Over the last few months, I've shared "Top 10" lists from several authors on the topics of writing and success. This month I chose Cheryl Strayed, author of WILD (one of my favorite books), because she has so much practical wisdom to share about life. For years before WILD gained popularity, Strayed moonlighted as Rumpus advice columnist, Dear Sugar, answering questions about life and love, sex and marriage, about dysfunctional families and the importance of healthy boundaries.
Here are ten of my favorites gems from Cheryl Strayed on success, in life and in art:
1. Every book is inherently full of possibilities.
In WILD, Strayed recounts her 94 day journey on the Pacific Crest Trail where she pushed her body in an effort to heal her spirit. The trail was the thread that ran through the book and she built off that. Your book could be about war or mermaids or housewives but you will decide what goes in it, based on the lesson you want to impart or the "why" of your particular story. Be open to the possibilities.
2. "Success" is a subjective term.
As Sugar, she wrote, "You don’t have to get a job that makes others feel comfortable about what they perceive as your success. You don’t have to explain what you plan to do with your life. You don’t have to justify your education by demonstrating its financial rewards. You don’t have to maintain an impeccable credit score. Anyone who expects you to do any of those things has no sense of history or economics or science or the arts. You have to pay your own electric bill. You have to be kind. You have to give it all you’ve got. You have to find people who love you truly and love them back with the same truth. But that’s all.”
3. The world owes you nothing.
One of Cheryl's most famous quotes is, "You don’t have a right to the cards you believe you should have been dealt. You have an obligation to play the hell out of the ones you’re holding. There is no why for which cards you get. They just are. Earning a living, even in ways you find unpleasant, will give you faith in your own abilities." [Amen, sister!]
4. You can find peace in the "obliterated place."
In her Rumpus column, Dear Sugar spoke with a father who had lost his son to an impaired driver. She called that deep well of grief "the obliterated place."
"The obliterated place is equal parts destruction and creation. The obliterated place is pitch black and bright light. It is water and parched earth. It is mud and it is manna...The real work of deep grief is making a home there. That’s now your world, where everything you used to be is simultaneously erased and omnipresent." She said, "You go on by doing the best you can, you go on by being generous, you go on by being true, you go on by offering comfort to others who can’t go on, you go on by allowing the unbearable days to pass and allowing the pleasure in other days, you go on by finding a channel for your love and another for your rage."
5. Self-pity is a dead end road.
"Nobody's going to do your life for you. You have to do it yourself, whether you're rich or poor, out of money or raking it in, the beneficiary of ridiculous fortune or terrible injustice. And you have to do it no matter what is true. No matter what is hard. No matter what unjust, sad, sucky things have befallen you. Self-pity is a dead end road. You make the choice to drive down it. It's up to you to decide to stay parked there or to turn around and drive out."
6. How to get unstuck.
So many people, writers or not, feel stuck. Like they couldn't possibly move from the place they are now to where they want to be.
Strayed says, “This is how you get unstuck... You reach. Not so you can walk away from [what or who] you loved, but so you can live the life that is yours — the one that includes the loss...but is not arrested by it. The one that eventually leads you to a place in which you not only grieve, but also feel lucky to have had the privilege of loving. That place of true healing is a fierce place. It’s a giant place. It’s a place of monstrous beauty and endless dark and glimmering light. And you have to work really, really, really effing hard to get there, but you can do it.”
The person she gave that advice to had lost a child. Most losses are less than that - loss of hope, identity, dreams. We can move beyond them to the place where we don't feel stuck.
7. Be gentle with yourself.
Strayed believes, "You will not write well from a position of shame. You are creating something out of nothing. Be gentle with yourself while you create. Only when I'm gentle with myself can I actually let go and do the work." She must forgive herself for any lapses so she can get back to doing the work.
The only way to be a writer is simply to write, then write some more. Keep the faith that your work is meaningful and just WRITE. If you can only write one day a week, write your heart out that one day. Write as often as you can and never give up.
9. Writing teaches you resilience.
"You can only take each day as it comes," says Strayed. "Sometimes you fail and sometimes you succeed, and every day is different. Resilience means you come back to the page to chase the dream for one more day."
10. Embrace "Motherfuckitude."
In this interview, Strayed mentions "the Art of Motherfuckitude," and explains what that sentiment means to a writer. It all began with a Dear Sugar column, where so much of her wisdom first came to light.
She told a young twenty-six year old writer, "I thought a lot of the same things about myself that you do...That I was lazy and lame. That even though I had the story in me, I didn’t have it in me to see it to fruition, to actually get it out of my body and onto the page, to write, as you say, with 'intelligence and heart and lengthiness.' But I’d finally reached a point where the prospect of not writing a book was more awful than the one of writing a book that sucked."
Strayed sees the unifying theme of any writer's life is an intersection between resilience and faith.
"The unifying theme is being a warrior and a motherfucker. It is not fragility. It’s strength. It’s nerve. And “if your Nerve, deny you –,” as Emily Dickinson wrote, “go above your Nerve.” Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig. So write... Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker."
Strayed's Dear Sugar advice column was both painful and uplifting in its naked honesty. How do you bring that naked honesty to your writing? Which of these ten bits of wisdom resonates the most for you? Which ones do you struggle with?
By day, Jenny provides training and social media marketing for an accounting firm. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction and short stories. After 18+ years as a corporate software trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.