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Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar

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Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar Cover

ISBN13: 9780307949332
ISBN10: 0307949338
Condition: Standard
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Excerpt

From the INTRODUCTION by Steve Almond

 

I Was Sugar Once: Lessons in Radical Empathy

 

Long ago, before there was a Sugar, there was Stephen Elliott. He had this idea for a website, which sounds pretty awful, I admit, except that his idea was really to build an online community around literature, called The Rumpus. Being a writer himself, and therefore impoverished, Stephen prevailed upon his likewise impoverished writer friends to help.

 

And we, his friends, all said yes, because we love Stephen and because (if I may speak for the group) we were all desperate for a noble-seeming distraction. My contribution was an advice column, which I suggested we call Dear Sugar Butt, after the endearment Stephen and I had taken to using in our email correspondence. I will not belabor the goofy homoeroticism that would lead to such an endearment. It will be enough to note that Dear Sugar Butt was shortened, mercifully, to Dear Sugar.

 

Handing yourself a job as an advice columnist is a pretty arrogant thing to do, which is par for my particular course. But I justified it by supposing that I could create a different sort of advice column, both irreverent and brutally honest. The design flaw was that I conceived of Sugar as a persona, a woman with a troubled past and a slightly reckless tongue.

 

And while there were moments when she felt real to me, when I could feel myself locking into the pain of my correspondents, more often I faked it, making do with wit where my heart failed me. After a year of dashing off columns, I quit.

 

And that might have been the end of Sugar had I not, around this time, come across a nonfiction piece by Cheryl Strayed. I knew Cheryl as the author of a gorgeous and wrenching novel called Torch. But reading this essay, a searing recollection of infidelity and mourning, filled me with a tingling hunch. I wrote to ask if she wanted to take over as Sugar.

 

It was an insane request. Like me, Cheryl had two small kids at home, a mountain of debt, and no regular academic gig. The last thing she needed was an online advice column for which she would be paid nothing. Of course, I did have an ace in the hole: Cheryl had written the one and only fan letter I’d received as Sugar.

 

***

 

The column that launched Sugar as a phenomenon was writ- ten in response to what would have been, for anyone else, a throwaway letter. Dear Sugar, wrote a presumably young man. WTF, WTF, WTF? I’m asking this question as it applies to everything every day. Cheryl’s reply began as follows:

 

 

Dear WTF,

 

My father’s father made me jack him off when I was three and four and five. I wasn’t any good at it. My hands were too small and I couldn’t get the rhythm right and I didn’t understand what I was doing. I only knew I didn’t want to do it. Knew that it made me feel miserable and anxious in a way so sickeningly particular that I can feel that same particular sickness rising this very minute in my throat.

 

 

It was an absolutely unprecedented moment. Advice columnists, after all, adhere to an unspoken code: focus on the letter writer, dispense the necessary bromides, make it all seem bearable. Disclosing your own sexual assault is not part of the code.

 

But Cheryl wasn’t just trying to shock some callow kid into greater compassion. She was announcing the nature of her mission as Sugar. Inexplicable sorrows await all of us. That was her essential point. Life isn’t some narcissistic game you play online. It all matters—every sin, every regret, every affliction. As proof, she offered an account of her own struggle to reckon with a cruelty she’d absorbed before she was old enough even to understand it. Ask better questions, sweet pea, she concluded, with great gentleness. The fuck is your life. Answer it.

 

Like a lot of folks, I read the piece with tears in my eyes— which is how one reads Sugar. This wasn’t some pro forma kibitzer, sifting through a stack of modern anxieties. She was a real human being laying herself bare, fearlessly, that we might come to understand the nature of our own predicaments.

 

***

 

I happen to believe that America is dying of loneliness, that we, as a people, have bought into the false dream of convenience, and turned away from a deep engagement with our internal lives—those fountains of inconvenient feeling—and toward the frantic enticements of what our friends in the Greed Business call the Free Market.

 

We’re hurtling through time and space and information faster and faster, seeking that network connection. But at the same time we’re falling away from our families and our neighbors and ourselves. We ego-surf and update our status and brush up on which celebrities are ruining themselves, and how. But the cure won’t stick.

 

And this, I think, is why Sugar has become so important to so many people. Because she’s offering something almost unheard of in our culture: radical empathy. People come to her in real pain and she ministers to them, by telling stories about her own life, the particular ways in which she’s felt thwarted and lost, and how she got found again. She is able to transmute the raw material of the self-help aisle into genuine literature.

 

I think here of the response she offered a man wrecked by his son’s death, who asked her how he might become human again. “The strange and painful truth is that I’m a better person because I lost my mom young,” she wrote. “When you say you experience my writing as sacred what you are touching is the divine place within me that is my mother. Sugar is the temple I built in my obliterated place.”

 

In this sense, Tiny Beautiful Things can be read as a kind of ad hoc memoir. But it’s a memoir with an agenda. With great patience, and eloquence, she assures her readers that within the chaos of our shame and disappointment and rage there is meaning, and within that meaning is the possibility of rescue.

