I’m having a Cheryl Strayed problem -- her success makes me feel like a failure. There. I’ve said it. I know that there are some of you out there who feel the same way, though maybe even now, now that I’ve said it, you still can’t admit it, because to do so would expose you to yourself as the jealous wretch you secretly are. And that’s okay, Sweet Pea -- because I’m going to take the hit for you.
I had been reading and loving the Dear Sugar column on the Rumpus for a few months when I learned, along with the rest of the world, that Ms. Sugar was not some frowzy housewife safely tucked away in a Southern kitchen among gingham curtains and curling linoleum, but a groovy Minnesotan, living in Portland with social/cultural credentials that nearly matched my own. She is close, personal friends with several of my close, personal friends and when I heard that I actually had the thought that maybe if I hadn’t wasted so many good years smoking dope with some of these friends, with my head up my ass, I might have a beautiful, insightful paid column of my own now. But thoughts like that are par for the course around here. I can honestly say that at that point I wasn’t bitter... yet.
Then, about ten minutes after Strayed blew the cover off her Sugar bowl, her memoir Wild was published and Strayed became the instant darling of the literary world. That's when all hell broke loose and I went down the rabbit hole.
A week after Wild’s publication, trying to keep my nose above the rising tide of my own self-loathing, I went to see Strayed at a local literary soiree. I was trying to inoculate myself against further disgruntlement. She read an excerpt from her book, and was interviewed by a friend of mine, who is an oft-published and brilliant writer in her own right. This woman, a powerful, eloquent being, Strayed's equal in gift, made light of herself and her own accomplishments as a way of paying tribute to Strayed.
When women are jealous, we often tend to display a beta dog-like admiration toward those we envy. Whereas a man will flex and posture like an alpha before his perceived competitor, a woman will practically petit point her own shortcomings on a lavender sachet and gift it to her rival in an attempt to distance herself from the stink of her own uncomfortable feelings. Not that Strayed is anyone’s rival. Nooooo… We are all in it for each other, after all, because we’re lovely, supportive gentlewomen, and the Sisterhood is sacred.
Afterward the audience, mostly women and mostly writers, swarmed Strayed, practically prostrating themselves at her feet. I did too, kvelling over her Sugar column, congratulating her on her success. Strayed seemed appreciative, if a bit taken aback by it all. That night I friended her on Facebook, getting in under the wire before her page exploded with friend requests from a grateful nation of fans.
The next day I went for a hike with three lady pals who are all accomplished, published writers, and had also attended the event. All we could talk about was, you guessed it, Cheryl Strayed, and that's when the knives came out. We let it fly; the begrudging admiration for her work, the bewilderment at the seemingly random nature of her success and how people seem to be overreacting to a book that was, yes, wonderful, but not so much more wonderful than books that other people we knew had written, such as, oh, us, for instance. We agreed she was a fine writer, but so were so many others we knew, including ourselves, so why did she get the brass ring?
Here we were -- women all in possession of good health, loving families, interesting, paid writing lives, and yet we tromped along like a quartet of Grimm Fairy Tale stepmothers spewing verbal toads and lizards out onto the trail. We bemoaned the state of being middle-aged, mid-listers in a dwindling freelance market. We ragged on our feckless spouses, our useless agents, on Joyce Maynard’s hair. But underneath we knew we were simply feeling the bitter injustice that came with the territory of not being Cheryl Strayed. Even our day hike was paltry compared to her mighty trek on the Pacific Coast Trail. Of course, at that point, I hadn’t actually read her book yet.
So I went home and read Wild furtively on my Kindle, and dammit, I fucking loved it. I laughed, I wept, I practically lost a toenail, I was so engrossed by it. It is a truly beautiful book and held yet more evidence of our similarities.
It’s one thing to snark at E.L. James, whose Fifty Shades of Grey success feels freakish and undeserved. I mean, holy crap, she’s a bad writer. Her success is evidence of a chaotic universe utterly lacking in value, and that provides perverse comfort. But Cheryl Strayed completely deserves her success, which makes her success sting all the more. It seems to highlight some kind of personal lack -- of talent, of persistence, of specialness -- in my own soul. Where did I go wrong?
