Creative Writing Gold: Advice Columns

Back when physical newspapers weren't bizarre relics of yesteryear, I would only glance at the advice column section. Many of the problems seemed so detached from my childhood existence that I couldn't summon the interest to read them. Cheating spouse? Budgeting issues? Crazy in-laws? I honestly cared more about stock prices than whether Bummed in Boston got his wife back on her antidepressants.

It wasn't until 5 years ago that I started reading advice columns. I'm still not sure what the intended audience looks like, but I read them for three main reasons:

 

1) Everyday Problems

Sometimes, I think writers get too caught up in making interesting characters 100% interesting. Advice columns are handy for reading through the sort of problems that average people face that are kind of boring. We aren't all saving the world-- some of us just want to know, how do I stop lending my loser cousin money?

 

2) Bizarre-People Problems  

When you are writing about a person with low or non-existent empathy, it can be hard thinking up all the ways they would interact with others on a day-to-day basis. Advice columns seem to attract people dealing with sociopaths (and on rare, joyous occasions, the sociopaths themselves write in to learn how to deal with the rest of us). They aren't all Dexter. Many sociopaths are committed assholes trying to disinherit their stepkids, gaslight their loved ones into believing they have mental disorders, or get away with killing their neighbor's dogs. 

 

3) Domestic Problems

For me, this category of advice column is useful simply for validation in how I depict family relationships. I've been in, near to, or affected by a range of chaotic domestic scenes and romances. When you're facing the consequences of one, it can feel like such an alien experience that the only conclusion is that you are entirely alone. Later, when I write about these scenarios, some readers push back, making it difficult to stand by them.

For example, in my next book, I used a real-life example from a friend's past relationship. The first time her husband beat her was over toppings on his fast food order.

One of the first people to read the story questioned whether I should change the topic of this argument to something more important, substantial. Abusive monsters abuse, and kill, over asinine nonsense. Reading through advice columns (and the news...), I get validation for my choice to stick with this story.

 

4) The Problems of the Advice Giver

In all of this, I have focused on the questions being asked, but the person answering those questions can be just as interesting. I've been following Slate's Dear Prudence series for years. In particular, it's fascinating to read Mallory Ortberg's responses to privacy on cell phones (the first Q&A in this article sums up her viewpoint, but it appears elsewhere). She makes her argument in favor of cell phone privacy within marriage with more genuine feeling than I can understand. I posted my initial reaction on social media, got into a discussion with my husband, and thought about it more later.

This may seem like a dumb thing to get drawn into. This advice response was, for me, a brief window into the opinions of someone with a completely different viewpoint on privacy. I have worked in tech, finance, and, for a brief period, the medical industry. One can learn quite a lot about the private lives of people in these fields, either through the necessary research involved in the work, inadvertently reading the wrong screen, or, in some cases, intentionally seeking out private info on celebrities, friends, family, and neighbors. My experiences have made me form a completely different viewpoint on this issue. As a writer, it is imperative I have my viewpoints constantly questioned.