As a reader, I always love finding books that appeal to me. As a writer, I am twice as pleased when the authors also provide Masterclasses for me within their books.
Masterclasses take place when performance artists or musicians work one-on-one with students. Writers don't generally have this option, but I have found some books to be Masterclasses for characters, dialogue, backstories, plots, settings, voice, and/or creativity.
I read Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life From Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed because of the numerous and glowing reviews it received—and I want to add another one here as her voice is true and clear and echoes within me.
Strayed's story is sad, then tragic, then transformed. She is a strong woman who has dealt with adversity, made mistakes, learned from them, moved on, and, most importantly, kept going and kept writing through it all as chronicled in her bestseller Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.
Parts of her life story are also told as she answered letters from people seeking help from Sugar through an online advice column at The Rumpus website. "Radical empathy" is how Steve Almond, the first Sugar, describes Cheryl Strayed's style in the Introduction. And it is. She jolts people with her takes on their situations by sharing her life experiences and brilliant insights.
Strayed doesn't shy away from answering letters concerning difficult topics as she has had to deal with them since she was born into a home filled with domestic violence. Her father beat her mother starting just days after they were married. When the author was three, her paternal grandfather started molesting her and continued until her father left the family when she was six. Her mother worked hard to support the family. Still her children didn't have a lot, except when it came to love.
Unexpectedly, her mother died of lung cancer at 45. Strayed was only 22. Grief swamped her, then multiplied as her stepfather and siblings scattered. However, she still had her mother's love within her as she set off to live her own life.
It is this love that shines through her answers to people in need of support, guidance, or a kick in the pants. She suffers with them; dwelling on their situations for days at times in an effort to not only connect with them, but to write advice that will open them up to possibilities and different perspectives.
Whether you have experienced the specific problems of the letter writers or not, we all have to deal with love or the lack of it, friendship, identity, finances, addiction, sex, jealousy, betrayal, violence, loss, and death. Sugar's answers, as penned by Strayed, are universal truths given to individuals.
As a writer, I especially related to the letter Sugar received from a writer who can't write which appears on page 53. Strayed's experience of writing her own book—the story she couldn't live without telling—and advice to writers alone is worth the price of this book, but you get so much more.
It is Strayed's voice that captures readers. She is talking directly to each letter writer: concentrating on her; sharing with him. Strayed opens up and writes from the very depths of herself. It's painful, joyful and, most of all, hopeful.
What authors' voices speak to you?