26 July 2022
On Cheryl Strayed’s tiny beautiful things; Advice on love and life from Dear Sugar
I made notes for this one; I didn’t want to eff it up like I did with Widow for One Year. So, this is going to happen in order of the notes I made. No, that’s a lie. I made the notes not because I thought, “oh gee, this will be better if I just take some notes first.” I was trying to write in the yard and my laptop battery died, so I had to give up and go plug it in. While it charged, I made notes in the back of the book. Necessity? Maybe? Mostly it was a convenient way to feel like I was being productive even though I couldn’t start my word vomit process til the laptop recharged.
This book is a little different, kay? It’s no novel. It isn’t straight memoir, and it doesn’t follow any storyline. It is a compilation of submissions and responses to an advice column on the website The Rumpus. The column is called Dear Sugar. At first, Steve Almond authored the responses for this column, but before long, The Rumpus asked Cheryl Strayed to take over – and she did, without compensation. Strayed said at first she couldn’t believe she agreed to this volunteer job, considering how strapped for cash she and her husband were on the daily, and that paying jobs should have been her priority. Well, when you’re Cheryl Strayed, apparently a non-paying gig can eventually turn into a paying one if you repackage it as a book. Obviously.
Look, I don’t mean to sound snarky. I don’t feel snarky about this book – or Strayed – at all. I’ll get to my feelings about Strayed a bit later. In fact, this is one of the best books I’ve ever read, and I think it should top everybody’s list of books to read before you die.
Because of its format, the book moves quickly. You get a letter from someone requesting advice, then you get Sugar’s response. In some cases, those letters are long, and the advice is even longer. In other cases, the question is just one sentence, like, “WTF, WTF, WTF? I’m asking this question as it applies to everything every day” (90). In fact, I think the advice Sugar gave this particular supplicant was exceptionally beautiful thanks to its brevity.
It’s clear that everyone writing in believes Sugar will sugar-coat her advice to them, treat them with kid gloves. She doesn’t do that at all. Sure, her words are kind and loving and often contain endearments such as “sweat pea” and “honey bun,” but her message is always the same: you must take responsibility for yourself – you must save yourself. Because it’s nobody else’s job to save you! Nobody’s coming! Sandwiched between two slices of white bread caked in honey, Sugar always reminds her supplicant, without an iota of judgment, to “put on your big girl (or boy) panties” and do the difficult thing – the thing you know you need to do but maybe don’t want to admit.
I love this message because I believe in it.
I found myself, at the start of each new submission, guessing what Sugar was going to say – and in so many cases, I guessed correctly! It was a fun little game, but I learned quickly that although at times my answers mirrored Sugar’s, hers were always more eloquent than mine. Moreover, Strayed has this uncanny ability to hone in on the crux of a conundrum; it must be intuition, but Strayed could pull a one-liner from a two-page letter that embodied the entire issue. In witnessing her ability to do this, I knew that Strayed was three-reading (if not more) each letter before she replied. Reading it backward, forward, and upside-down (no, that’s not really how three-reading works), she intuited not only the truth of the issue, but often also the writer’s deepest feelings about it. And Strayed was not firing off some half-assed response – ever. She not only read to digest the issue, but she then stewed upon it for days, maybe even weeks, perhaps even asking friends or loved-ones for their perspectives before replying, to ensure that she could stand behind the healing words she proffered. Sugar never took anyone’s concerns lightly, and that showed in the thoroughness and thoughtfulness of her replies.
There was just and only one reply with which I didn’t entirely agree. In “Icky Thoughts Turn Me On,” the letter-writer, Aching to Submit, admits that she wants to be dominated in bed – she wants to be submissive. She’s not asking for anything all that kinky; just regular light fantasy stuff – diet domination. Sugar tells Aching to Submit that she’s not “icky” at all: she’s totally normal. She recommends Aching to Submit talk to her lover about her interest in experimenting with dominance play and that it can become “good, hot, beautiful fun” (77). She’s not wrong, per se, but it bothered me that she didn’t dive just a little bit deeper into the psychology surrounding Aching to Submit’s desire. Why wouldn’t this sexual fantasy have roots in Aching to Submit’s need to fully trust another with her safety and wellbeing – to know that her lover respects her and cares for her enough to hold her safe in that tenuous space? There’s something in here about the deepest sort of vulnerability and intimacy between a man and a woman – and Sugar misses that opportunity completely. All she says on the subject is, “I encourage you to seek as much insight into your own shadow world as you can” (76). Sugar’s reply felt stunted by this omission; yet, it was still excellent advice, overall.
