Writerly Friendships: Cheryl Strayed, Lidia Yuknavitch, And Suzy Vitello
Recently, a poet friend of mine told me a story of how she and another member of the literary community bonded over a shade of lipstick — the one Sylvia Plath wore on her first day at Mademoiselle, to be exact. While friendships among writers (and editors and publicists and book bloggers and countless other members of the community) are nothing new, this detail, so particular, got me thinking: What else has sparked these close-knit relationships? Readings take place, parties are thrown, and nowadays we’re hit with a barrage of photos showcasing literary besties cozied up. But what about those first interactions? What about those substantial moments that act as milestones on friendship timelines, those memories into which we rarely gain insight? I wanted to know the stories no one talks about unless asked, so I began with Cheryl Strayed, Suzy Vitello, and Lidia Yuknavitch, three writers of incredible prowess and admirable talent, and also longtime friends.
Every once in while, when I’m in a reflective mood and thinking about my closest friends, my memories trace back to first interactions and then skip and jump to substantial moments. I’m wondering about the origins of your friendships, and I’m curious about what moments stand out as ones that felt like you knew you were crossing over that line that separates an acquaintance from a friend? Not to be hokey, but I’m going to be a little hokey: When did you go from a handshake to a hug?
Suzy Vitello: I met Cheryl when we were both at Writers at Work, in Salt Lake City. I was taking a workshop with Steve Almond and she was teaching a workshop. Torch had just come out, and she had newborn Bobbi and toddler Carver with her. In fact, thanks to blogging, I can pinpoint the auspicious day I met Cheryl. It was the summer solstice, 2006, and here’s what I wrote:
I met another fabulous writer tonight, as well. A woman who lives in my neck of the woods, Cheryl Strayed, whose novel Torch is one of the most heartbreaking and poignantly written books I’ve come across in a while. Not only that, but her love of language, her enthusiasm for the craft and her wide-eyed spirit infect everyone around her.
It was actually my very first post on my blog. So, I guess you could say I went from handshake to hug with Cheryl within the first five minutes.
I met Lidia in a basement, and she was introduced to me by Chuck Palahniuk — which is appropriate, right? Chuck, basement? Our workshop was meeting in my office at the time — a place affectionately known as “the dugout.” Was it also 2006ish? 2007? I was so intimidated. Lidia was so cool. It was like all of the sudden, at your nerd table in high school, someone brings in the hippest kid, and you’re hoping she’ll stay. And her writing blew everyone away. We were all trying to say the smartest things about it. It wasn’t until months later that Lidia confessed to having been equally intimidated/scared. It became clear pretty quickly that Lidia, aside from being a fucking genius, is also one of the most generous hearts on the planet. At some point during that first year of knowing her, my handshake became, um, a French kiss?
Cheryl Strayed: I’m really touched to learn that Suzy wrote about me on her blog when we first met. I didn’t know that, though I distinctly remember our meeting in Salt Lake City. I liked her immediately. As she said, my children were babies then, and while it was great to have them with me while I taught at a writer’s conference, it was also exhausting. Being the mother of three children, I didn’t have to explain anything to her, and so right away I felt a connection to this wonderfully kind and consoling and supportive woman writer. Several months, or perhaps even a year later, she invited me to talk about Torch at her book club, and afterward she asked me to join her writer’s group — another group member and friend, Monica Drake, had also invited me to the group by then as well. I joined a few months later and that’s where I met Lidia.
My connection with Lidia was immediate and deep. I admired her writing and I also recognized her as someone who’d traveled many of the same roads as me. I knew we were soul sisters and I loved her from the start. There was a feeling that’d we’d known each other forever.
Lidia Yuknavitch: It’s weird — it doesn’t SEEM like that’s where we met now… it seems like our lives crisscrossed for decades. Do you know what I mean? Like, how is it true I only met you two in this part of my life? That doesn’t seem possible.
When I first got invited to the workshop Suzy is talking about, the only person I knew was Monica Drake. It didn’t help; when I walked in, even Monica looked beatific to me and I felt like a hobo. I was scared shitless. So scared, I sat in my car eating a Carl’s Jr. burger and watched them all enter the basement — with bird-watching binoculars. Because I’m me, I of course spooged burger juice on my rack. I had to button my black wool coat up all the way to my neck and leave it that way the whole night. I was convinced they thought I was mental.
That’s where I met Suzy for the first time. The first thing she said to me after I read that night, right before I decided I was about to spontaneously combust, was this: “You are a fellow word nerd!” Then I could feel my arms and legs and brains again. I knew it was going to be OK. Consequently, I loved her immediately and forever. (As a potent side note: I have a hair fetish. So I also had trouble not touching her hair. Trying not to touch someone’s beautiful hair or faceplant into it is like trying to suppress full-body hiccups.)
