Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life From Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed
Vintage Books 2012
Non-fiction: Advice, Psychology, Philosophy, Memoir
“Dear Sugar” is an advice column at the online literary site, The Rumpus. Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of previously published letters and responses from that column, as well as some new ones that hadn’t been published before, all culled from a collection of thousands and thousands of letters and organised in five groups. You can read all the original letters and Sugar’s replies on the site, though there have been no new Dear Sugar letters-and-replies since May 2012. I would imagine the wonderful woman behind the persona of Sugar, Cheryl Strayed, is much too busy for the unpaid job anymore – and with good reason.
I had never read The Rumpus or the Dear Sugar column before; hadn’t, in fact, heard of it before learning of this book – no surprise there, I just don’t have the time to read things online or even explore it that much (and what a shame that is!). I learned of Tiny Beautiful Things through the equally wonderful site, Brain Pickings, on a post featuring The Best Books of 2012: Your 10 Overall Favorites, which included a quote from Steve Almond’s incredibly quotable introduction to the book (he was the first “Sugar”, before passing the baton on to Strayed) – and because it’s what made me instantly order a copy, I want to include the same quote here:
The column that launched Sugar as a phenomenon was written in response to what would have been, for anyone else, a throwaway letter. Dear Sugar, wrote a presumably young man. WTF? WTF? WTF? I’m asking this question as it applies to everything every day. Cheryl’s reply began as follows:
My father’s father made me jack him off when I was three and four and five. I wasn’t good at it. My hands were too small and I couldn’t get the rhythm right and I didn’t understand what I was doing. I only knew I didn’t want to do it. Knew it made me feel miserable and anxious in a way so sickeningly particular that I can feel the same particular sickness rising this very minute in my throat.
It was an absolutely unprecedented moment. Advice columnists, after all, adhere to an unspoken code: focus on the letter writer, dispense all necessary bromides, make it all seem bearable. Disclosing your own sexual assault is not part of the code.
But Cheryl wasn’t just trying to shock some callow kid into greater compassion. She was announcing the nature of her mission as Sugar. Inexplicable sorrows await all of us. That was her essential point. Life isn’t some narcissistic game you play online. It all matters — every sin, every regret, every affliction. As proof, she offered an account of her own struggle to reckon with a cruelty she’s absorbed before she was old enough to even understand it. Ask better questions, sweet pea, she concluded. The fuck is your life. Answer it. [pp.4-5]
I have always found the questions asking for advice in magazines interesting to read, though the answers are always too short and too “professional” to be all that entertaining or educational: what I always wanted from such columns was to learn a little about someone else’s life, to gain some perspective by seeing things from another perspective, and to, hopefully, pick up some useful advice that would either lend itself to my own life, or help me understand someone else’s. I don’t read self-help books – in fact, I detest them. The difference here is how deeply personal and private these letters – and Sugar’s responses – are. There are no generalities. And the way Sugar writes her responses is so very, very different – and so much more hard-hitting – than the usual agony aunt replies, that you can’t help but be effected when you read them.
Cheryl Strayed is a wonderful, unique writer. You can’t help but read this book with tears in your eyes and a clenching in your gut. You can’t read it in a detached way, or even in a “oh my life is so much better than this person’s, thank God” way of feeling better about yourself. You are granted insight into fragile, vulnerable states of mind, including Sugar’s. And she has a way of replying that makes everything relatable, regardless of the fact that you have never experienced the problem the letter-writer has.
What I admire most about the say Sugar gives advice, is how she forces the letter-writers to look for the answers within themselves. She presents the facts as she knows and understands them, and paints a picture, and walks the writer through it, and gets them to focus on the right questions, or to see where their thinking is clouded. The stories – they are letters, but they are stories too, because Sugar often tells stories from her own life, relates things to her own experiences, thus giving them weight and empathy – that I most connected with were the ones in response to a woman struggling to write and suffering from depression, and a woman who wanted to have a baby on her own, after her boyfriend went back to his ex-wife and her own biological clock is in its last ticks.
