Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed
I started Tiny Beautiful Things on a Sunday and logged into my library account later that day. Huh, I thought, it’s due tomorrow. I tried to renew it, but was faced with the fact that somebody else wanted to read it as badly as I did. What was a bibliophile in her last weeks of college to do? Why, finish it the next day, of course, neatly avoiding library fines and actual work in one fell swoop. It’s not procrastination if you’re doing something else productive, we all know that.
Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of Dear Sugar columns from The Rumpus. Begun by writer Steve Almond, the advice column was handed off to Cheryl Strayed, author of Torch and Wild, anonymously. While Almond envisioned Sugar as an empathetic but sassy Southern woman, Strayed embodied Sugar, practicing a kind of radical empathy to each and every one of her readers. Strayed was revealed as Sugar last year (you can watch the coming out party here), and this published collection shortly followed.
As I’ve mentioned before, I love advice columns, especially advice columns that give you a good punch to the gut instead of coddling you. (The Awl’s Ask Polly is a good column for that sort of thing.) Dear Sugar comes up a lot while I’m taking in my advice columns, but, once I learned that there was a book, I refrained from reading it. I wanted to come to the collection fresh. Between this and My Year of Flops, another online column collected into a book, I’ve started to think about the difference between reading something online and reading something in a printed collection. Neither collection is particularly gorgeous on its own (like, say, a beautiful new edition of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes), but both slow me down from my usual reading pace on the Internet. As someone reared on the Internet, I’m used to comforting myself with information binges, and online columns are no exception. But as beneficial as reading something in print is for me, it also kills the living organism that is the blog a little. Whenever I read Captain Awkward or the A.V. Club, I also read the comments, since both communities are composed, for the most part, of thoughtful individuals. As I’ve not read Dear Sugar online, I can’t speak to that community, but it does make me see the collection of something that was born online as just as much an act of adaptation as translating a book into a film. It’s not the thing itself.
Steve Almond’s introduction to Tiny Beautiful Things mentions Sugar’s response to a letter writer, undoubtedly thinking themselves incredibly witty, who simply asks, “WTF?” over and over again. Sugar responds with a harrowing, traumatic account of her sexual abuse as a child and concludes by chiding the letter writer, saying, “Ask better questions, sweet pea. The fuck is your life. Answer it.” This response, I think, encapsulates Sugar as an advice columnist: the radical empathy she practices, embodied by her constant coo of “sweet pea”, does not exclude taking a letter writer to task when the situation calls for it. She is incredibly sympathetic and generous, with both others and her own history.
Amazon categorizes Tiny Beautiful Things as, among other genres, a memoir. While Strayed has already written a memoir, Wild, it’s quite true of this collection. Many, if not all, of her letter writers are answered with stories from her own life, and this is where Strayed’s talent as a writer comes out. Things that would be pretentious in someone else’s mouth ring painfully true and glorious in Strayed-as-Sugar’s: during my Monday morning binge, I found myself crying as she related the story of trying to come to terms with her past thefts in her personal narrative, the story of losing her mother (a constant refrain in the column, as it must be in Strayed’s own life), realizing that love didn’t require being broken… there’s a lot of material here that makes me eager to explore Wild. By examining her own darkness, she brings light to others, and it’s a stunningly beautiful and generous thing.
I keep returning to the word “generous” here. It’s been a constant refrain for me this past week, what with watching Joan Watson in Elementary and Pepper Potts in Iron Man 3 being so. By generous, I mean a very specific kind of emotional generosity, giving people the benefit of the doubt, an almost aggressive and definitely active kind of empathy. I didn’t write this down in my commonplace book, but, at one point, 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.
Bottom line: 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.
I rented this book from the public library.