‘If You Want to Be Famous, Don’t Be a Writer’

I’m always curious about the relationship between ambition and fame. On one hand, the desire to be a famous writer can be useful—you have to have drive, ambition. You need to be balls-out doing what you’re going to do to have any hope of success. But on the other hand, so many writers conflate ambition with wanting to be famous. Particularly in the era of internet fame, whatever that is. Did you aspire to being a famous writer?

I want be recognized for beautiful work, for good work, for real work. I really want to be recognized for that. Which is different than saying I want to be famous.

If you want to be famous, don’t be a writer. When I was first thinking of myself as a writer back in my teens, the shorthand for that was fame. But then I started to really understand what writing was and who writers were. Who were the writers I valued the most as a young woman learning to write? They were people like Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Mary Gaitskill, Toni Morrison.

Those people I just named are super famous in our world, but most of the world doesn’t know them. So pretty quickly, to me it wasn’t about fame—it was about accomplishment. Once you let go of that fame thing, it’s the first step in really being able to focus on doing good work.

Because you can’t fake it. That’s the deal with writing. You can’t fake it. You read an Alice Munro story—it’s there or it’s not, you know? So I let that go pretty early on.

With fame, you have to get over it. You do. Because you will actually not succeed because of it.

Scratch Magazine interviews best-selling author Cheryl Strayed. (The interview is free to read after logging in.)

Read the interview

Photo: Sam Beebe