…you’ll have a baby. An amazing little being who will blow your mind and expand your heart and make you think things you never thought and remember things you believed you forgot and heal things you imagined would never heal and forgive people you’ve begrudged for too long and understand things you didn’t understand before you fell madly in love with a tiny tyrant who doesn’t give a damn whether you need to pee. You will sing again if you stopped singing. You will dance again if you stopped dancing. You will crawl around on the floor and play chase and tickle and peek-a-boo. You’ll make towers of teetering blocks and snakes and rabbits with clay.
It’s an altogether cool thing.
And it will be lonely, too, doing all that without a partner. How lonely, I can’t say. You will hold your baby and cry sometimes in frustration, in rage, in despair, in exhaustion and inexplicable sorrow. You will watch your baby with joy and laugh at the wonder so pure and the beauty so unconcealed that it will make you ache. These are the times when it’s really nice to have a partner, M. What will you do? How will you fill the place where the man you’ve been holding out for would have been?
That is your hard question for me – the one I didn’t ask myself when I decided to get pregnant and become a mother, though of course it was naïve for me to think I didn’t have to. Not a single one of us knows what the future holds. The unexpected happens even when we’ve got everything mapped out. [...]
It works in reverse too. What you fear might not come to pass. You might decide to have your baby and find true love in the midst of that. You might search your soul and realize that you don’t want a baby after all, not if it means going it without a man.
What’s important is that you make the leap. Jump high and hard with intention and heart. Pay no mind to the vision the [High Commission on Heterosexual Love and Sexual Reproduction] made up. It’s up to you to make your life. Take what you have and stack it up like a tower of teetering blocks. Build your dream around that. [pp.122-123]
In response to the woman struggling to write while feeling envy towards friends who had secured a book deal, Sugar shares her experiences writing her first novel, Torch. She describes that book as a second heart, beating strongly in her chest but never materialising until, with her thirtieth birthday approaching, she realised that it wouldn’t come at all unless she sat down and thought of “only one thing longer and harder than I thought possible. I would have to suffer. By which I meant work.”
At the time, I believed that I’d wasted my twenties by not having come out of them with a finished book, and I bitterly lambasted myself for that. I thought a lot of the same things about myself that you do, Elissa Bassist. That I was lazy and lame. That even though I had the story in me, I didn’t have it in me to see it to fruition, to actually get it out of my body and onto the page, to write, as you say, with “intelligence and heart and lengthiness.” But I’d finally reached a point where the prospect of not writing a book was more awful than the one of writing a book that sucked. And so at last, I got to serious work on the book.
When I was done writing it, I understood that things happened just as they were meant to. That I couldn’t have written my book before I did. I simply wasn’t capable of doing so, either as a writer or a person. To get to the point I had to get to to write my first book, I had to do everything I did in my twenties. I had to write a lot of sentences that never turned into anything and stories that never miraculously formed a novel. I had to read voraciously and compose exhaustive entries in my journals. I had to waste time and grieve my mother and come to terms with my childhood and have stupid and sweet and scandalous sexual relationships and grow up. In short, I had to gain the self-knowledge that Flannery O’Connor mentions in that quote I wrote on my chalkboard. And once I got there I had to make a hard stop at self-knowledge’s first product: humility.
Do you know what that is, sweat pea? [sic] To be humble? The word comes from the Latin words humilis and humus. To be down low. To be of the earth. To be on the ground. That’s where I went when I wrote the last word of my first book. Straight onto the cool tile floor to weep. I sobbed and I wailed and I laughed through my tears. I didn’t get up for half an hour. I was too happy and grateful to stand. I had turned thirty-five a few weeks before. I was two months pregnant with my first child. I didn’t know if people would think my book was good or bad or horrible or beautiful and I didn’t care. I only knew I no longer had two hearts beating in my chest. I’d pulled one out with my bare hands. I’d suffered. I’d given it everything I had.
I’d finally been able to give it because I’d let go of all the grandiose ideas I’d once had about myself and my writing – so talented! so young! I’d stopped being grandiose. I’d lowered myself to the notion that the absolute only thing that mattered was getting that extra beating heart out of my chest. Which meant I had to write my book. My very possibly mediocre book. My very possibly never-going-to-be-published book. My absolutely nowhere-in-league-with-the-writers-I’d-admired-so-much-that-I-practically-memorized-their-sentences book. It was only then, when I humbly surrendered, that I was able to do the work I needed to do. [pp.56-7]
I feel emotional, and very, very human, just reading these snippets again, here and now. There’s something incredibly humbling – I choose that word deliberately – about the way Sugar writes and provides perspective. She avoids bullshit, she demolishes the neuroses and visions in people’s heads, and reduces things to the key point.
