Wild Author Cheryl Strayed Found Success with a Simple Mantra: Write Like a Motherfucker

Categories: Q&A

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In "The Love of My Life," her 2002 essay for literary journal The Sun, Cheryl Strayed is the 22-year-old woman who fell to her knees after seeing her mother dead in a hospital bed, then pressed those same bruised knees into a strange man a week later, unbeknownst to her devoted husband. She is the woman who numbed her grief with heroin and infidelity, then decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail alone, a three-month journey for which she was sorely unprepared.

That essay laid the foundation for Wild, her 2012 novel about the journey. Strayed is an honest narrator, and we experience the emotional gut punches (the scene where Strayed calls out after a red fox, whispering, "Mom.") and physical changes (toenails falling off, hips chafing) along with her. This is not Eat, Pray, Love, as some have lazily compared. Strayed is not pining for some Italian beefcake while she eats gelato in a sunbeam. She is in the dirt; her oversized backpack, affectionately called "Monster," is a symbol of the burden she must carry, and ultimately shed.

And yet, she tells us these intimate things not so we will feel sorry for her, or invite judgement, but to lay out grief as a universal right. It's that same honest tone that drew readers to Dear Sugar, her anonymous advice column for literary website the Rumpus, where "Write like a motherfucker" became a mantra.

It's what made Oprah Winfrey call Strayed personally, to tell her she was reviving her influential book club for Wild. (She also got to hug Oprah in the forest.) Reese Witherspoon recently optioned the rights, and will star as Strayed in the movie version, directed by The Kids Are All Right's Lisa Cholodenko.

"I am 44, and I have been writing a long time," Strayed says. "I've done it like a motherfucker, and what came was this whirlwind. And it's been stunning. Now there will be a movie, and there's a disconnect. How can that be? I could tell Reese knew the book, and could understand where I was at that time in my life. I trust her to do it well."

Strayed will be at the Dallas Museum of Art tomorrow, April 9, reading from Wild and her Dear Sugar collection, Tiny Beautiful Things at 7:30 p.m. The event is sold out, but there will be overflow seating. I called Strayed to talk about the new book, her thoughts on where we are today and what it means to "write like a motherfucker." Here's what she had to say.

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