A few years ago, working as a restaurant hostess, unsure about where I was going in life, I started reading Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of columns by Cheryl Strayed. I soon realized I needed to buy a highlighter. The book is full of advice written under Strayed’s pen name, “Sugar,” to individuals who are heartbroken, lost and confused. I would stand at the hostess stand during slow parts of the day and highlight quotes from her book that I knew I needed to remember. Before long, the book was completely marked up.
Strayed is best known for her New York Times bestseller Wild, a memoir about her experience walking the Pacific Crest Trail alone that was eventually made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon. However, her most remarkable pieces of writing can be found in her less-popular novels, essays and even speeches.
I had a chance to catch up with Strayed by phone this week to discuss her new book, the magic of inspirational quotes, and what she is working on these days. She was every bit as genuine as I imagined she would be — she broke up the interview to ask me questions about myself. Here's an edited version of our conversation:
Why did you choose to do a book of quotes?
It’s sort of a funny book, because it wasn’t my idea. It was my U.K. and U.S. publishers' ideas. They noticed that all of these people online were doing memes and quoting me and they were like, "Let’s gather it all together!" I was kind of hesitant about it, because it feels so weird for me to be like, "look at how wise I am, look at my quotes," but what I realized was that what people had already compiled was in the public space of the Internet, and so I was just gathering it all together.
I always knew how powerful books were in my own life and how much they offered me consolation, insight and enlightenment. I especially treasured those snippets that I would grab from books that were quotes and I would carry them with me into my life. So when my publishers asked me about making a collection of my own, I thought it would be kind of a cool way for those who were fans of my books to have everything and those quotes they made popular on the Internet all in one place.
How did you narrow it down and choose the quotes you included in Brave Enough?
It was interesting process, I first went and looked for the quotes people were highlighting on websites like Goodreads and Pinterest, and things people had tweeted to me. Then I had this big master document of quotes and I thought, "I don’t want too many on one subject more than another." My editors in the U.S. and U.K. weighed in. There are a lot of quotes about writing and being a writer and we decided not to have many of those in the book. We kind of tried to keep it geared towards a general audience. Obviously some are geared toward a specific situation or group, but most tend to apply across culture, age, gender and so forth.
You talk about that in the introduction, that the best quotes are those that are universal and can be interpreted.
Yeah, and it’s interesting because someone can say or write something, but when it really takes a meaning is when a reader takes meaning from it. For example, one of the quotes in Wild is “How wild it was to let it be,” and I’m so surprised to see what a popular quote that was. When I wrote it, I felt like it was a good last line to my book, but I didn’t realize people would grab that sentence and bring it into their own lives. Many people have tattoos of that, but what is fascinating about that is whatever that sentence means to them, is very specific to them. They take it and it becomes theirs. They apply it to their own lives. The book is about me, and my life, but when someone takes it and tattoos it on their arm, it is about their life — and that is pretty beautiful.
Why do you think those of us who live and breathe quotes, why do we love them so much?
I think they’re obviously a succinct expression of a sentiment we either already know, or we feel that we want to hold within us more clearly. It’s often said in a way I want to say it and it’s said in a way that is more powerful than I’m capable of saying myself. There is that kind of quote. Then there are the quotes that are just like, "That is so true. I need to remind myself of that truth because I forget that truth."
I wrote in my intro, one of the quotes that drove me forward was a quote by Winston Churchill that ran through my head, saying "never give in." Those are a few words I was saying to myself that actually did inspire me [to keep going on the trail]. I also think quotes can really illuminate in a deep, concise way, some of the most complicated questions about how we love and live and struggle. They offer all of those things, they are essentially wisdom, and we all need some wisdom in our life, right?
Why did you choose the quote “Ask better questions, sweet pea. The f’ck is your life. Answer it,” to be last?
The last quote was very intentionally placed, because, it’s saying that really, in the end, we can receive all of this wisdom and advice from other people, what they’ve done or what they think we should do, but in the end, we are all responsible for our lives and it is up to us to answer that call and to be the most evolved person you can be in this go around.
Do you think you’ll ever write a sequel to Wild, and what happened after your trek on the trail?
I do, but I don’t think it will be quite a sequel. I’m actually working on a memoir that, in part, covers those years. I feel like I’ll always write about the different life experiences I have. In some ways, Tiny Beautiful Things acts as a sequel because so many of the stories I tell in the columns are real things that happened in my life after the trail. I will write another memoir that will definitely cover those years of post-hike, but I wouldn’t put it neatly into a box calling it a ‘sequel.’
Can you tell me anything about the new HBO series that is based on Tiny Beautiful Things?
It’s in development right now, so we are at the early stages. My husband [Brian Lindstrom] and I are writing it together, which is exciting. It will follow the life of a family — a woman a lot like me, not me, but a 40-something Portlander and writer. She writes an advice column that gains a cult following and really, what I intend it to be is deeply emotional and it will build upon itself. It will explore the truth of who we are and what it means to be human, and through those characters, reveal some of the greatest and most interesting struggles of our age.
Cheryl Strayed will discuss her new book in a conversation with Theo Pauline Nestor at The Neptune in Seattle on Nov. 9.