Thursday, May 2, 2013

tiny beautiful things: advice on love and life from dear sugar

I love advice columns and am a loyal follower of Dear Prudence (on Slate.com), but Sugar is my new favorite. 

While most advice columns follow the rules of propriety and logic, Dear Sugar is about the heart. She (Sugar a.k.a. Cheryl Strayed) seems to genuinely care about each and every letter-writer. So much so that often, she writes about her own life in her responses (exposing many intimate secrets in the process). This makes her advice unique, but the other reason her column is unique (and a large part of the reason I enjoyed this book) is that both her letters and her responses are very well written. She is clearly not a psychiatrist; she is a writer with a lot of experience, love, and wisdom. And as she says in a FAQ (nestled within the letters and advice, the book features a few short sections of FAQs with Sugar), the reason the letters she publishes/answers are so well-written is that, amongst the hundreds (thousands?) of letters she receives, those that are thoughtful and written with care are the most likely to stand out and make the cut.

The questions vary widely: there is a father whose gay son has died; there is a bride-to-be wondering if we can expect our spouses to be forever faithful; there is a writer suffering from jealousy; a writer fearing that she will never publish a book; a graduate who feels stifled by his student loans; several girls who want and fear breaking up with their longtime boyfriends; an unattractive man who fears he will never find true love; etc. No, you won't identify with every writer, but I'm certain that at least one will make you sit up straight and think about your own life a little. And even when I couldn't imagine what the writer was going through (like those revolving around motherhood, death of a close loved one, or abuse), their stories were interesting and Sugar's advice expands beyond that writer's small, singular problem. 

You should also know going into this that Sugar has a very unique voice. I realize this is wrong, but sometimes I imagined her as an old drag queen. That's the kind of voice she has (in my head): sassy, maternal, calm, wise, confident. She frequently uses endearments like "sweet pea," but she also likes to curse. 

And I love that Sugar doesn't write from a place of superiority. Instead of saying "It is wrong to ___ and you need to do better than that," she says "It is wrong to ____, but it happens to all of us. It even happened to me. But you must try to do better than that." She frequently exposes her own flaws and mistakes, while at the same time maintaining that (though it's hard--sometimes it even seems impossible), it's important to try to be your best self. Step into the other person's shoes. Act from a place of empathy. Be magnanimous. Don't worry so much. Trust that things will work out. 


TITLE: Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar
AUTHOR: Cheryl Strayed
PUBLICATION DATE: 1 January 2012
DATE FINISHED: 30 April 2013
VERDICT: 4/5 stars. An interesting book of wonderful advice given by an experienced, sassy, loving columnist.

Here are some of my favorite bits:

"You’re going to be all right. And you’re going to be all right not because you majored in English or didn’t and not because you plan to apply to law school or don’t, but because all right is almost always where we eventually land, even if we fuck up entirely along the way."

"The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave your arms or not. These things are your becoming."

"Don’t lament so much about how your career is going to turn out. You don’t have a career. You have a life. Do the work."

"Writing is hard for every last one of us—straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig . . . So write, Elissa Bassist. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker."

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