For the Love of Lynda Barry

To love the work of an artist or writer you believe has not received due recognition is its own special hell. You’re doomed to an infinite loop of recitation as you eternally rattle off X’s accomplishments and chant reminders of the existence of X. For me, X = Lynda Barry.

lynda-barry-webWhile many will register recognition of Barry’s name and some will even mutter a yeah, she’s great, few seem to fully grasp her genius and realize that before comics were cool and women could fancy themselves cartoonists, a young Lynda was spending her Sundays on Seattle’s Beacon Hill copying the images of Snoopy and Nancy from the funny pages. Even here in her home state, she’s not given the full heft of the credit she’s due. It seems to be forgotten that not only did Lynda grow up right here in Seattle, but she spent four mossy coming-into-herself-as-an-artist years at Evergreen.

In fact, it was at Evergreen State College that Barry’s drawing went from a pastime to a compulsion. After a rough breakup, she started drawing strips in which “the men were cactuses and the women were women, and the cactuses were trying to convince the women to go to bed with them, and the women were constantly thinking it over but finally deciding it wouldn’t be a good idea.” It was at Evergreen where an editor of the school’s Cooper Point Journal named Matt Groening (Yep, The Simpsons creator, Matt Groening) hounded Barry to give him a strip to print, and thus began a lifelong friendship and Barry’s first published strip, Ernie Pook’s Comeek.

syllabusYet, Barry does not seem to share my interest in elevating her literary status. Her own focus over the last decade has been on investigating the nature of creative blocks and helping others to regain the creative habits of childhood. Barry has taught an intensive undergraduate class at the University of Wisconsin in Madison for the last few years and has been a perennial instructor at the Omega Institute for several summers running, teaching image-based writing classes that rest on the assumption that everyone can write. Barry’s 2010 book Syllabus documents Barry’s intensive and sometimes chaotic teaching style, one that appears to demand as much from the students as Barry seems to ask of herself. Reading the furiously packed pages of Syllabus, we learn that, among other requirements, her Madison students must fill several composition books in a semester with daily sketches and are strictly forbidden from phone checking during class or even during class breaks.

The logic behind Barry’s immersive pedagogical style likely originates in her belief in the elixir of creativity. “I’m devoted to the idea that the use of images can not only transform our experience of time and space, but also has an absolute biological function that is directly tied to an essential state of being which is this: the feeling that life is something worth living,” Barry said in a 2010 interview.

whatThis theme that creativity renders life livable is a strand that runs through her work as does her interest in wrangling with art’s deeper questions. Her popular 2008 book What It Is returns to the obsessive questioning of the nature and power of the image that haunted Barry in her student days as at Evergreen. In What It Is, Barry documents her deep desire to recapture “the floating feeling” drawing offered before the adult “two questions” of “Is this good?” and “Does it suck?” supplanted the joy of goalless creativity. Urging adults to return to the youthful pastime of drawing, Barry’s 2010 book, Picture This, is organized around her attempts to answer the question, “What makes us stop drawing?”

Barry’s nearly 40 years of publication include over a dozen books, a handful of greatest hits collections, and bylines in numerous mags and online sites, ranging from the slick and self-satisfied (Esquire) to the alt weekly to the early promising days of Salon when Salon was still the voice-driven precursor to The Rumpus. It was on Salon that Barry began a serialized coming-of-shame story, “One Hundred Demons,” which would later become the 2002 eponymously titled book of Crayola-bright drawings on yellow composition paper.

demonsOne! Hundred! Demons! opens with a self-portrait of the author at her drawing table facing her “demon,” a cross between the Loch Ness Monster and that horrific scenery-chewing creature from A Little Shop of Horrors. On the adjacent page—typical to the binary philosophical questions that underpin much of Barry’s seemingly simple stories—the author asks herself two questions she wisely never answers: “Is it autobiography if parts of it are not true? Is it fiction if parts of it are?” The rest of the introduction shows Barry discovering a painting exercise done by a Zen monk named Hakuin Ekaku in 16th Century Japan that gives Barry’s book its conceit. She will face her demons, and she promises to take us along for the ride. I’m in.

