Cheryl Strayed: Turning Tragedy into Tiny Beautiful Things

Gazzelle interview with Cheryl Strayed, July 19, 2021

Bring a friend; don’t forget the Kleenex. That’s the advice Cheryl Strayed has for those attending the St. Louis premiere of “Tiny Beautiful Things,” a play based on her New York Times bestseller, “Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar.”

Adapted for the stage by Oscar-nominated screenwriter and “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” actress Nia Vardalos, the play’s central character is Sugar, whose online advice column uses raw, honest personal experiences to help her real-life readers cope with profound loss, painful truths and everyday dilemmas.

“Tiny Beautiful Things” is making its St. Louis debut July 29 at The Grandel Theatre, marking Max & Louie Productions’ return to live performances.

Strayed’s book, released in 2012, is the follow-up to her international bestselling memoir, “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” which became the 2014 box-office hit, “Wild,” starring Reese Witherspoon.

“Tiny Beautiful Things” is a collection of letters Strayed received as columnist for the “Dear Sugar” advice column, which were originally published on The Rumpus website between 2010 and 2012.

In writing her replies, Strayed said the advice she gave readers who poured their hearts out to Sugar was “the best think I can think of.”

“I gave my whole self to my replies,” she said. “The central theme of ‘Dear Sugar’ is to make something beautiful out of the ugliness. I can’t offer you advice to escape the sorrow of our existence, but I can show you a way to turn those hardships into something beautiful and powerful.”

The exchanges between columnist and reader are sometimes funny, sometimes sad, but always poignant. Strayed remembers one specific letter from “Living Dead Dad,” a 58-year-old man who was struggling with a grief so intense he sometimes would “lie in bed and wail.”

“One that I just really wrestled with a lot was a letter from a man whose son – and only child – was killed by a drunk driver when he was 22. It was really hard to respond. This was somebody who was in deep grief and suffering,” Stray recalled. “My own mom died young of lung cancer, but I’m addressing somebody whose son had died. It’s a different kind of loss, losing a child. What do I say? What if I say the wrong thing? But I simultaneously knew I had to reply to this letter.”

Strayed said doing so was “one of the most gratifying experiences” she has ever had.

“Years later, I still regularly get emails from people who have experienced a deep loss,” she said. “They tell me, ‘What you wrote helped me, it was a balm to my heart…’”

Another “Dear Sugar” letter that gave Strayed pause only had two lines: “It took me about a week to answer,” Strayed said of the letter she dubbed ‘The Baby Bird.’ “I remember reaching for the delete key. But I stopped and didn’t delete it. I opened a Word document and started writing my answer.”

Even Strayed is first to admit what followed caught many readers off guard.

“Suddenly, I was writing about my experience being sexually abused as a toddler – it came right out,” she said. “I kept thinking, ‘Am I crazy? What is this?’ But I think people got it. You don’t get to go to bed lazy and cowardly. You have to pick yourself up, just like it was up to me to make a life for myself.”

When “The Baby Bird” scene is played out on stage, Strayed admits it still makes her squirm.

“It’s uncomfortable for me to listen to it,” she said. “I register that it’s also uncomfortable for the audience. But there are people who need to hear this, who feel seen by this.”

Strayed’s personal struggles with grief, addiction and divorce, which were portrayed in the film, “Wild,” as well as chronicled in her books, podcasts and speaking engagements, have resonated with audiences through the years. And now, it appears her knack for connecting with readers through an advice column is here to stay. Last November, Strayed resurrected “Dear Sugar” as a monthly newsletter, dispensing advice to those who seek it.

Just like her “Dear Sugar” alter ego, Strayed prefers to focus on helping people repair their brokenness with honesty and compassion, no matter how she reaches them.

“I talk to so many people who’ve experienced loss; specifically, the loss of a mother, but also the loss of a person they loved dearly – and they now have to live their life without that person,” she said. “Some people have experiences that are difficult or sad, or tragic or challenging, and those experiences sort of fester and shrink their world. But there are some who say, ‘I’m going to make this experience expand my world.’ Life is a powerful teacher. Some of my best writing is about beauty and joy and the good things that can happen to us, even out of tragedy.”

Strayed is currently working on her next book and has spent the past year writing a screenplay. For more information, visit her official website.

Max & Louie’s production of “Tiny Beautiful Things” opens Thursday, July 29, and runs through Sunday, Aug. 8, at The Grandel.