The first time I read Torch, I thought, Thank baby Jesus’ dinger: A woman is telling the truth about grief and love. So I met Cheryl on the page first. In Lidialand, that’s actually an intimate place, equally intimate to Peopleland. But the first time I sat in a room with her was the night she walked into the aforementioned workshop. My hands quivered because — again with the hair. Really. (Everyone in the workshop is secretly torturing me.) When she read the piece she brought, I heard life-echoes instantly. Maybe they were in her story or maybe it was in her voice or maybe it was in her eyes or hands. I don’t remember, and memory is a tricky fiction anyway. But the point is, I knew I knew her already. Some people’s lives make a palimpsest.
Later during a magical trip we shared in San Francisco, we agreed it was idiotic we hadn’t met before, given who we knew and where we’d been and what had happened to us… so we kind of decided that it wasn’t true, which you can do in language. You can change the fiction to fit the truer emotion.
Did someone say we can kiss now?
There seems to be this ongoing, negative dialogue concerning what women should and should not be writing, dictated and perpetuated by a very unforgiving culture that includes (but is not limited to) the publishing industry. You all seem to inherently rail against this though, and are pretty fearless when it comes to the stories you tell and the characters you either create or reflect upon. Whether through memoir or essays or advice or fiction, you seem to have a very can-do, no-holds-barred, fuck-the-rules approach — an understanding that good work rises and it’s more important to cultivate artistic voice and let narratives come alive, than limit yourselves and cater to the populist opinion of “what sells.” How have you all felt supported and encouraged by each other when it comes this kind of awesome artistic attitude?
SV: Well, first, I think I have the sensibilities of an adolescent boy. So that helps. But also, I’ve always been an outlier. In every way. A late bloomer. A person who always seems to choose the longest path to anywhere. Lidia and Cheryl are probably some of the most vocal champions you’ll find when it comes to integrity. I’m a more private person. I hold my cards tighter. I watch how Cheryl and Lidia are in the world — how brave — and draw inspiration from that. My characters are much more like Lidia and Cheryl than they are like me. Brave on the page, right?
CS: I have no ability to seriously ponder “what sells.” I have always written what I wanted to write the way I wanted to write it, come what may. This doesn’t mean I don’t strive to connect with an audience — I most certainly do — but my writing has, does, and will always come from a deeply intuitive place within me that is driven by my own obsessions and interests. I write what I must.
Suzy and Lidia and many other writer friends have been very supportive of me in that effort, but perhaps most importantly they’ve also lived that value out in their own writing lives. I’m so inspired by seeing other writers do their work, to be able to talk to them about it and have a deep sense of connection, of kindred affection and sometimes shared misery. I think one of the greatest gifts writers can give each other is the act of simple witness. To say to each other: I believe you and I believe in you and I want you to keep on keeping on because that’s the only way. Write that story or poem or essay or novel or play or advice column that you feel compelled to write, no matter what the market says.
In defense of the publishing industry, I’ll say no one has pressured me to write in any particular way about any particular topic. My editor is an editor because she loves books and she understands that great books don’t come from a marketing team. They come from writers.
LY: Well, from the get-go, I made the writerly choice to deviate from traditional forms in literature, to choose a path on purpose that challenged traditions. First I learned and practiced the traditions, then I set about to tell my own stories, and found that I had to slant language to tell them right. The first short story I ever published was a series of nonlinear fragments called “The Chronology of Water.” Other writers told me it wasn’t shaped right. Then it got published. The first book of mine that got any attention was a series of nonlinear fragments called The Chronology of Water. Publishers told me it wasn’t shaped right. Then it got published by an independent press.
I never gave a fuck hootie about the “publishing industry,” because what little success I’ve achieved came from getting shot out into space by independent presses and publishers. Their labor is radically different. In fact, it’s safe to say I wrote my first three books of short stories directly in opposition to the “publishing industry.” So far, I’m still an indie girl and proud of it. I like what indie presses “do.” I think there’s room for all forms.
I’m pretty sure the three of us represent three different trajectories in terms of publishing experiences… it’s been eye-opening, to say the least, to share our different stories (am I right, you guys?). It helps me remember to shout as often as possible, “THERE IS NO ONE PATH.”
What Cheryl and Suzy and the writers and artists and musicians who have helped me along — including readers — do for me as a writer is insist that, yes, you too have a place at the table. You too are worth a crap. Your stories can sit next to all stories. When I’m most afraid though, it also helps to sit near other women struggling to survive as writers. Suzy and Cheryl are women writers writing for their lives. They know what’s at stake. I’ve done things under the table with both of them.
