“Tell Yourself the Good Stories”: Cheryl Strayed on Collecting Quotes, Overcoming Jealousy, and Binge-Watching TV

“I feel like the accidental self-help writer,” says Cheryl Strayed, a day after her collection of quotations, Brave Enough, hits shelves. Strayed, a novelist and memoirist by trade, earned cult status with her anonymous advice column “Dear Sugar,” on The Rumpus. One unmasking, an Oprah pick for her memoir Wild, and a Reese Witherspoon movie later, Strayed has become the unlikely queen of a different bookstore aisle that she expected, a guru whose message is anything but simple or glib. Rather than offering a “secret” like a certain other Oprah favorite, Strayed tends towards emphasizing how deeply flawed we human beings are, and how we have to keep trying to be better anyway, even as life throws slings, arrows, and tremendous grief our way.

Brave Enough is an elegantly bound, slim collection of Strayed sayings, ranging from a few words (“Romantic love is not a competitive sport”) to entire paragraphs. The author’s fans will recognize the provenance of most of the quotes right away, but they stand alone, each one occupying a page. Flavorwire spoke to Strayed about the power of a quote collection, her most trusted sources of advice, and whether she ever gets jealous — even after her smashing success.

Flavorwire: Tell me how the idea for Brave Enough happened. Did it come from you or your publisher?

Cheryl Strayed: Oh my god, I would die of mortification if it were my idea, if I had said, “Oh yes, I’ve said so many wise things, I should compile them.” No, it came from my publisher. They had noticed that there were so many memes on the Internet with these quotes, and people tweeting at me with pictures of tattoos of lines from my books. I googled quotes by me, went on Pinterest and Instagram and discovered that, yes, there were indeed all these memes. So I said, “The quotes that readers have found the most interesting  are the quotes I’ll put in.” I was hesitant, but then I turned it outward and thought: “What has been the most useful, compelling, and moving to other people?”

As I read each quote, I thought about the book or essay it came from. Is the Brave Enough for people who already know your work well?

Certainly its core audience are people who already have been into my work. The book’s been out a day, and I’ve been getting feedback from fans saying, “I’m so excited that I have these quotes in a portable form.” This one woman was saying, “It’s like you took all the passages I highlighted and put them together.”

But it would be really cool if it traveled beyond that, kind of like the movie of Wild did. There were  so many people who saw the movie first and had never even heard of the book, so maybe Brave Enough will be an introduction for some people to my other work.

You decided not to attribute the quotes in the books. What was the reasoning behind that? 

That’s the thing about quotes, they have to be able to stand by themselves. The power of a quote is, it is just a sentence, just a phrase, that you can hold on to and use it in so many different contexts. The same five or six words stacked together can mean one thing to one person and another thing to another person. I wrote about “write like a motherfucker,”and so many people took on that mantra but they were like, “No, engineer like a motherfucker.” It’s such a clear example of the way people totally define what that quote means in their own life. I thought that by attributing each quote to a certain piece it would diminish that quality.

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Did you find more of your quotes coming from Tiny Beautiful Things (the collected “Dear Sugar” columns) than from your longer work?

It is more from Tiny Beautiful Things than any of my other books, for sure — there’s a whole handful from Wild, a few from Torch, and a handful from my talks — but I can really see the difference. In “Dear Sugar,” the written voice is me actually talking to someone and giving them advice. They really lend themselves to quotability, those columns, because it’s that direct address. With Wild and Torch, the premise is, “I am the writer, telling you the story, I don’t notice that the reader is there.” I’m almost talking to myself, whereas in “Sugar,” I’m talking to you.

In the introduction say you collected quotes when you were young. I did too; it was a lot of terrible rock lyrics next to poetry. Do you remember any particular quotes like that?

Yes, so many of my quotes in my youth  came from, like, the latest Pat Benatar song. I laugh, but we often laugh at things that end up being truly the most useful or powerful to us over time. Even now, sometimes on Dear Sugar Radio, I’ll say, “Pat Benatar was right: Love is a battlefield.”

And even as an adult, when I am reading, I know it’s the mark of a book I really love if I say, “I have to read that sentence again.” So, to this day, I have this file on my computer of quotes. I’ll open it up once in a while for a little something, a little hit.

There’s a very popular kind of writing online right now that’s a kind of digitized self-help. Like, “12 Steps to Getting Over Your Fear of Rejection.” How does what you’re doing with the podcast interact with and differ from the self-help world?

It’s a worthy endeavor to try to improve ourselves. I’m always saying I should be healthier, I should do this…  But we get in trouble when it becomes marketing talk and people want it to be easy. I’ve maintained pretty constantly that there’s suffering in life. We all experience hardships and struggle. Things hurt, but we have the capacity to carry many truths at once: “This is hard” and “I still can find joy in my life.” That kind of living has nothing to do with “12 Steps to a Fill-in-the-Blank Life.” It has to do with millions and millions of steps.

