Giving Yourself Advice: Cheryl Strayed Upstairs at the Square

1. Cheryl says the gutting process begins with Erika Anderson’s sandal-clad foot. Weird or normal? 2. John Finkelberg, Financial Consultant; Michelle Berlinger, Jeweler; Steven Salpeter, Publicist; and Tova Diker, Publicist.

Fellow Disher Erika Anderson arrived at the Union Square Barnes & Noble “silly early” and was able to save a seat for me, which allowed me to flip through Erika’s copy of Tiny Beautiful Things, the collection of Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Dear Sugar’ columns for The Rumpus. The twenty or so other early attendees were also carrying multiple copies of Strayed’s books, including her memoir Wild and her novel Torch. Soon, all the seats were filled, the B&N police stood steadfast in front of the 50+ seatless bystanders who came to hear — in the words of moderator Katherine Lanpher — Strayed’s proclivity for seamless pirouettes from the comic to the heartbreaking.

1. Dude. Crowd. Dude. 2. Katherine Lanpher, who copped to replying to Sugar’s Twitter feed but not Cheryl’s, with Cheryl/Sugar herself and Theo Bleckmann.

The monthly B&N series pairs a writer with a musician for, I think, some sort of artistic process jam session, but Strayed’s musical counterpart wasn’t an obvious mirror to her nakedly honest, incisive prose. Theo Bleckmann, a vocalist and composer who’s worked with Philip Glass and Steven Spielberg (inventing the alien language heard in Men in Black), was on deck to perform tunes from his new album Hello Earth!: The Music of Kate Bush. As Lanpher advised the audience to turn off all cell phones and unwrap our candies that go “crinkle-crinkle-crinkle,” Bleckmann and guitarist Ben Monder readied amps and pedals for a hauntingly sparse rendition of the Bush classic “Running Up That Hill.

1. Molly Bagby and Ashley Byrne, who both work in publishing, with Stacey Polacco, a writer. 2. Kate Bush, via Bleckmann and guitarist Ben Monder.

Strayed, in black dress and glinting rings, took the stage and talked about Sugar’s aesthetics and process. Strayed approaches her column on The Rumpus as both self-help and anti-self help, providing practical advice along with narratives from her own life. The columns that boosted her to internet fame were those heavy with her personal experiences. She said there were so many life experiences she needed to write about, but she couldn’t locate a voice or an ideal listener. She found them in the 7,000 or so letters to Sugar (the column was originally published anonymously under the pen name ‘Sugar’), discovering that her brave pen-pals were the ideal interlocutors for her story seeds. As an example, she read an excerpt from ‘Reach’, about the time she lived in Brooklyn with her ex-husband, ignoring that moaning sound between the walls of their Park Slope apartment. Eventually clawing through their closet ceiling with a hammer, they found two emaciated kittens in need of extreme TLC. The lesson? Do not ignore haunting sounds — especially if they’re kittens or an Oxycontin addiction.

1. Lindsay Ribar, a writer and Meghan Deans, who works at Vintage Books. 2. “I write with an invisible gun to my head,” says Cheryl Strayed. In this case, it is Erika Anderson’s iPhone.

Two more songs by Bleckmann followed, one of which was “arranged for toys,” then a conversation about both artists’ approach to creation and, the most illuminating part of the discussion, sentiment. Bleckmann’s new record is intellectually and compositionally driven — he wanted to provide a “thumbnail portrait” of Bush’s work as a composer within the arena of pop music. The record started as an experiment, much like Strayed’s ‘Dear Sugar’ column. Stayed explained that ‘Dear Sugar’ was founded on experimentation, too, finding her groove by approaching each letter as though “giving [herself] advice.” Then, Lanpher wanted to know why sentiment and love, two of the oldest concepts in humanity, has lately been regarded as “refreshing” or “avant-garde” in the arts. While getting her MFA at Syracuse, Strayed was told by the faculty that “We like you because you’re… corny.” There’s a difference between sentiment and sentimental, Strayed said, and Bleckmann agreed. “It’s easy to be ironic and sarcastic about love… I don’t want to be that. I want to be totally honest and vulnerable.”

Honesty and vulnerability are the two places where Strayed shines as a writer, whose accidental slogan “Be brave enough to break your own heart” is advice for not only Seeking Wisdom, but for all writers who, like Strayed, want to “illuminate the human condition.” It’s advice for you, too. Read ‘Dear Sugar’ here and follow her on Twitter here.


— Ryan Chang [text] is Events Editor at The Outlet. His work has appeared in Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Art Faccia, and elsewhere. He tweets here and tumbles for you here.

— Karina Briski [images] is a writer, online and in person. She currently lives here, and in Brooklyn.

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