 

***

What Our Readers Are Saying

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Average customer rating based on 32 comments:

Emily Cab, August 12, 2013 (view all comments by Emily Cab)
I've been hearing a lot of praise lately for Cheryl Strayed's "Wild" and "Torch," but I haven't read many reviews of this fantastic collection of her "Dear Sugar" advice columns. I'm so glad I have this on my shelf. "Tiny Beautiful Things" will motivate and inspire you to try harder, reach higher and feel a little bit better about the fact that sometimes when you try harder and reach higher, you'll fall flat on your face. Strayed has a knack for reading between the lines and pointing out hard truths to her readers, all in a way that makes you feel like she really knows you and is pulling for you. And, as always, Strayed is just plain funny. I'm not the sort to read advice columns or self-help books, but this book stopped me in my tracks. Whether you devour it in one sitting as I did or whether you read a column once in a while when you're down in the dumps, I know "Tiny Beautiful Things" will leave you better off than you were before.
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Glasspring, January 30, 2013 (view all comments by Glasspring)
Amazing! A quote for her book also serves itself as a review: "Let yourself be gutted. Let it open you. Start here."
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(1 of 2 readers found this comment helpful)
madbirdesign, January 30, 2013 (view all comments by madbirdesign)
Tiny Beautiful Things is a unique book that is so much more than a collection of advice columns. Strayed's writing is profound, thoughtful, joyful, and generous. This is a book I'll keep handy, re-reading my favorite essays and getting another dose of insight, wisdom, and compassion.
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(2 of 3 readers found this comment helpful)
View all 32 comments

Product Details

ISBN:
9780307949332
Subtitle:
Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar
Author:
Strayed, Cheryl
Publisher:
Vintage
Subject:
General Self-Help
Subject:
Child Care and Parenting-General
Subject:
Self-Help : General
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Series:
Vintage
Publication Date:
20120710
Binding:
Paperback
Language:
English
Pages:
368
Dimensions:
7.99 x 5.18 x 0.74 in 0.6 lb

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Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar Used Trade Paper
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Product details 368 pages Vintage Books - English 9780307949332 Reviews:
"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "Strayed (Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail), in this collection of advice (some previously unpublished) for readers of her column 'Dear Sugar' on therumpus.net, chooses thought-provoking questions from her readers and listens deeply to their emotional content. In casually intimate prose (to a struggling writer: 'dear sweet arrogant beautiful crazy tortured talented rising star glowbug') and literary grace, she creates moments of wise, compassionate insight in often startlingly personal miniature memoirs, cradling gentle but practical guidance with enough humor to cement Strayed's presence as both a mentor and the most understanding of friends. Sugar can be tough and honest (to the same struggling writer: 'buried beneath all the anxiety and sorrow and fear and self-loathing , there's arrogance at its core'), but she's never mean: in Sugar's world, we all deserve love unconditionally, but also owe it to ourselves to act in the world to be the best, most authentic selves that we can be. For a regrounding in the beauty of what it means to be flawed and gorgeously human, for answers that feel real whether we've been able to ask the right question, Strayed's caring little essays offer surprisingly rich comfort. Agent: Zachary Shuster Harnsworth Agency. (July)" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Review" by , "These pieces are nothing short of dynamite, the kind of remarkable, revelatory storytelling that makes young people want to become writers in the first place. Over here at the Salon offices, we're reading the columns with boxes of tissue and raised fists of solidarity, shaking our heads with awe and amusement."
"Review" by , "Sugar doesn't coddle her readers — she believes them, and hears the stories inside the story they think they want to tell. She manages astonishing levels of empathy without dissolving into sentiment, and sees problems before the reader can. Sugar doesn't promise to make anyone feel good, only that she understands a question well enough to answer it."
"Review" by , "Powerful and soulful, Tiny Beautiful Things is destined to become a classic of the form, the sort of book readers will carry around in purses and backpacks during difficult times as a token or talisman because of the radiant wisdom and depth within."
"Review" by , "Sugar's columns are easily the most beautiful thing I've read all year. They should be taught in schools and put on little slips of paper and dropped from airplanes, for all to read."
"Review" by , "Dear Sugar will save your soul. I belong to the Church of Sugar."
"Review" by , "[Sugar is] turning the advice column on its head."
"Review" by , "Charming, idiosyncratic, luminous, profane....[Sugar] is remaking a genre that has existed, in more or less the same form, since well before Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts first put a face on the figure in 1933....Her version of tough love ranges from hip-older-sister-loving to governess-stern. Sugar shines out amid the sea of fakeness."
"Review" by , "This beloved Internet advice columnist, using the pseudonym Sugar, revealed herself in early 2012 to be the acclaimed novelist and memoirist Strayed. First appearing on the Rumpus in 2010, her column 'Dear Sugar' quickly attracted a large and devoted following with its cut-to-the-quick aphorisms like 'Write like a motherf*cker' and 'Be brave enough to break your own heart.' This collection gathers up the best of Sugar, whose trademark is deeply felt and frank responses grounded in her own personal experience; in many ways, it is a portrait of Strayed herself. She answers queries on subjects ranging from professional jealousy to leaving a loved partner to coping with the death of a child. VERDICT: Part advice, part personal essay, these pieces grapple with life's biggest questions. Beautifully written and genuinely wise, this book is full of heartache and love. Highly recommended."
"Review" by , "Strayed offers insight into the world of online advice through her collection of letters sent to 'Dear Sugar,' her once-anonymous column for the online magazine The Rumpus. Sugar's Golden Rule — 'Trust Yourself' — pushes the author and her readers to embrace themselves and not be afraid of asking life's complex questions....Strayed's practical advice mixes with abundant personal anecdotes in which she illustrates to the addressee the reasoning behind her counsel. Admittedly not versed in psychology, her responses are sensitive and comprehensive, and her self-reflection projects understanding and sympathy....The author's comforting yet stern writing style connects readers to each contributor's plight and the subsequent response to their cry for help. Appealing to Dear Sugar fans and self-help seekers alike, this 'collection of intimate exchanges between strangers' demonstrates that wisdom doesn't come only from age, but also from learning from the experiences of others. A realistic and poignant compilation of the intricacies of relationships."
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