“Am I a babe or a gargoyle?”: Finding the babe with Cheryl Strayed

On the eve of the Election, I headed back to the Herbst, this time to see a writer who has skyrocketed to my list of favorite authors in the past year, Cheryl Strayed. If you haven’t heard me trip over myself with excitement about Wild or Tiny Beautiful Things, suffice it to say that her writing taps into the universal with such specificity that I’ve been sure at times she was transcribing things from my own head, only more eloquently than my brain usually works.

photo by Brian Lindstrom

I was even a little nervous to see her in the flesh, scared it would break the shimmery sheen of my admiration for and identification with her. As my friend and I watched the theater fill with an oddly monocultural audience of middle-aged white ladies, I was irritated that they were here too, clutching their copies of Strayed’s memoir. I felt inappropriately possessive of a person that I don’t even know. I want to share Strayed’s work with everyone I meet, but somehow I still want to save her as specially mine.
Thus belies the intimacy of her work. She makes the reader feel that she’s telling your story along with hers, even as the specifics of her life are laid bare, uniquely her own. She makes no apologies for the mistakes she’s made in her life (destroying her first marriage, tiny heroin addiction, credit debt), but takes full responsibility for them, in a way that is refreshingly free of self-deprecation.
The first thing I noticed about Strayed in person is her confidence. She speaks about her work, which is extremely personal, in a relaxed way that lets everyone in the room know that this woman knows herself through and through. She said, “As a writer, you have to say who you are going to be, and you can’t be anyone else.” She stated that it is necessary for a writer to be determined, to have a “ferocity of intention and spirit.”
When I write with the kind of raw honesty that Strayed is known for, I feel an amazing vitality while writing it, but then I walk around in the world for at least a week feeling like all the skin on my body has been peeled off, and I’m laid bare, vulnerable. She seems wholly at peace with such public revelations. Maybe it’s practice. She said, “What I have to offer is sincerity. The more I risked sincerity, the greater my readership grew.”
I loved what she said about mothering toddlers: “All of my independence had been taken away by these beloved tyrants.” This is when she commenced writing Wild, the memoir about her transformative hike on the PCT. “I started to write about a time that I was independent, totally alone, and self-sufficient. Everything I needed was on my back.”  Lately, I have been compulsively writing about my adolescent years, a time when I was living only for myself, which was not a charming trait but is so far from my life now that returning to it just feels right.
My favorite part of the evening is when she asked this question: “Am I a babe or a gargoyle?”, naming it “the central mystery of my life”. She was recounting standing in a bar waiting to meet up with a “hunky” man she’d met on the trail, suddenly self-conscious and feeling it could go either way when he saw her — would he be struck by her beauty or her ugliness? Don’t we all feel this way a lot of the time? That in one light, our flaws only add to our appeal, and in another, they completely undermine it? Later in the discussion she took this out of the physical, relating it to the decision you have to make as a writer. What I believe she was trying to get at is that when you are boldly putting your life down on the page, you will encounter no end to doubt, but you have to, at some point, choose to be the babe.
Strayed is known for writing and talking candidly about money. She grew up in a home without electricity, indoor plumbing, or separate rooms. “Being poor teaches you not to wait around to have enough money to do something.” I completely and totally relate to this. Whenever I have truly wanted something, I have plunged ahead, even though I have almost never been able to fund those desires fully.
The greatest one that comes to mind is the decision to have a child. My husband was sure that we should wait until we were more established in our careers and could afford to support a kid. My take on it was, “That is never going to happen! No one in my family has ever had the money needed to feel a sense of stability. We can’t wait for a day that will probably never come. Love won’t wait!” So, we created Olive. And no, we don’t have “enough” money to feel in any small way secure. But, as Strayed points out, looking back on her time on the trail, when she had considerably less money than anyone else out there, “I did have enough money. Because I finished the hike.”
I think that is how Joel and I will look back on this time of Olive’s early years. Everything in us is always screaming, “We don’t have enough money to cover our needs!” But really, we do, because we’re doing it. What is missing is that feeling of a safety net, and as Strayed so aptly put it, “Growing up poor gave me this gift of feeling safe in the world with only a dollar in my pocket.” Struggle, particularly of the monetary kind, brings within you a sense of self-reliance and resilience that cannot be bought.
Strayed quoted Grace Paley in saying that she “writes so she can taste life twice”. That is certainly my intention in writing this post. My friend and I felt like the reading/discussion, which was only a little over an hour, went by much too fast. I wish my evening with Strayed stretched out over the long night of waiting for Election Day. I was awoken at 3 AM by my daughter crying, and have been unable to get back to bed. I’m writing this in a silent city, the hum of the refrigerator my only companion. I’m trying to hold on to the strength and inspiration that seeing and hearing Cheryl gave me, by sharing it with you. I’m hoping it will get us through this day, come what may.

2 thoughts on ““Am I a babe or a gargoyle?”: Finding the babe with Cheryl Strayed

  1. Thank you for sharing! I love her work and her sharing of the emotional/spiritual work she’s done. Love your writing and sharing about the experience of seeing her speak!

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