Discover more from Cheryl Strayed's Dear Sugar
What You Know Changes
Transcriptions and the TV show!
Lately I’ve been transcribing my journals. There are 25 of them and they span from May 1, 1988, when I was 19 years old, to January 23, 2010—which happens to be the day I finished writing the first full draft of Wild—when I was 41. I decided to begin this transcription project several months ago when I sought out one of my journals to do a fact check for an essay I was writing, but after I found what I’d sought, I didn’t put the journal down. Instead, I sat on the floor of my office and read the whole thing, feeling a swirl of shame, pride, regret, sorrow, bewilderment, amusement, longing, wonder, fear, mortification, and gratitude as I turned the pages.
I felt rattled and kind of sick for the rest of the day, as if I’d been visited by a phantom who both buoyed and scared the bejesus out of me. And the weirdest thing of all is that phantom was me! Did I even know her anymore? Where did the woman who’d written those words go? How did she become me?
I began my transcription project the next day. I lined up my journals in chronological order then opened up the oldest one and began typing. It’s simple work with only one rule: type into a word document what I wrote on the page. If I wrote a stupid thing, I have to type it. If I wrote something that makes me feel ashamed, I have to type it. If I wrote about something I did or thought or said that I now regret or no longer believe to be true, I have to type it.
The experience is like having your soul rinsed with very cold water.
What advice would you give your younger self? is a question I’ve been asked a lot lately, as I’ve been doing publicity for something that I can guaran-damn-tee you my younger self never imagined: the TV show adaptation of my book, Tiny Beautiful Things, which was recently released on Hulu. I always answer with some variation of what most people say: I’d tell myself it’s going to be okay, even if it doesn’t feel like it now. I’d be more gentle and generous with myself.
But what I realize—what this transcription project makes utterly clear to me, even as I answer that question with such certainty—is that my younger self wouldn’t have taken a word of my older’s self’s advice. My younger self had to let all the wild animals rampage around inside of her before she could be the person who’d look back and say, It’s okay, honey bun! You’re doing great. She had to figure it out the only way she could. The hard way.
Just like I imagine your younger self did too. Or is currently doing. And might have to do again. (And again!)
I’ve revisited my younger self in another way as well over this past year—while working on the TV show. I’m an executive producer on the show, but I was also involved on the ground level as one of the writers. It was so fun to learn about how an entirely different corner of the writer universe works, but the best part of the experience is that I got to work alongside an incredible group of writers—all of us led by the show’s magnificent creator and showrunner, Liz Tigelaar.
Our brilliant star is Kathryn Hahn, who plays Clare, the grown up woman who writes the Dear Sugar column. Aside from writing the column I write, her character isn’t based on me. Her marriage isn’t my marriage, her daughter isn’t my daughter, the path her life took is, in almost every way, different from mine. But we share the call to be a writer and we also share a past. It felt essential to me that Clare have many of the same foundational experiences that not only made me the person I am now, but also that I draw upon for many of the columns.
She had to have a dead mother. She had to have an abusive father from whom she’s been long estranged. She had to have grown up working class in a rural environment. She had to have been married and divorced in her twenties. The fabulous Sarah Pidgeon plays Clare/Sugar in her youth and a good portion of what she does in the show is from my life. Watching her performance isn’t quite like transcribing my journals, but at times it’s close. It’s another cold water soul-rinsing in the best way.
In honor of the show’s release, I’m including a column from the archives below, as is my tradition. The one I chose is the column for which both the book and show are named. In it, I respond to a letter writer who asked what advice I’d give my 20-something self (never mind I wouldn’t have taken it!). I wrote this column in one sleepless night while holed up in a hotel room at a writers conference in DC, feverish and miserably sick with a virus, so the fact that several lines of it are now narrated by Kathryn Hahn in the first episode of the TV series makes me laugh in sheer wonderment.
I think that’s what’s so simultaneously beguiling and vexing about the exercise of giving advice to our younger selves. We can’t possibly know what we know until we know it. The whole damn life ends up being something of a surprise. As I wrote in my journal decades ago so emphatically that I circled it, you begin with what you know and what you know changes.
