Cheryl Strayed has come a long way since finishing a book about walking a long way. This year alone, she revealed herself as the writer of the candid advice column "Dear Sugar" on the Rumpus website, and she had her hiking memoir Wild optioned as a potential Reese Witherspoon movie. The Portland writer's recognition is fully earned: Strayed's book, about tackling much of the Pacific Crest Trail in 1995, is eloquently raw and unassumingly wise. She spoke with WW last week.
WW: How do you feel about Reese Witherspoon as a doppelgänger?
Cheryl Strayed: It's pretty flattering to have this beautiful movie star saying, "Oh yeah, I'll play you." But I became even more excited when we talked about the book, because she really understood it. And every writer, that's what they hope for: the ideal reader, somebody who really gets what you were trying to do.
You must be used to having an alter ego, with the "Dear Sugar" column. How did that come about?
One of the things I love the most about what happened with the "Dear Sugar" column was how it just became popular because people liked it. Which is so fun and so rewarding as a writer: It doesn't have to be all about marketing and publicity. We didn't do anything to put Sugar before readers except write the column and publish it on the website. And readers told each other about it. I felt sort of surprised and gratified by how many people were finding solace in something so sincere, rather than mocking it or making fun of it. Because that was my main worry about it. I was like, look, I'm kind of this earnest, sincere type of a writer. Even though I love the snarky, funnier sorts of writers, I've never really been that person. I was afraid I would be on this hipster website and everyone would make fun of me and what I was doing, but the opposite happened.
What did you think you were going to get out of all that hiking?
I had this idea before I went that I would always be really engaged in those spiritual aspects in this really overt way. Instead, I was so consumed with the struggle to do things like get water, cook my food, cover those miles, carry my pack, take care of my feet that were horribly blistered, and just endure the weather and the physical pain. It took me out of my head and into my body in a way that was ultimately incredibly important and healing. Now that all these years have passed, and I've had a couple kids and I'm more grown up, I do think there's a relationship between physical suffering and healing in some ways that I didn't know existed before. I've had two kids without the aid of drugs, I've had natural births, and they were both the most painful experiences of my life, but also the most powerful and meaningful. I think most women would tell you that. I think it's the reason people run marathons. Because it's hard, it's really hard. And it's insane: Why would you run 26 miles, you know? And it's because it's hard and it hurts and it gives us something back that's bigger than that.
SEE IT: Cheryl Strayed reads from Wild at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Wednesday, March 21. Free.