Photo that runs with "Dear Sugar" column, courtesy Cheryl Strayed.
Review of “Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar” by Cheryl Strayed (Vintage)
Why do we read memoirs? Some choose autobiographies to better understand the lives and histories of important men and women. Some might hope that the experiences and insights of a personal essay might unveil a small truth about the human condition, might teach us about ourselves. Some of us might just be busybodies, looking for a socially acceptable way to peek deeply into a stranger's life. If you fit into any of these categories, you must meet Dear Sugar, the ultimate advice columnist for lovers of memoirs. "Tiny Beautiful Things" is a collection of her works, which are published biweekly on TheRumpus.net. The book is interspersed with Q&As from Sugar herself.
The columns were written anonymously, but with an amount of personal detail that no advice column has ever seen before. In a gracious, sassy, poetic and maternal voice, Sugar shares her own raw personal accounts of heroin use, of unplanned pregnancy, of an abortion that was followed by cutting her own arm with a knife out of sadness and anger. She writes about a friend who was severely burned over most of his body and lived this way for approximately 20 years before he committed suicide and didn't leave a note. She tells us of uninhibited sex with her husband (and a misunderstanding about the spankings that came with it), of mourning her mother's untimely death, of becoming a mother herself in her mid-thirties mostly because she feared she'd regret it later if she didn't. "Not regretting it later is the reason I've done at least three-quarters of the best things in my life," she writes.
She runs a highlighter over the breathtaking aspects of mundane tasks, from wedding planning to the day-to-day duties of raising small children. By the last page of the book, which will likely be a bit wrinkled with tear stains by the time you're through, you may know more about Sugar than you know about your closest friends. And yet, it wasn't until the publication of “Tiny Beautiful Things” that Sugar's readers knew her name. She revealed herself as Cheryl Strayed. She is also the author of “Wild," the memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail that roused Oprah to reignite her book club. Whereas “Wild” offers an intimate view of a young woman completely on her own, “Tiny Beautiful Things” is the story of that same women becoming the thread in a quilt that sews together mismatched scraps of human experience. Though many of the letters she receives contain ugliness and woe, she weaves them together into a story that is unexpectedly beautiful and impossibly warm.
As for her advice, it's Real Talk for sensitive types. There's no shortage of conversations on love and sex, but we words also go beyond that. Sugar tells a young woman whose brother is a dangerous-sounding sociopath that she may have to spend Christmas alone: "It's one of the hardest things you'll ever have to do. And you're going to bawl your head off doing it. But I promise you it will be okay. Your tears will be born of grief, but also of relief. You will be better for them. They will make you harder, softer, cleaner, dirtier. Free." There's something worth quoting on almost every page. When Strayed addresses feminism, she writes: "We claimed the agency, we granted ourselves the authority, we gathered the accolades, but we never stopped worrying about how our asses looked in our jeans." To a struggling, young writer, she offers a tough lovin' pep talk with the fervor of a football coach, and she spits out a command that her editors at the Rumpus liked enough to put on a coffee mug: "Write like a motherfucker."
Sound bites aside, the eloquent letters Sugar receives and her generous replies read like intertwined personal essays. For instance, she hears from a father of four in a small, conservative Southern town whose spine was damaged in an accident. He thoughtfully and desperately asks for advice about his loveless marriage and his addiction to pain meds. Sugar -- part-oracle, part-life coach -- lays out a detailed and practical plan for (1) speaking with doctors who specialize in pain management, (2) starting a treatment program, (3) speaking with his wife, and (4) making a financial plan. Then she tells him a story about hearing sounds behind the walls in an apartment where she lived during her twenties. The sounds continued for a month before her then-husband got a hammer and starting pounding at the ceiling of their closet. What emerged were two starving kittens: "So skeletal they should've been dead, visibly shaking with fear, caked in soot and spider webs and gobs of black grease, their eyes enormous and blazing." She writes about ignoring their sounds until they became so loud they couldn't be ignored anymore. She writes of the kittens' fear and how they somehow saved themselves in spite of it. In doing so, she speaks to the kitten inside each of us, telling us when to put faith in the stranger on the other side of the wall and when it's time to break out a hammer and pound our own way out.