CS: I love Lidia for many reasons, but one of them is that she makes free use of phrases such as “fuck hootie.” It’s what makes her an exceptional writer and it’s also the reason her fans don’t just love her work, they all have mad crushes on her. And also? Don’t listen to Suzy when she says she’s only brave on the page.
What encouragement have you found in your friendships with one other when it comes to the every day — not just the work, but life?
SV: In life? I’ve told Lidia more secrets than I’ve shared with anyone. When you are continually and regularly vulnerable, sharing your pre-public artistic barfs with trusted comrades, that naturally bleeds over into life. Martinis are often involved too.
Cheryl has been my champion over and over. Connecting me with folks. Singing my praises, reading my work even! In New York! Telling the world that I was the best writer without a book in Portland. But now, I do have a book. So ha!
CS: One of my favorite memories of Lidia and Suzy is in May 2009, when I sold Wild to Knopf based on the first 130 pages of the book. I was flying to NYC to meet my editor for the first time, but I was absolutely flat broke and I couldn’t go shopping for something nice to wear. So Suzy and Lidia came over to my house with heaps of their nicest clothes, and I tried them on and modeled them and together we decided what I should wear. I borrowed a shirt from Lidia, and Suzy gave me a skirt and jacket of hers. It was so sweet. I went to NYC and had my fancy meetings with my editor and I could feel their love there with me, because I was wearing their clothes.
LY: SHARING CLOTHES! That was so cool. I’m probably not supposed to say out loud that these women are among a handful of women who have helped me put food on the table or gas in my car when I was fucking broke and ashamed and desperate. But they did. When people I thought were my close friends found ways to mess with me (it’s pretty easy — I’m oddly naïve for such a mouthy, cynical person), both of these women kept me from despair and isolation. And I’m POSITIVE I’m not supposed to overshare about the fact that I’m on medication for all kinds of things, which manifest behaviorally or physically sometimes, and that these women never, ever flinch or turn away from me. And that Cheryl has never failed to say my name out loud inside the glow of her own light, and that Suzy will meet me in a dark bar for a drink where we spill 50-year-old secrets and throw our lips over scotch and vodka, wondering what “future” means when your present tense suddenly got real and maybe half your life is over. And then there’s everything women are supposed to hold inside their chests about love and hate and children and marriages and age and love and fucking up and bodies and selves and souls and fear and tenderness and rage…when you can turn briefly to another woman and go “god damn it” and they go, “I know, I know!”… it’s not nothing.
You know how prisoners and soldiers develop a thousand-yard stare? I think there is a women-after-40, thousand-yard stare. Don’t you, guys?
SV: That thousand-yard stare has some power, I’ll say. And I’ve seen it a bunch coming from Cheryl and Lidia. It’s “are you fucking kidding me?” mixed with “I will create my way out of your projection of who I am.” And fuck yeah, it only gets better with age.
This whole thing about an older woman being a crone. A sage. I think my idea of it is that as women age, they become more elemental. You guard your energy, and refrain from taking part in non-genuine acts. That’s not to say you don’t have fun, but there just isn’t time for the frivolous. The glad-handing and the smiling in the face of rudeness and bullshit. The exploration that what you do is in service to being present with what your experience tells you is dear. Spiritually dear. Epistemologically dear.
CS: Yes, yes, to everything both of them say. I love Suzy’s theory about how we become more elemental as we age. That rings true to me and beautiful. Also, echoing what Lidia said about putting food on the table: Both of these women have loaned me money. There are only certain kinds of friends who will do that for you without a glimmer of judgment. I think that’s the difference between “writer friends” and being real friends with writers who get what you do, who don’t question the choices you’ve made in following a professional path that’s so financially uncertain.
You all belong to a close-knit writers’ group in Portland (which you talked about earlier) that’s existed in various incarnations for 20 years. In this stellar 2010 piece for Oregon Live, Suzy, you said the following: “It’s not about craft or word choice. This group is good at bringing out the passion. There’s no pressure to write a certain way.” Can you all talk a little about how being a member of the group has helped you, or continues to help you, navigate your way with your work? And what, if anything, do you all get out of an environment like that that you feel is unachievable elsewhere?
SV: First off, we are all pretty strong personalities. And somewhat competitive. (OK, very competitive.) But the biggest testament to our longevity and success, I think, is in our diversity. Even though a core group of us (Chuck, Monica, myself, two other members, Mary Wysong and Erin Leonard) came from Tom Spanbauer’s early “Dangerous Writers” group, we are stylistically vastly different from one another. Our audiences are different. I mean, Chuck, right? He’s in his own category, and Chelsea, the best-selling thriller writer, and Monica, whose hilarious novels and stories have caught the attention of comediennes like Kristen Wiig. Literary masterpieces are the domain of Lidia, and, well, Cheryl’s appeal goes without saying. And here I am, with my young adult books. So on our best days, we approach one another’s work in the spirit of reinforcing the heart of what is unique and successful given the genre, audience, and intent of the artist.
