Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things and Wild are the kind of books that make one cry in public places, like in an aisle seat of an airplane, dried out and manically laughing at the absurdity of yourself and the fullness of life. And when Strayed came to Stanford on January 13th, her often-heartening words elicited a similar kind of reaction in the watery-eyed crowd of CEMEX auditorium. But her work is not altogether sentimental. Not everybody who reads her books is prone to empathetic bouts of sniveling. Besides, her words are far from sappy, they’re strapping, they’re with it, they’re vital, they’re brutal, they’re brave and they’re honest.
Vulnerability is a scary concept for a lot of people. Not so much for Strayed. When asked about her bravery in openly writing about her life she said, “There’s a big difference between saying the terrible things that happened to you and actually making meaning of those things and finding a universal truth in them and using them to build a bridge between me and you.” She made sure to distinguish between vulnerability and confession. Confession is not vulnerability; confession is more in the realm of selfishness. To be truly vulnerable, you have to be selfless. When getting this point across, among the other points she made the night of the 13th, she was frank and unassumingly charismatic. The “fan love” (for mania is too deprecating of a term for what people seem to genuinely feel for her and her words) that surrounds her stems from a kind of selflessness to be open about who she is. It’s the same brand of love young girls may feel for the likes of ‘down-to-earth’ actresses like Emma Stone and Jennifer Lawrence, except that Cheryl Strayed is the writer and mom version. Strayed received a couple of quirky gifts from the fans in the audience, a rainbow striped hula-hoop included. No airs for Strayed, just her head and her heart and in the case of living out Wild, an open trail.
We often look outside of ourselves in order to claim or reclaim our ‘true’ inner selves. Strayed did precisely this in her hike along the Pacific Crest Trail in the summer of ’95 and then she wrote a book that was the ultimate pronunciation of who she wanted to be along that trail and throughout the rest of her life; that book became the national bestseller Wild. Like Wild, Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things, a compilation of her former anonymous advice column, ‘Dear Sugar’, is about healing, about reclaiming your identity, the identity you’ve already filled out or the one you’re aspiring to. According to Strayed, it’s about realizing that you don’t have to ask permission when it comes to being who you want to be.
Strayed’s words, particularly those about the art of writing, surely inspired many an aspiring writer (as well as the non-writers) in the 600 person audience. She said of going beyond the creative comfort zone, “What are the mysteries of your life? We think that our job is to write what you know–but write what you don’t know.” The power of storytelling and the intimacy intrinsic to exchanging stories was the theme of the night and for Strayed, a master storyteller, going on stage and talking about intimacy was an act of intimacy in and of itself. After the event, Stanford student Kate Nelson (’17) said, “I felt like I was sitting across from her on a couch in her living room.” Strayed was a great speaker not because of her strong vocal presence or even her wide, unaffected smile, she was a great speaker because she was spontaneous in the telling of her stories, impulsive in her delivery of wisdom and instinctive in her interaction with the audience members. One could extrapolate from her intimate talk that she made each member of the audience feel as if they were sitting directly across the couch from her—or maybe as if they alone were sipping a couple of beers with Strayed on a front porch on a warm summer evening.
The conversation on that imagined porch would (and did in the case of CEMEX’s stage) include ideas of self-worth and self-validation, of love and intimacy, of grief and rehabilitation. The ideas she talked about on that auditorium stage would sit between you in the warm summer air.
Strayed would rock back and forth on the back legs of her chair and say, “The stories you tell yourself are the stories you end up living out.”
And you would maybe feel optimistic, hopeful.
She would say, “We have more in common than we think do.”
And you might feel connected, because that’s the main point of language anyway, to connect us to one another.
Cheryl Strayed knows how to use language, how to make you feel it. The talisman, the object imbued with meaning, is how Strayed connects to the reader and the audience member so concretely. Her advocacy for the talisman’s merit in writing was a matter echoed in her reading both from Tiny Beautiful Things and Wild. On qualifying the talismans abundant throughout her books, she said, “These are talismans, emotional hearts.”
Words for feelings, like happy or sad, are not always sufficient enough in expressing how we actually (mentally and bodily) feel. We feel things because they materialize within us, they are heavy or light or hard or soft. Strayed uses the material world, the observable, the touchable world to break the heart of the reader. She breaks it in a way that doesn’t leave us feeling empty, but in a way that makes us feel full. Our hearts are laid bare and open; our hearts are exposed, unprotected on our sleeves. There’s a kind of fullness in being vulnerable, especially when you understand and respect the vulnerabilities of others. This is what Strayed was getting at that night in CEMEX Auditorium. It is what she gets at in her writing, it is what she lives out in her interactions with others and it is how she tells a good, a powerful, an intimate story.
Photo Courtesy of The Stanford Storytelling Project; credit to Kate Nelson