Saturday, July 28, 2012

Letters by Fitzgerald and Cheryl "Dear Sugar" Strayed point in the same direction

Cheryl Strayed @Centrum
Some time ago, I came across an intriguing piece of advice Cheryl Strayed, the author of Wild offered writers on Jeffrey Yamaguchi's 52 Projects site: Always aspire to greatness, but surrender to mediocrity. 

Surrender to mediocrity? That doesn't appeal to me at all.

Curious nevertheless, I watched the clip and I did get Strayed's point. Being a perfectionist may not get you very far. You may wind up with lots and lots of writing done, but nothing good enough to ever pass your own scrutiny. Ergo, you'll never get your book published. Needless to say, the author had triggered my curiosity, and so I drove to Port Townsend to attend one of the free lectures and readings offered by Centrum during the Writers Conference. 

Thanks to an article in the local paper about Strayed's book  Wild  having been chosen as the first title for Oprah's Book Club 2.0 nearly all seats in the Wheeler Theater were taken. A writer friend I spoke to later said none of the other faculty members had drawn such a crowd.

Strayed started off reading a letter F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in response to a short story Frances Turnbull, daughter of his friends, sent him.
In his P.S. Fitzgerald states:  
I might say that the writing is smooth and agreeable and some of the pages very apt and charming. You have talent—which is the equivalent of a soldier having the right physical qualifications for entering West Point.

Fitzgerald's harsh words made me think of Letters to a Young Poet, published by Franz Kappus, the recipient of Rainer Maria Rilke's letters. How gentle Rilke had been compared to Fitzgerald. But that was really beside the point, what to make of a lecturer who read the letter verbatum instead of quoting part of it, or just the Post Scriptum?

Strayed talked some about her hike from California to Washington State along the Pacific Crest, and the reason for this walkabout, the death of her mother. She may have shared a section of Wild, but I'm not sure. What sticks to my mind is her reading one of the Dear Sugar columns that's published by online magazine The Rumpus.

Riding on the wave of the Wild success Vintage Books saw fit to publish a compilation as Tiny Beautiful Things:Advice on Love and Life From Dear Sugar.

In her review of the book founder Anna Holmes, states she knows and likes the author, but wonders: 
How, exactly, do I review a book of advice columns? Does the concept of reviewing a book require that I criticize it? What if I like the author but not the book itself? How can I be fair and publicly honor a writer’s hard work while also taking her to task for her book’s shortcomings? What if I botch it? How, exactly, do I do this?
Holmes titled her review, Dear Sugar I Could Really Use Your Help Here. It's funny, and sweet with that bitter undertone of slightly burned caramel.

Strayed at Seattle University book store
Only after reading the tongue in cheek review I understood my confusion a week earlier. Expecting a lecture with original thoughts, I was put off by Strayed reading Fitzgerald's missive to a fan, followed by her own response to a Dear Sugar letter directed at her address. 

What I felt, but not quite got, was that we were attending the presentation of the author's latest book. What I did get, was that I had no business staying at the conference, I had hundreds of  thousands of words waiting to be edited, and I told myself I'd better get with it, keeping Strayed's advice in mind, with a slight adjustment.

Aim, if not for greatness, for perfection. 
Success after all is doing the best you can. 

This work by Judith van Praag is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
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