Q&A: Cheryl Strayed, Author of Tiny Beautiful Things

I confess I am a longtime fan of Dear Sugar, the online advice column published by the Rumpus. Writing anonymously as Sugar, its author recently revealed herself to be novelist and memoirist Cheryl Strayed (Wild). Her columns, collected for the first time in Tiny Beautiful Things (see the starred review in LJ 5/15/12), are moving responses to the questions asked as well as clarion calls to better personhood. I was able to ask Strayed a few questions via email about the art and craft of advice. [See also Neal Wyatt’s RA Crossroads on Wild.‚ Ed.]

MM: Sugar is a nom de plume you inherited (from the column’s originator, Steve Almond) but it also seems to have become an alter ego. You once said, Sugar is the temple I built in my obliterated place. Do you feel like you become a different person or inhabit a different place when you write as Sugar?

CS: I don’t inhabit a different person or place when I write as Sugar, but rather I plumb the depths of my truest self. The advice I give as Sugar is a combination of what I’ve learned and the things I’m still struggling to achieve. When writing my column I’m not thinking, what would this mythical Sugar who has all her shit together do? but rather what do I know in my heart to be the right thing to aspire to? Sugar is the best version of me.

MM: It’s clear you put a lot of thought into the style of your columns‚ they are beautifully written pieces. How do you see the writing you do as Sugar compared to your fiction or your recently released memoir, Wild?

CS: Thanks for your kind words, Molly. I see the writing in the same light. I try to write as well as I can regardless of what it is I’m writing. I give it everything I have. Very early on, I realized that what had been the most helpful to me in times of sorrow or uncertainty were stories‚ fiction or nonfiction‚ sometimes in the form of poems, other times in novels or memoirs or short stories. So I decided to trust that and use storytelling in the column as a way of enlarging and deepening the questions the letter writers were asking me. The advice column is at heart an intimate exchange between two people who are addressing each other in a public forum. There’s a wonderful intensity inherent in that exchange that’s slightly different from the other genres I’ve written in, but I see all the work as parts of a whole.

The most common questions have to do with romantic love. They are the age-old questions that we all ask ourselves at various stages: how to find love, how to survive having one’s heart broken, how to keep a long-term relationship emotionally, sexually, and intellectually vibrant, how to know if one should stick it out or leave a relationship when one isn’t entirely happy. I’ve answered those questions in various ways, but there are hundreds more in my inbox.

MM: In one of your columns you say, I could put most of the letters I receive into two piles: those from people who are afraid to do what they know in their hearts they need to do and those from people who have genuinely lost their way. What are the most common types of problems you are presented with? The most uncommon? How do you choose which to answer?

CS: The most uncommon questions? I guess they tend to be problems that at first glance seem highly particular to the letter writer. For example, in my column You Have Arrived at the Fire, I answered a question from someone who has a stutter. But the thing I’ve learned is no matter what the problem, no matter how alone you feel it in, you are not alone. Readers always say me too, even if their own struggles aren’t exactly like those of the letter writer. People recognize themselves in each other. They feel the same vulnerability, even if it looks a bit different in their own lives.

I choose which letters to answer on instinct. What topics have I not addressed in a while? What sorts of issues have not yet been discussed? Which questions interest me the most at that moment? It’s often agonizing to figure out which letter to pluck from the proverbial pile. There are so many amazing ones worthy of my attention.

MM: What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? The worst?

CS: When I was maybe six I saw a photograph in a magazine of a young woman holding a bouquet of flowers up to a police officer who was pointing a gun at her‚ it was the 1970s, an image from an antiwar protest. I was terribly intrigued by the contradiction depicted in that photo, so I asked my mother about it. She explained that the woman was trying to win over the officer with kindness. She said it was a good idea to do that, to be kind even to those who were being unkind to you. Her exact words were Zap them back with super love. I think it’s great advice. I’ve thought of that phrase many times over the years in trying moments. I’ve never regretted zapping anyone back with super love.

The worst advice I ever received was from my grandmother‚ my mother’s mother. She said I should never get entirely undressed in front of my husband, even during sex. Can you imagine?

MM: I can’t! Do you ever think about what your children will think when they eventually come to this book? Do you think the advice you have given and will give them is different from what you offer to readers as Sugar?

I think about what my children will think about all my books, but yes, perhaps this one more so, since I’m constantly giving them advice, as mothers do. They will read it when they’re ready to‚ when they are grown up. I wouldn’t ever push it on them. They need to come to it on their own. My advice as Sugar is precisely the advice I give my children. The core values I express in the column are the values I hope my children will embrace in their lives. Trusting the gut. Following the heart. Understanding that complexity is part of being human. That we all have to work to make the lives we want. We all suffer. We all fail. We all struggle and triumph and struggle again. We all have a tremendous beauty inside of us. We all have something to offer. We all want to be loved and to express our love. Acceptance is a small, quiet room. I hope someday my children will read Tiny Beautiful Things and know in their bones that though I wrote it for everyone I most of all wrote it for them.

MM: Some advice columnists try to step around issues of personal politics, while others, like Dan Savage, are explicitly political. While Sugar is famously empathetic (Steve Almond calls it radical empathy), you do draw a firm “this-is-not-okay” line in some areas, in particular in the “The Human Scale” (in regards to God and prayer), “That Ecstatic Parade” (in regards to homophobia), and “We Are All Savages Inside” (in regards to class). How do your personal politics inform the advice you give?

CS: A lot of what might be called my political values are, to me, core ethical values. I think it’s immoral to condemn people because they are homosexual, for example. I think we are all deserving of compassion, assistance, forgiveness, and esteem. I think women have the right to make decisions about their private parts. I think we are all sacred, regardless of whether we believe in God. Those beliefs are everywhere in my column. I can’t separate them from who I am or the advice I give.

MM: I want to end with a question about the future. How do you think we can all be better to each other?

One thing I’ve been conscious of lately is to not absorb other people’s bad behavior. If someone is being unkind or petty or jealous or distant or weird, you don’t have to take it in. You don’t have to turn it into a big psychodrama about your worth. That behavior so often is not even about you. It’s about the person who’s being unkind or petty or jealous or distant or weird. It’s a subtle but powerful shift, to absorb that fact, at least it has been for me. If this were summed up on a bumper sticker it would say: Don’t own other people’s crap. The world would be a better place if we all did that.

Molly McArdle About Molly McArdle

Molly McArdle (mmcardle@mediasourceinc.com, @mollitudo on Twitter) is Assistant Editor, Library Journal Book Review. She also manages the Library Journal tumblr.