Go, because you want to.
Because wanting to leave is enough. Get a pen. Write that last sentence on your palm – all three of you. Then read it over and over again until your tears have washed it away.
Doing what one wants to do because one wants to do it is hard for a lot of people, but I think it’s particularly hard for women. We are, after all, the gender onto which a giant Here to Serve
But an ethical and evolved life also entails telling the truth about oneself and living out that truth.
Leaving a relationship because you want to doesn't exempt you from your obligation to be a decent human being. You can leave and still be a compassionate friend to your partner. Leaving because you want to doesn't mean you pack your bags the moment there's strife or struggle or uncertainty. It means that if you yearn to be free of a particular relationship and you feel that yearning lodged within you more firmly than any of the other competing and contrary yearnings are lodged, your desire to leave is not only valid, but probably the right thing to do. Even if someone you love is hurt by that. [pp.171-2]
There’s so much quote-worthy material in this collection of letters around the themes of love and life. Strayed doesn’t have the technical qualifications of other agony aunts, but what she has is life experience, and the ability to strip away the padding to reach the core of the matter, and then to discuss it in a way that is both a personal message of understanding and philosophical inquiry, as well as an ad hoc memoir. One of the stories from her life that hit me particularly hard is the time she worked with high school girls who were considered the most likely to drop out early – and later end up in jail. Over time they came to trust her, and would sit in an ugly chair in her office and tell her the horrifying stories of their home lives. She would report cases of abuse and neglect to the appropriate authorities, but nothing was ever done. Finally, she asked them what they do with her reports, and was told that they record them, file them, and that’s it. There’s no funding for helping teenagers, Strayed is told over the phone. Better if they run away from home, there’s money for helping them then. Have you ever heard anything more tragic and senseless and awful?
Whether Sugar is replying to someone whose grown-up sons (and girlfriends) have moved in and taken over her life without even asking, or someone who can’t decide whether she should marry her fiance, or someone who overheard his best friends discussing him behind his back, or someone who is physically ugly and doesn’t know if they should even try to find someone to love who will love them back – through all of Sugar’s responses come heartwarming, frank, open, honest, open-minded, sincere, encouraging messages that carry their own recurring theme: take a leap, jump high and with intent, put all you’ve got into it, make space for yourself to breathe, and “when your mother gives you a warm coat that she saved for months to buy, don’t look at her skeptically after she tells you she thought the coat was perfect for you. Don’t hold it up and say it’s longer than you like your coats to be and too puffy and possibly even too warm. Your mother will be dead by spring. That coat will be the last gift she gave you. You will regret the small thing you didn’t say for the rest of your life. Say thank you.” [pp.352-3]
“Strayed discusses trying to be the best, most generous, most sympathetic version of yourself that you can be, even if you don’t feel that way at that moment. I’ve taken that deeply to heart. It is easy to be cruel and careless with others; generosity of spirit is a difficult thing to do at the best of times. But the most difficult things in life, as Sugar points out again and again, are often the things that are worth the most. … Tiny Beautiful Things finds Cheryl Strayed, as the eponymous Sugar of Dear Sugar, using her own darkness and immense writing talent to bring light to others. I cried. Well worth a read.” The Literary Omnivore
“I found myself touched in reading incredible letters sent to Sugar, crying at some of the answers, and cheering for the person seeking advice to find their way back into the light that they sought. My old habit of reading Dear Abby, coupled with breathtaking writing, made it possible for me to be pulled right into this book. I do have to say, however, that those that are not prone to reading advice-type columns may have a difficult time getting into this kind of format in book form.” Miss Bookish Girl
“In the first pages of this book, Strayed is asked ‘What kind of advice do you give?’ She answers, ‘The best I can think of.’ Her best advice is beautiful and honest and hard to take, and we are all the better for it.” Literary Lindsey
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