I was, like Strayed, once a broken-hearted young woman, estranged from my family, lost to myself. Like Strayed, I took a long, lonely path through the wilds of my heart. But unlike her, I lost the trail, wandering off into the woods of self-delusion, a decaying marriage, school volunteerism, addiction, Project Runway reruns and the many diversions a frightened ego will take refuge in. Strayed got her Bad-Girling done early, took notes and strode bravely toward achievement, whereas I dawdled, putting off the hardest part of my journey until my forties when I would find myself trekking across an emotional snow field in flip flops, an inter-dental pick my ice axe.
Cheryl Strayed feels like an artifact from that parallel universe in which a more talented, successful version of myself is writing and thriving. It is this element of molecular recognition that makes me and my friends compare ourselves to her. She is utterly one of us: a journeywoman writer, an ex-drug addict, a gal with a tawdry sexual history and a failed marriage in her past. She is lush-bodied, kicks around in a pair of red cowboy boots that look like a sassy thrift store score, and on the night I saw her, was wearing a black ensemble that was beginning its descent into grey from over-laundering, just like half the stuff in my closet. In other words she is just like me and everyone I love: human, shopping at Target, maybe sneaking a cigarette when she has one too many. Except I was watching her take a fork in the road that didn't appear to be anywhere in my cosmic trail guide.
If the success of Wild (#5 on Amazon at this writing) weren’t enough, Strayed followed it up a mere four months later with Tiny, Beautiful Things, (#350 on Amazon) a collection of her Dear Sugar pieces, which would have been enough of a publication coup in and of itself. I mean, for fucksake, two beautiful, heart-wrenching books in a year?? I’m still dining out on my first book, a collection of freelance pieces published way back in 2007 (Amazon ranking #1,323,491), which, on my darker days, when I allow myself to go full-Plath, I tell myself doesn’t really count as having written a real book. My own version of Wild, a memoir called Unsupervised which I started in 2008, sits half-baked on my hard drive while I write festering blog posts like this one that twelve people will read (and I'd like to take this opportunity to thank you for being one of them).
I understand that this scarcity mentality is the mark of a dysfunctional ego run amok, and that of course, there are no limits to blessings in God’s perfect universe. My karma is not helped by my smallness, and yet, this awareness only serves to make me feel more puny and unworthy. Rather than be threatened by Strayed’s success, I should be inspired by it, and applaud it, because it is proof that good things can come to good people who work hard. But that brings up the question of whether I am, actually, a good person. I already know I'm not working hard enough. I fritter away my days lurking on Facebook, I read self-help books instead of great literature, I interrupt my writing regularly to squeeze blackheads in a magnifying mirror.
Of course, Strayed doesn’t need my applause, not with 5,000 Facebook friends frantically posting comments like, “You continue to be an amazing person!!” on her wall every day. Not with Oprah high-fiving her and People magazine wondering what she’s reading, (there's not a self-helper on her list, btw). I lurk on her page, tracking her career ascendency, and her utter grace in the face of it. I wonder, if there are days when even Sugar feels like its all gotten a bit saccharine.
Sometimes Facebook feels like that courtroom in Defending Your Life where we are all called to account for our lives and provide evidence of having lived them honorably. Whereas Strayed has posts that show her selflessly supporting the work of others, healing the hearts of the burned and broken, forgiving her mother, celebrating her successful second marriage, rescuing puppies from burning buildings, I am out here, unattached, estranged from my mother, using only 2% of my brain and sliding off the roof of my life with a TV antennae clutched in my hand. In fact, this very piece could be used as evidence to keep me off the tram to heaven.
Some days I think the only one who can help me now is Strayed herself. I’d like to write to Sugar and unbosom myself. She would probably say something like, Pumpkin, it’s okay, everyone feels like an envious little turd at some point. Then she might reveal something similar from her own experience, where she coveted someone else’s life and lacked appreciation for her own. She would find the common ground, and turn it all around by making me feel loved and special just the way I am, thereby instilling fresh hope in my exhausted, withered heart. Either that or she would simply unfriend me on Facebook. Either one would kill me.