A tall sweet looking guy walked into the store this morning, asking for “some life coaching books, some books that give life advice”. As we mainly sell fiction here in Ark Books (as well as some theory), chances of finding a straight up self-help book are slim. Of course, if you ask me, reading fiction is a long-lasting way of helping yourself. But to find advice in a fictional story you have to be willing to immerse yourself into a world to which you don’t necessarily relate. You have to take that deep dive without knowing if you will find anything there that speaks to you and your particular problems.
As a literature graduate, of course, I root for fiction’s ability to heal what’s real. But as a person, I know that sometimes you just want some straightforward advice—the kind of advice that you wish your smart friends or family members were able to give, but aren’t. The kind of advice that you know your cat would offer you if she could talk. The kind of advice that a complete stranger on the subway would whisper in your ear if life was a Wim Wenders movie. But life isn’t. So, should we all just blindly surrender ourselves to the endless aisles of self-help books? No, we shouldn’t.
I happen to know of an advice column that occupies that vivid space between fiction and actual therapy that you didn’t know existed. Have you ever heard of the Sugars?
The first time I heard of Dear Sugar was in Berlin, where I lived for about two years while studying and writing my masters thesis. An American friend of mine who was light years ahead of me in terms of knowledge about the latest cultural and literary trends told me about this advice column that she used to read on The Rumpus, a non-profit literary website driven by writers and artists. “Cheryl Strayed is Sugar”, she said. “You know, Reese Witherspoon just made a movie about her, it’s called Wild”. I had already watched the movie, and despite my usual Hollywood defense mechanisms, I had enjoyed it and wept a great deal too. I bought the book that Wild was based on and devoured it. Reading it had felt like a guilty pleasure, but I wonder why (and I hate that term, “guilty pleasure”, but that’s for another essay)? Wild is a beautiful memoir and I was especially taken with Strayed’s unsentimental yet harrowing description of experiencing loss and sorrow at a young age. So what if Reese Witherspoon had made it into a million dollar movie.
For all of you podcast lovers out there, you know that there’s something deeply intimate about listening to somebody’s voice, without being able to see their face. In the pandemonium of our current visual landscape, listening is, for me, such a welcome break from seeing.
My friend told me that the Dear Sugar column, which Strayed had managed for years, was being turned into a podcast, and that Sugar had been pluralized. Together with Steve Almond, the writer who started the Sugar column at The Rumpus, Strayed was now speaking “directly into your ears” every week, answering questions from people with about all kinds of problems: broken marriages, loneliness, sexual frustration, loss, serious illness, economic strain etc. I only had to listen to one episode of the podcast and that was it. I’ve listened to the Sugars every week since. It’s been four years now.
It might seem a tad dramatic to write an essay about an advice column. But listening to Strayed and Almond on a regular basis infused me with a steady rhythm in the latter half of my twenties, which was, for the most part, a discordant, confused jazzy jam of sadness and joy, blossoming creativity and severe cases of distress. I listened to the Sugars when I met my boyfriend, when I moved from one country to another, when I graduated from my university studies and started teaching for the first time. When family members got ill and died. When close friends had babies and their family members got ill and died. When everything became too much to bear, or too boring or too fragile. But mostly, I associate the voices of Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed with the Berlin U-Bahn. This is where I would listen to their podcast. Going to university in the morning, with a cup of coffee in one hand and my phone in the other, squeezed into a corner while somebody was standing on my jacket. And at other times, in sunlight, with an open view looking out onto industrial buildings, miles of train tracks and grassy fields floating by.
The piano intro of Nina Simone’s version of “I want a little sugar in my bowl” would play for a couple of seconds, then Strayed’s voice: “For the lost, lonely and heartsick. The Sugars are here”.
For all of you podcast lovers out there, you know that there’s something deeply intimate about listening to somebody’s voice, without being able to see their face. In the pandemonium of our current visual landscape, listening is, for me, such a welcome break from seeing. And Strayed and Almond are both apt speakers, as well as writers. Their ways of turning and twisting sentences into a home run every single time is striking. It is hard to believe that they were improvising during the recording sessions, but they must have been. If a letter was particularly heartbreaking, both of them would begin their responses with a sigh. “Ouh” Strayed would let out. “This was a hard one. I’m so sorry this happened to you, Widower in Pain”. The letter writers would usually sign with an anonymous name that pointed to what the letter was about, for instance, Distressed About Sex, Friendzoned, Bad Stepmom, something like that. True to his calling as a writer, Almond would often take up examples from literature in his guidance. “In Moby Dick, the whale is commonly understood to mean… but it could also mean…” and he would always encourage the letter writer (and the listeners) to read a particular novel or book of poems. “The ambivalence of motherhood is one of the most painful taboos of our time”, he would say. “If I were you, I would read…” followed by a series of recommendations. Sometimes he and Strayed would disagree on what sort of advice to give, but not often. For the most part, they complimented each other’s responses by stressing the importance of something the other person had said while unfolding another yet untouched part of the letter. To add to their own insights, Strayed and Almond always invited a writer, an artist, or someone else who had written about or dealt with the topic of the day in different ways to join the session, and not knowing who would be part of the current episode was always exciting and added mystery to the otherwise familiar experience of listening to the voices of the Sugars.
