Cheryl Strayed Shares Her Advice on How to Give Good Advice

I’m Alan Alda and this is Clear and Vivid, conversations about connecting and communicating.

Cheryl: I’m not telling a story from my own life to somebody who seeks advice because I think I’m so interesting and they should know about it. I tell them because I think that it can be really helpful to hear other people’s experiences and to understand that that they’re not alone. You’re not alone and I’m not going to judge you. I’m going to simply help expand the questions you’re asking me, maybe illuminate some ways forward.
Intro: Cheryl Strayed has written a best-selling memoir called “Wild” – which was made into a hit movie, and has written gripping novels, too. But what most made me want to talk with her on Clear + Vivid was an advice column she wrote online called “Dear Sugar.” It was turned into. A book with the title “Tiny Beautiful Things.” And I found each nugget of advice a tiny beautiful thing. For me it’s that rare book that you can’t just not put down, but when you finish it you want to give it to a friend. And you want it back.
I think Cheryl’s an extraordinary communicator.
Alan: 00:01 One of the things that I think is essential to good communication is being personal, not just downloading data at somebody. And you are extraordinary at being personal, you’ve taken being personal to Olympic levels. Where did you get that? How did you come upon that? How did you how did you find yourself so free to answer somebody’s letter where they express their pain and you don’t just talk about their pain, you talk about your own pain. I think that’s remarkably courageous and right on track for getting in touch with the person you’re writing to.
Cheryl: 00:44 Thank you. Thank you. That’s high praise I appreciate it. I think that the truest answer which is always the answer I want to give is that part of that is a character trait that came from the very beginning. When I was a kid I was always most curious about our intimate lives, I was always most curious about what people were really thinking and feeling and experiencing beneath the facade of what they showed to others. This got me in some trouble as a kid.
Alan: 01:21 How, how, how?
Cheryl: 01:36 Because I would ask people alarmingly personal questions, I still do. I just was never interested in just the regular things people said. I was always curious about the nature of love for example, that’s a big one. I would ask people if there were a couple over for example, I would corner one of them and say well, why do you really love your husband or why do you really love your wife?
Alan: 02:19 How did that go over with them? Did they really take the question seriously?
Cheryl: 02:24 What’s interesting is, and here again even as a kid I would see the response that that got which is a lot of people had never really thought about that. They’d never actually thought about why you love somebody. What are the sort of unexpressed forces that draws us to another person. I’ve always been curious about that. So I spent my life asking people to tell me their secrets and their innermost thoughts. When I was handed this gig, asked to write the Dear Sugar column all those years ago at the Rumpus, I thought finally, here I am, I get to really address this directly in the form of answering people’s letters.
Alan: 03:13 You answered letters to this advice column called Dear Sugar sounds like from thousands of people. Did you ever count up how many answers you gave?
Cheryl: 03:29 Now between the the column I wrote that’s collected in Tiny Beautiful Things and the podcast I have, the Dear Sugars Podcast, it really is in the thousands. Really, what’s more interesting is my inbox which has hundreds of thousands of letters from people. People still write to me you via the column even though I have not written the column for some for some years now, that column on the Rumpus. I think that it’s been a really fascinating thing for me to see. A lot of times people, obviously they want my advice, that’s why they’re writing to me. But really in writing the letter a lot of people have a very revelatory experience because, we talk about communication, so often we don’t get the opportunity to tell our stories. And in the form of the letter people have told me their story, usually their hardest story, their saddest story, their most bewildering story.
Alan: 04:27 And they know who they’re writing to, it’s occurring to me as we talk that possibly the idea in the back of their head that they’re talking to you who they know from what you’ve written, they know you as an experienced thoughtful feeling person who has suffered herself and they’re able to open up their minds to their own story to aspects of this story that they might not have considered before because they never had a listener like you. I wonder if that’s part of it because in the stories that you published, the letters asking for advice, there’s so much good writing. Not just literary writing but I mean thoughtful writing.
