After author Cheryl Strayed read an excerpt from her book “Tiny Beautiful Things” — a collection of her “Dear Sugar” advice columns — on Tuesday at Cemex Auditorium, the audience was silent and in tears. “Don’t cry, or else I’ll start crying too,” she exclaimed after she sat down. Despite the size of the crowd — the auditorium was packed full, and hundreds of people were turned away at the door — the intimacy she possesses as a writer and as a speaker drew everybody in. Strayed, perhaps best known for her memoir “Wild,” which was recently turned into a film starring Reese Witherspoon, was speaking at Stanford as part of the Stanford Storytelling Project’s author talks series.
Strayed spoke with such honesty and warmth that it felt as though she were an old friend, and we were simply catching up. It wasn’t long before Strayed had everyone laughing and then nodding in silent agreement. When she was talking about her experience reading the comments from her “Dear Sugar” column, she said, “I broke the cardinal rule of writers, which is never, ever, ever read the comments. But I would read the comments, and I got so much love, so many people saying, ‘Thank you.’ ”
Strayed discussed at length her experience as a writer, as well as her signature qualities of vulnerability and kindness, but it went beyond that. Her answers were less about who she was as a writer and more about who she was as a human. In describing her vulnerability, 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.” To her, artists and writers exhibit that type of vulnerability, but other people can learn to possess it, too. It wasn’t just advice for writers; it was advice for everyone.
That vulnerability, Strayed believes, came through when she was writing “Wild.” She said, “Memoir gets this bad rep of being this form of narcissism. Nothing can be further from the truth. I think, if you were a narcissist, I think you couldn’t write a good memoir, because the art of memoir is the art of really mining the self to tell a story that isn’t really about the self. It’s deciding to go really deep into the experience of the self for you to find that story about yourself.”
Strayed explained she tries to use her power as a writer to say something meaningful about the human condition. “I believe so much in the power of story. I do think it’s the thing that crosses culture, time, age, gender, and all those things. It’s really the thing that connects us,” Strayed said. She joked about locking everyone in the auditorium and getting everyone to write. After the event ended, I’m sure no one would have minded spending a few more minutes, or hours, with Strayed.
To learn more about the event, click here.
Contact Marty Semilla at msemilla ‘at’ stanford.edu.