Reader: Marcia Aldrich
Before she published her best-selling memoir Wild, Cheryl Strayed was an advice columnist. She wrote Dear Sugar for The Rumpus, a series gathered into the book Tiny Beautiful Things, for which the present essay supplies the title.
Advice columns have been around for centuries, about as long as there have been periodicals for them to appear in. The word “column,” of course, comes from the layout of printed newspapers, where such features typically appeared, but advice given in response to a question doesn’t have to be shaped to that format, and advice columns have migrated into places where there may be no columns, including sites like The Rumpus.
If we give up the idea that advice columns have to have a particular format, we can see that they are examples of a broader genre that seems to have no name. Its essential features are a questioner, an adviser, an audience for their Q&A, and an ongoing forum. By those criteria, the NPR program Car Talk, in which the jolly brothers hand out diagnoses to people who call in with their auto-related problems, is Dear Sugar‘s cousin. And Sugar’s great-great-great-etc.-grandmother is the priestess of the ancient Greek oracle at Delphi, where carved into the temple stone were two best words of advice ever given, “Know yourself.”
Any form so old as this must change with the times, and the advice column has evolved from its earlier purpose, telling women (mainly) how to do something of a practical nature or rendering a judgment on social decorum, to something more complicated, far-reaching, and hard to pinpoint. How to live a worthwhile life may be a way to put it—a question that essayists have always grappled with. What troubles the correspondents who write to Sugar can’t be solved by a one-line answer or an easy fix.
Strayed, when she got her hands on it, pumped new life into the advice column. We get an idea of the sea change she wrought when we compare her to someone like Dear Abby, who reigned over the form in the second half of the twentieth century, giving brief, confident pointers. Strayed, instead of offering straightforward advice, telling people what they should do, provided something else—stories from her own life.
When she began Dear Sugar, she considered creating a persona, according to Jessica Weisberg, but chose instead to draw deeply from her own experience, just as she did in essays. The reader’s question is like a writing prompt, a jumping-off point for Strayed’s self-exploration. The question that Sugar is asked by Seeking Wisdom is practically an engraved invitation to write a memoir: suppose you look back on your earlier self, Wisdom suggests, and evaluate what you see.
In response to a correspondent asking for advice, Strayed tells a story about herself in hopes that it will illuminate a larger truth for readers. The resulting essay seems such an effortless and natural response that we may not recognize that she has turned the advice column on its head.
The form these responses take is epistolary: in effect Strayed writes a letter to one person about a problem he or she is having. And readers use her essays, her answers, as their own jumping-off point, as prompts for their own life-thinking. The result is what Megan Marz calls “reciprocal, participatory literature.” Strayed created a collaborative personal medium from the ashes of the syndicated advice column, and readers loved it.
- This essay is a sequence of self-contained paragraphs. Is there a narrative thread that determines their order? Would the essay be just as strong if the paragraphs were arranged in a different order?
- What passage do you think does the most emotional work? Is it also the most artistically satisfying passage?
- Some of the advice Strayed gives could be expressed by a simple maxim (“Love your body”). Why is her essay more effective?
- Try to apply the advice given in the essay to an issue you are struggling with. Does it help you decide what to do? Does it help you in some other way?
Have students write a response to the question that Seeking Wisdom asks, giving advice to themselves at a younger age. Point out that they don’t need to use the age in the original question (some of them may not yet be in their twenties!)—the younger self can be any age.
What follows is a version of a writing exercise posted by Amy Monticello at the Creative Writers Collaborative.
- Have each student invent names for an advice column, for the questioner (equivalent to “Seeking Wisdom”), and for the person giving advice (like “Sugar”). The purpose of the pseudonyms is anonymity for the students.
- Have each student write a question seeking advice. The question should be about a genuine issue, either the student’s or someone else’s. Provide feedback on the questions, discussing with the class those questions that are likely to produce more valuable responses, have students revise their question and turn in the revision.
- Provide the questions to the class, allowing student to select which question to answer.
- Have students write a response, using their pseudonym.