Alan: 05:19 Penetrating writing, in the people who are asking you for advice. That I think is perhaps a reflection of who they know they’re talking to. What do you think of that?
Cheryl: 05:35 I think that’s very true. Absolutely. It’s interesting you point that out because when I first started doing the column, it was 2010, I was asked to do the column and I said yes, I sort of thought of it as a fun light thing that I would do. I thought I could finally be kind of like snarky on the Internet because I’m so not that. I’m such a sincere, nerdy, geeky person in that regard and I thought I could be funny and sort of poke fun at people. What I realized pretty quickly is that’s never going to be what I do in response to sincere letters from people who are telling me their problems. I’m always going to take them seriously.
Cheryl: 06:20 I think what happened is, what I found in that exchange, the way to make people trust me and write to me the kinds of letters that you mentioned they wrote is that if I were going to share myself with them to. So if they were going to be vulnerable to me I had to be vulnerable to them. I’ve never asked anyone an intimate question, a personal question, a maybe inappropriate question that I haven’t been willing to answer myself. I think that that is really a powerful experience to have an exchange. That’s what communication is. It’s not just listening, it’s not just talking, it’s having an exchange.
Cheryl: 07:05 That’s absolutely what happened in the Dear Sugar column and in those letters in Tiny Beautiful Things is that I’m having an epistolary exchange, a very intimate one in a public space. I often think of it as like therapy in the town square.
Alan: 07:20 That’s where the whole town gets to benefit.
Cheryl: 07:23 Well that’s right. People gather around, what I hear over and over again about those columns is people will say, okay, here’s this letter. The first letter I read of yours it’s from a woman who had a miscarriage and I’m not a woman and I didn’t have a miscarriage and her problems are not my problems, but then I read it all the way to the end, read your response and I related to it. I hear that every day, that people find themselves relating to situations that don’t directly align up with who they are. I think that’s that’s the highest achievement of communication, right? It’s also what art strives for, is for us to see ourselves in people who appear to be very different from us.
Alan: 08:05 That’s what you contribute to this form, you don’t contribute to the form, you took the form of the advice column and transformed it into something that it had never been before. In a way, from what you just said it sounds like you weren’t aware you were going to do that because the typical elements of the advice column are a couple of bromides and a little wit thrown in. A couple of good jokes.
Cheryl: 08:29 Yeah.
Alan: 08:30 The person’s problem. You turned it into something very powerful. You have the emotional interaction of people the same as you find in a novel except it has the added advantage that you have this thrill of knowing this isn’t made up, this is real, this happened to you. One of the things that sticks in my mind is your story of how your father, I think your mother divorced your father when you were very young.
Cheryl: 09:06 Yeah.
Alan: 09:07 The idea that when a letter would come rarely and you and your siblings would say a letter from daddy a letter from daddy and the whole letter would be vile about your mother and nothing about you except how he was going to kidnap you and take you away from her. I clutched up when I read that. That’s a powerful story. Just like a novel is supposed to do, it brought me in touch with you through empathy. I was tuned in to another person and the life that they lived as children, as a child. It really had an effect on me.
Cheryl: 09:50 Thank you.
Alan: 09:50 There’s something about this interaction, what do you think. Tell me what you think of this. The idea that you’re not just writing a memoir- ish anecdote, you’re communicating with another person and I’m seeing something go between your head and his head or her head and back again to you. I’m hearing this conversation take place and I’m wrapped up in what’s happening to both of you. It’s almost like watching a play. Something added is an added element because you’re not just writing it to the ether, you’re writing it to this certain person. What do you think? You think that adds to the effect?
