the dictionary project author interview: cheryl strayed

Today is the second Wednesday of July and time for an author interview at the dictionary project. I’m thrilled to share that today we have an interview with Cheryl Strayed, author of the bestselling memoir WILD and the voice of “Dear Sugar” at The Rumpus. Her newest book Tiny Beautiful Things, released yesterday, culls together many of her “Dear Sugar” columns along with some new additions. I first became familiar with Cheryl’s writing when she was writing anonymously as the voice of Sugar. I was immediately captivated not only by her beautiful writing but by the compassion, sincerity, and strength of her voice. Cheryl’s voice is so needed in our world. Her writing wrestles the with big questions and does so with insightful, smart, beautifully-crafted language.  Please enjoy this sampling.


Photo Credit: Brian Lindstrom


1.   Please share a memory/story/thought in relation to a dictionary/dictionaries:

“Look it up in the dictionary” was a common refrain in my childhood. It was what my mother said to me whenever I asked her what a particular word meant. I would sigh and pretend to be put out, but really I loved looking up words in the dictionary. I still do. When I was 12 or so I spent several weeks reading my family’s dictionary in search of antiquated words. When I found one I liked, I’d add it to a list I kept, along with its definition. This is how I learned words like prick-me-dainty, flibbertigibbet, and honeyfuggle. I’ve spent the subsequent years using them in conversation whenever I can.

2.   What is your current favorite word?

I think supercalifragilisticexpialidocious will always be my favorite word. There’s just so much joy in it. Favorite words have been on my mind a lot over this past year, during which I did the final edits of my two most recent books—WILD and TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS. In that process I got to see what my favorite words were because my editor, Robin Desser, pointed them out to me with her all-seeing editor’s pencil. In the first draft of WILD I used the word ache an awful lot. In TINY BEAUTIFUL THINGS my overused word was heal. Funny how those two words are opposites in many ways and there they were in my two back-to-back books. We heal our aches. We ache to heal


3.  What, in your opinion, is the most obnoxious/insidious/annoying word?

Maiden. As in one’s “maiden name.” Whenever anyone asks me what my maiden name is I have an internal hissy fit. The string of assumptions that go along with the notion that women have “maiden” names makes me crazy—the primary one being that a woman married a man and took his name. I do not have a maiden name, but I do have a different name than the one I had when I was younger and that name change has nothing to do with my status as a so-called “maiden,” nor does it have to do with my husband. When I explain this to the various customer service people who dare to inquire about my maiden name they generally act as if I’m speaking Latin, but I persist anyway. It’s my small part for the advancement of humankind.


4.  Please respond to the following words and definitions, picked exclusively and randomly for you:



pho·to·graph·ic  (fō-tə-ˈgra-fik),  adj.  1.  of or like a photograph or photography: as, his photographic writing.  2.  used in or made by photography, as equipment, records, etc. Abbreviated phot. photog. 

There has been too much photography in my life lately. Too many times when I’m standing there in front of the camera trying to figure out what the hell to do with my mouth. In my experience it’s the mouth that’s hardest to get right. One must hold it in a position that conveys intelligence and attractiveness, calm approachability as well as serious intensity. Usually I just give up and smile.


bar·ris·ter  (ˈber-ə-stər),  n.  [< bar  (court of justice)],  in England, a qualified member of the legal profession who presents and pleads cases in court; counselor-at-law: distinguished from solicitor: abbreviated barr., bar.—SYN. see lawyer.


I’ve never understood this word, so I tend to avoid it. Even reading this definition, I still feel unsure. Is a barrister an attorney? What’s a solicitor? When I hear the word barrister I picture a man in a white shirt with lots of ruffles at the front. It isn’t a good thing.



roup  (rüp),  n.  [prob.  < ME. roupen, to cry, shout  < ON., but akin to AS. hropan, G. rufen, to call],  1.  a poultry disease characterized by hoarseness and a catarrhal discharge from the eyes and nasal passages.  2.  hoarseness; huskiness.