Her demons are a catalog of exquisite coming-of-age shame tales that take place mostly in Barry’s Seattle’s Beacon Hill childhood and adolescence. Despite Barry’s early announcement of a fictional strand in the stories, I’ve rarely read stories of growing up female in the 70s that capture that gritty reality so well. Barry is the master of the specific detail that convinces: The Jungle Gardenia perfume, the hitchhiking in halter tops, The Loving Spoonful, the frozen chicken pot pies, the beaded earring selling hippies, and the younger friend you ditched when you hit middle school.

From the first story, “Head Lice and My Worst Boyfriend,” Barry drops you into her very specific world without explanation, knowing you’re smart enough to figure out your way without a map. On the first page, we see Barry’s Filipina grandmother giving orders in a mix of Tagalog and English to a young redheaded Barry, who is on the next page discussing the mechanics of “cooties” with a mix of black and white kids on the school playground. Turn the page and we are in the Philippines, visiting relatives and listening to an argument among the local kids on whether head lice change color with the race of their victims. A few pages later Barry flashes us forward into a relationship with a pompous ponytailed boyfriend and reader of the Lonely Genius Gazette who calls her “little Ghetto Girl.” In the final frames, elementary school art teacher Lynda has passed lice onto her ponytailed boyfriend. In his irritation with her as they stand face to face with their heads covered with lice shampoo and shower caps, we feel this primal shame of bug infestations and spending our time with people who don’t love us and how truly alike those two experiences are.

demons strip

There is no brutal reality of female coming-of-age that Barry isn’t willing to wrestle in these pages: The random makeout sessions, the childhood molestation, and the adult expectation of resilience that really must translate into shame that goes underground and emerges in some random makeout session you’re not sure how you got yourself into (but maybe it has something to do with that wine stolen from the neighborhood synagogue). Yet, going through these 100 demons with Barry doesn’t feel brutal. It feels reassuring. It feels like being seen with all your broken parts and messiness.
It feels like genius.

Lynda Barry’s Tumblr blog:

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Martin Luther King, Jr.: The Writer

We writers sometimes fall into thinking that we must have the perfect conditions to write–the cafe thrumming with activity but not too much activity or the pristine den where a carefully curated playlist cheers us on. But the truth is when we truly must commit our words to the page, we will write, no matter what the conditions. Four days after white clergy published a statement urging Civil Rights activists to “go slow” and fight their battle in the courts rather than the streets, Martin Luther King, Jr. started writing. In his jail cell. Without even a pad of paper.

“Begun on the margins of the newspaper in which the statement appeared while I was in jail, the letter was continued on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly Negro trusty, and concluded on a pad my attorneys were eventually permitted to leave me. Although the text remains in substance unaltered, I have indulged in the author’s prerogative of polishing it for publication,” King said of what later became famously known as the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” a letter of many enduring ideas including the resonant “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Let’s honor Martin Luther King, Jr. the writer as well as the man this week. I encourage you to read the excerpt of his letter below and be inspired to write what you must. I encourage you to take the time to write–no matter how difficult your conditions might be.

Excerpt from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”:

We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God given rights. The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward gaining political independence, but we still creep at horse and buggy pace toward gaining a cup of coffee at a lunch counter. Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience. You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court’s decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, at first glance it may seem rather paradoxical for us consciously to break laws. One may well ask: “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.”

You can read the full text of the letter here.

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“I want to double down on me.”

jill soloway

Jill Soloway

I’ve been pretty obsessed with Jill Soloway’s  series Transparent this winter break, which led me to reading Ariel Levy’s fabulous profile of Soloway in The New Yorker titled “Dolls and Feelings.” There are a dozen reasons why any emerging writer should read this profile, but the juncture of Soloway’s story that keeps replaying in my head is the one at which her career was at its lowest point and she made the decision to “double down” on herself (see excerpt below). Even though the sensible thing for Soloway to do at that moment in her life would have been to pay off debt, she decided to bet on herself instead. This part of the story replays in my head because I know that every writer who succeeds has made that same decision at some point. At some point–or at many points–we have to commit to ourselves and our material. We have to bet on ourselves. We have to bet on our themes, our narratives, our particular and quirky way of telling a story. We have to “double down” on ourselves.

