Beautiful advice to an aspiring writer

One of the most arresting and affecting books I’ve ever read is Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed. It’s a collection of advice columns that she wrote anonymously for an online magazine years ago, before she wrote Wild and deservedly achieved fame.

She signed her advice as “Sugar,” and her column became known as “Dear Sugar.” It ended in 2012. A few years ago, she revived the project with fellow writer Steve Almond.

Recently, Strayed and Almond received a letter from an aspiring writer asking, how do I make my dream of writing a reality? The letter-writer was worried that by picking a safe career path (she was a CPA), she had set herself on the wrong trajectory – and she wanted to know how to reverse course and become a writer instead.

The letter-writer was thinking in terms of end points. Destinations. Fully becoming one thing or another. If you think in those terms, then time spent toward one goal is wasted if you shift to an entirely different one.

I loved their response, because it challenges this idea of wasted time. Strayed said she used to think she was at a disadvantage because she never got to go to fancy writer retreats. She didn’t have the means, and instead, she worked at Dairy Queen. She realized later that her well of inspiration was richer for her real-world experiences.

And then Almond ventured this observation. It strikes me as perfectly true, not just for writers, but for all of us as we spend our limited time here:

What matters to artists, and writers in particular, isn’t the quality of a particular life, but the quality of the attention paid to that life.

As they elaborate on this theme, I’m struck that they’re not just talking about writing. They’re talking about everything. If we get lost in “shoulds” and “if onlys,” and wishing we had done something different, we’re missing most of the point. Whatever we have before us is life. This, right now, is it.

Imagine running a long race with a single-minded focus on getting to the finish line. Only to realize too late that the path itself, and the running of it, was the point all along. The sky above, the breaths we take, the way our feet feel as they hit the ground, the times when the running is easy and the times when it’s all we can do not to stop. The people we run with for a time. The living of it, that’s mostly the point, along with some gentle steering so that all our running hopefully brings us someplace nice.

Life happens now. It’s not waiting to begin until we reach a particular destination, which always ends up being different than we imagined anyway.

Strayed concluded by pushing the letter-writer into the reality and power of the present moment:

So what you’re hearing from us is go. But know that going in the direction of becoming a writer may look different than you imagine it will. Maybe you need to quit your job as an accountant to pursue your writing. Maybe you don’t. It isn’t all or nothing. You haven’t wasted a minute. You don’t have to feel hopeless about what’s next. You get to decide what it is by doing the work you feel called to do. Now is a great time to begin.

Read it: “How to Become a Writer? Start Writing,” by Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond, the New York Times

Image via Oamul


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