BASSIST: You once wrote to me, “Success is a pile of shit somebody stacked up real high. It means nothing.” Now that your relationship to “conventional success” has changed, has your view of success stayed the same?
STRAYED: My definition of success has been developed over many years full of both successes and failures. My trajectory has not been failure, failure, failure, then success. The successes have been there all along, and all along, there’s also been a steady stream of rejections and disappointments. I imagine this will always be the case. It’s the writer’s life. It’s true that Wild’s reception, in particular, has been rather breathtaking, but it hasn’t made me measure success differently. I keep faith with the work. Wild would be the book that it is regardless of how many people read it. I’m very sure about that. When I say, “Success is a pile of shit somebody stacked up real high,” I mean it’s folly to measure your success in money or fame. Success in the arts can be measured only by your ability to say yes to this question: “Did I do the work I needed to do, and did I do it like a motherfucker?”
BASSIST: When I moved to New York, I named the wireless network in my new apartment “Famous.” How fucked up is this?
STRAYED: It’s incredibly fucked up. Have you talked to your therapist about this?
BASSIST: He’s the one who recommended Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art.
STRAYED: It seems to me it would help if you refocused what it is you’re trying to be. Do you want to be famous, or do you want to be a great writer? Sometimes those two things are one and the same, but often they aren’t.
BASSIST: I christened the wireless network “Famous” before the letter was published, when I thought fame was the intersection of writing and money.
What’s miraculous to me about the process of writing to you, and having you write back, is how it’s altered my core architecture as a person. I had cared deeply about being famous, so much so that it was getting in the way of my writing, and once you called me out on it, I was able to see it was true. As Coach Taylor in Friday Night Lights said to the Dillon Panthers: “Success is a byproduct.”
If I were tech-savvy enough to change my network name, I would change it to “Humility/Surrender.”
STRAYED: I think most writers feel the same way at the beginning—that fame is the definition of success. In my early twenties, I used to go to readings by famous authors and fantasize about being that person on the stage someday. The longing for success is a healthy force when it drives you forward in the hard times, and because of that, I think it’s kind of sweet you gave your wireless network the name “Famous,” but part of maturing as a writer is understanding how to measure success. It’s not fame and money for many writers. I mean, walk around the AWP conference, and you’ll encounter hundreds of successful, accomplished writers who are not famous or rich—or, at least, not rich from their writing. The other thing I’d like to note is that we’re talking about a very particular kind of fame when we talk about famous writers. If you asked people what they think of Alice Munro, most would reply, “Alice who?”
BASSIST: To which I’d respond, “Alice Motherfucking Munro, that’s who.”
I bet Alice Munro is too humble to accept that middle name.
In “Write Like a Motherfucker,” you focus on humility. You asked me, “Do you know what that is, sweet pea? To be humble?”
I humbly did not know.
Now, here’s how I think of it: there’s a pose in yoga called Devotional Warrior; it’s where you straddle your legs and bow your head down low, as if in reverence, and interlace your hands behind your back toward the ceiling. This pose is also called Humble Warrior. Sometimes, I call it Egoless Gymnast, just for fun.
I love being in this pose, but I can’t walk around with my legs straddled and my head bowed down low as if in reverence and my hands interlaced behind my back. How do you hold humility in your daily consciousness?
STRAYED: I think humility is about moving forward, doing the work, seeing what comes after you put the time in. It has to do with being ambitious about your writing, not about the accolades you hope your writing may someday receive. I return to this again and again, but I really do believe that keeping faith with the work itself has a wonderful way of keeping one’s ego in check. If we’re going to use yoga as metaphor for this, I would say Shavasana is a more apt comparison. It’s the so-called “corpse” pose. You’re lying on your back, limbs relaxed, eyes closed. Humility is not about getting all tangled up with yourself. It’s about surrender, receptivity, awareness, simplicity. Breathing in. Breathing out.
About Cheryl Strayed
Cheryl Strayed is the author of the best-selling memoir Wild, the New York Times best sellers Tiny Beautiful Things and Brave Enough, and the novel Torch. Strayed is the host of the New York Times hit podcast Sugar Calling, as well as Dear Sugars. Her essays have been published in the Best American Essays series, the New York Times, the Washington Post Magazine, Vogue, Salon, the Sun, Tin House, the New York Times Book Review, and elsewhere.