From The New Yorker profile, “Dolls and Feelings”:

In 2011, after almost two decades as a television writer, Soloway was broke, with two kids, trying to recover from the recent writers’ strike and the recession. Then her old friend Jane Lynch, who was starring on “Glee,” told her about a job on the show, and Soloway went to meet with the producers. “Finally, here’s this moment where I’m meeting on ‘Glee,’ ” Soloway said. “Ryan Murphy wants to hire me. I’ve been best friends with Jane Lynch for about three decades—we’re sisters. It’s happening.” As Soloway drove home from the meeting, her agent called to say, “Pop the champagne—they loved you.” A week later, he called again: Murphy had heard that Soloway was “difficult,” and wasn’t going to give her the job. The agent said he’d send a check to tide her over.

That night, Soloway sat in the bathtub, while her husband, Bruce Gilbert, a music supervisor for film and television, brushed his teeth. She remembers telling him, “ ‘I don’t want to use the money to pay off our debt. I want to be a director, and I want to make a film with it and get into Sundance. I want to double down on me.’ And Bruce was, like, ‘O.K.’ ” Then, just as Soloway was making the leap to directing her own material, her father called one afternoon and came out as transgender.

Interestingly, Soloway had already been working with the theme of gender identity for years. But at this juncture her commitment to herself met opportunity and she grabbed it. I’ve interviewed dozens of writers about how their books came into being and this prior decision to commit preparing them to seize an opportunity is a common story. Many times the writers had to overcome the culture’s and their own negation of their subject. In a recent interview I did with Cheryl Strayed, she talked about how in grad school the cool topics to write about were drugs, sex, and rock and roll, but the thing she wanted to write about was the decidedly uncool topic of being sad about the loss of her mother. Accepting that her grief was her material was an essential part of her process of doubling down on herself.

What would it look like for you to double down on yourself in the coming year? I’ve been answering that question for myself this past week, and I challenge you to wrestle with it too. Let’s double down together.

Happy New Year, Readers! I appreciate you.


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Upcoming Writing Classes (in Seattle, Online, Beyond)

author photo 3 bwI wanted to let you know about a few new classes I’m teaching at the beginning of 2016. These are all introductory classes–ideal for someone looking to get started writing in the personal narrative genre.

Sundays, Jan 3-31: I’m teaching my online Memoir Essentials class four Sunday mornings in January. We meet from 10am to 11:15am Pacific Time. Class includes lecture, writing prompts, discussion, and homework. $149.

Saturday, January 30th at 10am: Introduction to Personal Narrative. FREE class at Sno-Isle Library in Freeland, WA (Whidbey Island). Contact library in advance to register.


A few recommended classes taught by others (Seattle):

Fiction that Dares with Sonora Jha: Hugo House Jan 13-Mar 20

The You Review of Books with Paul Constant and Martin McClellan: Hugo House Jan 14-Feb 18

A workshop I’ve heard amazing things about (Chamonix, France):

The Mont Blanc Writers Workshop with many interesting writers including Cheryl Stayed, Erin Belieu, and Pam Houston: June, 2016

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A Short Gratitude list for a gray December Morning

mandarin1.       What genius invented the Mandarin orange? I’m not a person who likes to struggle for food. Cracking and scraping my way through a plate of crab hardly feels worth it. Shelled nuts? Seriously? Sunflower seeds? No! Yet, I love the feeling of triumph that winning an easy fight brings. The mandarin’s peel shrugs off readily and curls beside me on the sofa. I am master of my world.

no camping 2.       I love the cave of winter. The gray rain forces windows shut, the noise of the city all but silenced. Rain—especially driving rain—absolves me. Kayaking, camping, and the like are now out of the question. It is right that I am huddled inside, reading and writing and snacking.



Queen's Freddie Mercury in 1982   3. Have we revered Freddie Mercury amply? As it IS gray and wet and December, I was able to devote much time yesterday to watching clips of Mercury on YouTube.  Such full-throated operatic terror! Such sturm und drang! SUCH humor! And how very sly Mercury was. How majestically he slipped into our repressed 1970s homes under the seemingly innocuous label “Queen.” How masterfully he tricked all of us into singing along with “Killer Queen” in our Pintos and Gremlins as half our carload of friends plotted their way out the closet. Say it with me, “Freddie, we love you!” Freddie, you were so ahead of your time that you don’t even have a time. You were singular and without rival.

