Cheryl Strayed Ponders Life after a Best-Selling Memoir

Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), March 14, 2015 | Go to article overview

Cheryl Strayed Ponders Life after a Best-Selling Memoir


Byline: Jessica Contrera The Washington Post

Cheryl Strayed ponders life after a best-selling memoir

WASHINGTON -- They had come to worship at the altar of Cheryl.

Cheryl, their mentor, their confidante, their "inspiration," they kept saying. "Just such an inspiration."

And here she was, on stage at National Geographic's headquarters in Washington Wednesday night, her name and her book cover projected onto a wall behind her: Cheryl Strayed, "Wild."

She is a woman who, in the midst of her flailing 20s (a divorce, her mother's death, a summer of heroin use), went on a grueling 94-day solo hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, and who, nearly 20 years later, as a mildly successful freelance writer, holed up in a borrowed cabin to pen a memoir about her trek of self-discovery.

The book became an Oprah-stickered best-seller. The best-seller became a movie starring Reese Witherspoon. "On my obituary, my own picture won't even be there," Strayed jokes to her audience. "It will be Reese Witherspoon."

"Wild" -- the book, the movie, and its collective fandom -- has become the woman. Now, Strayed, 46, must both accept and choose how this phenomenon will define her career going forward. If she wants, she could surely ride the wave of her best-seller for years to come. The tickets to this event sold out in 48 hours. The audience has come to see the woman whose story they know so intimately -- but they seem to love her because they see their own stories in hers: losing parents, surviving abuse, living through divorces, freeing themselves from addictions. In emails and letters, and at events such as these, they tell her how bizarre it is "how much they have in common."

"What's interesting is it's not so bizarre," Strayed tells the crowd. "We all essentially love the same way, we suffer the same way, we struggle the same way."

Heads nod all around the auditorium at this, as they do throughout the evening, whenever Strayed -- a blond, broad-shouldered woman with a serene smile and confident presence -- utters a piece of wisdom like this, or in fact pretty much any time she opens her mouth. Her fans gaze up at her, mouths slightly open. A moderator lobs gentle questions, and Strayed keeps the answers deeply personal and comforting.

"Tell me how the trail defined your sense of home," he asks, and Strayed delivers a five-minute response punctuated by hand gestures and eye contact.

"In finding a sense of home on the trail, it was like finding a sense of home in the world," she tells them. "When you make a home in the world, what you're really saying is you've made a home in your own bodies. That wherever you go, you are safe."

The crowd is nearly all women. The 20-somethings who followed Strayed's formerly anonymous advice column for the website the Rumpus, "Dear Sugar." The sixty-something book-clubbers who couldn't get enough of "Wild." Even a small number of superfans who read her debut novel, "Torch," from 2006.

There is a woman who says Strayed inspired her to enter a 10-mile run, years after quitting the military gave her an excuse to stop exercising. There is a woman who says Strayed inspired her to divorce her husband and accept that she is a gay.

Brushing off Strayed as a cog in the emotional beach-read industry would be ignoring the deep influence her work has had on these women, from small victories to entire life reversals. They have come to see if the real thing lives up to the inspiration in their minds. With every self-deprecating cuss word, every charming Witherspoon anecdote, every "You guys know what that's like, right?" Strayed affirms their trust.

She strongly feels that it's about time to scale back, though. …

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