Cheryl: 10:33 Absolutely. It’s absolutely fascinating. I want to say I think that, like that story you point out when you just narrated it back to me, me being this little girl abandoned by her father who had been abusive when he’d been in my life and yet still I loved him and I wanted a father like we all do. The excitement of that letter and then the heartbreak of what was actually inside of that letter which was, as a deeper abandonment. When you just told that back to me my heart hurt. In some ways I think that when you say witnessing that exchange, my letter and the letter writer’s letter feels like watching a play.
Cheryl: 11:16 In some ways to me as the writer it feels that way too, that this is my, writing is my way of coming to terms with my own life. The letter writer writing to me comes to some terms with his or her own life via the letter and then the people witnessing that because that’s what you’re doing, you’re bearing witness to other people’s pain or other people’s questions or confusions. Almost always when we do that which is really a deep act of listening and receiving, we learn something new about ourselves.
Cheryl: 11:51 I think that what you’re pointing to is the stakes, there’s no question that the stakes are really high in the exchange I have in those letters because it’s really me and it’s really somebody who’s written to me.
Alan: 33:23 Do you think there’s a characteristic element to the advice you give? Maybe it’s those four words you mentioned before like kindness and that kind of thing. Does your advice tend to boil down to something that you could say is the hallmark of your advice?
Cheryl: 33:51 Yeah. I do think that there are some core values that get expressed over and over again. I think it comes from honestly the place from which I try to give advice. I try to position myself first of all as not the authority. I think that so often we think of advice givers as the sort of people who can wag their fingers at us and tell us what we’re doing wrong and what we should do and almost always I try to be very horizontal when it comes to my advice. I’ve been in these places too, I’ve made mistakes too, I’ve suffered too.
Cheryl: 34:33 That’s where those stories from my own life come from. I’m not telling a story from my own life to somebody who seeks advice because I think I’m so interesting and they should know about it. I tell them because I think that it can be really helpful to hear other people’s experiences and to understand that that they’re not alone. I think that’s one value. You’re not alone and I’m not going to judge you. I’m going to simply help expand the questions you’re asking me, maybe illuminate some ways forward.
Cheryl: 35:05 The other thing is this idea of unconditional positive regard, which I think is-
Alan: 35:10 Tell me about that. What is that? That sounds like a very fancy term. What does it mean?
Cheryl: 35:14 I’s a fancy term for a beautiful thing. So when I was in my late 20’s, I’m a writer so I had been a waitress for years supporting myself. I got to the point where I was just like, I understand why the French Revolution happened. I hated everyone who had the nerve to come in and order some food from me. I just thought I have to get out of this business. I was growing bitter. I saw an ad in the paper back when we had ads in the newspaper, remember that? I answered it. It was for a pregnancy prevention youth advocate, working with middle school girls in Portland, Oregon to help them with their self-esteem and to feel empowered so that they wouldn’t get pregnant before they graduated high school.
Cheryl: 36:04 I didn’t have any experience in this field, I’m not a social worker. But I applied for the job and got the job and I got to work with these middle school girls who were living in a very tough environments, all of them. One of the social workers I did work with told me we approach every girl with unconditional positive regard. What that means is to set judgment aside, to allow people to tell you the truth about their lives without deciding that you get to have an opinion about it, that you get to sort of condemn them for thinking this or doing that or wanting the other thing. Laying judgment aside. I think so many people when they’re listeners they’re always on guard. They’re always thinking do I agree with this or disagree with this? Do I think this is right or wrong? Do I approve or disapprove?
Cheryl: 37:02 What unconditional positive regard says is I am going to set those things aside and the way I feel about you is positive, unconditionally. I can’t love you unconditionally because I don’t know you but I can have a positive opinion about you unconditionally.
Alan: 37:21 I don’t know if you meant to but this is the answer to the question I asked, what’s at the heart, what’s the hallmark of your advice.
Cheryl: 37:29 That’s it. Unconditional positive regard. That’s what I was trying to answer. What happens then, and of course this doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions, I just don’t allow those things to be the thing that drives my response to another person, that I just try to really greet them where they are and set judgment aside and honor them in a way that is affirming rather than negative.
