversation on the podcast that is not at all like the conversation we so often see on the internet where it’s not, it doesn’t evolve. It devolves, you know, people put their, you know, they make their statement and they never back down and the kind of, you know, twitter mob arguments that happen. I loved that the podcast was in so many ways, modeling what conversation can be.
Rana Nawas: (30:36)
I’d like to go back to something you mentioned earlier. So you talked about privilege, gender, race. I think you’re a self- (how do I say it?) self-defined feminist. Is that right?
Cheryl Strayed: (30:52)
That’s right. I’ve been a feminist since I knew the word.
Rana Nawas: (30:56)
How do you define feminism?
Cheryl Strayed: (30:59)
I’ve always had a really, you know, direct and simple definition of feminism, it’s just somebody who just simply believes that, that women are people too and that women have the full right to their humanity as men do. And I’ve always also believed that that’s only good for men. You know, let’s not anymore put people into categories based on gender. And I’m also an intersectional feminists. Like, you know, my beginning consciousness of feminism rose with my consciousness around race and class. And obviously that’s been ever evolving. It’s been an education all of my life, a study I’ve undertaken, if you will, learning always the complexities and nuance of what happens when race and class and gender and all of those other things, sexuality, sexual orientation, all of those things, you know, meet and divide. And so I think that my feminism began with this enlightenment about believing that all humans are fully human and equal. And it’s evolved into something that really takes on many other divisions we have.
Rana Nawas: (32:15)
And advise please, Cheryl. Okay. So the way I define feminism, very similar to you, and then I believe that, well actually, maybe I define it more from a business angle. So I believe that women should have equal opportunity to men and equal pay for equal work. That’s my personal definition. Today, I literally had a conversation with a guy who seriously said, “what do you mean women don’t have the same opportunities as men? I don’t believe it. I don’t see it. I don’t believe it. That cannot be true.” And, for me, you know, I’m the president of business women’s network, I speak a lot on this topic and I’ve never had to engage with somebody starting at that level, you know, like somebody, you know of maybe a white person saying that racism doesn’t exist, you know, or like how do you, how do you engage, what advice do you have for me to engage with someone even at that level if there was a man who actually believes that there is no gender discrimination.
Cheryl Strayed: (33:23)
Yeah. Well, you’re lucky that this is the first time you’ve met somebody who said that to you because I’ve had that conversation many times with people and you know about gender. I’ve also had it about race. I’ve had it about sexual orientation, you know, all of those things. And I guess, you know, I’m like, you. There’s the first reaction is absolute, you know, I’m speechless because you’re like, well, how do, where do I even begin? And you know, anyone who thinks that has not done any, any homework whatsoever, any observation of the world around him or her. And so my strategy, what I want to do often is just yell in frustration or walk away and say, I don’t want to engage with you. But honestly what my strategy has been is to just start with, you know, a few facts just to say things like, oh, really? Because then why, you know, why is it that, you know, for example, I can, you know, say in the United States, why has there never been a female president? Do you think that’s just by chance? Or do you think that women haven’t been given the same opportunities to advance in politics to begin the conversation, to sort of call that person on their assumptions that are so clearly wrong. It’s absolutely maddening. And, and you don’t always have to engage. Sometimes I do that thing where I just say, oh, good luck to you. And I walk away. It’s not our job as women to enlighten every man of their privilege.
Rana Nawas: (34:54)
No, that’s right. And I had all these stats and then the reaction was, well I don’t know where these stats are from, you know, where you’re getting your stuff. It’s like, well, all you need to do is spend five minutes online to find these stats. So it was just a very bizarre, I’d never actually been that much in the mud, you know. The last 5, 10 years I’ve seen the conversation really bloom and grow, you know. And here in the Middle East, it’s at a very high level now and it’s front and center, you know, panels that I speak on, you know, we’re not debating that anymore. Now we’re the conversations at – what needs, what can change in the short term and what do we have to focus on as a long term win. So it was a bit of a shock to be back at that level.
Cheryl Strayed: (35:37)
Yeah. In that example, like when you said then you had all these stats, that’s somebody who’s really being disingenuous. That’s somebody who doesn’t want to know. It’s not that they don’t know. They don’t want to know and there’s really, you know, this is the thing that I think is really important for me to remember always as a feminist activist is those people aren’t worth our time, that we move right on past them. We leave them behind us. They are not the people who are making the future of this world. We are, and people like us, who are are open to looking at facts and discussing them, and talking through the nuances and complexities of this kind of social change we’re talking about.
Rana Nawas: (36:22)
I wanted to ask you as a writer yourself, if there was one book that everyone in the world had to read, what would it be?
Cheryl Strayed: (36:29)
Oh my gosh. That’s always hard. Whenever I’m asked about books, my whole mind goes blank. It’s as if I’ve never read a book before. Let’s see. Gosh.
Rana Nawas: (36:43)
I can make it easier. I can make it easier. What is the last book you read that you would recommend to listeners?
Cheryl Strayed: (36:51)
Okay. That’s, that’s a lot easier Educated by Tara Westover. It’s a memoir and it’s really good. It’s about her, she was homeschooled in a very fundamentalist religious family and didn’t go to school until she went to college and it’s about her family and her history and her path to becoming an educated woman among many other things. I’m bad at summarizing books. Can I just say it’s really good?
Rana Nawas: (37:21)
Yeah. Yeah, that’s totally fine. We’ll just put really good in the show notes. Great. And then I wanted to ask finally, obviously your mother had a tremendous impact on you. Apart from your mother, are there any women who have influenced you heavily in your life?
Cheryl Strayed: (37:39)
Wow. Yeah. My mother has deeply influenced me, and where my thought went really when you asked me that, as I think about all the women writers, who have been my teachers from afar, people who I met on the page, people like Alice Munro and Toni Morrison and you know, there’s such a long list of, of people, Mary Gaitskill and Sandra Cisneros and just on and on and on. Women who schooled me on the page through their words and showed me the world that was my own and also showed me other worlds. I just have always felt grateful for those writers, obviously because they in some ways were modeling to me what I wanted to be and do, but also just simply because they wrote beautiful poems and stories and essays and memoirs. They made my world a bigger place than was.
Rana Nawas: (38:36)
Oh, that’s beautiful. I think that’s a great way to end the podcast. Cheryl, thank you so much. If listeners want to find you, where’s the best place?
Cheryl Strayed: (38:44)
Cherylstrayed.com is my website and I’m on instagram and facebook and twitter. You can find me there @cherylstrayed.
Rana Nawas: (38:53)
Lovely. Thank you so much again for your time and for sharing your thoughts on your incredibly winding path.
Cheryl Strayed: (39:00)
Oh, thank you. It was a delight to talk to you. I’m so honored to have been on your show.
Rana Nawas: (39:05)
I appreciate it. All right. Thank you. Thanks. Bye. Bye. I hope you enjoyed today’s episode. I’d love to hear from you, so please head over to WhenWomenWinPodcast.com to give feedback. While you’re there, you can find all episodes and show notes and sign up for our monthly newsletter. Wherever you’re listening right now, do remember to hit the subscribe button to be notified of future episodes and please write a review when you can to let others know what to expect. Thanks and have a great day.