Two years ago, my mother died. She was 48, I was 25. I turned to Sugar in a voracious, all-consuming way. Not sweets—I devoured “Dear Sugar,” an online advice column at the literary website the Rumpus.
I had trouble describing “Dear Sugar” to others, explaining why it was more than an advice column. It wasn't just that Sugar had lost her 45-year-old mother when she was 23, and drew upon the experience frequently in her work. Her writing held something bigger. With grace, kindness, and curse words, Sugar provided clarity on everything from dealing with the death of someone dear to leaving the ones we love. When I read Sugar's column “No. 78: The Obliterated Place” around the one-year anniversary of my mom's death, I came to understand my pain as something primal that I could turn into something beautiful. When I feel dejected about my writing, her words from the column “No. 48: Write Like a Motherfucker” (“Write…. Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.”) echo in my brain like a prayer. When I wonder if things will ever feel okay again, I turn to “No. 64: Tiny Beautiful Things” to be reminded that “most things will be okay eventually, but not everything will be. Sometimes you'll put up a good fight and lose. Sometimes you'll hold on really hard and realize there is no choice but to let go. Acceptance is a small, quiet room.”
Because of an unlikely medium—the advice column—so many of us, especially women, are pushing ourselves to love our bodies, trust our guts, and follow our hearts. And we have writer Cheryl Strayed to thank. A lifelong feminist, Strayed inherited—and transformed—the advice column from its original author, Steve Almond. Her thoughtful advice, clear feminist stance, and gift for storytelling has hooked thousands of faithful readers she calls her “sweet peas.” Strayed wrote the column anonymously for two years before coming out as Sugar in February 2012. Five short months later, the author has experienced a meteoric rise, going from anonymous, unpaid advice columnist and author to the writer who inspired Oprah Winfrey to bring back her book club for the sole purpose of sharing Strayed's new memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Strayed's career continues to soar, thanks in part to the countless devoted fans who initially fell in love with the person they knew only as Sugar. Wild is a New York Times bestseller that was recently optioned for a film directed by Lisa Cholodenko and starring Reese Witherspoon. Her advice columns have been compiled into the collection Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, released in July. Strayed took some time off to promote Wild and other projects, but she's now back to writing “Dear Sugar” and recently took the time to talk to Bitch about how feminism informs her work and why she thinks so many have trusted her with their deepest secrets.
The thing about you that everyone really responds to is your honesty and your empathy. When referencing your work as Sugar, the phrase “radical empathy” gets used a lot; it's even in the introduction to Tiny Beautiful Things. Do you think radical empathy aptly describes your work as Sugar?
The phrase does capture what I strive to convey. When I first took over the column I thought, “Who am I to give advice?” I'm not an expert, but I came to the realization that that's the best person to give advice. We don't listen to the know-it-alls. I'm someone who's made mistakes, and people are comforted when I tell them they're going to be okay. I think people feel loved by Sugar, even when I'm saying they're being an asshole. The point is it's okay, because we're all assholes sometimes. The more important question is how you make amends.
A lot of the letters I respond to are in reference to all the things we're told that turn out not to be true. When someone writes me to say they're tempted to cheat on their spouse, the approach isn't to tell them they're a horrible person. They're just married. It's not shocking to be married for a number of years and want to have sex with someone else; we just don't talk openly about it. I get down in the mud with people and let them know it's okay to be human and flawed.
Sometimes I think the reason I became a writer is because I've always felt others' experiences so acutely. When I tell the people who write me letters that their problems keep me up at night, I'm not joking. I've been given a huge gift with this column, and I knew I would write it like a motherfucker, but I didn't know people would embrace Sugar the way they have. I knew I wanted to be a writer, but the crosscurrent was always that I wanted to help people. I didn't have total faith that I could help people with writing, but as Sugar I feel like I have helped in some small way.
When advice columns like Dan Savage's “Savage Love” emerged, they aimed to be a lot edgier than their advice-column predecessors. Even Sugar's original writer, Steve Almond, took a more sarcastic, lighthearted approach. Along with radical empathy, your approach as Sugar includes radical disclosure. Your life experiences become integral to the advice being given, and you make yourself completely vulnerable. Did you consciously try to upset the medium?
There was no master plan. What it turned out to be was just my natural approach. I wasn't an advice-column connoisseur. I'd read Dan Savage's column here and there and I loved his edginess, but I knew it wasn't my style. I hadn't really read any of the other columnists [mentioned] in the tagline Steve used for Sugar [Dear Abby, Cary Tennis, Dan Savage, Miss Manners]. I just stumbled into it. I thought I'd try to be funny like Steve, but my strength is in sincerity. I drew from my life because that's what I do in all of my writing. Initially, I feared readers might think I was self-absorbed, but people got it. They understood I was telling them about me so I could tell them about themselves.
In your writing and in recent interviews, you talk about how you went off to college and became an active feminist. How did your feminism take shape?