Perhaps giving our younger selves advice is really an act of giving our current selves a dose of soothing medicine. A way of saying it’s going to be okay, even if it doesn’t feel like it. Perhaps in remembering how much better it would’ve been if we’d been gentler and more generous with ourselves as we learned and grew and found our way when we were younger, we become slightly more capable of being that way toward ourselves right now. (Perhaps redrafting all the dumb stuff one wrote in the 80s, 90s, and aughts is that kind of medicine too.)
Thank you for reading. I hope you’re well. Be gentle and generous with yourself.
P.S. Keep scrolling to the bottom if you’d like to hear the audio edition of this newsletter, which I now include with all my newsletters.
P.P.S I don’t yet know which letter I’ll answer for the April Dear Sugar Letter, but I’m considering a few good ones. If you’re a paid subscriber you’ll get it in your inbox on the last day of the month. If you want to become a paid subscriber you’ll find below.
Tiny Beautiful Things
I read your column religiously. I’m 22. From what I can tell by your writing, you’re in your early 40s. My question is short and sweet: what would you tell your 20-something self if you could talk to her now?
Dear Seeking Wisdom,
Stop worrying about whether you’re fat. You’re not fat. Or rather, you’re sometimes a little bit fat, but who gives a shit? There is nothing more boring and fruitless than a woman lamenting the fact that her stomach is round. Feed yourself. Literally. The sort of people worthy of your love will love you more for this, sweet pea.
In the middle of the night in the middle of your twenties when your best woman friend crawls naked into your bed, straddles you, and says, You should run away from me before I devour you, believe her.
You are not a terrible person for wanting to break up with someone you love. You don’t need a reason to leave. Wanting to leave is enough. Leaving doesn’t mean you’re incapable of real love or that you’ll never love anyone else again. It doesn’t mean you’re morally bankrupt or psychologically demented or a nymphomaniac. It means you wish to change the terms of one particular relationship. That’s all. Be brave enough to break your own heart.
When that really sweet but fucked up gay couple invites you over to their cool apartment to do ecstasy with them, say no.
There are some things you can’t understand yet. Your life will be a great and continuous unfolding. 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. You will come to know things that can only be known with the wisdom of age and the grace of years. Most of those things will have to do with forgiveness.
One evening you will be rolling around on the wooden floor of your apartment with a man who will tell you he doesn’t have a condom. You will smile in this spunky way that you think is hot and tell him to fuck you anyway. This will be a mistake for which you alone will pay.
Don’t lament so much about how your career is going to turn out. You don’t have a career. You have a life. Do the work. Keep the faith. Be true blue. You are a writer because you write. Keep writing and quit your bitching. Your book has a birthday. You don’t know what it is yet.
You cannot convince people to love you. This is an absolute rule. No one will ever give you love because you want him or her to give it. Real love moves freely in both directions. Don’t waste your time on anything else.
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.
One hot afternoon during the era in which you’ve gotten yourself ridiculously tangled up with heroin you will be riding the bus and thinking what a worthless piece of crap you are when a little girl will get on the bus holding the strings of two purple balloons. She’ll offer you one of the balloons, but you won’t take it because you believe you no longer have a right to such tiny beautiful things. You’re wrong. You do.
Your assumptions about the lives of others are in direct relation to your naïve pomposity. Many people you believe to be rich are not rich. Many people you think have it easy worked hard for what they got. Many people who seem to be gliding right along have suffered and are suffering. Many people who appear to you to be old and stupidly saddled down with kids and cars and houses were once every bit as hip and pompous as you.
When you meet a man in the doorway of a Mexican restaurant who later kisses you while explaining that this kiss doesn’t “mean anything” because, much as he likes you, he is not interested in having a relationship with you or anyone right now, just laugh and kiss him back. Your daughter will have his sense of humor. Your son will have his eyes.
The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.
One Christmas at the very beginning of your twenties when your mother gives you a warm coat that she saved for months to buy, don’t look at her skeptically after she tells you she thought the coat was perfect for you. Don’t hold it up and say it’s longer than you like your coats to be and too puffy and possibly even too warm. Your mother will be dead by spring. That coat will be the last gift she gave you. You will regret the small thing you didn’t say for the rest of your life.
Say thank you.
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