Every time I read an advice column, I think, “Who is this person and how are they qualified to dole out possibly life-changing wisdom to strangers?” Cheryl Strayed, who has been doling out said advice for more than a decade, admits even she doubted if she was up to the task.
“I said, ‘Wait a minute, I’m not qualified to do this. I never took a psychology class. I never got through therapy,’” said Strayed, author of the phenomenal memoir “Wild” and the once-anonymous dispenser of heartfelt, honest counsel as the voice behind “Dear Sugar.” The column, which began in the online magazine The Rumpus and later adapted into a book called “Tiny Beautiful Things,” has been developed for the theater by “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” auteur Nia Vardalos.
In the column, Strayed as Sugar answered questions by telling stories from her own life, making the advice seekers’ problems personal. “I was completely wrong that you have to be quote unquote qualified to dispense advice,” she said. “What I try to do with Sugar is not to be that one voice saying, ‘I’ve got this all figured out and I’m going to tell you what to do.’ Instead, what I say is, ‘I’m willing to get down in the mud with people and grapple.’ I’ve been training for this all of my life with studies in the human condition.”
Strayed won’t be there Thursday when the play opens at Baltimore Center Stage, but she’s proud of the Maryland production, which runs through April 2. “The exciting thing is that people always bring themselves into it. Even though the actresses [at various stagings] are saying the same words, they’re saying it in their different ways, from their own bodies. They’re going to get this story out there, and it gets to have a life of its own. ‘Tiny Beautiful Things’ has taken on so many more lives that I could ever imagine.”
Her advice is so universal that it affected the life of Hyattsville actress Erika Rose, who plays Sugar at Center Stage, before she even knew the source. Years ago, when Rose was “struggling in a relationship and wondering if I’d made the right choice,” she read a piece about “an alternative life you could have had, a path you could have taken and needing to wave across the shore at this sister life.”
It turns out that piece was a 2011 “Dear Sugar” column called “The Ghost Ship That Didn’t Carry Us,” which Rose didn’t realize until she was cast in “Tiny Beautiful Things. “When I got this show, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh! That was her! Wow!’ I’ve also listened to a podcast [Strayed] did about love that she did with the man [Jeff Almond] who asked her to take over the column. It was wonderful to hear them speak about missing people and holding onto them tight. That advice has found its way into my own household,” Rose said.
This isn’t the only time that Strayed has lent her life story to the screen or stage. The 2014 film “Wild,” starring Reese Witherspoon as Strayed, followed her solo trek of the Pacific Crest Trail in the wake of her mother’s death. And in April, Hulu will release a miniseries version of “Tiny Beautiful Things” starring Kathryn Hahn.
“These are adaptations of some of the most personal stories of my life. It’s surreal,” the author said. “I’ve had the pleasure of seeing a number of different actors play the Sugar role, starting with Nia, in so many cities and productions around the country, and every time I see it I think ‘How did this happen to me?’”
Actually, she knows the answer to that. “Even though it’s true that those things are personal to me, I also knew they were a universal experience,” Strayed said. “When I write about grief, about feeling confused about relationships and family dysfunction, readers say, ‘Me too!’ The beautiful thing about them writing me and me telling my stories back to them, is an intimate exchange between two people. Therapy in the town square. Maybe not therapy, but honest, vulnerable and surprisingly open conversation, searching what it means to be human.”
I never wrote to Sugar, but I am one of those readers of Strayed’s work who found my experiences of grief and loss reflected back to me in her naked honest words. I had “Wild” in my head when I wrote my own grief memoir after my husband’s death. It was scary, but I followed Strayed’s example of rawness and openness, even when it hurt. And it made my book better.
“Vulnerability is the key to so much stuff. What is happening [in the column] is being vulnerable, telling the truth when we’ve often been told not to and been shamed about it,” Strayed said. “I think about the ways the world would change if we could all speak more truthfully.”
Of course, conversations aren’t just about speaking. “The other part is being able to listen, to be able to take your story, take it into me,” she said. “You’re telling me what’s real about you, I tell you what’s real about me. It’s such a powerful exchange.”