One night in the winter of 2015, I stepped out of the office into total darkness. It was overcast, the sun had set hours before, and the world felt big and cold and empty. I was the last to leave, I had been the first to arrive that morning, and I was already dreading coming to work the next day. I impulsively called Emma (one of my oldest friends) on the way home to vent my frustrations, and she had me laughing within minutes.
I distinctly remember exactly where I was on the drive home when she asked me, “Have you read Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed?” When I said I hadn’t heard of the book or the author, Emma started gushing about the powerful writing, the life-changing advice, and something about sugar that I wasn’t quite getting. With resolute excitement, she announced that she was going to mail me her copy of the book the very next day.
This secondhand paperback is one of the best gifts I’ve ever received. Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice On Love and Life from Dear Sugar is a collection of the most poignant, inspiring and heart-expanding pieces Cheryl Strayed wrote as "Dear Sugar," The Rumpus’ previously-anonymous advice columnist. I read it front to back, sometimes devouring the pages as fast as I could, and sometimes setting it down for days between each letter, my heart too full or too broken, or my brain too stretched or too muddled, to keep going. I’ve picked it up many times and flipped open idly, only to discover half an hour later that I’m sitting on the floor and can’t remember why I walked into the room in the first place.
The rallying cry of so many Dear Sugar fans comes from her reply to a writer who was drowning in self-doubt; Strayed counseled her to “Write like a motherfucker.” It’s been plastered on mugs, and tote bags, and turned into prints that adorn countless walls above countless messy desks. I love that particular letter, too, but I find myself thumbing back a couple pages to my personal favorite quote, which is less thrilling but has always cut through my own bullshit much more effectively:
I would have to suffer. By which I mean work.
— Cheryl Strayed
When I first read those words, I was suffering in all the wrong ways. I was working hard, but not towards something I believed in. I was putting off creating anything I could be proud of, because I was “too busy.” I was ignoring my own passions in favor of grinding myself down for others.
But back then, I thought the problem was all of the work. I didn’t think I could leave and find anything better, because I thought that no matter where I went, there the work would be. Seeing an incredibly talented writer like Cheryl Strayed call writing a book “suffering” made me realize that not all work is created equal.
It’s day 25 of the #empoweredWritten project. I have worked longer hours this month than I ever did at my old job. Today, I experienced the particular paralyzing suffering of trying to write publicly about one of your writing heroes. Tomorrow, I’ll get up early and do it again.
But this work! This work doesn’t grind me down, it builds me up. The suffering of putting my truth out into the world, of building my business one greeting card at a time, of forcing myself to create even when I don’t feel a creative spark — this suffering makes me prouder, more self-aware, and more resilient.
So Cheryl, if you’re reading this, thank you. Throughout this month of honoring the women who have inspired and #empoweredWritten, I have written like a motherfucker. I have suffered beautifully. And I have worked harder than I knew I could.