In August 2010, a young writer named Elissa Bassist moved from San Francisco to Brooklyn to start working on an MFA in creative nonfiction. After living in New York for just two weeks, she wrote a letter to The Rumpus’s popular online advice columnist “Sugar,” expressing her frustrations about her writing: “I write about my lady life experiences, and that usually comes out as unfiltered emotion, unrequited love, and eventual discussion of my vagina as metaphor. … I am sick with panic that I cannot—will not—override my limitations, insecurities, jealousies, and ineptitude, to write well, with intelligence and heart and lengthiness.” She asked, finally, “How does a woman get up and become the writer she wishes she’d be?”
Sugar—who last February revealed herself to be Cheryl Strayed, author of the bestselling memoir Wild—replied: “Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig. You need to do the same. … So write, Elissa Bassist. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.”
The quote—“Write Like a Motherfucker”—has been emblazoned on a T-shirt and a coffee mug; the letter also appears in Tiny Beautiful Things, Strayed’s bestselling collection of Sugar columns, published last summer by Vintage.
Over the past two years, Bassist says, she has taken every word of Sugar’s/Cheryl’s advice to heart—and she’s not alone. The phrase has, she says, “become an anthem and a lifestyle; ‘motherfuck-itude’ and ‘motherfuckery’ is about quitting your bitching, getting out of your own ego, and getting to work.”
Bassist and Strayed stayed in touch, and Strayed continued to give advice—on mean commenters: Don’t internalize the crackpottery of others; on grad school: You’re not loving grad school? It might be just that you need to give it time. It might be that it’s not a fit, and you should leave. You can’t really know which it is yet, most likely; on success: You are not supposed to have success. You’re supposed to have a life.
Here, in a conversation conducted by email, Strayed and Bassist reunite, two years later, to revisit many of the themes from the original letter, and to examine how their professional and artistic landscapes have changed.
BASSIST: I once asked you via email, “How do you feel that you save lives?” You responded, “We can talk about this at length in person.” Can we talk about this at length now?
STRAYED: When people tell me something I wrote saved their lives, I feel honored and moved. I know what they mean because I’ve felt saved by literature, too. To hear that my writing has done the same for people is hugely rewarding.
BASSIST: You saved mine. Because of you I wrote the book I said I couldn’t write.
I would like to say that your letter to me was a perfect salve, and that I have no more questions because you answered my biggest one. But now I am editing the book I thought impossible to write, feeling it impossible to edit. In your essay “Baby Weight,” you wrote about finishing—and then rewriting—your first book, Torch. If “Write Like a Motherfucker” had a sequel, would it be “Rewrite Like a Motherfucker”? Would you be willing to write this micro-sequel now?
STRAYED: I think revising is the same as writing, at least when it comes to the essential truths I wrote about in “Write Like a Motherfucker.” It’s all work. It’s all part of the process. Writing and revision are not two entirely different things, even though they demand slightly different things of us. One draft is your first best effort. The next draft is your next best effort, and so on. My process isn’t just to spill everything onto the page and call it a first draft. There’s nothing wrong with doing that—it’s just not what I do. I don’t call it a first draft until it’s the honest best it can be at that moment. It’s difficult to wade back into it and take it all apart to make it better, but I’ve never regretted having done so.
BASSIST: The period after you answered my letter felt a lot like the last line of Samuel Beckett’s The Unnamable: “You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” This is not a question; it’s a snapshot of my life since I got “Sugared.”
Every day, I was sure I would not be able to write—yet by the end of each day, I had written.
Most of it was garbage, as if I had done the equivalent of typing into a trashcan (“feeding my own wastebasket,” as David Foster Wallace said).
But then, there were days I left the café exhausted and exhilarated, when I swaggered down Henry Street in Brooklyn Heights, playing Jay-Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” on repeat. All the useless trashcan days added up and returned this self-knowledge: I was a motherfucker. Best rapper alive, best rapper alive.
STRAYED: I think you need a rapper name. E-Bass?
BASSIST: My nickname on my high school debate team was E-Bass! (That is the dorkiest sentence I have ever written publicly.) My best friends still call me E-Bass. Would your rapper name be C-Stray? C-Sug or C-Suga?
STRAYED: Hmm. . . What about Strugar? Sounds like a German pastry. That would be my main problem if I ever tried to become a rapper. I’m more German pastry than rapper. But E-Bass totally works, whether you’re a teen debate champ or a rapper.
BASSIST: Being a teen debate champ and a rapper seems about as possible as being a German pastry and a gluten-free, calorie-free, vegan dish.
