- Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Gr
- Date: July 2012
From the book
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...
"A fascinating blend of memoir and self-help. Strayed is an eloquent storyteller, and her clear-eyed prose offers a bracing empathy absent from most self-help blather." - Nora Krug, The Washington Post
"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 - Ilana Teitelbaum, The Huffington Post