Actor Jim Carrey as Ebenezer Scrooge4.       Charles Dickens’ The Christmas Carol is literature’s greatest expression of the midlife experience. In a strange twist of fate, I was cast in the role of Ebenezer when I was 11, far before nontraditional casting was a thing. Even though some classmates teased me about playing a male character, I was overcome with joy to be cast–finally— in a leading role. I was convinced that all the love I wanted in life would come to me swiftly if I could just excel in some surprising way in an artistic endeavor. I threw myself into the role, growling my bah-humbugs with a severity that has no place in children’s theater.

The reviews were mixed, but memorizing the Ebenezer’s lines was  prescient preparation for my adult struggle with the Christmas season and with the cynicism of midlife. I don’t think I will ever be as convinced by a sweeping character transformation as I am by Ebenezer’s. Tormented by the ghosts of Past, Present, and–most horribly–the Future, he snaps. He loves again. Of course, he does. He’s had the crap scared out of him. This isn’t a “I will change because it’s right” transformation. This is a broken hallelujah. This is the you’ve-been-beaten-out-of-your-own-denial shift of middle age.

I remember feeling his transformation brightening inside me as I raced across the center stage my one night in the spotlight (Christmas plays don’t have a long run). I remember the joy of arriving at the Cratchit home, the surprise on their faces that this time I’d come with love and presents. Part of me knew even then that Ebenezer was all of us. He’s  often viewed as some aberrant jerk but, in fact, we all have to struggle with a heart that wants to close after disappointments. We all have to remember to stop counting and to give with abandon.

We love you, Ebenezer, and we forgive you.











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Registration now open for January Memoir Essentials Webinar with Theo Pauline Nestor

This course has now passed but it is still possible to register and receive recordings of all four sessions as well as the corresponding handouts. To register, pay via the pink Pay Pal button below.

What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that, the power of a writing imagination is required. As V.S. Pritchett once said of the genre, ‘It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.’”—Vivian Gornick, The Situation and the Story

Want to get serious about writing your memoir in the new year?  Enroll in my January Memoir Essentials course, a four-class webinar focused on the fundamentals of memoir writing that also offers generative writing tasks designed to take you deeper into your story. We will discuss the essential elements of memoir writing—how to create scenes that move your story forward, how to use summary and reflection effectively, how to narrow your topic, and how to structure your narrative. This class will also include numerous material-generating activities that will help you hone in on the story you need to tell and develop the voice in which to tell it.

Register here:  Enrollment in Memoir Essentials (4) 1.25 hour-long classes that meet on Sunday January 3, 10, 24 and 31 at 10am Pacific Time.  Registration fee via Pay Pal (credit cards accepted):$149.  buy now

(You will receive a confirmation email with instructions for participating in the webinar after clicking the pink “Buy Now” link and making your payment via Pay Pal or credit card).

Course outline:

  • First meeting: Introduction to the memoir genre; understanding story structure and how to develop your memoir’s narrative arc, narrator transformation and the hero’s journey.
  • Second meeting: The three narrative modes of memoir: Scene, Summary, and Musing; the essentials of scene writing; the use of time in a memoir; how to write a scene that sizzles.
  • Third meeting: Developing the emotional preoccupation of your memoir; creating a narrator and a narrative readers care about; developing the universal elements of your story.
  • Fourth meeting:  Finding your voice as a writer; letting your personality show up on the page; obsessions; special memberships; creating a narrator who serves as your story’s “central consciousness.”

How does it work? During our meetings, I will be giving lectures on the various memoir topics listed in the course outline above and fielding questions from you on these topics. I will also be guiding you through in-class memoir writing exercises and giving you optional assignments to work on outside of class. Each week you’ll read assigned readings from our texts and short writing assignments.

The logistics: Shortly after you enroll, you’ll be sent a confirmation email with a link to the register on our class’ GoToWebinar page. You will attend our class meetings over the phone or online through As long as you can dial in, you’ll be able to hear the class discussion. If you are online, you’ll also be able to see me and the class blackboard. If you miss a class (or want to listen to it again), the recordings with audio and the class blackboard will be available for you to listen to at your convenience.

