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:
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.
Revue de presse
“Strayed’s worldview—her empathy, her nonjudgment, her belief in the fundamental logic of people’s emotions and experiences despite occasional evidence to the contrary—begins to seep into readers’ consciousness in such a way that they can apply her generosity of spirit to their own and, for a few hours at least, become better people. . . . The book’s disclosures—on the part of both the writer and her correspondents—is ultimately courageous and engaging stuff.” —Anna Holmes, New York Times Book Review
“Wise and compassionate.” —Gregory Cowles, New York Times Book Review “Inside the List”
“Penning an advice column for the literary website The Rumpus, [Strayed] worked anonymously, using the pen name Sugar, replying to letters from readings suffering everything from loveless marriages to abusive, drug-addicted brothers to disfiguring illnesses. The result: intimate, in-depth essays that not only took the letter writer’s life into account but also Strayed’s. Collected in a book, they make for riveting, emotionally charged reading (translation: be prepared to bawl) that leaves you significantly wiser for the experience. . . . Moving. . . . compassionate.” —Leigh Newman, Oprah.com
“It seems inadequate to call ‘Dear Sugar’ an advice column, because it exists in a category all its own . . . Part memoir, part essay collection, the aptly titled Tiny Beautiful Things gathers together stunningly written pieces on everything from sex to love to the agonies of bereavement. Strayed offers insights as exquisitely phrased as they are powerful, confronting some of the biggest and most painful of life’s questions. . . . . In her responses, Strayed shines a torch of insight and comfort into the darkness of these people’s lives, cutting to the heart of what it means to love, to grieve and to suffer.” —Ilana Teitelbaum, Shelf Awareness
“What makes a great advice columnist? . . . Strayed has proved during her tenure at the website the Rumpus, where she has helmed the Dear Sugar column since 2010, that the only requirement is that you give great advice—tender, frank, uplifting and unrelenting. Strayed’s columns, now collected as Tiny Beautiful Things, advise people on such diverse struggles as miscarriage, infidelity, poverty and addiction, and it's really hard to think of anyone better at the job. Strayed has succeeded largely because she shares personal, often heartbreaking stories from her own life in answering readers' questions. Her experiences are qualifications, in a sense, as Strayed has taken the wisdom she gained from personal tragedies, including her mother's early death and the breakup of her first marriage, and generously applied it to all manner of issues. . . . What runs through all the columns, which range from a few hundred to a few thousand words in length, is Strayed’s gift at panning out from the problem in question. Often, the fuller picture that Strayed gives us illustrates what needs to happen for the letter-writers to change, to pull themselves out of their current predicament, to see things in a different way, to act. . . . Here is Strayed’s breathtaking ability to get to the core of her own failures and triumphs, which she often does through surprising and sharp imagery. . . . Strayed has covered much ground in these transformative pieces. In the end, Tiny Beautiful Things serves as a guide for anyone who is lost, and those who only think they might be.” —Liz Colville, San Francisco Chronicle
“As Sugar, Strayed addresses questions about love, family, addition, grief, abuse, afflictions, fears, friends, gossip, among other topics—and in each of her answers, without fail, she meets the letter writers with a kind of startling compassion; what Steve Almond termed ‘radical empathy.’ Dear Sugar is an advice column like no other.” —Nika Knight, Full Stop
“It is very rarely that I am a ridiculous fangirl about anything. It’s so emotionally taxing, so inherently undignified, that I try not to fall into the trap. So it took me by surprise when, upon discovering Dear Sugar at the Rumpus, I gradually fell down the rabbit hole into ridiculous fangirlishness for the first time in years. [Strayed took me to] the edge of the dark wood, staring into the place where the most wrenching and lovely truths reside. A place to lose your heart and find it again. If there is a common thread that unites the columns, it’s work. Sugar doesn’t tolerate laziness: doing the work to reach one’s full potential, to write that novel, to exorcise ghosts, to let go of resentments and jealousy and commit instead to generosity and love—all of these are sacred, lifelong tasks for which there are no shortcuts. The columns are a gift, and so too is the book. As Sugar herself bids in her column of the same name, I've written this now on the eve of her book’s publication with one intent: to say thank you.” —Ilana Teitelbaum, The Huffington Post