Alan: 37:59 So this sounds like it would work really well in any relationship, any kind of relationship but a couple, a parent and a child, a boss and an employee. Even calling 911.
Cheryl: 38:17 Yeah.
Alan: 38:17 Almost anything, a doctor and a patient and so on. Do you think so?
Cheryl: 38:21 I do. And honestly in my own life whenever I remember, honestly, when I just remember that phrase just saying that phrase unconditional positive regard, something lifts inside of me. I have more compassion for others and that’s been useful in my personal life with my kids and my husband. It’s also been useful to me from a cultural perspective right now where I do sometimes feel a kind of judgment and anger towards my fellow citizens.
It seems that one way to not get mad at your fellow citizens, or at anyone who doesn’t see things your way, is to see things from their point of view. But easier said than done. Cheryl seems good at it, and I’ll ask her how (she does) it plays out in the things she writes. She has some pretty interesting answers… when we come back.

MIDROLL
This is Clear + Vivid. Now back to my conversation with Cheryl Strayed.

Alan: 12:45 Is the advantage of getting into the other person’s perspective to have your empathy called into play and perhaps have your empathy even increased in its ability to see what the other person’s perspective is. That can give us real strength. For that reason, whenever I’m helping somebody communicate better, especially writing a piece of non-fiction, I always encourage them to think in every sentence, in fact in every part of every sentence about the experience of the person reading it. That may not work so well in novels but in something that’s non fiction, to be aware of how it’s being received, how your signal is being received seems extremely important.
Alan: 13:45 But you’re a really good person to ask about this because you write this kind of felt nonfiction but you also write novels. Do you think less about the person who’s reading it when you write a novel? Do you think more about the experience of exploring the characters and story?
Cheryl: 14:04 Yeah, I think those two things go together. When I was a younger writer and more interested in trying to kind of seem impressive, you know, you have to try harder to pull off these tricks. I wonder if this is true also in acting. When I was first writing I was trying so hard to imitate great writers I loved to show readers that like I know how to make a sentence that can do a somersault and to show off in that way. And sometimes what I learned is that actually serves as, I can show you my trick but it becomes a sort of barrier between me and the reader. Like the reader doesn’t actually feel what I hope they’ll feel or understand what I want them to understand.
Alan: 14:52 Yeah, I recognize that.
Cheryl: 14:55 You do, yes?
Alan: 14:58 In acting, you can impress with vocal tricks or think you’re impressing. But I think the progress of most actors is to find that when all is said and done, by the time they’re near death, they value the progress they’ve made toward utter simplicity.
Cheryl: 15:20 Yes.
Alan: 15:21 Not impressing people but entering into the life of the person they’re playing in a more full way, a feeling way rather than showing off.
Cheryl: 15:34 For me in writing what that is, I think about it as relaxing into who you actually are on the page, and allowing that expression to stand. I had this very interesting experience after … So, Wild is my memoir, that was my second book. After that was published, I was asked to record the audio book of my first book, it’s a novel called Torch. And I hadn’t by then read that book for a number of years. I’d written it and read it over and over again. You don’t sit around and read your own books or at least I don’t.
Cheryl: 16:09 So when I was asked to go into the studio to narrate Torch for the audio book, I got to have this intimate exchange again with my own words. I read them out loud. I could see my influences on the page. It still stood up to the test of time, I was still proud of the book but I could see where I was imitating Raymond Carver and Mary Gaitskill and Edna O’Brien. Like I could say that’s my scene that I was trying to be like so and so on the page.
