If you’re interested in the creative process of a famed author, jumpstarting your own creation, note taking, list making, or simply handling hard emotions, there’s no better person to talk to than Cheryl Strayed.
Strayed is author of the #1 New York Times bestselling memoir Wild, the New York Times bestsellers Tiny Beautiful Things and Brave Enough, and the novel Torch. Her books have been translated into 40 languages. Wild was chosen by Oprah Winfrey as her inaugural selection for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 and was made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern. Strayed is also the cohost, along with Steve Almond, of the WBUR podcast Dear Sugar Radio, which originated with her popular Dear Sugar advice column.
Tim Ferriss spoke with Strayed in front of a 2,000-plus-person crowd at the 2017 SXSW conference in Austin, Texas, for an episode of his podcast, the Tim Ferriss Show. Below is an excerpt of their conversation, edited by Outside.
What does your writing routine look like?
I’m a binge writer. I do best when I can say, This is the block of time that I’m not going to be able to write. Sometimes that’s a couple of days, sometimes that’s a couple of months. And I release myself from any kind of guilt or shame, or I should be writing when I’m not writing. The counterpoint to that is to say, Now I am going to write on these days, or during these months. And I try to arrange my life so that happens. It’s not so much a daily practice as it is looking at the month and saying, When can I write and when am I not going to write?
Once my kids were around two, I said to my husband, “I’m going to go check into a hotel down the street for two nights. I’m going to be gone for 48 hours. Don’t call me unless somebody stops breathing. I’m going to work.” And I would get more work done in those 48 hours than I got done in four weeks at home.”
What are some of the mechanisms, tricks, or habits that you use when you’re struggling with your writing?
One of the lessons I learned is that it’s always hard for me to begin. And I don’t mean just the first line of a chapter or piece, which is always hard, but even like when you’ve been in that flow and then you take that break, you’ve finished that section and then you have to begin the next one.
I get almost like this performance anxiety—what’s the first thing I’m going to say when I step into the room? You know what you have to say, but how do you get to the part where you get to just say what you have to say?
In writing, what I do is I take a shortcut. If I don’t have that first line or that first paragraph, I just write the part that I know. That might mean it’s kind of sloppy, that I have to start writing something that’s a third of the way into the piece—a scene that I’ve already imagined is going to be in there, or a paragraph, a description of something. And what I find is once I start writing, I relax. And then of course I can go back and make that beginning.
How do you work through potentially wild or destructive emotions that come from pouring your heart out on paper? Is doing that cathartic or does it reinforces the pain that you’re feeling?
I think that there are basically two kinds of people. There are those who think talking about difficult experiences or painful memories is a bad thing, because it brings up those feelings again. Then there’s the camp that is like, Let’s dig it all up, because that’s the only way to ever understand what happened or make some meaning of the suffering is to examine it and tell stories about it.
I’m definitely in the latter camp. Did I sometimes cry writing Wild? Yeah, I would say probably every day. And was that good for me or bad for me? It was really good for me.
There is no question that I would say the most cathartic thing in my life, right alongside motherhood, has been writing. It is through writing that I have to come to understand who I am and what I’ve been through. That’s really been an emotional journey, and one that I’m better for having taken.
What are the books you’ve read in your life that have had the biggest impact on you?
So many books. I think I wrote in Wild that books are my religion. And what I mean by that is that I do think that there are all kinds of ways that I get spiritual solace, or a sense of connectedness with others, or a sense of comfort or consolation. But books have been the main one. And the first book that comes to mind is Dalton Trumbo’s novel Johnny Got His Gun.
I came upon it when I was about 14. It was a book written in the 1930s and it was about a reality that was so far from my own. And yet as a teenager, I really could feel the power of inhabiting the life of another human. And I do think that all kinds of art gives us that ability to inhabit another human’s experience, but none do it as well as books.
We get to be inside the mind of that young woman who is hiking the Pacific Crest Trail when she’s 26, or the man who is in the midst of a divorce. Whatever that situation is, we get to be in it. And so I do think that books have the power to not only remind us of our own humanity but the humanity of others, too. That for me is a spiritual experience. That is what divinity is. That is what God is to me.