Advice columns for when you can't call your bestie
Whether it’s confronting a tough situation at the office or trying to figure out if I’ll ever live the life I want, sometimes the existential crisis within can feel overwhelming. In times of unease, I’ve found strange comfort in reading advice columns—and before you assume I’m talking about Dear Abby (which is, by the way, great), let me assure you: there are a ton of modern advice columns that are serving up wisdom with a little flair and attitude.
Reading a good advice column works two-fold. First, reading questions from readers that mirror your own assure you that your problems are not unique. There is a lot of power in empathy and commiseration, and seeing myself in letter writers makes me realize that what I’m experiencing is normal and human. Second, advice columns can actually offer good suggestions or ideas, words that comfort you, rally you to action, fill you with strength and hope, and provide a different perspective of the world around you. There are many advice columns out there nowadays, but here are five that I have found most inspiring:
Dear Sugar was an advice column on The Rumpus, started by Steve Almond as the column’s anonymous titular advice-giver. In 2010, however, a new “Sugar” would arrive and later be revealed as Cheryl Strayed, now bestselling writer of her memoir Wild. The Sugar Cheryl Strayed created was a unique and powerful voice. She spoke unflinchingly from experience– sharing memories of her own that were as painful, sometimes more, as the plights of her readers. She created a space of love and comfort, a column where she referred to her letter writers as sweet peas but also constantly encouraged them to strive for more. Dear Sugar’s readers wrote in with very honest problems and questions, ranging across different ages and home life situations, and yet Strayed always managed to paint a cosmic portrait in which we were all connected by the same questions. The column hasn’t been updated since 2012, but the Sugars continue to exist with Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed hosting an advice podcast, now available online.
Standout advice: “The narratives we create in order to justify our actions and choices become in so many ways who we are. They are the things we say back to ourselves to explain our complicated lives. Perhaps the reason you’ve not yet been able to forgive yourself is that you’re still invested in your self-loathing. Perhaps not forgiving yourself is the flip side of your steal-this-now cycle. Would you be a better or worse person if you forgave yourself for the bad things you did? If you perpetually condemn yourself for being a liar and thief, does that make you good?” (On being able to forgive one’s past)
Ask Polly originated on The Awl and has since moved to NY Magazine’s The Cut. And while the site’s readership has shifted slightly in the move, “Polly,” aka writer Heather Havrilesky, continues to be the same brash beacon of hope for twenty-something women and beyond. Polly is the friend who tells it like it is, who gets on impassioned rants and is not afraid to get to the real root of your problems. Her voice is very stream-of-consciousness, but often it’s because her advice comes across more as a rallying battle-cry than polite “Yes Man”-ing. Her responses are the type that you print out and put on your wall, using it as a mantra in your every day life rather than leaving it as words on the computer screen.
Standout advice: “Listen to me closely now: The people who dare to ask for an expansive, life-altering love, who will be alone rather than settle for less, are the ones who find it. People who accept less, who figure they don’t deserve any better, who figure that it’s too much of a risk to tell the truth and scare men off, are the ones who live with a constant feeling of disappointment and neglect. When you neglect yourself and your feelings, you get neglected by others, too.
Stand up for yourself. Stand up for what you want. Does that make you That Girl?
Then BE. THAT. GIRL.” (On being That Girl and asking for what you want in a relationship)
Though his site was in Japanese, the literary world was excited to hear that international bestselling author Haruki Murakami, writer of Kafka on the Shore and Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, would be opening his inbox to queries from the public. The AMA-style advice column was so popular that it has been published as a book. While translations of the content of his site are limited to what was available on the internet, almost all of the excerpts were delightfully surreal and heartfelt to read. The questions ranged from ones about life, death and loneliness, to the true intentions of cats. Murakami approached them all with seriousness and a little bit of humor, showing the constant pull in life between trying to figure out life’s big questions and also just enjoying oneself along the way.
Standout advice: “I may disappoint you with my answer, but I want to ‘sleep peacefully after death.’ I don’t need a heaven, hell, or a Kyabakura. I just want to sleep without any disturbance. Well, maybe if I can eat deep-fried oysters that will be great.” (On what happens after death)
Jane Marie is a kick ass female writer and Gabe Delahaye is a hilarious comedian. Though their advice column for Matter hasn’t been updated in a while, it was a funny, great read where they tackled questions like “Should I stalk my boyfriend’s ex on Instagram” or “Can I go to a gays-only party” with he-said, she-said wit and flair. The two examined these all-important questions from every angle, debating and jabbing at any points they don’t agree on. It’s a fun and refreshing glimpse into their dynamic and the many different views of our pressing quandaries.
“JANE: I think she’s writing because she’s been told that she’s doing something wrong but it doesn’t feel that wrong and the wrongness doesn’t keep her from doing it, so she wants a magic bullet or to be pardoned. I’m pardoning her. Giving her permission to do it — which she already has been given by the person PUBLICLY POSTING HER PHOTOS AND THOUGHTS ON THE INTERNET, WHICH BELONGS TO EVERYONE — might make it a little less enticing, too. Like, “I could rummage through her tweets again, but I can do that any old day. Maybe today I’ll rewatch The Sopranos. JK, I learned The Sopranos sucks the first time.” Did I just start a fight with you, Gabe?
GABE: Don’t worry about me, Jane. You saying that the Greatest TV Show of All Time sucks is your problem, not mine. I just feel sorry for you. If this woman needs permission, then let me just add to the chorus: Permission granted! Live your life! This is not that big of a deal, and no one is really getting hurt in this process, not really! But, to muddy the issue, because muddying the issue is what I do best, just because you have permission doesn’t mean what you’re doing isn’t kind of toxic and a waste of your time. We all have the scabs that we like to pick because sometimes picking scabs feels the good kind of bad, but that doesn’t mean you wouldn’t be better off not touching the goddamned scabs. I guess what I’m saying is this is totally fine, normal, modern behavior that we can all relate to, and if all this woman wants is empathy, then she has it: We have all been there. At the same time, we could all stand to do a little better. In conclusion, life is hard, make some choices.
In folklore, Baba Yaga is a supernatural being in the form of a beastly looking woman. On The Hairpin, Baba Yaga (aka Taisia Kitaiskaia) continues to take on a mystical tone and she attacks questions of the heart and mind with lyrical metaphors that read like poetry. She relates big questions to things in nature, making your problems seem so natural and in line with the movement of the earth. While her advice rarely makes a specific recommendation, it does put your query into perspective, making you realize that no matter what, you will survive all of life’s heartaches and must learn to trust that the natural order of things will take care of you.
Standout advice: If you go ; yr body will feel a shock, cold & cold everything within you–& then you will be yrself again, strong & solitary, vigorous from yr icy swim & knowing you could make the swim again. ) If you stay, you may float for a long day, somewhere above the earth, feeling always the many winds–warm or deadly, but always the lightness, always the air of you high & waiting, yr heart loud & yr lungs thinking. & after this day passes you will find yrself hitting the earth again, strong & solitary even if not alone–. So , do you wish for the sky-life, somewhere in you, or are you ready for the swim? (On whether or not to fight for a relationship)
[Image via Buena Vista Pictures]