Cheryl: 16:38 Then when I read Wild I could see that there was no place that I could point to on any page of that book that I was directly trying to imitate any other writer. That I had by then grown and developed and become me. I’d relaxed into who I was as a writer. I think that there’s a really interesting, when it comes to giving advice to people about their lives, so much of it does come down to that. The simplicity of telling the truth about who you are, the simplicity about expressing what you feel when you feel it as close to the time that you feel it is possible. The simplicity of expecting the basic things like love and respect and kindness from the people in our lives. Life is complicated but those things that I just said are actually quite simple. I think one of the challenges in life is getting to that place where you relax into the truest expression of yourself as possible.
Alan: 17:41 Yeah, and in thinking about talking with you today, I began to question … In thinking about talking with you today, I began to question the usability of my advice to always think about the reader. Because I was thinking on the stage, I don’t think about the audience when I’m acting. If I’m giving a talk and I’m looking right at them and I’m trying to explain how I see things, I watch them carefully, are they getting what I’m saying, are they with me, are they falling asleep. When I’m on the stage I’m concerned with what I’m getting from the other actor, how it affects me, how it changes me and makes me respond in different ways every time, every performance.
Alan: 18:44 My guess is that the novelist is in the similar position. There’s a kind of a long range view of what the audience is receiving, but not moment to moment because if it’s moment to moment you start faking. You start pulling out the tricks. I’ll make them feel this now, I’ll make them feel that now. Look how I look like the person. Whereas you look more like the person if you just stay within the four walls.
Cheryl: 19:14 Absolutely.
Alan: 19:15 Kind of four walls and novel writing too I guess.
Cheryl: 19:23 One of the things as Dear Sugar I often say is that you have to hold two seemingly opposing truths in the same hand because it is true-
Alan: 19:23 What do you mean by that? That’s interesting, what does that mean?
Cheryl: 19:36 What that means to me is, what I found as a writer is that I can only write to please myself. If I sit down and think, well, and I’m up against this right now. Having had a lot of success as a writer in recent years and now I’m writing that next book, and I cannot sit down thinking I have to please all those fans who loved my books, I have to write another book they’re going to love. If I do that it’s a disaster.
Cheryl: 20:03 So, I have to shut that out. I have to write what I think is the best thing to write. At the same time that I’m of course always thinking of the audience, I want to connect with them. And so I have to hold both things. I have to both exclude everyone from my mind when I’m writing and I have to have a consciousness that allows the fact that they’re always there, that the whole reason I’m writing is to connect with those people who are always there.
Alan: 20:35 I feel the same thing.
Cheryl: 20:37 Yeah, that’s it.
Alan: 20:39 Whether I’m acting on the stage in an auditorium or writing a screenplay that people will see months or years later, I’m involved in the world of the characters. But I also at some distance a hope that it’s going to land on the audience well. It’s very much like what you just said. Are you writing now something that’s fiction or nonfiction or some combination? How would you categorize it?
Cheryl: 21:12 I’m writing another memoir. It’s interesting I think that you have a couple of times noted a kind of different between a literary memoir and a novel, fiction. I find myself as a writer whether I’m, in Wild even though that was nonfiction I had to make myself a character. I had to do the exact same thing in that nonfiction book as I do in my novels where I have a fictional character who isn’t living among us. I have to do the same thing on the page when it comes to making that life come alive. That’s true in the Dear Sugar column as well. When I tell those stories about my life in trying to illuminate the problems of others, it still has to always, you have to bring it alive. And so this next book, I’m writing a memoir, I don’t know where I’m going or what I’m doing and I’m afraid, I’m really afraid and I resist doing it a lot but it’s also my calling so I’m doing it.
Alan: 22:19 How far along are you?
Cheryl: 22:21 Oh, I don’t know, somewhere in the middle which could mean anything, Alan. Somewhere in the middle.
Alan: 22:30 Did I hear from you or did I hear from Ann Patchett that a certain point in the book about seven eighths through the book you want to stop and go do something else?
Cheryl: 22:41 I think that was Ann Patchett. I only get to about five eighths through the book before I want to stop and go do something else. It’s funny the mystery of writing. It’s always that, right? Is there resistance so much in acting? Is that work also, does it make you feel like okay, let’s do something else instead of this? Do you find yourself resisting it when you were acting?
