In the fall of 2012, I pitched an existential advice column to The Awl,
a website that publishes smart, original takes on modern culture. At the time, I was a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine,
writing mostly essays about pop culture, and I had a column called the Best-Seller List in Bookforum
. I’d spent seven years as a TV critic for Salon.com, I’d written a cartoon called Filler
for Suck.com (the Internet’s first daily website!) for five years before that, and I’d answered advice letters on my own blog as early as 2001.
But this was something new. I’d never dished up advice to a wider audience. When The Awl
’s co-founder, Choire Sicha, said yes to my idea, he made it clear that the column could be anything I wanted it to be. But what did I want it to be? Obviously, I had all kinds of outspoken, sometimes unwelcome advice to offer friends, family, and complete strangers alike. I’d been handing out unsolicited advice for years. But did I want the column to be funny? Did I want to use the column to rail against the scourge of passivity and avoidance in modern relationships or to address our culture’s burdensome fixation on constant self-improvement? Did I want to sneak in some commentary on troubled friendships, Kanye West, weddings, rescue dogs, luxe brands, commitmentphobic men, property ownership, the artist’s life, pushy mothers-in-law, or Game of Thrones
As it turned out, I wanted to do all of these things, and eventually I did. But when I was sitting down to write my first weekly column, I just felt scared. “Who do I think I am, giving other people advice?” I thought. “I’m not qualified for this! I don’t have it all figured out. What the hell am I doing?”
I’ve been asking myself that same question every week for four years now. And when Stella Bugbee, the editorial director for New York
magazine’s website The Cut,
approached me about taking my advice column over to her site, I wondered what she was thinking. Sure, this meant a much larger audience for Ask Polly and more money for me. But did she really know what she was signing on to? “You know my column is three thousand words long every week, and half of those words are ‘fuck,’ right?” I asked her. Somehow, this didn’t scare her off.
I don’t always feel qualified to guide other people to a better life. As a writer, even when I’m sitting down to start a book review or a cultural essay, as I’ve done professionally for years now, the blank page mocks me. “What could you
possibly have to say?” it asks. “When are you going to give this up and do something useful with your life?” The blank page can be a real asshole sometimes.
Still, nothing I do brings me more happiness than writing Ask Polly. I’m not always sure of the right answer for any letter, whether someone is dealing with depression and anxiety, a go-nowhere job, a series of not-quite boyfriends, or an overly critical parent. But I do know for certain that when I reach out as far as I can to another person, using my words—my awkward, angry, uplifting, uncertain, joyful, clumsy words (half of which are still “fuck”)—some kind of magic happens. There is magic that comes from reaching out. I don’t believe in many things, but I believe in that, with all of my heart.
Copyright © 2017 by Heather Havrilesky. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.