One letter that resonated for me was “A Bit of Sully in Your Sweet,” where a soon-to-be bride quails when she learns that her older sister’s marriage has been anything but perfect. Her letter is so naïve and so judgmentally superior: she suddenly loses respect for her sister because her sister’s marriage survived challenging moments, including infidelity. I wanted to scream from the rafters, as Strayed probably also did when first reading the letter. I would not have been as kind as Sugar was in her reply – I was incensed. How boldly society fails when it teaches us that a “perfect” marriage is one without any conflict or difficulty! It’s like that Jordan Peterson saying, “Be the monster.” You cannot be effective, dangerous, prosperous, if you have no strength; and you can have no strength without first facing adversity! Only the naïve look at a flawless marriage and thing it is strong. The marriages that were never tested are probably the ones suffering most from giant dragons growing beneath the stairs. It is through hashing out disagreements that spouses grow and learn to be together. Infidelity alone should not dictate the fate of a marriage; the story is never cut-and-dry when it comes to such deceit.
My absolute favorite letters and responses were the ones centered upon Strayed’s beliefs about writing. For example, in “Write Like a Motherfucker,” Sugar reminds Elissa Bassist to be humble. She writes,
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 own 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 one 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. (57)
Sugar reminded me that I am nobody and the world owes me nothing. She reminded me that writing was not about selling or accolades; writing was about getting what is inside of me out. And I cried.
In “Transcend,” Sugar gave me the best lesson I could ever receive about writing. She wrote that as an instructor of memoir writing, she always asked her students two questions: “What happened in this story? and What is this story about?” (313) Her point was that in almost every story, something happens, but it’s not always clear what every story is about. She tells Torn and Distraught, “It isn’t enough to have had an interesting or hilarious or tragic life. Art isn’t anecdote. It’s the consciousness we bring to bear on our lives. For what happened in the story to transcend the limits of the personal, it must be driven by the engine of what the story means” (314). That is to say, we have to consciously unearth the universal in our tale! Oooh boy, am I going to carry this nugget in my breast pocket from now until the day I die!
Sugar addresses Scared of the Future’s fear of death in “Your Invisible Inner Terrible Someone.” This was the letter/response that meant the most to me in this book; however, I’ve written a 3600 word essay about it elsewhere, so I won’t touch upon it here. Suffice it to say, if you’re gonna pick just one to read, pick that one.
Which brings me, finally, to my thoughts on Strayed herself. As it was also the case when I read her memoir, Wild, I found in my heart a bittersweet love for Strayed in her replies on this advice column. Thankfully, she addressed them head-on in “We Are All Savages Inside,” whereby a writer is jealous of her compatriot’s publication success. Strayed’s advice to her was so hard and so true:
When you feel terrible because someone has gotten something you want, you force yourself to remember how very much you have been given. You remember that there is plenty for all of us. You remember that someone else’s success has absolutely no bearing on your own. You remember that a wonderful thing has happened to one of your literary peers and maybe, if you keep working and if you get lucky, something wonderful may also someday happen to you.
And if you can’t muster that, you just stop. You truly do. You do not let yourself think about it. There isn’t a thing to eat down there in the rabbit hole of your own bitterness except your own desperate heart. If you let it, your jealousy will devour you. (260)
My guess is that these were difficult words for Awful Jealous Person to read because they were tough for me, too. So very often I see others’ success and there is a trace of yuck at the back of my tongue before I can swallow it down or flush it away. But Strayed’s so right: I am far more comfortable – and so much happier – to remove the yuck and replace it with gratitude. In truth, I am more grateful than jealous for Strayed’s success because she has taught me so very much about my own potential. In studying her craft, I’ve learned more that I ever imagined about writing creative nonfiction – so much that I cannot imagine a world where she did not have the successes she’s had, so that I can read her! I need her!
We all need a little bit – or a lot – more Sugar in our lives.