Alan: 23:13 No. Especially on the stage where, people would always say to me, don’t you get bored doing it eight times a week. Doing the same thing they would say. And the answer is I don’t do the same thing. If the performances are going well and the other actors are tuned into the value of spontaneity, you don’t do the same performance. You say the same words but they come out differently. I was doing a play once where there were just three of us on stage. It felt different every night. I asked one of the ushers finally, I said, “I think it’s different every night. Is it different?” She said, “Yeah, it’s completely different every night.” To me that’s like as if someone said to you would you like to dance and you say no, I’ve done that.
Cheryl: 24:12 Yeah. It’s interesting. There was a play made of Tiny Beautiful Things. Did you know that?
Alan: 24:17 No, I didn’t know that. How did they do that?
Cheryl: 24:21 It was directed by Thomas Kail who’s the director of Hamilton and adapted by Nia Vardalos who also starred in the play as Sugar, as me. It opened at the Public Theater a couple of years ago and had another run there just last year. Now it’s going to various theaters around the nation and the world.
Alan: 24:44 Who does the various letter writes? You have to have a cast of a thousand or what?
Cheryl: 24:51 No, there’s a cast of three letter writers who come on to stage and they narrate the letters and Nia, or the actor who plays Sugar, in this case it was Nia, does the Sugar parts which is amazing to me. I had that same question Alan that you said other people ask you. How do you do this over and over and over again. I saw the play so many times and I would just marvel these actors could say these same words. But you’re right, every time it was different.
Cheryl: 25:19 What I couldn’t figure out if I was different. Sometimes I would watch the play and weep. Other times I would be dry-eyed. Sometimes I would laugh at something and the next night I wouldn’t laugh at that line. It was a combination of the different moods and tones the actors were bringing to that moment, but also who I was in that moment seeing the same thing again.
Alan: 25:45 The audience brings something really palpable to it. I wrote and directed a movie that I took around the country to open it up. When we played the movie in Detroit it almost didn’t get a single laugh and it was a comedy. The next night I was in Dallas and the roof came off. I guess the the actors were little better that night but it was the same movie.
Cheryl: 26:15 Isn’t that funny. With the movie, it’s the exact same movie, right? It’s not the actors.
Alan: 26:20 The audience contributes. right, exactly. The audience’s contribution is important. You can tell that they’re reacting even if it’s not funny. I was in a play once where I was playing Richard Feynman and there was a long monologue about the creation of the atomic bomb and if the bomb went off in New York where the destruction would reach in Manhattan. 9/11 had just happened. When we opened in New York 9/11 had just happened. When we played in California a month earlier 9/11 hadn’t happened. But that was a powerful section and they were very quiet during that section. In New York they were even more quiet, it didn’t seem possible. The director came back and said, “You know why it’s quieter, they’re not breathing.” And you sense that reaction. It’s not just the laughter you sense. They’re one of the players in the play.
Cheryl: 27:22 Absolutely.
Alan: 27:23 So there is an awareness. That sounds contradictory to what we were saying earlier. There is an awareness of the audience but it seems to be not as direct as when you’re talking to them about something non-fictional.
Cheryl: 27:39 Yes. I think that there is, just when after I told you, the writing, when I’m writing nonfiction versus fiction I have to do the same things in terms of making a character alive on the page. You’re exactly right that there is a difference. When I am telling a story that I’m saying this really happened to me, not only do I need to do all kinds of fact checking and searching my memory and all of that to make sure that I’m being as accurate as possible. It’s also true that I need to be willing to stand in the light of that truth to say yeah, the person who did this or that or the other thing that you may disapprove of it’s not a character I invented, it’s me.
