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50-for-50 interview: Sugar, balm that heals

Some writers spin tales from thin air that seem realer-than-real, others ferret out true stories that seem impossible. For all her thousands of weekly readers know, Sugar, the famously-anonymous advice columnist at The Rumpus, is a writer who does both— perhaps even in the very books we reluctantly put down to read her columns. (And it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if in her spare time, she writes poems that make the angels weep.) While the details of her CV remain hidden along with her true identity, it is beyond obvious that Sugar is a “real” writer in her real life, and a longtime, lauded one, besides. She has the deft moves of the great fiction writers who know how to hide their seams, and the infallible bullshit meter of the finest nonfiction writers. Each week, I pull up the latest snarl that’s been lobbed Sugar’s way, wondering how the hell she’ll find the thread to worry outwards; each week, she astounds me by slicing through the entire mess in a few swift strokes while I was looking in the wrong place altogether. There’s no showiness to her work, though—just gentleness and compassion for the sufferer, and illumination for all. Her gifts are many, but her heart is Sugar’s secret weapon. Well, that and her use of the judiciously placed swear. Write like a motherf*cker, indeed.

When did you decide to become a writer?

Becoming a writer was not so much a decision as it was a process of becoming myself. My earliest reading experiences pierced me to the core. Words were magic to me. I didn’t know I could be a writer in any official capacity. I knew only that I wanted to make that magic happen and writing was the way to do it. So I did. Or I tried too.

I was essentially left to grow like a weed, any which way I could. My writing and love of literature was neither encouraged nor discouraged in my family. If I got to the library that was fine, but no one was going to worry an awful lot about facilitating that. I had a good mother, who loved me well, but we didn’t have much money and no one around me was educated and certainly no one was an artist, so the idea that writing creatively could be my profession never entered my mind. My plan was to go to college and major in journalism because I knew that could lead to an actual job.

I subscribed to Ms. Magazine as a teenager and they published a story about Joyce Carol Oates a few months before I graduated high school. I was so taken by it, so shocked, really, to see that a living woman was writing stories. I know that doesn’t make sense, but it’s true. I tore the article out of the magazine and kept it in a folder of special papers and read it over and over again, but even then it didn’t quite occur to me it was possible to imagine that future for myself.

A few years later, when I was in college, I took my first creative writing class and it was then that I understood I could do this thing. I could be a writer. I was 19. I never looked back.

Who was your favorite teacher?

I’m rich in teachers. So many have given me so much. I couldn’t name a favorite, but I’ll tell you about one who springs to mind. I’ll call him Mr. C. He was a big fat man with a hank of greasy hair and conservative political beliefs who taught high school social studies to eleventh and twelfth graders in the tiny town where I grew up.

One day at school I learned that my younger brother had been busted for marijuana possession and was being interrogated by the police in the principal’s office. I rushed to the office, but was rebuffed by the school secretary, who told me I was forbidden to see my brother until the police were done questioning him. I sat down in a chair in the little reception area and openly sobbed, too afraid for my brother to care who heard me or saw. A few minutes later, I felt a hand on my shoulder and I glanced up from my tears to see Mr. C, who I only knew from a distance, since I was a sophomore and hadn’t yet been his student.

With great effort, he lowered his big body to crouch beside me, resting painfully on one bended knee. “What’s your name?” he asked and as I told him, he took both of my hands into his. “Okay,” he said quietly just to me. “I want you to trust me on this. I don’t know what’s wrong right now, but I know you will be okay. Time heals our sorrows and you’ll be okay.”

It was so intimate, so tender and human, so outside of the roles we were each meant to play in that school at that place and time. I went on to have a more complex and traditional student-teacher relationship with Mr. C, but that introduction, I never forgot it. He is one of the many people who taught me that kindness and love are more important than anything; that sometimes the most powerful act is to get down on your knees.

What do you love to write about?

My mother, sex, orphans, longing, being bound to the land, the secret self and the public face, the search for connection, people who said they were going one way and went another, desire, how we use language and physical gesture to conceal and reveal ourselves, how we justify our lives, grief, gender, class, power, loneliness, the urban-rural divide (aka stupid city people who assume themselves to be superior to country people), animals, transformation, money, trees, rivers, sorrow, women, doubt, faith, beauty, magnificence, light.

What has writing taught you?

How to be fierce. How to forgive. How to see the world spinning from another perspective. How to build a sacred hut. How to find and hold ten thousand versions of the truth. How to fail. How to work incredibly hard on the smallest, most invisible thing.

How to be quiet and scared and brave.

How has writing made you stronger?

There’s a sense of calm I have when I’ve written that I don’t get from anything else. I think that calm is rooted in the universal hunger to have done one’s work, even when it was hard work to do. To me, that’s when I feel the strongest, not when I’ve attained an external goal, but rather when I’ve done the work I knew I had to do. There’s an honesty in that; an ordinariness that feels spiritual to me. Writing is the lifelong practice of keeping faith with the task. I’ve become stronger by virtue of having kept that faith.

If you could go back in time and tell 10-year-old you anything, what would it be?

You know who you are, so let yourself be her now. It’s okay to be smart and ambitious and curious and not terribly cool. Don’t waste all those years trying to get the boys to want you and the girls to like you. Don’t starve yourself skinny and play the part of the dumb blonde. Don’t be a pretty cheerleader. Don’t lose your virginity to the captain of the football team. Don’t lose anything to him. Be the captain. You are the captain. Take the ball and run.

What are your five favorite books, blogs or things to read?

Again, I recoil at the impossible-to-answer “favorite” word, so I’ll just list five contemporary writers whose work I’ve read and been intrigued by recently:

  1. Amitava Kumar’s, “A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm a Tiny Bomb.” Part memoir, part reportage, part poetic master class in the fallout of the US war on terror, Kumar tells a tremendous story in human scale. This book is lyrical and smart, written by a writer with a first-rate mind and a gigantic heart.
  2. Maile Chapman’s novel “Your Presence is Requested at Suvanto.” Set in a convalescent hospital in rural Finland, this book is so haunting and precise in its insight and beauty that it seemed as if I was holding my breath on every page.
  3. James Magruder’s novel “Sugarless.” Of course I had to buy it for the title alone—I mean how could Sugar not? But I came to love it for what’s inside. Magruder’s voice is so smart, so sweet, and so damn funny. He’s one of those writers I’d follow anywhere
  4. John Franc’s out-any-minute novel, “Hooked.” I’m more disturbed by this book than in love with it. John Franc is a pseudonym for an anonymous writer who narrates the seemingly true story of a group of unnamed middle-aged married men who live in an unnamed city and collectively rove all over town cheating on their wives at brothels. The writing is intelligent and compelling; the ideas expressed about male sexuality and the female body are appalling in either their accuracy or inaccuracy or both; the values and justifications are alternately bankrupt or bravely dead on; and the premise is uncomfortably, unfortunately worthy of our consideration. Half the time I wanted to slap John Franc across the face. The other half the time I wanted to invite him over for a long, frank conversation, one anonymous writer to another.
  5. Chloe Caldwell’s essays, which I’ve read online, one on the tiny screen of my phone just because it was too good to stop reading. Caldwell’s first book—a collection of her essays—will be out from Future Tense Books next year and I’m terribly excited to read it. She’s young. She’s talented. She’s not even halfway to where she’s going yet, but she’s got it in her to go. Her prose has a reckless beauty that feels to me like magic.
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