What if I miss a meeting? The day after the class meeting, you’ll receive a link to a recording of the meeting, which you can listen to at anytime. The recording includes all the auditory aspects of the class and the Power Point slideshow that plays on the class blackboard.

What if I want to ask a question before I register? Email me at

Can I pay by check or money order? Yes, email me at for instructions.

author photo 3 bwWho’s the instructor?  Theo Pauline Nestor is the author of Writing Is My Drink: A Writer’s Story of Finding Her Voice (And a Guide to How You Can Too) (Simon & Schuster, 2013) and How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed: A Memoir of Starting Over (Crown, 2008), which was selected by Kirkus Reviews as a 2008 Top Pick for Reading Groups and as a Target “Breakout Book.” An award-winning instructor, Nestor has taught the memoir certificate course for the University of Washington’s Professional & Continuing Education program since 2006 and also teaches at Richard Hugo House in Seattle. She holds and MA in English Literature from San Francisco State University and an MFA in Creative Writing (Fiction) from the University of Washington. Nestor also produces events for writers such as the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat, Bird by Bird & Beyond, and the Black Mesa Writers’ Intensive, featuring talks by literary leaders such as Anne Lamott, Cheryl Strayed, Julia Cameron, and Natalie Goldberg. She lives in Seattle with her family and their cat, Rory. You can follow her on Facebook here and on Twitter @theopnestor. Read testimonials from coaching clients here.

When do we meet? Our class meetings will be consecutive Sundays: January 3, 10, 24, and 31 from 10am to 11:15 am Pacific Time.

How do I enroll? To enroll in the course, click on the “Buy Now” button for the course below to pay either through Pay Pal or with a credit card. After your payment has been received, you’ll receive a course confirmation with further instructions. If you prefer to pay by check or money order, email me at

Can I get a refund?  Yes, until January 4th at 5pm Pacific Time (24 hours after our first meeting), your registration fee is 100 percent refundable. To get a refund, send a request for a refund to After January 4th, the webinar registration fee becomes non-refundable.

What have past participants said about the Memoir Essentials webinar:

“Theo was well organized and used great examples to illustrate her points. It was clear that she was passionate and very knowledgeable about the subject. Homework was manageable and inspiring.”

“Some of the things like developing your narrator’s voice, learning what your character’s flaw is, and defining special memberships and obsessions. Also really learned a lot about how to move the story forward.”

“The lectures provided suggestions to help organize my life experiences into a coherent, interesting memoir. Writer’s block was not as much of a problem for me as in the past, because I felt like I had a way to structure my thoughts.”

“Definitely would recommend to friends and already have because Theo is able to explain things very clearly. She demystifies the process of memoir writing. Even though I’ve published three personal essays, I felt I learned a lot from this webinar. Thanks, Theo!”

“Having taken this class, I can only say that I highly recommend this series to anyone endeavoring into writing a memoir or is entrenched in one. Theo’s style and references to memoirs that she draws upon as well as providing simple worksheets that truly help structure your thoughts. She communicates very clearly and gets to the core of why we write in the first place. I was stuck in a spot where I felt I was just drawing upon memory and the story felt disjointed until I uncovered some tools she provides in this class.I highly recommend this course. Thank you, Theo!”

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What I Learned About Life and Writing Onstage with Cheryl Strayed

Cheryl Strayed's Brave Enough, A Conversation with Theo Pauline

Photo: Jason Tang

A few weeks ago I did an onstage conversation with Cheryl Strayed here in Seattle about her new book, Brave Enough, a collection of quotes that yield up her trademark no-nonsense wisdom. The entire experience was a Dear Sugar Boot Camp of learning that began the moment Cheryl asked me to do the event (Why would I want to do such a scary thing and yet how could I not want to?) and continued all the way through my preparation (Reading Brave Enough several times in a row alters the molecular structure of your cowardice) and throughout our 1.5 hours onstage.