Cheryl: 28:19 That has consequences. That has real consequences. But it also has real power. We love true stories. Do you remember this magazine, this is going to reveal my kind of working class non-literary roots. I grew up poor and working class in Minnesota. It wasn’t around anyone who was like doing some some kind of acting or writing or anything like that. I was among working class people and didn’t have a whole lot of access to a wealth of good books. But what I did have is I would babysit at homes where the wife and mother subscribed to this magazine called True Stories, remember this magazine?
Alan: 29:05 Yeah.
Cheryl: 29:05 It’s a terrible trashy magazine from the 70’s. They’d have often kind of scandalous stories about people’s lives. I just read those things and absorbed those things. Again, this falls into line this first question you asked me. How did this become my life, this discussing people’s true stories. But I’ve always been moved by that, that kind of sense of like this really happened to me. I think it’s because we don’t get to protect ourselves when we know that that really happened to somebody. In a novel we can say, well, somebody made this up, it didn’t really happen. When somebody is telling us the truth, I think it just by very virtue of its truth has deeper meaning in our own lives.
Alan: 29:52 Are you writing all the time? When you were on the trail in Wild and you went through a tough experience, was part of your brains saying here’s how I can put this into a sentence?
Cheryl: 30:07 Part of my brain is always saying here’s how I can put this into a sentence. That’s how I think. I wasn’t thinking when I was hiking the PCT that I was going to write a book about it. Everything that happens to me in my life may sometime end up on the page. At the time when I was hiking the trail, the book I was writing in my head was Torch, my first book. I didn’t really think about writing about my hike until well after I had finished the trail. I didn’t begin writing that story for more than a decade after I finished my hike.
Alan: 30:43 A decade. So a decade later the details of the hike came back to you. I’ve written, what do you call it, memoir-ish a lot. It always astonishes me how the details come back for the first time and there’s some associative process that pulls them up. Once you get one you get others. That whole hike came back to you in detail?
Cheryl: 31:16 Yeah, that’s the thing people always worry about. Well, first of all I had kept a journal all through my 20’s and into my 30’s. My Pacific Crest Trail hike was documented in my journal. You’re right, this thing about writing a memoir is that you think you’re not going to remember something, you begin writing and portals in your brain open up. I’m sure this can be scientifically proven because it’s happened to me over and over again. When I teach writing this is the thing people always worry about. They say I can’t remember what I had for lunch yesterday so how am I going to remember what happened 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago. I always say trust me, just begin writing.
Cheryl: 32:02 One of the assignments that I actually give people is write what you don’t remember, which sounds crazy but Alan, if you sit down, if I gave you an assignment, write what you don’t remember about fill in the blank, what’s going to happen is you’re going to have pages and pages of things that you’re going to think you didn’t remember and then you remember them and you write about them by not remembering them.
Alan: 32:29 Thank God we don’t remember everything that ever happened to us until we need to.
Cheryl: 32:33 That’s true. But the thing I liken it to and this happens, everyone can relate to this, is this, when you say well, you run into an old friend from high school or something. You get to talking and he or she says to you, oh, you remember that time we did this or that or the other thing and you’re like not really. And then suddenly you do and you’re like oh yeah, and then we did that, remember that. Oh yeah, we did that. This is exactly the writing process. When you’re writing about your life, it’s simply that you haven’t tapped into that memory for a long time but it’s there.
Alan: 42:38 That’s a wonderful place to pause in our conversation. I hope I get a chance to talk more with you one day. This is this is as much as we can squeeze into this one podcast right now.
Alan: 43:05 Thank you. Do you mind doing the seven quick questions, seven quick answers to quick questions?
Cheryl: 43:11 I’d be happy to do them.
Alan: 43:15 First of all, what do you wish you really understood?
Cheryl: 43:23 What I wish I really understood. Since we’re talking about kindness so much, I do wish that I understood people who make conscious, happy, gleeful choice is not to be kind. Cruelty. I don’t understand cruelty, I don’t.