Now that we’ve covered rap, high school debate, and pastries, I need some more advice.
It took me two years just to learn how to sit in a chair, how to “show up”—the most difficult part of doing anything, according to my yoga teacher. David Foster Wallace once asked this of Don DeLillo: “Do you have like a daily writing routine? . . . More important, do you then honor that daily obligation, day after day?” He asked so that he might relieve “the strain of daily self-starting and self-discipline and daily temptations to dick around and abandon the discipline.” In this situation, I am DFW, and you are Don DeLillo, which I enjoy picturing. I wasn’t surprised that you didn’t give practical butt-in-the-seat advice in your response, but I’ve always wanted to know: how do you sit in a chair every day?
STRAYED: I don’t write every day. I go through periods of writing and not writing. Lately, I’ve been so busy with launching Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things into the world that I’ve been writing only occasionally. When I am in a writing phase, I do all the things people do when they need to get something done that feels hard to do. I hem and haw. I think of every reason not to write (the dirty dishes in the sink, the newspaper, all the things to read on the Internet), and then I just tell myself to quit my bitching and write.
BASSIST: I’ve found four books that address the “sitting in a chair” obstacle: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, and Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. In Pressfield’s book, every page can be reduced to: “Shut up and write.”
STRAYED: I do think it’s exactly that. We’re all saying the same thing, which is, of course, what makes it so maddening. Why is it so hard to follow such simple instructions? It’s a mystery to me.
BASSIST: If I could add a postscript sub-question to my letter of two years ago, I’d address “heartbreak torture machines”—Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr—websites I blame for 80 percent of my writing inertia. When I become overwhelmed with all that I feel and everything I must say—it is almost too much that I must artfully arrange the internal mess—when the feelings are firing and the chair is beginning to get warm and the words are positioning themselves, what I’ll do, without hesitation, is check my email. If someone died each time I checked my inbox, there would be no one left. How do you cancel the noise of social networking and get back down on the ground to produce?
If someone died each time I checked my inbox, there would be no one left. How do you cancel the noise of social networking and get back down on the ground to produce?
STRAYED: The whole planet would be dead if someone died every time either one of us checked our email. It’s a real problem for me, a huge distraction not only from my writing, but from everything else I love to do, too. When it comes to getting to work, my trick is to conjure my inner-nun-with-a-ruler-in-hand and simply force myself to begin. Beginning is about three-quarters of the battle for me. Once I’m into the work, it’s so much more interesting than anything happening on Facebook.
BASSIST: I’m unnerved by how easy it is for me to picture a miniature Cheryl Strayed as a nun with a ruler in her hand.
STRAYED: Really? It’s so hard for me to picture myself as a nun with a ruler in hand. The image I have of myself is so much lazier.
BASSIST: Out of all the adjectives in the world, lazy is not one I’d put in your vicinity. This leads me to “We Are All Savages Inside,” where you give advice I need tattooed inside my eyelids: “You know what I do when I feel jealous? I tell myself to not feel jealous.”
No one knows this except you and me and Rumpus senior literary editor Julie Greicius, but I originally signed my letter “Elizabeth Gilbert.” It was a joke, and you said you loved the signature for a couple of reasons:
One is, of course, she’s this incredibly successful, rich, on-the-bestseller-list-for-YEARS-NOW woman writer whom so many of us would like to loathe for all the aforementioned reasons. Two is, of course, she’s this incredibly human, real, serious, worthy-of-our-sisterhood writer who, we’d all do well to remember, worked her tail off, and just because lightning struck with her fourth book, it doesn’t mean we should loathe her. In fact, actually, she, too, has to deal with all sorts of bullshit when it comes to her work as a woman, her insight, her ‘story,’ which is read as entirely specific (which is to say ‘feminine’) rather than universal (which is to say ‘male’). But don’t get me started. Well, actually, you did get me started.
Now, you are in Elizabeth Gilbert’s position: an incredibly successful, rich, best-selling woman writer whom so many of us would like to loathe for the aforementioned reasons. And, of course, you are an incredibly human, real, serious, worthy-of-our-sisterhood writer who, we’d all do well to remember, worked her tail off. What would you say if I said I feel jealous of you?
Jealousy is destructive. It won’t make you a better writer. It won’t make you a better person.
