Secret Lives

I’m mildly obsessed with advice columns. There is something so awful/amazing about the questions people will ask under the guise of anonymity. I love stories. I wouldn’t write them if I didn’t. And there is no better place to find the snapshot of a well-developed character in the throes of a high conflict situation than an advice column.

In each question is a distinct voice. Here can be found the emotional truth of different points of view. What does an angry, homophobic mother sound like? Now I know. There is a staccato to the words of an angry person. Passiveness and longing in word choices of an insecure one. Each word of a question is a clue that can unravel that secret life, a nugget of hidden truth. What do kleptomaniac tendencies really sound like? I’m working on a story about such a person right now. Holy shit, look at this! The response digs down to give me the theme I need to address in my piece, to make it real.

There does come a point where the root problems start to recycle. This is when the skill of the columnist is paramount. A great writer can frame each question in a distinct way each time as to elevate one person’s problem, small and finite as it might be, into the scope of something thematically relevant to all of us. JUST LIKE FICTION ATTEMPTS TO DO.


I love Dategirl at Seattle Weekly for her humor and honest, blunt approach. Carolyn Hax at Washington Post has this same, level-headed quality about her responses. Dear Prudence at Slate makes me laugh out loud sometimes and cuts right to the heart of the matter. There is no one better for sexual insight than Savage Love. And Dear Sugar over at The Rumpus blows me away every single time with amazing insights. “Write Like a Motherfucker” might be one of my favorite advice columns of all time. If I didn’t have a three year old on the cusp of learning to read I’d have one of these mugs for sure.

Let me know if there are any others I should be reading.

Photo: laughlin

3 thoughts on “Secret Lives

  1. I love advice columns too! I always read both Prudie columns every week. I also love Savage Love and even check out Miss Manners sometimes, if only to see how delightfully stuffy she'll be in her response. Thank you for introducing me to Dategirl and Carolyn Hax.

    I suspect everyone loves reading advice columns. Have you ever submitted a (cleverly disguised, of course) question? I did once, and I think Prudie actually used it but changed a few details of the situation, which impacted her response. (And no, I won't say what it was except that it wasn't totally insane or trashy. Promise.)


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