‘Dear Sugar’ Revealed

Author Cheryl Strayed speaks the truth in a new collection of her online advice column

August 9, 2012

Cheryl Strayed, author of “Tiny Beautiful Things” and “Wild.”

On Valentine’s Day, author Cheryl Strayed walked out onto a stage in San Francisco and admitted she was the author of the (until-then) anonymous advice column “Dear Sugar,” a popular feature of lit website the Rumpus.

“It got to the point where so many people were guessing who I was, it was becoming an open secret rather than a secret,” Strayed says. “And it’s really hard to have a piece of your professional life be that gigantic and have to pretend it’s not there — to be like, ‘Oh, I’m really busy! Super, super busy!’ People say, ‘With what?’ ‘Oh, just … things.’ ”

Strayed had to blow her cover: Her memoir, “Wild,” was set to come out the following month, and it would have given away the secret anyway. There’s no mistaking Strayed’s direct, earnest prose, whether she’s chronicling her first marriage or answering a stranger’s question about adultery.

Strayed is now on a book tour for “Tiny Beautiful Things,” a just-released collection of advice columns she penned as Sugar. When she inherited the column in March 2010, she’d already written essays and even a novel, but she found the new anonymity freeing. However, even with that cloak lifted, Strayed says the advice-columnist role itself offers its own sense of remove.

“If you asked me what you should do, I could give you my opinion,” she says. “And if you didn’t like it or were offended, or you took my advice and it backfired, it wouldn’t affect our relationship at all. Because we don’t have one! There’s a big difference between the subjectivity of friendship and the objectivity of advice-giving.”

Last spring’s “Wild,” which was selected for Oprah’s Book Club, delves into Strayed’s own life: Her mother died young, and to handle her grief, Strayed hiked the Pacific Crest Trail alone. Strayed has also explored her mother’s death in the Sugar columns, but with a more analytical bent.

“In ‘Wild,’ I’m searching myself and trying to tell the story of my struggle,” she says. “In ‘Tiny Beautiful Things,’ I’m doing that for other people. Writing the column, for the two years before I revealed my identity, people were always like, ‘We don’t know who Sugar is!’ And yet, you totally know who I am. I just didn’t tell you my name.”

Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW; Fri., 7 p.m., free; 202-364-1919. (Van Ness)
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Katie Aberbach · August 9, 2012