Here are two of the nuggets of Strayed wisdom I gained from the experience:

Nugget 1: How to Not Let Fear Ruin What Actually Could Be Fun and Joyful

brave enoughAgreeing to do the event meant that for the first time in my life I would be onstage in front of 800 people. Very quickly I decided that I didn’t want this nice opportunity to be a source of dread and anxiety. I  thought about the onstage conversations I’d enjoyed listening to the most, which were invariably the ones in which the interviewer was at ease and the conversation had the intimate quality of friends talking. Even though most of us find public speaking daunting, no one wants to watch the spectacle of anxiety. As audience members, we want to be transported by bold confidence. So my task was to access that confidence pronto. As I was wondering how I might do that, I was reading the galley of Brave Enough and came across this quote from Wild:

Fear, to a great extent, is born of a story we tell ourselves, and so I chose to tell myself a different story from the one women are told. I decided I was safe. I was strong. I was brave. That nothing could vanquish me. Insisting on this story was a form of mind control, but for the most part it worked. Every time I felt something horrible cohering in my imagination, I pushed it away. I simply did not let myself become afraid. Fear begets fear. Power begets power. I willed myself to beget power. And it wasn’t long before I actually wasn’t afraid.

What better way to prepare for the event than to apply the wisdom Cheryl shares in the very book we’d be discussing?  I began to tell myself that being afraid wasn’t an option, and I then remembered how during the 2nd episode of Dear Sugar Radio Cheryl had again talked about laying down the law with herself and ruling out the possibility of negative thinking:

“Right before [the movie] Wild premiered… I went into the bathroom and looked at myself in the mirror and said, ‘You are not allowed to think anything negative about your body, your weight, or your looks anymore. If you think those things, push them out of my mind.’”

As I read deeper into Brave Enough, I began to realize that this Just Say No to Bullshit Thinking is actually a crucial refrain throughout Cheryl’s writing, an essential tenet of Sugarism.

I saw it here: “You know what I do when I feel jealous? I tell myself not to feel jealous. I shut down the Why not me? voice and replace it with one that says Don’t be silly instead. It really is that easy. You actually stop being an awful jealous person by stopping being an awful jealous person.”

And here it was again: “Self-pity is a dead-end road. You make the choice to drive down it. It’s up to you to decide to stay parked there or to turn around and drive out.”

And so–fortified by these just-don’t-go-there quotes–I continued to remind myself that nervousness wasn’t an option whenever anxiety about the event started to bubble up. I also started to imagine how I wanted to feel when I was onstage. I wanted to have fun! Sure,  I wanted the audience to enjoy themselves, but I also wanted the event to actually be enjoyable for me. I felt driven to create that enjoyment for myself because there have been many supposedly fun and exciting things throughout my career that I didn’t enjoy because I was anxious. This enjoyment that I would feel onstage would be my chance to make up for all the needless worry I’d put myself through in the past.

cheryl theo besties

In the green room with Cheryl Strayed, my besties, and my younger daughter.

Did all this Brave Enough preparation work? It did. I felt a brief flash of terror as we stood behind the stage’s velvet curtain listening to our introductions, and then I said to myself, “This is the fun night that you’ve been preparing for! You got this!” And then the stage manager said, “Okay, go!” and I did.

Nugget 2: Cheryl Strayed’s Two Questions for Writers Could Save You Years of Wandering Lost in the Wilderness.

Photo: Jason Tang

Photo: Jason Tang

It seems like there was nothing we didn’t talk about during the next hour and a half. We ran the gamut from feminism, Gloria Steinem, Oprah Winfrey, grief, fear, and memoir to the female orgasm (yep!). But one of the most memorable and nugget-worthy moments of the evening was when Cheryl talked about the two questions she poses to her writing students.

“The first question I have them answer is ‘What’s the question at the core of your work?'” she said. Then she shared that hers was “How can I live without my mother?” She said that after her students form this first question, she asks them to come up with a second question–a universal one that asks “What question are you trying to answer for others?” Cheryl said that the universal question for her work has been “How do we go on when we’ve lost the essential thing?” The second question, she explained, is how the work becomes not just about the writer but about everyone as “we’ve all– at some point in our lives–lost the essential thing.”

These two questions are the gold I’ve carried away from that evening. I’ve been sharing them with all my writing classes and asking my students to formulate both an individual question and a universal one. When they go around the room and share their two questions, I think about how lucky I was to get to do this event with Cheryl and how the best type of wisdom is the kind you can use right away.

You can listen to the recording of the entire event here. If you want to hear Cheryl talking about the two questions for writers, start at minute 57:00.

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