“Typically an advice column might not be the first thing to come to mind when considering examples of fearless first-person writing. But Cheryl’s Dear Sugar column is a major exception in that way. In the majority of her column entries, she boldly delves into her own life, to places where she’s had to overcome obstacles similar to those her letter-writers have experienced. Her understanding and compassion are real and hard won, rooted in her own experiences. And so is her sometimes butt-kicking advice. ‘If I was able to do this,’ she seems to be saying, ‘so can you, sweet pea. Now get off your ass and do it.’ The stakes may have seemed lower when she was writing the column anonymously. But Cheryl says she always knew she’d eventually reveal herself—which she did in April. Now many of her best Dear Sugar columns have been gathered into Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection that goes on sale this week (and is available through The Rumpus). Her name is on it; the revelations, the fearless admissions are hers. And I’m awed.” —Sari Botton, The Rumpus
“Sugar didn’t pen a few plucky paragraphs about how to pick yourself up by your socks and move on from whatever horrors befell you—in many cases Sugar’s letters were heart-rending exhumations of her own past in search of parallels to the advice-seeker’s situation. She didn’t shy from plumbing her own failings, flaws, and troubles. But in the end, Sugar’s columns are about heart and love. Not saccharine, treacly love that comes from greeting cards, but the gritty, painful, sometimes mundane work it takes to love yourself, warts and all. Tiny Beautiful Things isn’t really a compilation of her advice columns. More, it’s a series of essays about life in all its grimy, unpleasant heartache, and a plea to rise above it to love truthfully and deeply and well, despite all our handicaps. Sugar navigates the path through the treacherous human psyche as a shining beacon before us, flickering in the dark. . . . [She] gives her best, even when she’s tired. . . . I’m glad that the world is learning about all the love that Sugar has to give.” —Quenby Moone, The Nervous Breakdown
“Strong, smart and self-assured: those qualities are in full power in [Tiny Beautiful Things]. Strayed doesn’t just give good advice. People write in with the most wrenching personal problems, and receive generous, seriously motivating inspiration to move on and do better. . . . Dear Sugar is a rare hideout from the prevailing meanness of the Internet. She calls her readers Sweet Peas, shares stunningly intimate stories about her life, and writes with true warmth and kindness. And it’s not an act. . . . Strayed aims to help not just the people whose letters she answers, but the wider audience who reads the exchanges. Her responses are direct and personal, but peppered with universal messages that cut to the heart.” —Amy Goetzman, MinnPost
“Why do we read memoirs? Some choose autobiographies to better understand the lives and histories of important men and women. Some might hope that the experiences and insights of a personal essay might unveil a small truth about the human condition, might teach us about ourselves. Some of us might just be busybodies, looking for a socially acceptable way to peek deeply into a stranger’s life. If you fit into any of these categories, you must meet Dear Sugar, the ultimate advice columnist for lovers of memoirs. Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of her works, interspersed with Q&As from Sugar herself. The columns were written anonymously, but with an amount of personal detail that no advice column has ever seen before. In a gracious, sassy, poetic and maternal voice, Sugar shares her own raw personal accounts . . . She runs a highlighter over the breathtaking aspects of mundane tasks, from wedding planning to the day-to-day duties of raising small children. By the last page of the book, which will likely be a bit wrinkled with tear stains by the time you’re through, you may know more about Sugar than you know about your closest friends. . . .Though many of the letters she receives contain ugliness and woe, she weaves them together into a story that is unexpectedly beautiful and impossibly warm. There’s no shortage of conversations on love a...