I've been a feminist since my earliest memory. When I was a kid in the early '70s I'd listen to the Free to Be You and Me album with Marlo Thomas, which had this fantastic, bleeding-heart, liberal, feminist, antiracist agenda. It was released by the Ms. Foundation for Women and it addressed issues relating to gender and race and it educated kids about sexism. I was very conscious of these issues from an early age, especially because of my mom, who was a really strong person and a battered wife. Once she left my dad for good, she was a single mom, totally alone and very poor with three kids at the age of 26. She worked in factories, she worked as a waitress, and we were on welfare. I knew I didn't want to replicate my mom's life, but I connected her experiences to feminism. They had everything to do with gender and class, but I just couldn't articulate that at the time. So I was the lone feminist voice at my little high school and then I went to college and met all of these women with similar beliefs and I was blown away.
As I get older, feminism informs my work in different ways. It's the reason I got involved with starting an organization called VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, which seeks to deepen the conversation about gender inequity in the literary world. We did something called “The Count,” which found that the more prestigious the journal or the publication, the less women are featured in it. The situation for women writers has improved, but there's still an incredible amount of bias.
In my 20s, my feminism was righteous and angry; now I carry it more deeply but also more lightly. I no longer feel like I have to make big political statements wherever I go, but I will fight when something's important to me. I made sure that the cover of Wild wasn't gendered. You have to be really intentional about that as a female writer. Things like this come up all the time. While promoting Wild on a radio show, the host said, “This is a great book for women.” I had to correct him and say “No, this is a great book for people.” I wasn't going to allow myself to be marginalized in that way.
When reading “Dear Sugar,” I feel like there are some very apparent feminist messages, like in column “No. 86: Tiny Revolutions,” which is very much about accepting your body. How much does feminism inform your work as Sugar?
Feminism is who I am; it's the lens from which I view the world. Everything in Sugar is feminist. It should be stamped “This is written by a feminist.” Some columns are more explicitly feminist than others—“Tiny Revolutions” is one example. In it, I write about how feminism has completely failed on the beauty front. We're still obsessed with our bodies, still obsessed with how our asses look in our jeans. I'm not exempt from this. I feel the pressure to be pretty too, but for things to really change women need to stand together against the beauty machine. We have to take responsibility for the values we're perpetuating. I don't want to suggest that we all just internalize the issue and blame ourselves, because it's also a cultural problem. I heard something recently about men and women who do online dating: When going on a date with someone they met online, the number-one fear that straight women have is going on a date with a serial killer. The number-one fear straight men have is going on a date with a fat woman. That says everything.
An excerpt from Wild was featured in Vogue along with a photo that looked nothing like you. You were Photoshopped to death. How did you feel about it?
I was furious. I didn't get to see the picture until the magazine was on the stands. I was grateful that they ran an excerpt of my book, but I was so incredibly disappointed by what they did to the photograph of me. They came to Portland and did my hair and makeup, and frankly, I thought these would be the prettiest pictures ever taken of me. But what they did with Photoshop obliterated that. You can tell from everything I write that I'm an advocate for authenticity, so altering me to that degree was in direct opposition to everything I stand for professionally and personally.
When e-mailing them before the photo shoot, I was very honest about my appearance. I told them I'm a size 12, I'm 43, and I've had two kids. I told them it'd be best if the clothes they chose for me weren't clingy in the middle because I carry my weight there, but that my legs and boobs are fine. This is the way I look and I wasn't going to go on some crash diet before Vogue photographed me. There's nothing wrong with my body, but they stretched me out and made me painfully thin, and my face looked like a waxen doll. But I learned from it. I will never again be photographed without having final approval of the photos before publication.
How did you find out about Oprah choosing Wild to bring back her book club? Do you feel ready for the level of success and scrutiny that an Oprah-level endorsement brings?
One day, back in April, my cell phone rang. I didn't recognize the number, but I answered it anyway. It was Oprah Winfrey. I recognized her voice immediately. She told me she'd read Wild and loved it and she wanted to restart her book club. I kept asking her if she was joking. She kept telling me she was dead serious. It was very, very exciting.
I'm now even busier than before—it feels like the volume got turned up at a time when it was already pretty loud. Oprah's endorsement has brought more readers to Wild, people who might not have otherwise given it a second thought. I don't know if anyone is ever prepared for the intensity of the experience I've had over the past several months. I think you just ride the wave and see where it takes you.
It's sort of astonishing how many people write Sugar to talk about things they don't even discuss with their partners. Why do you think so many people have invested so much trust in you?
When I was first starting the column, I thought it would be hard to do every week, so I thought I could take a week off here and there and pass the column off to a friend who could write under the name of “Splenda” or something while I was away. Very quickly I realized that would be a total betrayal because people were not just writing to anyone—they were writing to me. I'm touched by their trust and I know what a big responsibility it is. I get thousands of letters and I can't answer them all. Going through all of the e-mails is heartbreaking; sometimes I feel like falling to my knees and crying as I read about all the struggles and sorrows in people's lives. To those I can't personally respond to, I send out a silent “I hope you're okay.” I think readers trust me because I speak to them with honesty and love. There's a fine line between honest and hurtful, and honest and helpful. As Sugar I'm very frank, but I'm also dispensing my sometimes harsh advice with genuine love and care. The Sugar column is a community. Even the comments section is loving and kind and encouraging. The Rumpus sees to that because it doesn't allow hateful or hurtful comments. Criticism is welcomed, but having disregard for others' feelings is not. Sugarland is a safe place. When you write me a letter you might get a spank, but you'll also get a pat on the head.