Books and Writers Worth Reading #1: Cheryl Strayed

I love advice columns. I read “Dear Abby” daily and Carolyn Hax’s “Tell Me About It” on Fridays. The June 2011 issue of The Sun reprinted several selections from the “Dear Sugar” column on TheRumpus.net. I don’t remember the specific Sugar columns I read the day I received my copy, but I was immediately hooked. The then-anonymous Sugar addressed the usual problems–money, love, sex–but responded deeply and sincerely, drawing from her own life experiences. Each reply was a miniature personal essay, thoughtfully constructed and elegantly composed.

After finishing the reprints, I went online to read each column, about 70 total at the time. To a monogamous woman struggling with temptation, Sugar writes in column #70: “They love X but want to fuck Z…Z is so gleaming, so crystalline, so unlikely to bitch at you for neglecting to take out the recycling…Z is like a motorcycle with no one on it. Beautiful. Going nowhere.” To a stymied young writer, Sugar exhorts in #48, “Write like a motherfucker.” In the same column featuring the empty motorcycle, Sugar addresses a letter writer mourning the end of a relationship: “But you will be okay, dear one. I can see your future okayness so clearly it’s like an apple sitting in my palm.” And so forth. Letter after letter answered wisely and sincerely, with gentle humor thrown in, if appropriate.

At the same time I was devouring these columns, I was experiencing a difficult personal situation. When I felt sad or lost, I clung to Sugar’s beautiful words and understood that I, too, would be okay. I began to see that the answers to my problems were within me—the same advice Sugar ultimately gave her readers and herself.

Flash forward nearly a year. In Studies of Craft, we read Cheryl Strayed’s “The Love of My Life” essay. I recognized the story! I recognized the sincerity and openness of the tone, the elegance of the writing style. Several days later, Strayed revealed that she wrote “Dear Sugar,” and she released her memoir Wild. I read Wild this summer and was absorbed by the exciting, sad, amazing story of a broken young woman hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in hopes of rebuilding her life following personal loss. The descriptions of the heat, blizzards, and wildlife on the PCT mesmerized me. Her story encompassed her emotional and physical growth, and like the “Dear Sugar” columns, Wild lingered in my imagination long after I finished it.

Strayed crafts beautiful, intimate, personal stories. She is a brave storyteller and one of my new favorite writers.

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