When I read George Saunders’ grad speech at Syracuse yesterday, I said to myself, this is why I want to be a writer. George Saunders. George Saunders! The man who wrote the travel essay The Incredible Buddha Boy or Just The Essay That Changed The Way I Write. But then there’s this book from heaven by Cheryl Strayed, and now I’m certain, I’d be a damned fool if I didn’t live the life where poetry of the earth is never ceasing, as Keats would say.
Now that the ecstasy has long worn off, I feel strange reading this. Vulnerable, even. But sometimes a book is so powerful, so full of wisdom, that you just dream of becoming like its author, not for the sake of appearing or sounding enlightened, but because secretly, you want to make a special connection and be of great service to the reader.
And this is what Cheryl Strayed achieved in Tiny Beautiful Things, a compilation of advice columns that were originally posted in the writing blog / community called The Rumpus. Strayed is a contributing writer who assumed the post of the advice columnist christened as Sugar.
And so we read about over 50 Dear Sugar letters that are divided in five parts, each of which has overarching themes. They have seemingly simple titles like It was always only us or Carry the water yourself.
But after just reading a few pages, you’ll discover that there’s nothing simple about Strayed’s writing. She’s brutally honest yet sweet, like a mother who truly cares. To show her empathy, she shares her own life experiences, which is more than a troubled letter-sender can expect online. Who has time to reflect on another person’s problem these days if you don’t pay them to listen?
And yet, Strayed doesn’t get paid for every response she writes to the selected sender, which makes the business all authentic and raw and free from any set of general or prescribed and usually useless pieces of advice.
My favorite letter is from a father who lost his son in a car accident and is beside himself with grief:
I’m a father while not being a father. Most days it feels like my grief is going to kill me, or maybe it already has. I’m a living dead dad.
That Strayed herself is not a stranger to death only made the whole matter bittersweet:
The strange and painful truth is that I’m a better person because I lost my mom young…My grief taught me things. It showed me shades and hues I couldn’t otherwise have seen. It required me to suffer. It compelled me to reach.
I should mention that Strayed is a reader of poems and that reading her is an experience that is both beautiful and sacred.
Highly recommended to anyone who seeks to be understood without judgment and to those who want to read beautiful letters to strangers.