You probably thought I would say Dategirl, didn't you? Nope. Although I'm awesome, my favorite advice column is "Dear Sugar." Found on The Rumpus, an online literary magazine, started by Stephen Elliott (who wrote the fantastic Adderall Diaries), "Dear Sugar" is more like reading a novel than just another boring agony aunt. I caught up with Sugar via email and she graciously agreed to answer a few questions.
I like to help people figure out what to do and I tend to be rather frank with my opinions when asked for it, so I suppose I'm naturally inclined to the advice column form, but the most important preparation was being a writer. To write well you must inhabit the reality of your characters--whether they're fictional or real. You need to understand their motivations and fears and contradictions, the things they say and do and think. You need to know when to condemn them and when to console them. That practice comes in handy when I ponder the letters people write to Sugar.
How do you select which letters to answer? Are there ever any that you've declined to answer because you just felt unqualified?
I sift through them each week and answer the one that interests me. I truly don't know what it's going to be from week to week, though I do try to vary the column, both tonally and topically. I almost always write my answer within 48 hours of the column going live. I've only received one question that I felt unqualified to answer. It was from a man who was involved with a woman who has a mental disorder. When I researched it, I learned that this disorder is not only incredibly complicated, but also there's controversy about whether it even exists. I thought about asking a few of my therapist friends to help me answer the question, but then I realized I didn't want to push the column in that direction. Sugar is here to tell you what she thinks, nothing more.
Why did you decide to write under a pseudonym? Do you think you'll ever change your mind about this?
I inherited the column from another writer and so the anonymity of Sugar had already been established. Rumpus editors Stephen Elliott and Isaac Fitzgerald and I discussed the idea of scratching Sugar altogether and creating a column under my own name, but I thought that writing anonymously would allow me a range I might not have if I chose to use my real name. It does. I'm glad I went with Sugar, not just because I think I write with more freedom, but also because those who write to me do as well. I do plan to "come out" as Sugar someday, but not soon.
What has been your most memorable column so far? Maybe the letter touched you, or maybe you felt your advice was particularly good--please share.
There are many, but the one that truly altered things for me--changed the way I saw this form, as an artist--is column #39: The Baby Bird (also known as the WTF column). I'd already started to write stories from my life in the columns, but in The Baby Bird I went for it in a way that shook me deeply. The question wasn't really even a question. I almost deleted it when it popped into my inbox, but something kept me from doing so. There was something I knew I wanted to say. I didn't know what it was until I wrote my answer. I wrote it and cried and went for a walk and I realized I was doing something with the Sugar column that wasn't just about coming up with solutions for people. I was reaching for an answer that included us all.
I have a very bad habit of giving great advice, but not always being so good about following it myself. Do you find this to be the case with you? If so, can you give me an example?
There's a distance between the person I aspire to be and the person I am. With each year those two selves draw nearer.