I check every couple of days to see if Captain Awkward has updated her advice column, and feel a little twinge of disappointment when she hasn’t. Filmmaker, teacher and storyteller Jennifer Peepas is one of the contemporary writers who’s doing the most with this form. Her columns are essays, shapely and voiced; the advice is good, focusing on useful scripts for hard conversations and concrete sets of actions for ugly situations. I’ve used it to guide my own behavior and to ask potentially helpful questions of friends, and it’s one of the five sites I recommend first-year student advisees explore (the others, if you’re interested, are Know Your Title IX, Ask a Manager, Scarleteen and Unfuck Your Habitat).
I read advice columns the way some people read true crime stories or books like Into Thin Air and The Perfect Storm: nosiness, voyeurism and armchair suffering all play a part. When people write into advice columns it means they’re willing to go public in exchange for a response; reading them means I get to be nosy and voyeuristic about something that someone’s already decided to share. In the intro to this series I wrote, “No pleasure is guilty,” and I meant it, but that doesn’t mean that all pleasures are generous, kind or fair.
Advice differs from the coolness of divination displayed by even the best horoscopes, or in the celebrity “advice” sites of Anne Carson and Haruki Murakami. (I did, however, enjoy the Ask Eman column in the late lamented Giant Robot.) I write amulet poems by request sometimes because unlike much of the writing I do, they’re directed at a desire that the reader-requester actually has, providing something they’re actually asking for and define as one of their needs. While I’m waiting for the next Captain Awkward column, I read Zahira Kelly’s fierce and uncompromising Dear Marooned Alien Princess at the New Inquiry, Lindsay King-Miller’s whatever-the-feminine-of-avuncular-is Ask a Queer Chick at The Hairpin and Heather Havrilevsky’s gesticulatory Ask Polly at The Cut. With the exception of Dear Marooned Alien Princess, which I read as a course corrector, warmth is what I crave: warmth and directness, a response that’s mainly to one reader but available to any reader who cares to stop by.
Warmth, attention, and intensity of focus don’t come from nowhere, and they’re not infinitely regenerating. One of my favorite givers of advice–the warmest, the funniest, the dirtiest, and the most direct–posted two days ago that she’s answering fewer advice “asks” on her personal Tumblr because she’s conserving her energy for her own growth and well-being. It’s a reminder that giving good, responsive advice–being emotionally present, responsive and realistic, weighing the elements of the question and the situation–is work. People who do it need rest, and the rest of us need to keep our twinges to ourselves. (Especially in the case of writers doing it on their own time–and dime–donations are a good way to give back; look for the little yellow button.) Dear Sugar, who got me hooked on the advice form with her column at The Rumpus, hasn’t posted since shortly after she revealed herself to be Cheryl Strayed. And the Captain frequently closes submissions to questions, as well as having a list of topics she won’t cover and links to resources for people who need urgent help. But I just saw that she posted a new column a couple of days ago. I’m about to go read it right now.