Alan: 43:43 Okay, here’s one. What do you wish other people understood about you?
Cheryl: 43:52 I wish that people understood that as much as I love to nurture and give and get out there and talk I’m really an extrovert, my secret self, the thing that’s true underneath my service is that I’m a hermit and I love to be left alone.
Alan: 44:12 What’s the strangest question anyone ever ask you?
Cheryl: 44:20 The strangest question. One of my book events when I was first promoting Wild I had talked about how I was hungering for food on the trail. During the Q&A an elderly gentleman stood up and asked me if I’d ever had sex in exchange for food.
Alan: 44:42 I think that’s the strangest question that anybody’s come up with do far on this show.
Cheryl: 44:47 I thought it was both the best and the worst question I’ve ever received. The answer by the way is no.
Alan: 44:51 Thank you.
Cheryl: 44:54 What about you Alan, have you ever had sex in exchange for food?
Alan: 44:58 That’s how I live. Here’s the next question thank God. What do you do, how do you stop a compulsive talker?
Cheryl: 45:14 This is a great practice. I think this is good for all of us to practice. Use your words, tell the truth. Say, oh, excuse me, I actually have to leave right now and it was nice talking to you, good bye. You actually just have to put an end to it.
Alan: 45:30 Yeah, good. Is there anyone you just can’t feel empathy for?
Cheryl: 45:38 I’ve never met that person. I will say that in this current political climate I have struggled with understanding some of the ways that people think about the world and about others in the world. So yeah, I’m grappling with that right now actually. It doesn’t have a face, a particular face. I’m thinking about people in categories and almost always when we do that we go wrong.
Alan: 46:08 Here’s question number six. How do you like to deliver bad news? In person, on the phone or by carrier pigeon?
Cheryl: 46:17 I would always choose the carrier pigeon when available but sadly I’ve never had that option available to me. It depends on the bad news. If it’s personal and it’s sad bad news I think it is good to be in person. If it’s like professional bad news, like, oh, I’m going to have to reschedule our appointment, email is totally sufficient.
Alan: 46:48 Last quick question. What if anything would make you end a friendship?
Cheryl: 46:57 I have ended friendships before and only in a couple of cases but always for the same reason and that is that it became truly apparent that that friend did not have my best interest in mind or heart. That this person was actually wanting to hurt me and harm me. When that becomes apparent and it becomes a kind of abusive relationship you do have to leave. You do have to let go.
Alan: 47:27 Well, I’m not letting go of you for any reason like that. It’s just that we’ve run out of time. Thank you so much, Cheryl. It’s been a really fun conversation.
Cheryl: 47:35 It’s lovely to talk to you, Alan. I’m such a huge fan of your life and your work and your mind and your books and your acting and your heart, so thank you so much.
Alan: 47:44 Well, that’s my line. Thank you. Bye bye.
Cheryl: 47:47 Bye.

This has been Clear + Vivid, at least I hope so.

My thanks the sponsors of this episode. All the income from the ads you hear go to the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University. Just by listening to this podcast, you’re contributing to the better communication of science. So, thank you.

Cheryl Strayed is the 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 book Wild was chosen by Oprah Winfrey as her first selection for Oprah’s Book Club and the Oscar-nominated movie adaptation of Wild stars Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl and Laura Dern as Cheryl’s mother, Bobbi.

Cheryl is the co-host of the New York Times/WBUR podcast Dear Sugars, which originated with her popular Dear Sugar advice column on The Rumpus, and she’s the co-author of The Sweet Spot advice column in the New York Times Thursday Styles section.

She’s a terrific writer and a wonderful woman to get to know.

This episode was produced by Graham Chedd with help from our associate producer, Sarah Chase. Our sound engineer is Dan Dzula, our Tech Guru is Allison Coston, our publicist is Sarah Hill.

You can subscribe to our podcast for free at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever you listen.

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Thanks for listening. Bye bye!