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Tiny Beautiful Things: The Year I Was Shaken and Stirred With "Dear Sugar"

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I should explain: it is very rarely that I am a ridiculous fangirl about anything. The process of being a ridiculous fangirl is so emotionally taxing, so inherently indignified, that I try not to fall into the trap more often than necessary. Everyone is human, right? Even the artists whose work has seared an indelible, life-changing imprint on one's soul. Yes... even them. I'm sure they must still brush their teeth.

So it took me by surprise when, upon discovering "Dear Sugar" at the Rumpus in the winter of 2011, I gradually fell down the rabbit hole into ridiculous fangirlishness for the first time in years.

2011 was a tumultuous year in my life. I had left a job and was devoting my energies and time to finally completing the novel I'd been working on for half a decade. That is, when I was not preparing for a move from Jerusalem to New York City that summer, and confronting -- for perhaps the thousandth time -- the ghosts of former selves that seemed to crop up around every winding corner of Jerusalem. I say "ghosts" intentionally. Ghosts are restless, and possibly resentful; they have unfinished business. My teenage self coming of age in Jerusalem had unfinished business that even the most amazing husband in the world could not entirely dispel.

And then there was Sugar, an anonymous advice columnist, writing things like, "I'll never know and neither will you of the life you don't choose. We'll only know that whatever that sister life was, it was important and beautiful and not ours. It was the ghost ship that didn't carry us."

Or, "The most terrible and beautiful and interesting things happen in a life. For some of you, those things have already happened. Whatever happens to you belongs to you. Make it yours. Feed it to yourself even if it feels impossible to swallow. Let it nurture you, because it will."

And there we are, suddenly, at the edge of the dark wood, staring into the place where the most wrenching and lovely truths reside. A place to lose your heart and find it again.

If there is a common thread that unites the columns, it's work. Sugar doesn't tolerate laziness: doing the work to reach one's full potential, to write that novel, to exorcise ghosts, to let go of resentments and jealousy and commit instead to generosity and love -- all of these are sacred, lifelong tasks for which there are no shortcuts. In one of the most powerful of her columns, "Tiny Beautiful Things," Sugar writes with sage simplicity, "It's good you've worked hard to resolve childhood issues while in your twenties, but understand that what you resolve will need to be resolved again. And again."

And as I was grappling with my young ghost selves with the weapons of Sugar's wisdom, then there was the writing: that huge, monstrously complex novel that at times, I despaired of ever finishing. By the winter of 2011, I had set myself a goal: to finish the novel by the time July rolled around, just as my husband and I would be putting our lives into boxes and crossing the Atlantic for a city where neither of us had a job, just the savings we had labored to accumulate in five years and a willingness to work like the devil to make it in New York City.

This massive life change hung over our heads like the fabled sword of Damocles as I tried to work out how to bring all the characters and plot threads I had so meticulously crafted through the years to intertwine in a satisfying conclusion that also made sense.

There are way too many quotable lines in "Write Like a Motherfucker" -- Sugar's column that cuts straight to the core of a writer's anxiety. Every aspiring writer needs to read this column, in which she writes:

I'd let go of all the grandiose ideas I'd once had about myself and my writing... I'd lowered myself to the notion that the absolute only thing that mattered was getting that extra beating heart out of my chest. Which meant I had to write my book. My very possibly mediocre book. My very possibly never-going-to-be-published book. My absolutely no-where-in-league-with-the-writers-I'd-admired-so-much-that-I-practically-memorized-their-sentences book. It was only then, when I humbly surrendered, that I was able to do the work I needed to do.

Humility. Surrender. Such rare words for writers to be told, or to tell themselves.

Haunted by the prospect of endless packing, landlord logistics, and ever so much more, I grabbed onto that second beating heart and pulled. And pulled some more. Every day I stared at the page feeling a bit sick, but knew it was more important to plunge ahead than to founder on the shoals of my own ego, my desire to produce sentence upon sentence of pure genius. Whether the novel ever finds readers is a question that remains to be decided, but the work of birthing that book was essential, an end in itself. Not because I think I'm Tolstoy now, or because I have a six-figure deal (ha!) but because in that agonizing process I discovered things about myself and my characters that I would never have learned if I had not gone the distance -- the kinds of things that shift your perspective on the world just a little bit, as much as a trip to France or an Ivy League MFA or whatever else it is that artists are supposed to do to cultivate themselves. From Sugar, I learned that our most vital development happens through commitment to the work, even if that work comes out misshapen or in terrible need of a copy edit. Even in the flaws, there is a buried truth -- it's that second beating heart that you needed to see for yourself.

As most people now know, Sugar revealed herself on Valentine's Day of this year to be Cheryl Strayed, and then went on to publish Wild, a hugely successful memoir. On July 10, 2012, the collection of her "Dear Sugar" columns will be released in book form: Tiny Beautiful Things, which I've reviewed at Shelf Awareness. The columns are a gift, and so too is the book. As Sugar herself bids in her column of the same name, I've written this now on the eve of her book's publication with one intent: to say thank you.