When I signed up for two writing workshops with Cheryl Strayed, I was thrilled at the prospect of hearing from her, but I had no idea that they would change my life. I went to the workshops because I already loved her books — especially Tiny, Beautiful Things, and Wild — but I expected more "nice summer getaway" than "deeply transformative experience."
What impressed me most is her courage and encouragement to “have the humility and nerve to tell the truth about what you know, the deepest rawest truest truth, as a human and as a writer." Vulnerability moves people.
MH: In your latest book, Brave Enough, a collection of your most popular sayings, you describe quotes as “mini-instruction manuals for the soul.” What`s a quote that became your lifeline you held onto in your darkest hours?
CS: When I was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail I remembered Winston Churchill`s “Never give in.” A quote doesn`t have to be incredibly complicated or profound to have a powerful impact. It can be something as simple as, “I can do this!” This might allow you to do something that you think you can’t do. The quote I essentially made up for myself on the hike is just a statement: “I`m not afraid.”
When I felt fear at the outer edges of my imagination, I decided to push it away with that sentence. One of the most important quotes in my life came from my mom: “Put yourself in the way of beauty.” When my mother first said it to me, I would greet it with a sense of impatience, but later it [evolved into] a sentence that helped me [learn resilience, to look on the bright side,] and to reach for beauty even when it felt hard. My mom gave me the tools to save myself.
MH: In Brave Enough you say,
“When you recognize that you will thrive not despite your losses and sorrows, but because of them, that you would not have chosen the things that happened in your life, but you are grateful for them, that you will hold the empty bowls eternally in your hands, but you also have the capacity to fill them? The word for that is healing.”
To me, this is a very poignant description of post-traumatic growth. What do you think helps us thrive through loss?
CS: I feel like I have written about post-traumatic growth in all of my books, I just never have given it that lovely name. Frankly, that`s the story of my life. It is the story of so many people who have overcome. I hate the word overcome, actually, because it sounds like a negation of the experience.
The key to my ability to move on with a sense of life and beauty [is] the fact that I always carry my suffering with me. Part of what I was struggling with when I was grieving my mother was this idea that I should “get over” this loss. And of course, when you do have a big sorrow, you will never get over it. Instead I learned to say, "This is never going to be OK, but I`m learning to carry it with me."
Once I learn to say, yep, here is this part of my life that is sad and hard and unfortunate, I could make room for other things, things like happiness and contentment and peace. In so many ways I learned to look at that burden, that suffering I had to carry, as a gift — even though it is a gift I would gladly return to the store.
This gift is mine and I need to make something of it. I've made a lot of progress in my life — in part because I decided to turn that ugly experience into something beautiful. Every time somebody writes to me and shares that my book helped them, I`m making good on that idea. That`s a big deal. I know more about myself and other people, because this experience of suffering and loss allowed me to see something I couldn’t have seen otherwise.
MH: But it took some time, right?
I think it`s perfectly legitimate at the beginning to experience something as negative. After my mother`s death, I was deeply sad. I wasn’t capable of seeing the positive aspects of such a loss and I think it’s unhealthy to be capable of such a thing when you’re in the midst of deep sorrow.
But there comes a time when you say, “Will I let this rule my life or not?” Will you let your sorrows and losses narrate your life story? I just say no to all these things. I wanted there to be a better story. I made it so. Just like we all have to make it so.
MH: Can you share what helped you when you were going through the grief and heart break?
I think the number one thing that makes us stronger is love. Sometimes even just the memory of love. When I was at the bottom, what really pulled me through was the realization that so much of the negativity I had inside of myself, so much of that grief, or of that sense of "I can`t live" or "I'm messed up" had to do with just how much I loved my mom. And that ended up being an awakening: Wow — grief is actually about love.
So here again we have this ugly thing that is actually a beautiful thing. Grief is ugly, and yet we wouldn't be grieving as fiercely as we do if we didn’t love that person. Grief is only about love. Remembering that was really powerful to me — also remembering the love my mother had for me. Thinking I have to make good on this.
That`s another thing my mother used to say that drove me crazy: “We aren’t poor, we`re rich in love.” My whole life I have been rich in love. And part of it was that I reached for it. Even in the hardest times I have always sought connections, and consolation from other people — sometimes in the form of people who are long dead, people who wrote books or poems or essays that I carried around in my purse because they spoke truth to me.
MH: Your mom was also such a beautiful example of, as you describe it, an “unbending spirit," because though she experienced a lot of violence, she did not give up.
CS: Absolutely. My mom was this optimist and such a powerful force in my life. When I asked her about my father, who was abusive, she would never speak ill of him. She spoke of him in either neutral or positive terms, but not in a way that was glossing over things either. [She showed me] that you can have ugliness and beauty right next to each other, and in fact, you almost always do, right? Her very essence was a guiding light to me. [Acknowledging that we have to reach for love] is another way of saying, “Put yourself in the way of beauty.”