Publication date: 7/10/2012
The anonymous “Dear Sugar” columnist has honed a unique literary algorithm for writing advice at The Rumpus.
So letter writers understand the nature of their predicaments, “Dear Sugar” responses start with a direct kick in the pants. Then, Sugar pours on the patience and assures them they are not alone with beautifully executed stories of others who have endured similar anxieties, cruelties or frailties. Finally, she stages a monologue on how to become defiantly “happy, humane, and occasionally all fucked up.”
Cheryl Strayed, also the author of the New York Times bestselling memoir Wild, is unmasked as the anonymous columnist in the upcoming book Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar.
Steve Almond, who was Sugar first, writes about handing the assignment over to Strayed:
“People come to her in real pain and she ministers to them, by telling stories about her own life, the particular ways in which she’s felt thwarted and lost, and how she got found again. She is able to transmute the raw material of the self-help aisle into genuine literature.”
In Tiny Beautiful Things, the shattered take a risk in sharing their troubles by writing honest and forthcoming letters. Sugar insists they are real people genuinely searching for ways to forgive or a means for becoming joyful again.
Almond calls Sugar’s letter responses “radical empathy” and a cult following hangs on her every word. Here is some loving advice from Sugar on overcoming insurmountable problems:
“You will learn a lot from yourself if you stretch in the direction of goodness, of bigness, of kindness, of forgiveness, of emotional bravery. Be a warrior for love.”
This is a firm how-to from Sugar on enduring toxic relationships:
“No is golden. No is the kind of power the good witch wields. It’s the way whole, healthy, emotionally evolved people manage to have relationships with jackasses while limiting the amount of jackass in their lives.”
Eloquent about trusting in the light in your chest “that goes blink, blink, blink,” Sugar wrote these gems to inspire liberal arts grads:
“Let whatever mysterious starlight that guided you this far, guide you onward into whatever crazy beauty awaits.”
“You have to pay your own electric bill. You have to be kind. You have to give it all you got. You have to find people who love you truly and love them back with the same truth. But that’s all.”
“I hope when people ask what you’re going to do with your English and/or creative writing degree you’ll say: Continue my bookish examination of the contradictions and complexities of human motivation and desire; or maybe just: Carry it with me, as I do everything that matters.”
One letter writer asks: “What do you do when you don’t know what to do about something?”
Sugar generously replies: “I talk to my partner and my friends. I make lists. I attempt to analyze the situation from the perspective of my “best self”—the one that’s generous, reasonable, forgiving, loving, big-hearted, and grateful.”
Believe it or not, Strayed sometimes falters as an advice columnist impersonator. In one column, she recognizes a reader’s real concern about a genetic link to cancer, but advises her to ignore “the crazy lady” in her head. Sugar wrapped the brutal opinion in a warm embrace, so we could assume things were kosher. We never see follow up letters.
She admits not being a licensed therapist or counselor. She doesn’t have an education in psychology. She is a writer. A good one. And, readers understand why they pour their hearts out to Sugar.
From one reader with managed expectations:
“Part of me feels selfish even writing to you, because I know you’ll call me honey bun and make me feel better when I don’t deserve it.”
As for humility, Strayed has taken her trek into the wild and emerged with a renewed self-respect. And, a hearty belief in everyone’s humanity.
“The reality is we often become our kindest, most ethical selves only by seeing what it feels to be a selfish jackass first.”
Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed is a highly worthwhile read. Beating the drum for this collection of “Dear Sugar” columns is easy. Keep a copy nearby when anger, pride, lust or injustice gets the better of you.
Category: Nonfiction, Advice