From the Center

Reflections from W&M's Writing Resources Center

Author: Jacqueline Keshner

Review: Tiny Beautiful Things

“You have to be kind. You have to give it all you got. You have to find people who love you truly and love them back with the same truth. But that’s all.”

strayed_bookcoverIn Tiny Beautiful Things, Cheryl Strayed provides one of the most elegant, sweepingly empathetic perspectives on life and love that I have ever read. Whether she is reflecting on writer’s block, the stages of grief, or marriage jitters, her words are drawn directly from her wealth of hard-earned wisdom and unconditional compassion. I stayed up long hours into the night with this book over winter break, rereading sentence after beautiful sentence. Each page gripped me as a reader and inspired me as a writer.   

The book is a collection of letters Strayed has received throughout her time as “Sugar,” an advice columnist for therumpus.net. In response to a mother grieving her miscarried daughter, she recounts her experience as a youth advocate for a group of struggling preteen girls. She gives her letter-writer the same advice her students received: their circumstances will not become any less painful, so to escape it, they will have to “reach.”

Strayed answers many of the letters in this way; her personal anecdotes create an instant bond of lived experience that underlies her responses. What makes her advice so poignant is that rather than directly answering her readers’ questions, she contextualizes them. She reminds a young, insecure writer not to expect instant success. She tells a hesitant boyfriend that the terms of “I love you” can change. By broadening her readers’ scope of consideration, Strayed empowers them to see their emotions as valid. With the acceptance of that simple thought, so much is possible.

Two of my friends and fellow WRC consultants recommended Tiny Beautiful Things to me, and I’m so grateful that this book appeared in my life during college. In an environment that always demands that we have the “right” answers–whether on Scantrons or in interviews–Strayed’s radical empathy reminds me that they don’t exist. There will never be a time where we become objectively enough: a good enough writer, student, friend. Instead, we can only keep trying. We can keep reaching out to the people around us and challenging ourselves to higher levels of authenticity. So long as we “give it all [we] got,” we are more than enough.

Check out the book and Strayed’s column in the links below; you owe it to yourself.  

Tiny Beautiful Things

Dear Sugar Column

Writing as Hospitality

consider-before-buying-home-hp-origOne of the most inspiring consultations I have ever had was with a senior science major who wanted to talk about a graduate school essay. I promised I would help her as best as I could, but as a sophomore majoring in two liberal arts fields, I was not that familiar with specific standards for post-graduate STEM applications. As she began to read, I feared that I would not know the right questions to ask her.

It turned out that I didn’t need to know any technical aspects of her field; what she wrote about was not the practice of her science, but the moment she fell in love with it. As she took me through that moment and wove it through her undergraduate experiences, I found myself grinning. I could feel the authenticity in her voice, both the one I was hearing and the one I was seeing on the page. I was overjoyed that she shared her passion for science with me during that hour, and it made our conversation mutually constructive and exciting. She had invited me into her thoughts, and I felt honored to have received the invitation.

One of the hardest, yet most rewarding parts of writing is our desire to portray ourselves truthfully on the page. To pick the perfect arguments, phrases, and words that will make us say, “Yes, that’s me. That’s what I need to say.” In that sense, when we have gone through that process to the best of our abilities and have someone else read our work, we are sharing a piece of ourselves with them. We are inviting them into the world of joys, sorrows, loves, conundrums, and other thoughts and emotions with which we contend everyday.

My science major consultee awed me not only with her words, but also with the trust she placed in me. Reading others’ work, and sharing our own, deepens the empathy and trust inherent in our interpersonal connections. This thought has crossed my mind many times throughout my time in the WRC; in the past semester alone, I’ve read about marine science and international social justice, Socrates and the French Revolution, accounting and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and many topics in between. The diverse conversations and worlds that my fellow students have shared with me are proof of the beauty and bravery of the writing process. Collaborating on a piece opens up new forms of truth and opens our minds to receive them.

When we share and receive writing, we may not know what worlds to expect. Yet we can always honor the invitations and appreciate their design.

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