How to be me

Dear Dategirl,

As if struck by a lightning bolt from God, an idea came to me: Write an advice column! OK, it wasn't a bolt from God—it was an idea that came after a great deal of contemplation. I have never been sure whether to consider my gift a blessing or a curse. Perhaps it is both. During a recent family gathering, both my sister and stepmother asked me, "What should I do? How should I handle this?" after a crisis. I felt an odd mix of pride, that they would have that much respect for my opinion, and self-doubt. After all, who am I to give advice to anyone? And yet time and again, this has been my situation. I won't lie and claim to not enjoy it or say I don't know how this happened. Along with questioning the advice I give, I also question the enjoyment I get out of giving it. Does all this qualify me to be an advice columnist? Hell, I don't know! So I am writing you to ask if you will find it in your heart to spare me some time to ask you a few questions about what you do, how you got started, and for any advice you may be able to give to me.

Amateur Ann Landers

Dear Amateur,

Ah, my starry-eyed aspiring advice columnist, you're so right—the talent for running (and/or ruining) other people's lives is both a blessing and a curse. I am utterly clueless about why people have always asked me for advice. My friend Lance thinks it's because I always act like I know what I'm talking about even when I don't have a clue. I've always been of the belief that the illusion of knowledge is even more important than actual knowledge itself. (Doesn't that make you feel good about asking me anything!) The same goes for confidence—if you can fake it, that's just as good as actually having it.

As I mentioned in my first column, I stumbled into this field accidentally after a TV pilot I was writing about an advice columnist tanked. So it's not like I have any special qualifications. But as the oldest of five kids, born under the bossiest of signs (Aries), telling people what to do is second nature. (I also have a degree in criminology, which comes in handy when fielding queries from the incarcerated.)

What it comes down to is a mixture of common sense and distance from the situation. Most people who ask for advice already know what that advice will be. They just need affirmation that they're doing the right thing—or at least considering doing the right thing. Feel free to enjoy the ego boost you get when people ask you to help solve their problems, but really, they're probably only asking you because you have demonstrated that you will actually listen. That's very nice, but it doesn't make you any smarter or more insightful than the average Joe.

It's not terribly difficult to see the way things should be when they're not happening to you. When you're outside looking in, it's a breeze to discern the path through the maze. When you're knee-deep in shit, it's a whole different perspective. Which brings me to my next point. Writing a first-person column is a big responsibility. You'll notice that I never print letters from people contemplating suicide (and, yep, I occasionally get them), nor do I deal with any other problems that I consider beyond my limited grasp. I learned to watch my mouth (believe it or not, I do watch my mouth!) after I gave some particularly moronic advice to a friend that in turn led to a tragedy that I can't even begin to discuss here. When your words are being published, what you don't say is just as important as what you do say.

Speaking of keeping my big yap shut, a couple weeks ago I wrote about getting my heart broken. Though it was not my intent for it to come off as flip as it did, I wrote that my ex had been karmically punished for dumping me by having his dog die and his dad have a heart attack within days of doing the deed. He was understandably very upset and thought I was making light of what is obviously a far graver matter than the dissolution of a not-quite-three-month-old relationship. Though I was very hurt by his actions, I still love him and would never wish any real harm upon him or his family. The sudden onset of incurable Tourette's or an atrophying penis, perhaps, but real harm, never. And for worsening his pain, I am genuinely sorry.

Already know what the advice will be? Write or Dategirl, c/o Seattle Weekly, 1008 Western, Ste 300, Seattle, WA 98104.

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