Cheryl Strayed's Favorite Quotes + Why She Collects Them

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The first quote I loved is still among my favorites: Love many, trust few, and always paddle your own canoe. It’s an oft-repeated American proverb of unknown origin that my maternal grandmother taught me when I was 8. All these years later, it continues to strike a chord. I attached myself to it as a kid not only because it told me what I should do; it helped me believe that I could.

At age 12, when I came upon a sentence on page 200 and something of Madeleine L’Engle’s novel A Ring of Endless Light, I was so taken by it I had to stop reading. “Maybe you have to know the darkness before you can appreciate the light,” I scrawled in semipermanent marker on the inside of my forearm, where it stayed for the better part of a week (and in my mind for the better part of my life).

I’ve been a quote collector ever since.

From the comic to the profound, the simple to the complex, the sorrowful to the ecstatic, the inspiring to the stern, whenever I need consolation or encouragement, a clear-eyed perspective or a swift kick in the pants—which is often—quotes are what I turn to.

They’ve been tacked to the walls of every home I’ve made. I’ve written them down in my journals and kept them in files on my computer. I’ve scribbled them on the backs of ripped-open envelopes and drawn them across stretches of sand. They appear throughout all three of my previous books. They were a part of my weddings and my blessingways (the hippie/feminist version of baby showers).

I read the words of others at my mother’s memorial service and had her own words—I’m always with you—etched on her gravestone. I’ve offered quotes as tokens of my affection to lovers and friends in good times and bad.

It was a quote of my own making—I am not afraid—that carried me through my 1,100-mile hike on the Pacific Crest Trail when I was 26 and a quote from my mother—Put yourself in the way of beauty—that motivated me to take the journey in the first place.

A few years later, as I began in earnest to write my first book, I was driven on by my daily reading of the quotes by Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty that I wrote on the chalkboard that sat near my desk.

As I labored for more than 40 hours while birthing my first child, Ram Dass’s advice to be here now was a life raft, and it has served me in a different way as I’ve watched my two children grow at what seems like lightning speed.

I think of quotes as mini instruction manuals for the soul. It’s my appreciation of their very usefulness that compelled me to put together this book. Not because I believe in my own sagacity but because I believe in the power of words to help us reset our intentions, clarify our thoughts, and create a counternarrative to the voice of doubt many of us have murmuring in our heads—the one that says You can’t, you won’t, you shouldn’t have. Quotes, at their core, almost always shout Yes!

Brave Enough aims to be a book of yes.

When I made the selections included in the book—culled from the books and essays I’ve written and interviews and talks I’ve given—I remembered that when I first wrote or said them they were not “wisdoms” I wished to bestow upon others. In fact, I never imagined they’d be interpreted as wisdoms at all.

Most of the quotes included in Brave Enough feel to me more like conversations I was having with myself that turned out to be conversations other people were apparently having with themselves, too. For every quote in the book imploring you to accept and forgive and be brave (enough), to be kind and grateful and honest, to be generous and bold, I’m imploring myself to do the same.

In other words, I’m not trying to be the boss of you. I’m attempting to be a better boss of me. These quotes are who I am, yes, but they’re also who I’m trying to be—a person I fall short of being on a rather regular basis. If you don’t believe me, ask my husband. He was once so struck by something I said to him in the course of an argument that he immediately wrote it on a scrap of paper and stuck it to our refrigerator, where it stayed for nearly a decade. The quote? I’m going to be mad at you for the rest of my life.

Except I’m pretty sure I said it in ALL CAPS. With an exclamation point!

So you see, I’m very much still a work in progress. Which is exactly what I’ve known all along—in spite of the tweets, posts, tattoos, quilts, coffee mugs and greeting cards, posters, and needlepoint pillows with my quotes that have cropped up over the past few years. Each time I see words of mine taken up in this way I’m flattered, but surprised.

I’m also reminded of how those words no longer belong only to me; how, when we identify with what another has said or written, we use those words as an articulation of our own inner voices, not only as a celebration of theirs.

Winston Churchill was encouraging his countrymen to endure the profound hardships and terrifying uncertainties of World War II when he said, “Never give in,” but in the seven-plus decades since he uttered those words, countless people have applied that simple but powerful phrase to inspire them to push through their own struggles, large and small, humble and inane (and, OK, in my case, hiking-related).

At my book signings it’s become a common request that I inscribe copies of Tiny Beautiful Things with variations on my “Write like a motherfucker” quote. Engineer like a motherfucker, I’ve written. Mother like a motherfucker. Teach like a motherfucker. Doctor like a motherfucker. And my favorite of all: Do everything like a motherfucker.

Which was always, of course, the point.

The best quotes don’t speak to one particular truth, but rather to universal truths that resonate—across time, culture, gender, generation, and situation—in our own hearts and minds. They guide, motivate, validate, challenge, and comfort us in our own lives. They reiterate what we’ve figured out and remind us how much there is yet to learn.

Pithily and succinctly, they lift us momentarily out of the confused and conflicted human muddle. Most of all, they tell us we’re not alone. Their existence is proof that others have questioned, grappled with, and come to know the same truths we question and grapple with, too.

I hope Brave Enough serves that purpose for you. Read it like a motherfucker.

Brave Enough is now available for purchase.

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