Bestselling author Cheryl Strayed asks her students two questions about their writing, questions that are important for each of us to examine about our own creative work—whatever your project might be. Strayed talks about these questions with Marie Forleo in this must-watch interview:

  • What’s the question at the core of your work?
  • What question are you trying to answer for others?

Strayed penned the bestselling book Wilda memoir about her hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. But really the book is about grief. “I went to hike that trail because I honestly didn’t know how to live without my mother. I really felt I couldn’t live without my mother,” Strayed tells Forleo.

Strayed’s exploration of her own grief translates into the struggle we all have: How do we live our lives after such significant loss? How do we walk the world without the presence of such an important person? As she further tells Forleo, it’s asking the universal questions: “How do we bear the unbearable? How do we endure our suffering?”

Strayed’s questions are powerful to consider whether you’re penning a memoir or preparing a presentation. They’re important to ask whether you’re designing a research study or taking a series of photographs.

In other words, it doesn’t matter what you’re working on. The key is to explore the intention, the deeper questions, underlying your creative work.

Maybe you’re exploring these deeper questions: How can I be a good mother when my own relationship with my mom has always been broken? Who am I without alcohol? How do I maintain my faith when I feel anything but faithful? How do I heal after heartbreak? How do I sit with discomfort? How can I hold two seemingly contradictory truths at the same time? How do I overcome my lifelong fear? How do I reconnect to myself after years of self-loathing? How do I get up when I’m overwhelmed? How do I appreciate the beauty when life has been so hard lately? How do I accept my body when I’ve hated it for decades? Does balance really exist? How do we forgive ourselves? How do we meet our needs? How do we keep a loved one’s memory alive? How do we deal with a lost dream? What does it mean to sacrifice? What does it mean to love unconditionally? 

Sometimes, we don’t know what underlies our project. We don’t know the profound questions we’re pursuing. All we know is that we need to write or paint or photograph. Maybe we do the work, and the questions are revealed. Sometimes, we feel a yearning to create, in different forms, with different mediums. Sometimes, we simply want to play. All of this, of course, is perfectly OK.

But if you’re wanting to carve out a sense of direction, if you’re wanting a guiding light, if you’re wanting your work to touch something universal, Strayed’s questions are valuable. As with any creative project, it’s completely up to you. You’re the designer. You’re the boss. After all, you’re the creator.

Photo by Alexander Csontala.