Sunday, June 23, 2013

There are Agony Aunts. And then there is "Dear Sugar", the most compassionate in-your-face advice columnist ever

She has been described as the perfect guide for those who have got lost in life.

For a few years, the blurb on the back of her book informs us, tens of thousands of people — the frightened, the anxious, the confused — turned to her.

And she responded with advice that "was spun from genuine compassion and informed by a wealth of personal experience — experience that was sometimes tragic and sometimes tender, often hilarious and often heartbreaking".

She went by the moniker "Sugar". The world now knows her as Cheryl Strayed. And a selection of her columns was recently made available in book form, a copy of which I have just bought on for the college library. On Goodreads, there are more than 6,400 ratings for Tiny Beautiful Things, and some 1,400 reviews — it's that popular.

Here is an excerpt (the last paragraph, actually) from a two-page letter written to Sugar by a woman reader who wants nothing more than to be a writer and to be recognised and appreciated for her talent but who fears she is not good enough:

How do I reach the page when I can't lift my face off the bed? How does one go on, Sugar, when you realise you might not have it in you? How does a woman get up and become the writer she wishes she'd be?
Elisa Bassist

And here are the last few paragraphs from Sugar's six-page-long response:

Writing is hard for every last one of us — straight white men included. Coal mining is harder. Do you think miners stand around all day talking about how hard it is to mine for coal? They do not. They simply dig.

You need to do the same, dear sweet arrogant beautiful crazy talented tortured rising star glowbug. That you're so bound up about writing tells me that writing is what you're here to do. And when people are here to do that, they almost always tell us something we need to hear. I want to know what you have inside you. I want to see the contours of your second beating heart.

So write, Elisa Bassist. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a mother****er [asterisks mine].

You can read the letter as well as Sugar's advice in full here.

And you will want to know what happened to Elissa Bassist. Here is an excerpt from the FAQ on her website (yes, she is now a well-known writer):

Elissa Bassist is the editor of the Funny Women column on Her writing has appeared in The New York Times,, Slate, The Paris Review Daily, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Creative Nonfiction, Jezebel, The Daily Beast, Salon, The Rumpus, and most recently in Get Out of My Crotch, a collection of twenty-one writers responding to America’s war on women’s rights and reproductive health.

In April 2013, she contributed to Men’s Health, unlike every other month when she does the opposite. Elissa co-edited the anthology Rumpus Women, Volume I (published by The Rumpus Paper Internets) with Julie Greicius. Before moving to Brooklyn, she produced and co-hosted the Literary Death Match in San Francisco. 

And here you can read a conversation conducted by e-mail between Strayed and Bassist two years after that letter was published. In this conversation the two "revisit many of the themes from the original letter, and examine how their professional and artistic landscapes have changed".

As I noted in the headline, there are Agony Aunts. And then there is "Sugar".
  • Interestingly, in the book, Sugar addresses a question most of us have about the many Agony Aunt columns in newspapers and magazines (and, of course, on the Web):
Q: Are the letters you publish really sent in by anonymous people? Most are so well written that it seems you or The Rumpus writers must be creating them.

A: The letters published in my column and in this book were sent to me by people who sought my advice. In most cases the name and/or e-mail address of the letter writer is not visible to me. I do not write the letters, nor does anyone at The Rumpus. Because I have thousands of letters from which to choose, well-written letters probably have a higher chance of being plucked from the pile simply because they are more concise and complex. I agree with you that the letters are lovely. I have even more in my inbox.

What I can't help thinking: Even here, good writing matters.

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