CS: Back in 2008 when I began writing what I thought was an essay about my hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, my writer’s group kept saying, “THIS IS A BOOK!” (In caps, with exclamation points.) That was so valuable — to have other writers articulating what I couldn’t yet see. It’s also nice just to have a group of people who expect you to be there once a week with writing in hand or ready to read theirs. It asserts that this matters, this funny thing we do alone in our rooms. I haven’t been attending group since Wild was published because my life has been so nuts, but I still feel like I’m part of that community. I have affection and regard for every member and I think of them always and cheer them on from afar. I still feel part of it. As Chelsea Cain said when I went on hiatus: My name is still on the letterhead.
LY: I’m the worst “group” person in the history of ever. Since I was about 5. I’ve bombed out of nearly every group or team thing that I’ve tried. I mean, I work my ass off secretly to give good feedback — like the year I read 15 best-selling thrillers so I could get better at giving Chelsea Cain feedback; or the time I actually made a wall chart with everyone’s different styles, audiences, and aims so that I could shift reading and feedback strategies quickly. Though I admit sometimes I bring work in and feel like I put frogs and thistles on the table, still, I’m endlessly grateful they even let me have a chair. I think it’s true on our best nights we can see each other’s blind spots and help a writer go 360.
You all live in Portland, which has its own burgeoning writing community. What does that word, “community,” mean for you, not only in the context of your lives as writers, but as individuals — as living, breathing beings who share space with others?
SV: For me, community means safety net, love, acceptance. It means the freedom to be an individual but know, that if you got cancer or something, there’d be casseroles.
CS: I’d define it as Suzy does, but add that a spirit of generosity and good will needs to be present in order for me to feel like it’s a true community. Like, they won’t just bring you a casserole when you’ve got cancer but they might also bring you a bottle of champagne when your book makes it onto the New York Times best-seller list. It has to do with supporting the whole person, in good times as well as bad. I also think of myself not only a member of the Portland writers community, but really a national community of peers and writers who I love and rely upon to keep me sane.
LY: “Community”? I hate that word! HA! I’m serious! Don’t be pissed at me, though, because I’m a serious fan of flowers and chocolate as often as possible. Does that count? But specifically what I mean is that the word “community” has kind of been co-opted or stolen, watered down, kumbaya-ed. It’s so homogeneous, and writers are NOT homogenous. Like, at all. Not in our writing group, not in our region, not nationally, not worldwide. I think what I imagine in place of “community” is something like ferocious and beautiful synaptic firings, crisscrossing and lighting each other up. Like, we all keep each other alive by firing our very different charges to keep the collective humming.
This interview series was inspired by a lot of things, but the most prominent in my mind is the memoir Truth and Beauty, which I read shortly after it came out in 2004, and absolutely floored me with its raw, beautiful, unapologetic nature. Not to come off as a total sap, but I cried, I think partly because I wished I could write an ode to one of my friends that would be as poignant and daring as the one Ann Patchett writes for Lucy Grealy. Are there any books or essays about friendship that have particularly touched you — or, to use a more aggressive metaphor, punched you in the face with their truth — over the years?
SV: I love that book. Truth and Beauty is by far my favorite Ann Patchett book, as well as my favorite book about artistic friendship. The ups, downs, the emotion. Is there another one?
CS: I have not read Truth and Beauty, but it’s on my list of must-reads. Everyone speaks so highly of it. I think friendships between writers are often misrepresented. We’re always hearing about how cutthroat the writing world is, how jealousies are ever present. Of course there’s some of that, but it doesn’t dominate my life as a writer. Mostly I feel supported by and supportive of my contemporaries. I feel fortunate to be among so many people who are doing such good work. I feel lucky some of them are my friends.
LY: I think we save each other’s lives all the time. Writer to writer. When we are our best selves. I think how we help each other has many, many forms.
There’s a poem I love. The one Anne Sexton wrote for Sylvia Plath. It’s a downer, I’m sure. But I’m a person who sees beauty in the dark as well as the light… I love it with all my heart, because I don’t think of relationships between women as sweet — I think of them as fierce and intelligent. Mostly I love it because I can tell they loved each other even through — and maybe because of — their difficult selves. And there are scores of dead women writers who keep me alive — like I said, words on a page can be as intimate as any relationship.
Rebecca Rubenstein is the interviews editor for The Rumpus and a contributing editor for STET, a writers’ journal on culture and technology. When not reading books made of paper, she can be found thinking aloud on Twitter. She resides in San Francisco.