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The Wild One

Cheryl Strayed lived on the edge, wrote it all down—and then Oprah came calling

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All of these moments, from the breakdown of Strayed's marriage under the strain of bone-drenching grief and subsequent cheating to having to shoot her mother's beloved horse, Lady, in a frozen field, are told with unflinching, eloquent honesty. It's a trademark of her writing, one that has earned her fierce fans, both under her own name and as Sugar, the Rumpus' astoundingly wise advice columnist who addresses letter writers as "Sweet Pea."

When asked how she's managed to cultivate what writer Steve Almond has called such "radical disclosure, radical honesty and radical empathy," Strayed says that while the question is a hard one to answer, in the end it all comes down to the act of writing.

"The writer's job is to be honest. You're really seeking that deeper level of truth and meaning," she explains. "When you do that, it's really hard to be judgmental of other people." It's this ability to embrace the beautiful mess that it is to be a human that makes Strayed's writing so affecting.

"I'm really just embracing complexity, what it means to be human, and inevitably that leads you, when you do that, to a very sincere and radical place," she says, pointing out that the word "radical" actually means "root."

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"It's that root place where we're all human, and we're all forgiven, and we're also all implicated," she says. "We're also responsible for the good and the bad things in our lives, collectively and individually."

At the same time that Strayed is able to look into the dark recesses without flinching, she's also warm and generous with an easy laugh. We share a moment of fun when I jokingly say that now that she's a darling of the Oprah scene, it might be time to let it all go, get out the hammock, drink margaritas and buy an island.

"It was so funny, when Wild was ramping up for publication, whenever a good thing would happen I would text my friend and say, 'I'm not stopping until I have a pool boy,'" she says, laughing. "But lately I've been thinking, 'Wait a minute? What is a pool boy?' I guess I'd need to get a pool first. But I live in Portland, Oregon, which is sort of problematic because there's only about six weeks in the year when you could actually use the pool, so maybe I need to rethink the goal."

When I suggest that she'll need to move to L.A. for a pool, she says with another laugh, "Yeah, then I become a cliché, don't I? Move to Hollywood and have a pool boy."

That's probably not going to happen anytime soon, especially since Strayed lives a happily settled life in the Pacific Northwest with her husband, filmmaker Brian Lindstrom, and their two young children (when she's not touring or teaching workshops at places like the Esalen Institute in Big Sur).

If anything, the last thing Strayed will ever be is a cliché. When I read back to her a quote from Wild I'd written in my own journal, one about being mindful always and developing herself as a writer, and ask if she's fulfilled this promise to herself, Strayed says that amazingly she has. Though, she adds the caveat that there's never one place that you arrive at only to stay there.

"That vision is still my vision," she says. "I still want to develop myself as a writer, I still want to develop myself as a human being. I always feel like reaching for the next thing is a big, important part of having a fulfilled life, a good life, and so I do think that I've done that, and that I'll keep doing that."

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Cheryl Strayed appears in conversation about 'Wild' on Saturday, June 30, at Toby's Feed Barn. 11250 Hwy. 1, Point Reyes Station. 7:30pm. The cost is the purchase of a $10 bookstore gift certificate. 415.663.1542.

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