Cheryl Strayed jokes that she was a bit of a “crazy person” when she accepted the job as the unpaid, anonymous, advice columnist for The Rumpus, but it paid off. The Dear Sugar column eventually became her book Tiny Beautiful Things, which was adapted for the stage by Nia Vardalos and directed by Thomas Kail at the Public Theater in New York in 2016.
“When we were rehearsing the play, Nia includes this part from one of the columns where I say, ‘It pays nothing,’ and there was this point in the rehearsal where it was revealed to me that all the actors thought that what I said was a metaphor, like, it pays next to nothing,” Strayed explains. “And I was like, ‘No, no, it pays nothing.’ It really was zero.”
The book has been a huge success for Strayed, and the Public Theater is bringing back the play, which completely sold out its first run, in the fall. Strayed also uses the word “crazy” to describe putting up a play, as she was involved with the process at the Public.
“The thing that is the most astonishing to me, especially having such an inside front row seat to the making of a play, I just can’t believe that those actors have to do that over and over,” she says. “At least when I’ve written something, it’s on the page! It doesn’t change.”
Strayed is the keynote speaker at Theatre Communications Group’s national conference in Portland, Ore., where she will be addressing attendees on Thursday night, and American Theatre caught up with the author to talk about advice for artists and the importance of valuing art.
What are you planning to speak about at the TCG conference?
One of the main things that I wanted to talk about is essentially the power of stories and the power of telling stories. I do it as a writer, folks in the theatre world do it onstage. And I just think that now, more than ever, we see the difference between somebody shouting their ideas about something versus telling their experience and their story. I want to hit on the importance of really honoring the arts and creativity as central rather than peripheral to the betterment of our society and culture. I think I’ll share a bit of my own journey, not just as a human but really as an artist in the world.
One of the most powerful experiences I’ve had since [my memoir] Wild came out five years ago is not that I got to have my story in the world, but that there has been a deep exchange. People don’t come to talk to me about my story, they tell me theirs. And I want to talk about that too. I do think that sometimes we forget that. When you think of a book, a writer who’s written it is giving it to the reader, a performance is being given to an audience who receives it. But what we forget is the most powerful part of creativity and art-making, and that is what happens when it’s received and received deeply. Lives are changed and bridges are built.
Was theatre something that was important to you on your journey as an artist? Did you get to see any shows growing up that were really formative for you?
I was actually not given many opportunities to go to the theatre. I grew up poor, and I also grew up in rural Minnesota for all of my teen years and so there wasn’t that opportunity. But there was a program—it was kind of a reach out to rural America art program that probably has been cancelled now. It was subsidized in some way. The townspeople of all ages could pay some small modesty, and you would be taken down in a school bus to Minneapolis. We went to the Guthrie Theater, and we saw The Seagull, and I had never experienced anything like it before. I was beside myself with amazement—the play, the words, the performance, the atmosphere. That was my first real play, and it stayed with me deeply. As soon as I went to college—I went to college in St. Paul—and the Guthrie Theater used to have a program where you could get a seat for $5 if you went rush. One of the first things I saw as a 17-year-old college freshman was The Gospel at Colonus, which was quite a thing to see. I didn’t even understand what I was seeing. It was amazing. It took me years to process everything I’d seen. So I started going to theatre then.
Your book Wild, about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail after your mom passed away, was adapted into a film starring Reese Witherspoon. Was it different for you to have your book adapted for the stage than for the screen?
It is. Theatre’s a more alive thing. You can only see it if you’re in the room. Obviously, you can watch a recording of a play, but whatever happens is happening in the room, and that’s a beautiful, high-wire, intimate experience that you just don’t get with either movies or books.
Tommy Kail always says to me, “It’s like you have to bake a cake every night.” You never know how the cake is going to turn out, and it will turn out differently based on the smallest measurements and variations of temperature. He was right! Just to bring that same mark of excellence and have to do it over and over again is astounding to me.
Will you be involved in the remount of Tiny Beautiful Things at the Public?
Yeah, indeed I will.
Do you think you’ll ever write specifically for the theatre?
Yeah, I actually have thought about that. It’s interesting because I think it’s always intimidating when it’s just an idea. Like, well I don’t know that world. But I had the same experience with the movie. Once I was part of it, I was like, “Oh okay, this is how it’s done.” And obviously I know how to tell stories. There’s a different way to write a movie script versus a play script versus a book. But being involved with each of those things has given me a kind of apprenticeship to see how that process is. Both of those forms are so much more collaborative than writing, which I frankly love about writing. It’s just up to me! But it’s also super cool to see what an actor does with a sentence or somebody who does the set design. What’s the world they imagine for the book? So that was fascinating. And it did make me feel like, “Gosh, maybe some day I’ll write a play.” I think that would be really fun. I’ve actually put some thought to it. I’m too busy to do it right now, I can’t commit. But I really have some ideas about what I’d love to do.
