Writers are by definition obsessed with words. And when it comes down to it, unless you’re really plucky, there are two or three words you’re stuck with for life: your name. Every other week we’ll ask a different writer five or so questions on the subject.
This week we talk to Cheryl Strayed, the New York Times bestselling author of the memoir Wild (Alfred A. Knopf), the advice essay collection Tiny Beautiful Things (Vintage Books), and the novel Torch (Houghton Mifflin). Strayed has written the “Dear Sugar” column on TheRumpus.net since March 2010, and she’s a founding member of VIDA: Women In Literary Arts, and serves on its board of directors. Raised in Minnesota, Strayed now lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, the filmmaker Brian Lindstrom, and their two children.
What’s the story behind your last name?
I gave it to myself when I divorced my first husband at the age of 26 in 1995. When we were filling out the divorce documents there was this line on which you could write whatever you wanted your new legal name to be. So much was ending and beginning for me then—I tell the whole story in my memoir, Wild. I knew naming myself was important and I set about it with great intention in the months before my ex and I finalized our divorce. I read the dictionary. I searched favorite novels and poems. One day the word strayed came to me and I knew it was my name. I’ve been asked about it several times in interviews since the book came out and sometimes the interviewer will say, “Well, Strayed isn’t your real name.” Which is incorrect and also fascinating. Strayed is, in fact, my real, legal name and it has been for more than seventeen years now. If I’d married a man who had the last name of Strayed no one would say it wasn’t my real name. Strayed is the realest name I’ll ever have. It feels like my heritage.
What about your first name?
Some sources say the origin of the name Cheryl is French, others German or Welsh, but they all agree the name means beloved or dear or darling, which is sweet. I think of it as the name my mother gave me. She told me that when she was choosing names for my siblings and me she made sure they sounded okay in various situations—whispered or yelled, spoken in love or anger or reprimand. In particular, she wanted to make sure it sounded good when she hollered from a front porch as she called us in for dinner. I like how my name is neither common nor unique. Everyone knows the name, but relatively few have it. As a kid, I was always the only Cheryl in my class.
What was it like to have your name when you were a kid? Any good or bad nicknames?
A group of boys in seventh grade referred to me as Ms. Swede because I’m of Swedish descent and I have blonde hair, but that only lasted a few months. I always wanted a real nickname that stuck. As I kid, I fantasized my nickname was Coco. It sounded like the girl I wanted to be at the time—someone who was loved because she was cool and beautiful. I don’t want to be her anymore.
Before you revealed your identity as the author of the “Dear Sugar” column back in February, you wrote it semi-anonymously/semi-pseudonymously. What was it like to write without using your name?
Why do you say “semi”? I was trying to be actually anonymous/pseudonymous, while writing the truth about my life, which I suppose is impossible and hence the “semi.” People were always guessing who I was, often correctly. I didn’t write the column any differently because my name wasn’t on it, as many assumed. I’m as open in other writing as I am in the “Dear Sugar” column. The most educational part of writing those columns without attaching my name to it was how it felt to have thousands of people praise something I wrote without my being able to take credit for it. Sometimes it was painful to not be able to say “I wrote that!” But it was also good for me.
What’s your favorite writer’s name (not necessarily favorite writer–just a good writer name)?
I think Major Jackson has a pretty kickass name. It’s distinctive. Not to be fucked with. I also love Ira Sukrungruang because that repetition of the “ru” is pure delight, just like he is.
How do you pronounce your last name? Is it often mispronounced?
Sometimes people try to make it fancier than it is and they’ll pronounce it Stray-ED. But it’s just like the word. Like a strayed cat, I tell people by way of explanation. It rhymes with laid and paid.