When it comes to literature, I am a compulsive consumer.
Whenever I finish a novel/play/poetry collection, I allow myself a moment to savour the final sentence, with a strange sigh of relief and inspiration and sorrow and optimism. Then I think, ‘Right. What’s next?’
This morning, just as I reached my tube stop, I finished reading Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar. After the familiar sigh had shivered through me, something unusual happened. Instead of mentally scanning my shelves for my next literary adventure, I wanted to flick back to the beginning and start again, devouring the words with a new understanding. I wanted to grab the person behind me on the escalator and implore them to read it. I wanted to buy 50 copies of it and send one to everyone I know.
My finances not permitting that final impulse, I settled for a more sensible option. Blog post.
Before she became famous for her memoir Wild, Cheryl Strayed was penning an Agony Aunt column as ‘Sugar’ on literary website The Rumpus. Tiny Beautiful Things is a collection of the best of these letters – and Strayed’s wonderful responses. We hear from people struggling with every human emotion: love, grief and friendship; the naivety of youth and the cynicism of age; bad parenting and good parenting; family ties and how to break them; art and integrity; addiction and forgiveness.
In many ways, this collection reads more like a memoir than an Agony Aunt column. Strayed weaves her own experiences into her advice so tightly that it’s often impossible to tug them apart. But that’s the whole point; it is the sheer amount of life experience she injects into her advice that makes it so worth reading. Her stories are enlightening and devastating in equal measure.
However, it’s not just Strayed’s responses that are compelling but the letters themselves. Some are raw and desperate, some self-mocking or awkwardly jovial. Some are brief, some lengthy. Some of the writers already know the answer to their dilemma and only need permission to follow their gut, and some are genuinely, horribly stuck. All are questioning themselves and those around them. All are searching for clarity.
Strayed’s writing style may not be everyone’s cup of tea (especially if you’re the type that believes that dirty laundry is best unaired). This book will require you to stow your cynicism.
I feel that I could have picked up Tiny Beautiful Things at any point in my life and it would have felt like I had found it just in time. It is at once comforting and dangerous, both offering reassurance and providing a gentle push towards the difficult choice.
Strayed’s life has been complicated and difficult. I have not lost my mother, have never been addicted to drugs or had a failed marriage. But that doesn’t mean that her advice didn’t ring true with me. You do not have to have lost your parents to understand that you need to appreciate them more, but it helps when the point is reiterated, in no uncertain terms, by someone who has.
If you’re not yet persuaded to pick up Tiny Beautiful Things, I’ll finish with a few of my favourite quotes from the book.
“The useless days will add up to something.“
“You cannot convince people to love you. This is an absolute rule. No one will ever give you love because you want him or her to give it. Real love moves freely in both directions. Don’t waste your time on anything else.”
“The best thing you can possibly do with your life is to tackle the motherfucking shit out of it.”
“You don’t have to get a job that makes others feel comfortable about what they perceive as your success.”
“I’ll never know, and neither will you, of the life you don’t choose. We’ll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn’t carry us. There’s nothing to do but salute it from the shore.”