Portland writer Cheryl Strayed is a busy woman these days. Between tours for Wild, the best-selling memoir about her 1,100-mile journey on the Pacific Crest Trail, lending a hand in the production of its film adaptation starring Reese Witherspoon, and the release of her latest collection: Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, she barely has time to do her own hair.
Despite the hubbub, Strayed stopped by OPB recently to talk with Think Out Loud and to dish with Arts & Life about why she loves Portland and her strategies for balancing the writing life with every life.
Rose Hansen: Are you leaving Portland? I heard a rumor you were moving to LA.
Cheryl Strayed: I’m totally staying here! That’s so funny. No, no, no. Are you kidding me? I would never, ever do that. First of all, I think Portland is such a vibrant city in the arts and the environment and the food culture and all aspects of really the culture. I feel like I’m among my tribe here. And I love the weather. I don’t mind the rain. I grew up in Minnesota! It could be forty below! Who cares if it’s drizzling? It’s just gorgeous. But I do think that there’s something… I love how happening the lit culture is here. There’s always a reading to go to or a storytelling event. [For example] Back Fence PDX. I just love that, and I feel like it feeds my writing life. Me going out and hearing other writers do what they do is totally inspiring.
Rose Hansen: I read in an interview with you that you don’t really need a special place to write.
Cheryl Strayed: Some people are like, ‘I can only work in my office from 6-10,’ or whatever. As long as I’m alone, I’m fine. My main number one place that I love to go is McMenamins, Edgefield. That’s my place where I always went when I was writing Wild. I’d check into a room and just hole up there, and it’d be like 48 hours of working. And then I also did a writing session at the Mark Spencer Hotel downtown. And I also checked in one time to the Courtyard Marriot or something by the Convention Center like a mile from my house… I would just need that concentration where nobody’s interrupting me or needing dinner or needing to have books read to them or whatever. I could just work.
Rose Hansen: Where do you buy books?
Cheryl Strayed: I kind of live equidistant between Broadway Books and Powell’s Hawthorne and Powell’s downtown. Those are my three that I go to. And I also try to get over to Annie Bloom’s. I really try to spread out my book buying because those are great bookstores and it’s really important to support them and love them. There’s nothing like poking around a little store.
Rose Hansen: When you were starting to write, who were you reading?
Cheryl Strayed: When I was really starting to take writing very seriously in my early 20s and really learning, Alice Munro was my absolute biggest influence. Mary Gaitskill, another really important person to me. Raymond Carver. My son is named Carver after Raymond Carver. Toni Morrison. Her novels totally blew me away. I still read all those people. It’s just ever broadening. When I was in my 20s, I was reading a lot of Best American Essays and Best American Short Stories, but also reading from the canon. People who were a generation before me. And now a lot of times what I’m reading is that stuff but also all the books my friends are writing. Right this minute? I’m reading a memoir by Emily Rapp that’s going to be out next year.
Rose Hansen: You have a Master of Fine Arts in fiction from Syracuse. What are your thoughts on MFA programs?
Cheryl Strayed: I think that an MFA can be the exact perfect right thing to do at a point in a writer’s life. And I think it can also be the wrong thing. There’s a thing where some people are like, ‘Don’t get an MFA!’ or ‘Do get an MFA!’ And I’m like, ‘How would you ever try to apply one thing in a general way like that? It totally depends on the person.’ I can speak from my own experience, and that is getting my MFA was really important to me because it allowed me time to really focus on my writing and to take my writing to a deeper level that would have been a lot harder to do completely on my own. An MFA program gives you a reason and it gives you permission to go new places in your writing and spend some time focusing on it. It sort of legitimizes your writing.
Rose Hansen: To say you’re a writer without blushing.
Cheryl Strayed: Exactly.
Rose Hansen: Was your first novel, Torch, your thesis?
Cheryl Strayed: Yeah.
Rose Hansen: You do a lot of code-shifting between genres now. What’s that like?
Cheryl Strayed: It’s interesting. Now I have a novel, a memoir, and then this essay collection that is… how do you classify the Dear Sugar book? Maybe in the self-help genre because it’s advice. Which I never thought I would be! I mean, come on. Me? But I think it’s really fun. It keeps me really interested in the work, doing different things. The next projects I have on the burner, one is nonfiction and one is a novel. I think that some people maybe assume that now I’ll leave fiction behind, but I love fiction. It’s my first love. I know I’ll write more novels. That’s no question.
Rose Hansen: What’s your advice for balancing life with kids and writing a book?
Cheryl Strayed: It’s really hard. You’re not going to get that pristine moment of, ‘Oh, it’s Tuesday! That’s my writing day!’ because somebody’s always going to get the flu. So learn how to juggle. Learn how to stay up late working. And also learn how to take some things for yourself. I made those conscious choices to say, ‘I’m going to check into a hotel for two nights.’ Because what I know about being a mom is that if you’re in the house, even if you’re away in that room, if somebody’s screaming, you’re going to open the door and walk down the hall and see what’s going on even if my husband’s there to take care of it, right? But if I’m in Edgefield, I can’t walk down the hall. Or if I walk down the hall, it’s only to get a glass of chardonnay. And so I took that for myself. I took those 48 hours and I worked like crazy. When I did get the time, I used it. And I think a lot of mothers, when I’d say, ‘Yeah, I checked into a hotel for two nights,’ They’re like, ‘Wow!’ Like that never occurred to them. And it’s because we’re so used to, as mothers, saying no to ourselves so that we meet everyone else’s needs. But trust me, leaving for 48 hours? It was nothing to my husband and kids. And it was everything to me.