Indeed, if there’s an overarching message seared through all of her advice, it is that we must “persevere”. No matter what the fuck is up in our lives we have to get through it, and eventually overcome it. Not in the sense that we should suppress the issue that is bothering us/messing up our lives and just stop whining about it, but in the sense that we must look it, the terrifyingly painful monstrous it, right in the face and then move on, carrying the monstrosity with us.
To give you an example of Strayed’s rather unconventional approach to the advice column, let me quote from the book Tiny Beautiful Things, a collection of letters from the time when Dear Sugar was “just” an online advice column managed by Strayed alone. In this letter, a man who calls himself Beast with a Limp is anguished about the lack of romantic love in his life, due to the fact that he is, in his own words, “incredibly ugly”. Because of a rare blood disorder, “Beast” is physically deformed and one side of his body is “puny and atrophied”. As is common for her style, Strayed initiates her response with a story of her own:
Once upon a time, I had a friend who was severely burned over most of his body. Six weeks after his twenty-fifth birthday, he didn’t realize that there was a gas leak in the stove in his apartment, so he lit a match and his entire kitchen blew up. He barely survived. When he got out of the hospital four months later, his nose and fingers and ears were burnt nubs and his skin was more hide than flesh, like that of a pink lizard with mean streaks of white glazed over the top. I’ll call him Ian.”
The letter goes on to narrate the fate of “Ian”, which is paved with both good and bad. While at no point undermining the grave agony of neither “Beast” nor “Ian’s” predicament, Strayed goes on to subtly reflect on pain as an obligatory part of the human condition, and she mourns the fact that there is, honestly, nothing to be done about the situation, which “Beast” himself is highly aware of: he will have to go through life as someone most people (due to society’s beauty standards) will consider freakish-looking and that is a fact. But despite this depressing truth, or perhaps because of it, Strayed manages to leave “Beast” and the reader with a feeling of hope. And as much as I would like to explain to you how that comes about, you will have to read the whole letter to understand fully why this is exactly what Strayed excels at; finding the most hopeful of outlooks in the most hopeless of situations by way of sharing her own experiences. Indeed, if there’s an overarching message seared through all of her advice, it is that we must “persevere”. No matter what the fuck is up in our lives we have to get through it, and eventually overcome it. Not in the sense that we should suppress the issue that is bothering us/messing up our lives and just stop whining about it, but in the sense that we must look it, the terrifyingly painful monstrous it, right in the face and then move on, carrying the monstrosity with us. It seems banal, but Strayed’s way of underlining this truth about how to survive in the modern world, especially when it comes to our mental and spiritual well being, is on point.
As mentioned above, she almost always narrates a story from her own life when she gives advice to others. And her own life is full of harsh, brittle and harrowing experiences that make you wonder how she managed to stay alive for this long, as well as suddenly seeing that your own problems are partially caused by an overdose of self-involvement and a lack of perspective (if you read through Tiny Beautiful Things, this realization will happen, even if you’ve been slapped particularly hard by life already).
It is not only private emotional issues that are at the center of Dear Sugars. In fact, Almond puts a political spin on quite a few of his offerings, which always intrigues me, because a common argument against the self-help genre is that it subscribes to a neoliberal individualism—sort of the antidote to the personal as political. Outside of his responsibilities as Sugar, Almond is a fierce public debater of American politics. He recently published the book Bad Stories, an investigation into the (fictional) stories that have led American culture and society into the ultimate disbelief, which manifested with the election of Trump as president. Almond insists on the intertwining of politics, art and our individual and collective emotional lives both in his authorship and as one of the Sugars. How rare is that, among intellectuals? Perhaps what really sets Dear Sugars apart from other advice columns/books/podcasts is Almond and Strayed’s determination to make people feel that they are not alone; that the idea that we can fix our problems by ourselves is an illusion; that life becomes easier to bear if we surrender to the fact that we need each other to carry the weight.
The Dear Sugars podcast aired for the last time a couple of months ago. It felt strange to say goodbye to these familiar voices for good and I’m a little apprehensive and sad about the prospect of a Sugar-free life from now on. On the bright side, the radical empathy of Dear Sugars is likely to catch on within other areas of advice-giving; be it books, political activism or something else. With the current political climate in America, I think Strayed and Almond are far from done involving themselves in the public debate and in our darkest, deepest personal lives.
Oh, and the guy in the store the other day? I asked him if the advice book he was looking for was for himself or someone else, and he quickly replied, “oh no, it’s for my girlfriend”. After my warm recommendation of the Sugars, he ended up buying Tiny Beautiful Things. Lucky girl.
You can listen to the Dear Sugars podcast at wbur.org/dearsugar. Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond still give weekly written advice at The New York Times section called “The Sweet Spot”. The book Tiny Beautiful Things can be purchased in Ark Books.
Illustration by Louise Nguyen