Amy Monticello’s work has appeared in The Iron Horse Literary Review, Brevity, Redivider, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. She is the author of Close Quarters (Sweet Publications), and an assistant professor at Suffolk University. She lives in Boston with her husband and daughter.
In nonfiction, there’s a better self—a more clear-eyed, compassionate, empathetic self—I hope my students will reach for through writing about real people and situations. Through whatever wincing confessions and honest characterizations may be necessary, I want my students to write in order to illuminate the threads of desire and fear and love and pain that connect us. It’s a tall order: be better on the page than you are in real life.
To that end, I’ve created an assignment based on the advice column Dear Sugar on The Rumpus, helmed, from 2010-2012, by Cheryl Strayed (now a podcast featuring Strayed and Steve Almond). What makes Strayed’s column different from traditional advice columns like Dear Abby is her use of personal narrative. Strayed draws on conventions of personal essay to empathize with her readers, and to illustrate her own very human (read: complex, messy) paths to insight. Throughout the semester, I assign students a selection of Strayed’s columns, and as a capstone assignment, they compose their own columns in response to one another’s anonymous letters. The point is to use the craft of personal narrative in their responses.
Students tend to approach this assignment enthusiastically, moved by Strayed’s model to write some of the best work I see all semester. But, inevitably, many feel anxiety about responding to letters about topics with which they have little or no experience. How can they advise someone whose parents are divorcing when their own parents are still married? What can they say to someone concerned about drinking habits when they, themselves, are sober? That’s when I show them Dear Sugar #39, “The Baby Bird.”
The letter to Sugar is short enough to quote in its entirety:
WTF, WTF, WTF? I’m asking this question as it applies to everything every day.
As Steve Almond says in his introduction to Strayed’s collected columns, Tiny Beautiful Things, Strayed could have easily ignored this letter; it’s short, whiny, and non-specific. And yet, Strayed’s answer is devastating, beautifully written, and an actual answer.
Her response begins with a shocking revelation:
My father’s father made me jack him off when I was three and four and five. I wasn’t any good at it. My hands were too small and I couldn’t get the rhythm right and I didn’t understand what I was doing. I only knew I didn’t want to do it. Knew that it made me feel miserable and anxious in a way so sickeningly particular that I can feel that same particular sickness rising this very minute in my throat.
Strayed describes the ways she tried to make sense of her grandfather’s abuse, turning over questions of fact and blame, but never arriving anywhere meaningful. And that’s the point: some things are so terrible, and so terribly unfair, that they defy explanation.
There was nothing the fuck up with that and there never will be. I will die with there never being anything the fuck up with my grandfather making my hands do the things he made my hands do with his cock. But it took me years to figure that out. To hold the truth within me that some things are so sad and wrong and unanswerable that the question must simply stand alone like a spear in the mud.
Moving back into narration, Strayed says that the image of her grandfather’s penis would come to her, “during sex and not during sex. It came to me in flashes and it came to me in dreams. It came to me one day when I found a baby bird, fallen from a tree.” The bird’s neck was broken, and in an act of compassion, Strayed places it inside a paper bag and smothers it. But the bird struggles, “simultaneously flaccid and ferocious beneath its translucent sheen of skin, precisely as my grandfather’s cock had been.” Strayed presses harder, knowing that the bird’s suffering was hers to end.
That’s what the fuck it was. The fuck was mine.
And the fuck is yours too, WTF. That question does not apply “to everything every day.” If it does, you’re wasting your life. If it does, you’re a lazy coward and you are not a lazy coward.
The column sets a high bar for the assignment by showing my students an answer to a seemingly unanswerable letter. And it illustrates what can happen when we write in response to another person’s urgency. Sometimes, the most unexpected writing can come when somebody else writes the prompt.
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