A Grittier Acknowledgement of What We’re Up Against: A Sugar Addendum


Dear sweet peas,

I’m taking some time off, so I don’t have a new column for you, but I’m still sending a weekly message out to the members of my Google group. I sent out this one earlier today and Stephen Elliott suggested we publish it on the site.



Yesterday The Awl published an interview I did with Matt Davis. I don’t know Matt well, but I liked him instantly the moment I met him, and not just for his killer English accent. I liked him for the usual reasons—he’s smart and talented and kind—but there’s something else about him. He has the spark of life. When I talked to him via Skype for the interview I forgot I was talking to a journalist. I felt like I was just talking to Matt. Our Q&A in The Awl is a slightly edited transcript of our conversation. It was an interesting exercise for me, to talk and then see my words published. It reminded me to be more mindful of what I say and how I say it. Until that interview with Matt, all of my Sugar words have been written and even when I’ve written the words only hours before they go live on The Rumpus, I’ve always considered them very carefully, revised and reworked and refined.

If I could revise, rework, and refine one section of my interview with Matt it would be the bit about self-help books. Nobody has written to give me hell about what I said, but I’ve sort of been giving myself hell inside. It isn’t true that I’ve never read a self-help book in my life, though it felt true when I said it to Matt. I had a point to make about the self-help industry and so in my passion I overstated my case. Upon reflection, I do think that self-help books can be of great use to many people and a few have been of use to me–the few I’m thinking of are parenting books that helped me come up with positive ways to set limits with my children.

What I was trying to express is a distain for a particular kind of self-help book that tells us if we only believe in X, the problem Y will disappear. Perhaps this goes back to the rage and sorrow I felt when my mom learned she was going to die. In her fear, she went to a New Age bookstore and bought a stack of books that all told her that she could visualize her way to a cancer-free life, which also implies that if she didn’t or couldn’t, if she died instead (as she did), she was to blame.

But the truth is sometimes we get cancer and die, no matter how much we want to live. And sometimes we’re poor, no matter how hard we work or dream. And sometimes we’re damaged, no matter how much we visualize being whole.

And yet… and yet… as I say in my interview with Matt, an important tendril of that way of thinking is correct: we’re all responsible for our lives. I just think that the way to get to that place where we take responsibility isn’t as simple a fix as a lot of self-help books would like you to believe. Many of them aren’t really willing to dig deep and acknowledge the heart of the matter.

One of the reasons I’ve read parenting books about how to set limits is that my dear daughter is something of a hothead. We love her strong spirit, but Mr. Sugar and I have also had to learn how to teach her to behave and it’s not always been easy. All the self-help books explain in incredible detail how to give your kid a time out, but they all assume the child is willing to go along with it. None of them tell you what to do if your child is kicking and punching you while you carry her to the designated time out spot. None of them say, “If you need to pin your child to the floor to get her to stay in time out, then do THIS.”

That’s what I was trying to get at when I was talking to Matt. I was trying to say that I think we ache for and deserve a different level of conversation when we talk about helping ourselves and transforming our lives: a greater complexity, a grittier acknowledgement of what it is we’re up against, even if that acknowledgement embarrasses us. I meant to say there is no cure except to live the hell out of our lives, to take it apart, to put it back together, to dig it all up, and then fill the hole. To help ourselves and one another to the best of our abilities. To believe everything entirely, while also calling bullshit for what it is.

That’s what I meant.