The Writers You Admire

There are some writers I admire. By that I don’t mean writers who wrote books I love a lot—it goes beyond the books. I mean a writer I admire. A writer I look up to.

I’ve noticed lately that the writers I admire in this way have some things in common: They’re always women. They always write beautifully. They write brave things. They’re strong. They’re successful, yes, but it’s the way they handle their success that speaks to me. They worked for what they have—and they work, still, every day. They’re never entitled. They even seem humble, surprised sometimes by where they are (though I, as one of their admirers, am never surprised). They give to others. They’re generous. They’re not afraid to be human. They’re the models of the writer I want to one day be.

I’m very grateful to say that one of the writers I’m talking about blurbed my new book. Another one of the writers I admire has written me recommendations to colonies and is the reason, I believe, I had my first acceptance to the MacDowell Colony years ago, which set off many good things in my writing life. Another writer I admire talked to me on the phone about my book the other week and what she said almost made me float up to the ceiling and drift there, full to bursting, it meant that much to me.

One of the writers I admire is someone who used to write an anonymous advice column and give so much of herself to the world—and I know I’m not the only one who loves Cheryl Strayed, author of Torch and Wild… and Sugar herself from “Dear Sugar.” This week, while dipping to a bit of a low point in my writing psyche, I went to see Cheryl Strayed in conversation with Paul Holdengräber at LIVE from the NYPL.

The truth is, I wasn’t going to go. Not because I didn’t read every single “Dear Sugar” column from the beginning and cry every Thursday a new one was posted (here are the two that made me a fan for life because they struck me so deeply: “The Baby Bird” and “How You Get Unstuck”) and not because I have a “Write Like a Motherfucker” T-shirt, which I wore to the MacDowell Colony where I wrote the first draft of 17 & Gone like a motherfucker, but because I’ve been so frustrated with my writing progress lately, and scared of 17 & Gone entering the world, and just feeling myself in this flimsy space. I felt like I should stay home and wallow in it, I guess. And oh, was I wrong.

I’m so glad I went. Not only because my good friend Christine Lee Zilka joined me, and I love going to events with her (this is the second time we saw Cheryl Strayed together!), but because of what Cheryl herself said.

I didn’t write down all of it, only a single line, but it was around here that something in me shifted:

“It’s not my job to judge what I’ve written. My job is to write.”

—Cheryl Strayed

I don’t know how to explain it except to say I heard it in a way I’d never heard advice like that before. I stepped back from myself and I remembered why I’m in this: Not to publish. Not to have people say nice things about what I’ve published. No. I’m not going to tell you why. It’s personal. And it’s enough right now to remember it.

Sometimes you’ll be somewhere, unsuspecting, and the thing you most need to hear will be said. I should have known “Sugar” would utter something I needed to hear at just the moment I would be able to hear it.

I think it’s important to have role models in your field—in craft and in life. By that I don’t mean kissing up and acting like someone is an untouchable god who can do no wrong. Admiring someone is different from fangirling all over her.

And then there are those moments you make an attempt to tell someone how much her work means to you. Here I am doing just that:

(Photo courtesy of LIVE from the NYPL)

Thank you to Live from the NYPL for posting this photo of me getting my book signed by Cheryl Strayed.

What do you most admire in an author… And who are the writers you admire?


Dear Sugar Revealed and How I Guessed Who She Was

"Sugar"—as we knew her until last night

As so many of you know by now (maybe in part because I’ve been feverishly tweeting about it), the writer of the brilliant, beautiful, wise, and often gut-wrenching anonymous column “Dear Sugar” on the Rumpus was revealed at her coming-out party in San Francisco last night. I wish I’d been there to cheer her on. I’ve been a fan of this incarnation of Sugar since her early columns—I still remember the day I first read “The Baby Bird,” such an astounding piece, and how I crumpled into sobs over it. Though calling myself “a fan” of Sugar’s sounds almost too casual. Parts of me have been utterly transformed by reading her—it goes beyond being her fan. I’ve cried more times than I can count, and yes I’ve worn the “Write Like a Motherf*cker” T-shirt (I wore it during my residency at MacDowell last year… hoping its magic would work; it sure did). And for most of that time, I did know who Sugar really was… I’d guessed the secret like many of us have. And it never changed my relationship to the columns or my love for her writing. In fact, I think that knowing who she was made me love her all the more.

So I’m excited that everyone can now know that Sugar is…

Cheryl Strayed! Author of the incredible novel Torch and the upcoming memoir Wild—which we should all go out right now and pre-order to support and celebrate her. It comes out March 20! PRE-ORDER WILD RIGHT HERE RIGHT NOW!

Cheryl Strayed
Photo of Cheryl Strayed by Joni Kabana

How did I guess who Sugar was so long ago? It was her voice. Cheryl Strayed has such a distinct, unflinching, unforgettable voice—and story—and her essays and fiction have stayed with me for years. So it was that after following the “Dear Sugar” column for some months I realized that something was tugging at me… something felt familiar… It reminded me of one of the most amazing things I’ve ever read in my life (was it through a Best American anthology or The Sun magazine, which my mom has a subscription to? I can’t recall). It was this essay, “The Love of My Life,” originally published in 2002. And it also reminded me of a short story I read in Nerve years ago, called “Good.”

I’ve never forgotten those two pieces—THAT’S how incredible of a writer Cheryl Strayed is. To write something so distinct and so memorable that someone who’s read it a long time ago would recognize you years later. (Not to mention her novel Torch, which I loved.) Imagine being a writer like that—a writer so yourself that strangers would know who you are based on your words. That’s what I aspire to become.

So, yes, I had my guess about the true identity of Sugar a long time ago. I then admit I paid very careful attention to the online personas of both Sugar and Cheryl Strayed (both of whom I followed online) to see if they were posting around the same times of day, and if they were ever offline at the same time. When they both went dark / on vacation for the same week, I knew I was right. And I was thrilled. THRILLED. It made me love Sugar and Cheryl all the more.

One of my friends, Christine Lee Zilka, was equally enamored with the Sugar columns (should I admit we were obsessed?) and I confided in her that I thought I’d guessed who it was. I told her my guess. Then she went off and did her own sleuthing and devouring of everything Cheryl Strayed had ever published and agreed. It had to be her. Then my friend and I made a vow that we would not tell anyone else our guess. Not anyone. Even if they begged us. (And I have been begged! Multiple times! I never broke.) I know a lot of us have guessed—probably because they read the same essay and short story I had—and we’ve all kept it quiet for so long.

Today I’m simply excited that all “Dear Sugar” fans can support Cheryl Strayed as she so deserves. She has been so generous with us, so willing to expose her soul to all of us, and help those who needed help, and she never asked anything in return.

I’ve written letters to Sugar, but I never sent them in to her. I was too afraid of what she’d tell me. I knew it could hurt. I knew it would change my life. And I wasn’t ready. All I know is I’ll keep reading anything and everything the woman publishes, under every name.

Here’s a wonderful interview with Cheryl Strayed in The New Yorker online about being Sugar. What she says in answer to the last question is very true. I’m one of those “avid fans”—and I will continue to be. I can’t wait for her new book! And while I’m in California in April, I’m trying to go to one of her readings so I can meet her in person!

I know you need her book now. Let’s all pre-order Wild!


p.s. If you read about my summer writing fantasies, you’ll remember it was one of my fantasies to take a workshop with her. I can’t afford to this summer, but if you can, are you crazy?? If it’s not sold-out by now, sign up!