STRAYED: I would say you shouldn’t waste your energy on jealousy. Ever, ever! But especially on people like me. I’ve been writing a lot longer than you have. When I was in my twenties, it never occurred to me to be jealous of writers who were in their forties, writers like Mary Gaitskill and Anne Lamott and Mary Karr, who are all about fifteen years older than I am—the same age difference as between us. They weren’t my competition because I wasn’t in their league. With all Sugary affection, Elissa, you haven’t yet earned the right to be jealous of me.
BASSIST: I am, again, picturing a miniature Cheryl Strayed as a nun with a ruler in her hand.
STRAYED: Maybe Sugar is a little bit of a nun with a ruler in hand. And I didn’t even grow up Catholic! But really: jealousy is destructive. It won’t make you a better writer. It won’t make you a better person. And when you focus on silly things like comparing yourself to people who’ve been at this years longer than you have, it will only lead to self-pity and a loss of perspective.
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?
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.
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.
Yoga, writing, and improvisational comedy have a lot in common. Last year, I started taking improv classes at Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre in New York, and I soon found these classes informed my writing as much as your letter. Will Hines, who runs the school, has a Tumblr called Improv Nonsense, where he fields questions from improv students. Someone recently asked him: “Is improv a road to nowhere?” The question focused on Neil Casey, an improviser who was hired at Saturday Night Live after more than a decade of improvising. Hines responded: “When [Casey] was 20, . . . SNL was not on his mind. . . . If he never got a job, and now I can speak from experience, then he’d only have a life spent being happy behind him. . . . Spend your days in love with what you’re doing as much as fucking possible, and thank the stars for your chances to do that. Be nice and honest and brave and hopeful, and then let it go.” Don’t you love that?
STRAYED: I do. That’s exactly it.
BASSIST: I began my letter to you, “I write like a girl,” believing I was at a disadvantage due to gender bias in publishing. I worried that my writing—focused on the emotional, the personal, the “small”—would be taken less seriously than men’s writing. You said, yes, it probably would. Your advice was to “get your ass down onto the floor. Write so blazingly good that you can’t be framed. … You have to tell us what you have to say.” I did what you told me to do—I got down on the ground, and I wrote. [Note: this is not ergonomic, but it’s a good temporary exercise, metaphorically and spiritually.]
I had a reading last week, and a man approached afterward to say, “You know, your writing is really girly.” I replied, “Thank you so much.” There has been a shift in me, and I think you are a pivotal force in a macro-level shift, with the publication of Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things, both bestsellers. Have you felt a change since we last talked about “writing like a girl” in the column?
A running theme has been how many men have said something along the lines of, “Wow, I was so surprised I loved your book, because I’m a man.”
STRAYED: I haven’t seen the shift. Lots of women writers have been publishing for decades, and many of them have been and are well-regarded and well-published. I think gender bias exists in forms that are more discreet and ingrained. I’ve had an incredible experience with Wild. It’s been received warmly by critics and readers alike. But a running theme has been how many men have said something along the lines of, “Wow, I was so surprised I loved your book, because I’m a man.” These men mean no harm—I don’t take those comments personally—and yet the fact that they were surprised that they loved a book by and about a woman is an indication of the sexism women writers are up against every time they write. It tells me that women writers are still perceived as less capable than men writers of telling the big universal human story.
BASSIST: “The big universal human story”—let’s discuss. At some point, I decided that being really sad, or lonely or aimless or confused, didn’t mean I was crazy, as many of my ex-boyfriends have suggested. Tons of my friends (including lawyers, actors, baristas) experience the same uncertainty. We all have these feelings inside us—anxiety, fear, trepidation, hope, desire—and our every effort becomes getting these things out. Writing that letter to you and publishing it was how I felt connected and compassionate.
In Sugarland, you’ve transvalued the stigma of making our private lives public and have proven writing is a way to turn the worst things that happen to us into the most beautiful. Your willingness to show yourself, to tell people who you are—and the Sugar column as a vehicle for truthfulness, transparency, and reclamation—has inspired so many of us. Is honesty an art?
STRAYED: I make my own stories public for the sake of art. A painful experience is not art, but art can be made from painful experiences. Writers are truthtellers. That’s our job. Often that means we need to write about the darkness within.
BASSIST: I’ve thought a lot about why I went to an online advice columnist to solve my personal problem. When I wrote to you, it was because I didn’t believe in myself. Believing in myself hardly mattered at that point; what mattered was getting down and asking someone else to believe in me. This is what you give—your faith. Once I had that, I could get to work, which to me meant two things. One, the easier part: writing. Two, the harder part: believing that believing in myself wasn’t someone else’s job.
“Say thank you,” you write in Tiny Beautiful Things. Thank you.
STRAYED: You’re welcome.