Interesting that the roup is so close to the word croup—one is a respiratory disease in birds, the other in humans. My kids never had croup, I’m glad to say, but I always liked the sound of it. It’s a word I’m attracted to, you could say. It reminds me of the American pioneers. Did Laura Ingalls Wilder have croup? Did her family’s flock of chickens have roup? I had chickens as a teenager, mostly hens whom we called The Girls. They never got roup to my knowledge, but one of them nearly died after she got an egg stuck inside of her. My mother devised a homemade hen douche and douched her, thereby saving her life. True story.



stay  (stā),  v.i.  [STAYED (stād) or archaic STAID (stād), STAYING], [ME. staien; Anglo-Fr. estaier; OFr. ester; L. stare, to stand] 1.  to continue in the place or condition specified; remain; keep: as, stay at home, the weather stayed bad for three days, these clothes won’t stay white.  2.  to be located for a while, especially as a guest or resident; live, dwell, or reside (for the time specified).  3.  to stand still; stop; halt.  4.  to pause; tarry; wait; delay: as, stay a little before going on with your labors.  5.  [Colloq.], to keep up, as with another contestant in a race.  7.  [Archaic], to cease.  8. [Archaic], to make a stand, stand one’s ground.  9.  in poker, to remain in a hand by seeing, or meeting, a bet, ante, or raise.  v.t.  1.  to stop, halt, or check.  2.  to hinder, impede, restrain, or detain.  3.  to postpone or delay (legal action or proceedings).  4.  [Rare], to quell or allay (strike, etc.).  5.  to satisfy or appease for a time the pangs or cravings of (thirst, appetite, etc.).  6.  to remain through, during, for, or (with out)to the end of: as, stay the week (out).  7.  [Archaic], to await; wait for.  n.  1.  a)  a stopping or being stopped.  b) a stop, halt, check, or pause.  2.  a postponement or delay in legal action or proceedings: as, the main was given a stay of execution.  3.  a)  the action of remaining or continuing in a place for a time.  b)  time spent in a place: as, she had a long stay in the hospital.  4.  [Colloq.], staying power.  5.  [Archaic], a standstill.  6.  [Obs.], a)  a hindrance. b)  restraint or control.  c)  delay.


My favorite use of this word is the fifth definition: “to satisfy or appease for a time the pangs or cravings of….” I don’t use it nearly enough.



sift  (sift),  v.t.  [ME. siften; AS. siftan  <  sife, a sieve; askin to G. sichten; cf. SIEVE],  1.  to pass through a sieve so as to separate the course from the fine particles.  2.  to scatter (a pulverized substance) by or as by the use of a sieve.  3.  to inspect or examine with care, as by teasing or questioning; weigh (evidence, etc.).  4.  to separate; screen; distinguish: as, he sifted fact from fable.  v.i.  1.  to sift something.  2.  to pass through or as through a sieve.


The question I have is who sifts flour? Is it necessary or is it just another way of convincing ourselves we have more control than we do? I have wondered this often. The only time I’ve ever sifted flour is in the home economics classes I took in school, when I was required to follow specific steps and the tools were all laid out before me. Nothing bad has happened to me for not sifting my flour so far. No cakes have fallen. No bread ruined. I’ve taken my chances and it’s turned out okay. I’m lucky that way.



Cheryl Strayed is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of the memoir WILD (Alfred A. Knopf), and the critically acclaimed novel, Torch (Houghton Mifflin). She has been writing the “Dear Sugar” advice column for The Rumpus since March 11, 2010 and her latest book, Tiny Beautiful Things (Vintage Books), is a collection of those columns.Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post Magazine, Vogue, Allure, Self, The Missouri Review, Brain, Child, Creative Nonfiction, The Sun and elsewhere. She lives in Portland, Oregon.



Filed under author interviews

2 responses to “the dictionary project author interview: cheryl strayed

  1. R

    I’m so excited Cheryl Strayed was interviewed for the dictionary project! I’m going to see her in SF at the end of the month for the Tiny Beautiful Things release and I can’t wait!Thank you!

  2. What wonderful & lovely stuff. Thanks.

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