A collection of anonymously written advice columns, Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed is the book that will give you a gentle push in the right direction.
by Aisiri Amin
Sometimes when the chaos of this messy world makes it difficult to rise above, words, the right words, can make all the difference. Be it something as crushing as losing someone or as defeating as mental exhaustion or as overpowering as a heartbreak, Cheryl Strayed seemed to have the right words to soothe our restless soul and tired heart.
Not the typical agony aunt but a rather unexpected one, Cheryl gained immense popularity for her popular advice column ‘Dear Sugar’ on The Rumpus. Her responses to the reader’s questions were drawn from her own personal experiences making it real and forming a connection almost instantly.
Unlike the usual advice columns that merely ruffle through the problem, Cheryl didn’t hesitate in diving in, being blunt, calling out the reader when necessary but most importantly, showing them that there is always a way even when we don’t see it.
Collections of advice columns are usually not adapted into a play but Tiny Beautiful Things was. It opened in a theatre in New York in 2016.
Author of four books till date including the bestselling book, Wild, which was adapted into a film starring Reese Witherspoon, Cheryl’s words are loaded with courage to face the world and to face yourself. When you get your hands on Tiny Beautiful Things, randomly open the book and read the first line that you see and somehow it will make sense, somehow it will fit.
Take it from someone who has always kept a safe distance from advice columns, especially the ones that give you ‘advice’ about love and life, this book is more a poetic push that you need to get it together than anything else.
Cheryl acknowledges that she’s someone who has been in a similar place and knows how unmotivating life can be, in that sense the book might even read like a memoir.
What sets apart Cheryl’s advice columns is the unexpected honesty that we get to see in a self-revelatory manner which is pointed out in the introduction by Steve Almond. When a young reader asked Cheryl: Dear Sugar, WTF WTF, WTF? I’m asking this question because it applies to everything.
To this Cheryl begins her reply by recounting the trauma that she suffered as a child when her father made her “jack him off” when she was just three or four years old. “I wasn’t any good at it. My hands were too small..,” she says. This is not something you expect to read and definitely not in an advice column of an online magazine. And this is exactly why Cheryl is not your regular agony aunt. She is real and doesn’t hesitate to dig deep and face your demons with you.
The questions asked are something so relatable that it shakes you up and comforts you all at once. For instance, let’s talk about Johnny. He seems to struggle to comprehend the word “love”, questions it and deep down he is terrified of it. We all know a Johnny. Some of us are a Johnny.
To him, Cheryl says: “Do you realise that your refusal to utter the word ‘love’ to your lover has created a force field all of its own? Withholding distorts reality.”
“Be brave. Be authentic Practice saying the word “love” to the people you love so that when it matters the most to say it, you will. We are all going to die, Johnny. Hit the iron bell like it’s dinner time.”
To the mother who lost her baby, Cheryl reflects on the magnitude of the loss before offering any advice. Talking about how even the people who love and support you can’t help you during a loss like this, Cheryl says, “They live on Planet Earth. You live on Planet My Baby Died.”
She concludes by stating that only we can heal ourselves. No one can do that for us. The genuine healing, she says, is “entirely and absolutely up to you.”
To the young novelist who identifies herself as “Awful Jealous Person”, Cheryl says, “We get the work done on the ground level. And the kindest thing I can do for you is to tell you to get your ass on the floor.”
The pieces of advice are not really advice, they don’t tell you what’s the right thing to do, and they make you reflect, analyse and arrive at an answer yourself.
There are no judgments. Be it a man with compulsive stealing habit or a father addicted to painkillers, Cheryl doesn’t put them in the box of acceptable, unacceptable or draw conclusions. She talks. Because sometimes words can do what actions can’t.
Pick up the book if you don’t like to be told what to do but still seek advice. And if you are wondering what ‘advice’ Cheryl gave to the young man who asked her “WTF?”, here it is: “The fuck is life. Answer it.”
So, go on, what are you waiting for?
Aisiri Amin is a journalist specialising in social justice, gender issues and culture. She has written for The Hindu and works as a freelance writer. Social wallflower and an idealist at the core, she lives on books, tea and hope (in that particular order).