17 October 2012

Cheryl Strayed at the UO and My Intro for her Event

Sometimes life as a writer can't be topped. 

This past week, I was fortunate to be asked by Laura White from the University of Oregon Duckstore to introduce Cheryl Strayed at her event in Eugene last Wednesday night. I've known Cheryl since 2006 and, in an earlier post that you can read here, Cheryl gave me the courage to dig to the deepest part of my writer's heart. Once I was there, I was able to write another post, "The Day My Dad Died," that started a memoir.

So I have a lot to be thankful for.

Cheryl's event Wednesday night showed her ability to captivate an audience, swinging them from laughter to tears and back. She read from both books, her memoir Wild and a collection of her favorite Sugar columns, Tiny Beautiful Things

It's taken a week to post because I had one day after the event to prepare and pack for a week away from home: the weekend to attend Wordstock, Portland's brilliant book festival, and a week of writing at Colonyhouse with three of my posse. All I can say is, "I'm in heaven."

Me and best pal Jan Eliot

Jan talking with Cheryl
I decided to share the introduction I gave Wednesday night for three reasons: 1) to let you know that, even though the event sold out, the UO Library has a video recording of the evening, 2) I felt the intro would be encouraging to writers, and 3) readers will learn a few things about Cheryl that I'm pretty sure aren't out there on the internet.

A special thanks to Kirsten Steen for taking the photos and to Laura White who did, and always does, a superb job at organizing author events and does it with infectious enthusiasm.

(Bonus: If you read to the end, I give an inside detail about Cheryl's fashion for the evening.)

Introduction for Cheryl Strayed
UO Bookstore Event
7:00 pm, Oct. 10, 2012

When Laura asked me to introduced Cheryl, I thought, What an honor. And this will be easy.

An honor, yes. The easy part? Not so much. How do you introduce a literary rock star, especially Cheryl, who really needs no introduction?

Do I focus on the theme of grief, how Cheryl was a perfect example of the dual nature of grief where one wants to feel nothing because one feels too much. And what do you do to get past that? Or do I focus on her anonymous life as Sugar on The Rumpus, an unpaid gig, btw? How she used private stories to help others, showered her advice seekers with love, empathy, “honey buns” and “sweet peas?”

No, I didn’t need to tackle either of those because all you have to do is read Wild or Tiny Beautiful Things to immerse yourself in her overarching theme.

She’ll tell you this: “The unifying theme is resilience and faith. The unifying theme is being a warrior and a motherfucker. It’s not fragility. It’s strength. It’s nerve.”

Yes, that’s all there. But to me, her work, her life’s theme, is love. It takes strength and nerve to keep love as a theme. It takes resilience and faith to champion love. In her work, I see love as the motivation, conflict, struggle, journey, epiphany, and resolution, whether it’s love for a dead mom, love for herself, or love for those poor struggling, terrified, advice seekers.

So what do I say about Cheryl, especially now that she’s a literary super star and you know everything about her? When she’s in the phase of her life where she’s known as “Sugar,” “Oprah’s Pick,” or “a New York Times bestseller?” Amazing, the distance she’s traveled, both literally and figuratively.

In fact, when I met her in 2006 when she and a close friend of mine Randy Sue Coburn appeared at UO bookstore for a reading from their novels, approximately 25 people attended.

Oh, how some things have changed.

Many of you have probably followed Cheryl since Wild was published, what with the accompanying media blitz of articles, appearances, and interviews. The media has treated her as a literary darling and delved into the minutiae of her life as all celebrities are treated. We want to know what Cheryl eats for breakfast or how she copes with fame or, for example, what she packs around now. Is she still a Monster-carrying traveler in all her trips for promoting her books? We love our authors. We love our celebrities. We want to know them on a personal level.

Unfortunately, the media also likes to create buzz by sensationalizing stories. We are not naïve. We know they do this. But as writers we are sensitive to word choice, and that gave me my moment, the answer to how to introduce Cheryl.

Oh, yes, how some things have changed for her.

According to some media, Cheryl’s an “overnight sensation.” She’s also been referred to as “an unknown writer” who “came out of nowhere.”

Well, let’s clear this up right now. Many of you are UO students, some with dreams of becoming an author. Don’t fall for the idea that you can become an overnight sensation by being a writer. I know that our microwave culture sells us on the idea of now, fast, riches, fame, celebrity. But that isn’t the heart and soul of being a writer. We all come from a place where we seed ourselves in the soil of a literary community, grow with nourishment from other writers, and are tended by our families. We produce—a book, an essay, an article, a blog, a chapbook—and we keep steadily growing.

Cheryl recently posted about being referred to as a writer who “came out of nowhere”:
I bristle at this narrative not so much on my own behalf, but rather on behalf of the many writers I love, admire, respect and read. There is a strong and vibrant literary culture that exists and thrives in this nation and it does not exist in a place called nowhere, whether you know about it or not. It's the place where the writers work.
She may not bristle at this on her own behalf, but I do. Cheryl is sensational, but no overnight sensation. She’s never been an unknown writer. Just ask her lifelong friends, her writing group, her husband, Brian. The “nowhere” where she lives is a thriving little town called Portland.

The reality is, she started early and worked her tail off—or should I say toenails.

She didn’t just walk the Pacific Crest Trail, stop at a bridge, eat an ice cream cone, and write a book. She’s been on the long arduous, amazing, eye-opening, toe-bleeding writer’s trail since she was a kid.

As Cheryl says, her success is built on a million smaller successes. Cheryl began writing stories at age seven and never stopped. Her first real short story was called “Murder on the Midnight Express” and featured a talking parrot named Poncho.

She earned a Bachelor’s Degree in English and women’s studies from the U of Minnesota, and afterwards worked various jobs and wrote on the side. She earned her MFA in fiction writing at Syracuse University in 2002. In 2003 her short story “Good” was selected by Joyce Carol Oates for inclusion in The Best American Voices 2003. Her personal essays, “Heroin/e” and “The Love of My Life,” were both selected for inclusion in the prestigious Best American Essays collections in 2000 and 2003 respectively. Other short works were published in The Washington Post Magazine, Vogue, The Missouri Review, New York Times Magazine, Allure, and The Sun.

She won a Pushcart Prize for her essay “Munro Country.”

Her first novel Torch was published in 2006. That was the year I met Cheryl here at the UO bookstore.

Her unpaid career as Sugar, the anonymous Rumpus advice columnist, began in March 2010. Cheryl came out as Sugar this year on Valentine’s Day.

In June of this year, Wild was chosen as the inaugural selection for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. Reese Witherspoon optioned Wild for her company Pacific Standard. Lisa Cholodenko is slated to write and direct the film with Witherspoon to star.

On Sept. 17, Cheryl’s 44th birthday, she finally paid off her student loan debt.

Please welcome Cheryl Strayed.

If you've been patient (or cheated and skipped ahead), I'll tell you what Cheryl was wearing on her feet that night:
Black Harley Davidson boots. Yup. The girl keeps her edge.

And my favorite photo taken by Jan Eliot. How can I not love this.

Be brave! Stay adventurous!

Wordstock Fun
Where I Work: a photographic peek into my writing spaces
A Confession: What happened after my six readers responded to the Beta version of my novel