That’s why I’ve always had a funny recoil when, right on the back of Tiny Beautiful Things and maybe Brave Enough too, it says “self-help.” I’m not saying I haven’t read self-help books that are great. By and large I don’t identify with that genre. And yet, the number one thing that people say to me about my books is, “Your book helped me so much.” I think that what I’m interested in doing is redefining self-help to include an emotionally rich reality that has been reflected by literary writers throughout time, diving down into the depths of what it means to be human. This is somewhat contrary to some things you read in magazines and online, like: “Three Steps to a Better Blowjob!” Well, maybe you can do a better blowjob in three steps. Step one: don’t bite. But everything else is complicated.

The stuff you have written that personally stays with me the most from “Dear Sugar” is your advice about jealousy, particularly in the Internet age, where people are tweeting their accomplishments all day. So I had to ask: Does Cheryl Strayed still get jealous, ever?

It would seem as if I shouldn’t ever feel jealous, but yeah, I feel jealous sometimes! I don’t feel jealous for long, because I take my advice. I have my column, “We Are All Savages Inside,” where I say the way to stop being an awful, jealous person is you just say to yourself, stop it.

But that’s the crazy part about being human and the depressing part. I have received so much, been rewarded beyond measure for the work I do. I feel like I shouldn’t envy anyone. The reality is, there are still times when I say, “I would have liked that person to say that about me, or that committee to give me that award.” But then I just put it down and laugh. That’s the key to so much. It’s not saying, “I am not going to be human.” It’s saying, “I am going to be mindful of my humanity.”

It’s the same as lust. If you’re going to be monogamous, the premise isn’t, you will never notice someone else is sexually attractive and someone you desire. That’s never going to work. The premise is, “I’m not going to act on those feelings.” It’s very much the same thing with  jealousy — there’s almost a biological scarcity impulse, those feelings of “why not me?” So you tell yourself the good stories, that this person’s success has no bearing on my own, and I too have been congratulated sometimes on great work.

But honestly,  if the internet had been around in my 20s, and I had been on it and constantly being barraged  with all of the amazing things everyone was getting to do and  inning and publishing, I would have had to manage my feelings in a much more daily way.

One of my friends was very eager to ask you if is there a Sugar figure in your life, someone you can turn to, given that everyone is asking you for advice all the time?

In my column I always said, “Listen, I’m not talking to you from a position of authority, but rather, I’m talking to you as equal, using my humanity as a way of illuminating your humanity.” But ultimately I was the one giving the advice and someone else was receiving it. And really, it doesn’t replicate itself in real life, I don’t have someone dispensing wisdom to me. It’s more a gathering. My husband, Mr. Sugar, Brian Lindstrom, is my counsel all the time, my best friend. His influence in my life is enormous, he can console me and talk me down from any tree, so I look to him, but not as a dispenser of advice but as an equal, a partner, friend.  And then there are my dear women friends, without whom I would just be a pile of dust. So I have a rich emotional life and lots of great relationships, and I don’t feel being Sugar as a burden. It’s a privilege.

Are there any books you’ve read recently that have gone on your list of amazing wisdom that you’d want to pass on to a friend?

There’s a book I absolutely loved recently, Catherine Lacey’s Nobody Is Ever Missing. I thought that was spectacular. There’s Rebecca Solnit. Everything she writes strikes me as coming from a profoundly, deeply wise person. I recently read a book of poems by Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno, called Slamming Open the Door. All the poems are nonfiction, documentary-style poems that talk about her grief about her daughter who was murdered by an ex-boyfriend. It was a beautiful, moving collection. And while we’re on the subject of poetry, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen. I read  it before it won the National Book Award. It’s  full of deep, amazing wisdom, too.

Can you tell me anything more about your HBO project to turn Tiny Beautiful Things into a series?

First of all, I want to say we’re just in the development stage. It’s the very beginning. My husband and I are doing the script together, it’s a pilot. We’re going deep into the life of woman, a 40-something writer in Portland. She’s an anonymous advice columnist, so obviously the letters will inform the show. I really want the show to be every bit as emotionally raw and dig as deep into the human questions that were presented to me in “Dear Sugar.”

I’m excited because my husband and I have been creative collaborators for 20 years together. He’s a documentary filmmaker; he’s my first reader, I’m the first person to see his work. So it feels cool to have projects we’re actually doing together. And I had such a real bond with Laura Dern, and Reese Witherspoon, and Bruna Papandrea, making Wild. We just said, “Listen, we want to keep working together.” We kept circling around, and Brian and I thought maybe this could be a TV show drawn from this book.  We’re really thrilled HBO took it because they’re so bold. They’re the place I see the show thriving.

Speaking of TV shows, what are you watching these days?

I never watch a show when it’s on TV, but for instance, in August, I was sent 12,000 pieces of paper which would go into Brave Enough, to sign. The only place to do it is in front of a TV. I watched every episode of Homeland, The Affair, and Girls. I love Girls and I’m a huge Lena Dunham fan. I’m 20 years older than that generation, and yet I so totally relate to it. I watch it and I laugh. I feel both nostalgic  for that time and incredibly happy that I’m not in it!

I have to tell you, Brave Enough is the platonic ideal of a Hanukkah present. It’s a nicely bound, portable book of wisdom. I can’t imagine a Jewish parent not wanting to buy this for their child.

Its package, the production, is sort of gift-like, it has that gold ribbon and that green cover. So I do hope people will use it for that purpose!