When writing is your passion, all else takes the shape of words, of the pattern of fingers on a keyboard. Like a pianist composing music, coaxing the right composition from the tapping of keys is a lifelong work. In a glut of storytellers with marginal writing skills, Cheryl Strayed stands out as a composer.
There’s no doubt she is, above all, a writer. And it’s suprising, the places that good writing can pop up. Her newest book, Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar is a collection of advice columns Strayed wrote anonymously as “Dear Sugar” on www.therumpus.net, during 2010-2011. An aggregate of online columns? Telling people what to do about their longings, grief, private desires and public humiliations? Booo-ring, right? Wrong.
Sometimes, a book is greater than the sum of its parts. In the hands of any successful, consistent advice columnnist, a book like this would be repetitive. Boring. Mundane. Strayed brings something else to the party. Her deep compassion for the human condition, her insistence on integrity, her willingness to share her own raw aches and naked hurts, in the hands of a writer, elevate this book into something special.
Strayed is no Dear Abby. She’s a wordy lady, answering heartbreaking, raunchy and funny questions. I can picture her setting down a finished response, blowing the smoke off her pen and saying, “Take that, zen bitches.” No koans, here. But who, in the midst of deep uncertainty, wants someone to smile enigmatically and say “Is that so?”
If I was wondering about my post-college future, I’d rather hear something like this:
“Just close your eyes and remember everything you already know. Let whatever mysterious starlight that guided you this far guide you onward into whatever crazy beauty awaits. Trust that all you learned during your college years was worth learning, no matter what answer you have or do not have about what use it is….When I say you don’t have to explain what you’re going to do with your life, I’m not suggesting you lounge around whining about how difficult it is. I’m suggesting you apply yourself in directions for which we have no accurate measurement. I’m talking about work. And love.”
And if my high school friend was involved in a dysfunctional dramatic love triangle, and the Dalai Lama himself said “Is that so?,” it wouldn’t be half as useful as this gem:
“I’ve been witness to those I care about cheating and being cheated on, lying and being lied to, emotionally abusing and being emotionally abused by their lovers….I’ve listened to long and tedious tales of spectacularly disastrous romantic woe that I predicted from the start because that same friend chose the same wrong person yet a-fucking-gain. But the sad news is that this is the way of the world, darling, and there isn’t a ding dang damn thing you can do about it……Do you know what boundaries are? The best, sanest people on the planet do, and since i have no doubt that you will become one of those sorts of people, you might as well learn about them sooner rather than later….”
As Strayed wrote in a column about unveiling her identity as Dear Sugar, which she did in 2011, she has a definite worldview that informs her advice:
Way up high on the list of the values and truths I most deeply hope to convey in this column is the fact that something is always at stake. Our integrity. Our internal sense of peace. Our relationships. Our communities. Our children. Our ability to bear the weight of the people we hope to be and forgive the people we are. Our obligation to justice, mercy, kindness, and doing the stuff in bed (or beneath the bathroom sink) that genuinely gets us off.
Strayed is in Chuck Palahniuk’s writing group. Her intense style reminds me of his, but she’s got this other thing. She seems fully integrated. Her bullshit and travails aren’t hidden in boxes labelled “The Past,” and “Present Day Stuff I Hope to God No One Finds Out About.” It’s all there in her columns: her grief, her troubles, her pain, and she walks that hazard line where she’s telling the world, and the questioner, about her pain & it comes across as empathy, not narcissism. She’s not just offering advice. She’s willing to tell the world how she came by her hard-earned wisdom.
Cheryl Strayed is having a good year. Reese Witherspoon & Oprah have coopted her bestselling memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, which has won her national attention.
It, too, is a very good read. At the dinner table every night, at coffee with my friends, I couldn’t stop talking about this amazing book, a memoir of a young woman’s audacious solo hike along part of the Mexico-to-Canada wilderness trail.
I expected Jon Krakauer with boobs, all competence and technical gear and action. Instead, I got blindsided by Strayed’s unique and humble wisdom. She was 26 years old at the time of her hike, and not a hiker. In fact, she was a bit of a mess, divorced, dealing with the death of her mom and the splintering of her family. Lucky for us, she’s also a writer of the highest caliber, with a deep understanding of human nature in all its weird & painful & joyous manifestations. And she’s funny.
Oprah loves her, and I’d imagine hipsters would hate her. Strayed is a stylist, but her style and her cascade of words are a torrent of a sort of sweet philosophy about life. She swears a lot, she doesn’t blink a literary eye at adultery and abuse & pain, but she comes across as gentle and thoughtful, underneath the cool-cat stuff.