Well, maybe you’ll meet some great theatre people at the conference who can help you out.
Exactly! That’s been the cool thing too, to get to know the people at the Public, like [artistic director] Oskar Eustis. I love him. He’s an absolute genius and an American treasure. I know I’m not alone in thinking that. He’s been incredibly loving and welcoming and nurturing to me personally. He believed in Tiny Beautiful Things. He read it as a book way back before it was going to be a play, and he really nurtured all of us in the making of the play.
A big discussion in the theatre community right now is fair wage and compensation for work as an artist, and when you started writing Dear Sugar for The Rumpus, it was an unpaid, anonymous position. Why did you take the job and would you recommend a similar path for an artist starting out today?
Why did I do it? I did it because I wanted to, and that’s what it really comes down to. Even though I tried to tell myself not to do it because all the reasonable arguments pointed in the direction of not doing it, the biggest argument was that there was something inside of me, some gut feeling, that this could be a really interesting endeavor for me as a writer. So when you asked, would I tell other people to do that? I think that under those conditions, yes—if you really want to. I don’t believe in do it for free and you’ll get exposure. No. That doesn’t usually turn out so well. I didn’t say yes because I thought the column would become some hit column and then therefore it would lead to good things for me professionally. What I thought is it sounded really fun. It sounded really hard and really interesting.
When I said yes to the Dear Sugar column, I had just finished the first full draft of Wild and so I was about to begin doing revisions. So I was still doing deep, deep work on Wild, but I was also ready for something new. And I loved it. It was a moment in my life where I just felt like yes was the right answer. I don’t think there’s any hard and fast rule. I generally say you should be paid for your work, and I think artists get completely abused in this regard all the time and that makes me furious. I’m still asked to do stuff for free. And sometimes you do decide to do things for free, but you have to decide on your own terms. Is it a cause you believe in? Do you feel like it would be a fun thing to do? Do you want to do it? Does it give you something too besides money? And I think those are important things to ask. Usually, it’s just somebody trying to rip you off.
I listened to Roxane Gay on the podcast Bad With Money, and it was fascinating to me how many people were still asking her to do things for free. It amazes me that people still ask you to do things for free.
Sadly, that’s how the literary world is. We have a hard time valuing artists. I think a lot of times in the lit world, it’s not that people are trying to disrespect the writer. It’s that they literally have no money. Well then, maybe you can’t make that thing because you wouldn’t ask another professional to do it for free. What really gets me is I get requests from major corporations and companies. I do a lot of paid speaking for those groups. I had a request a couple months back from a company here in Oregon. They were having this corporate retreat for the weekend, and I couldn’t believe they asked me with a straight face. They wanted me to come be their amusing storyteller for the weekend, and in exchange they were going to give me a free hotel room for the weekend. And I was like, “Excuse me? No, I’m not coming to your corporate retreat and being the entertainment in exchange for a hotel room. I can pay for my own hotel room.” And they wouldn’t ask somebody in a different profession. They’re not trying to be assholes. We just think that artists are whimsical people who run around and love to amuse people.
What’s the best piece of advice you received about being a writer and an artist?
One of the things that I’ve heard over and over from any writer who was a really good teacher or mentor to me is that the writing comes first. That is my best advice for people. And I don’t mean first in your life. I mean above and beyond marketing yourself or doing publicity or finding the right agent at the right writers conference or party. I think it’s really important to make connections with people and find your tribe and all that stuff, but for me, it always began with working on my writing. I find that a lot of people that want to be published are so focused on getting published. And I’m always like, “Well, have you written something worth publishing?” I always say to people—and nobody wants to hear this when I teach—you have to apprentice yourself to the craft. You have to first really do that work and then worry about sending it out to this or that editor or website or magazine or publishing house. The work is the hardest thing to do. And when you do the work—and I’m not saying it’s not hard to get published—but honestly when you do the work, getting published is a whole lot easier because you’ve got something that’s really well-developed and well-crafted.
I feel like the same thing happens in theatre, where playwrights want their play produced before they’ve really finished it.
Finish your play, and put it through a rigorous process. Is it really as good as it can possibly be at this moment in time? And then consider it. I get it. People want outside validation. It’s really hard to sit alone in a room and feel like you’re okay when you don’t know. You’re writing this stuff, and you’re like, “Is it terrible? Is it good?” But you just have to trust that process, and it’s a humbling one for sure.
Why do you think it’s important to be an artist today in the world we live in right now?
It’s so important. I do think we’ve always needed our artists, and perhaps now we need them more than ever. If we had to write a job description for the artists of the world it would be: Tell the truth about what it means to be human. And dig for that deepest truth of what it means to be human. And I think that’s necessary for our enlightenment, it’s necessary for our consolation. It serves as a means of both looking back on who we’ve been and looking ahead toward who we might be. I just think that’s a really incredibly powerful and central role in society.