What struck me most about Tiny Beautiful Things was the sheer, mind-numbing honesty of Cheryl Strayed’s words. I craved it. I drank it in like ice cold water after a half marathon.
Even before I read Tiny Beautiful Things, I knew Cheryl Strayed was authentic. I knew it from her bestselling memoir Wild, which I picked up at an airport bookshop in Berlin. I read it in the light of my iPhone torch, under the covers of musty hostel beds around Europe. I was in the middle of a separation from my ex-husband then. I needed something authentic more than I needed to know where I would sleep that night, or even where in the world I was. Wild gave me that. The whisperings of her account of her life filled my soul. I saw similarities on every page, and it helped me to not feel alone.
Tiny Beautiful Things gives voice to other readers who also feel alone. The book is a collection of some of the most poignant letters of advice from Cheryl Strayed’s online advice column on the literary magazine site, The Rumpus, in 2010. Back then no one knew it was her – she was an atypical agony aunt, known only as Sugar.
She remained anonymous for 2 years, finally ‘coming out’ to her followers in 2012. The book is made up of dozens of heartfelt letters from anonymous people who wrote to her for an answer. Even when they knew the answer. “I’m married but I want to have sex with someone else.” It wasn’t about knowing the “right” answer. It was the knowledge that someone understands and is on your side, not necessarily even in agreement with your perspective, but with you as a fellow human being – that’s the answer that people search for.
Strayed gave them that. And more. She gave them full-blown gritty stories from her own life. Her sexual abuse as a child. Her mother dying of cancer. All the shitty waitressing jobs that came to mold her character. Anything to make these letter writers feel less alone, and give them the story they needed to hear. She was forthright about people’s bad choices. She was gentle enough that it never felt like judgment. She never gave pat answers. Letter writers were unique in all the world to her.
One of my favorite letters (although it’s really more Strayed’s reply that I love), is titled “Write like a motherfucker.” It resonated with me. The 26 year old writing to Sugar is a writer herself or wants to be. She writes but it isn’t how she earns a living. She struggles with the idea of being a writer as a woman. About the perception of her writing as small. Gender specific. Not socially important. She confesses that she “writes like a girl,” and complains of the unifying theme that so many of women writers’ careers end in suicide. And, she somehow manages to be both painfully doubting and painfully arrogant about her writing ability. How these two mindsets can possibly co-exist is a testament to the twistedness of human nature. Anyway, I can completely relate.
Strayed’s reply is, amongst other gems, that “the kindest thing I can do for you is to tell you to get your ass on the floor. I know it’s hard to write, darling. But it’s harder not to.” As a writer, (or an athlete, musician, or any kind of artist), I think it is hard to do the very thing that lets you claim that title. It’s hard work. But you still know you need to do it. You can’t be yourself without doing it.
I know this truth to my very core. I have spent years in limbo between paralyzing self-doubt about my writing, and unsubstantiated arrogance – doing anything but writing, even though it’s what I love. Because I’m petrified that I’m not good enough. And I’m petrified that I am. And so this is what I needed to hear: “get your ass on the floor.” Strayed goes on to tell her to “write so blazingly good that you can’t be framed.” Which made me realize, your writing doesn’t have to be put in a box. If it’s extraordinary, it won’t be. Strayed ends her reply with, “So write, Elissa Bassist. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.”
I think we’re all thirsty for authenticity. We all crave it. It’s hard to find. But I found a taste of it in this book, full of tiny beautiful things.