Sharon Stuart Cobb was born on November 19, 1942 in San Francisco, California, but was brought up in Berkeley, California along with her siblings.. She was raised as a “hellfire Calvinist”, as she describes it. Her father, like his before him, was an alcoholic who was often abusive to his children. In Olds’ writing she often refers to the time(or possibly even times) when her father tied her to a chair. Olds’ mother was often either unable or too afraid to come to the aid of her children. The strict religious environment Olds was raised in had certain rules of censorship and restriction. Olds was not permitted to go to the movies and the family did not own a television. As for the literature granted in the household Olds once said she won a singing contest in church choir. “[The prize] was a book of child martyrs who had been killed for their belief and died very politely.” She liked fairy tales, and also read Nancy Drew and Life Magazine. As for her own religious views and her exposure to religious literary art she says she was by nature "a pagan and a pantheist" and notes "I was in a church where there was both great literary art and bad literary art, the great art being psalms and the bad art being hymns. The four-beat was something that was just part of my consciousness from before I was born." She adds "I think I was about 15 when I conceived of myself as an atheist, but I think it was only very recently that I can really tell that there's nobody there with a copybook making marks against your name."
For schooling, Olds was sent east, to Dana Hall School, an all girl’s school for grades 6 to 12 in Wellesley, Massachusetts that boasts an impressive list of alumnae. There she studied mostly English, History, and Creative Writing. Her favorite poets included William Shakespeare, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Edna St. Vincent Millay, but it was Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and Other Poems which she carried in her purse through tenth grade. For her bachelor’s degree Olds returned to California where she earned her BA at Stanford University in 1964. Following this Olds once again move cross country to New York, where she earned her Ph. D. in English in 1972 from Columbia University. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on “Emerson’s Prosody”, because she appreciated the way he defied convention.
I want to live. I take them up like the male and female paper dolls and bang them together at the hips, like chips of flint, as if to strike sparks from them, I say Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.“ ” From “I Go Back to May 1937” Strike Sparks: Selected Poems 1980-2002 (2004)
In 2005, First Lady Laura Bush invited Olds to the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C. Olds responded, declining the invitation in an open letter published in the October 10, 2005 issue of The Nation. The letter closes: "So many Americans who had felt pride in our country now feel anguish and shame for the current regime of blood, wounds and fire. I thought of the clean linens at your table, the shining knives and the flames of the candles, and I could not stomach it".