Amy will now take your questions
February 5, 2010
__Almost every group of friends has its “therapist,” the one person everyone goes to for advice. Amy Dickinson was not that friend, and although she claims that in high school nobody would have predicted she would go on to guide the morally confused as her career path, Dickinson has managed to become one of the most respected and trusted advice columnists in the nation. Writing for the Chicago Tribune and having her column syndicated to many newspapers across the country, Dickinson possesses a positive and often humorous outlook on her job and her loyal readers while covering topics varying from fake letters to what not to wear on a first date. The Flat Hat had the chance to chat with her before her appearance today at Earl Gregg Swem Library.__
*What first inspired you to give advice to others?*
Well, it was the promise of a paycheck and a steady job. I’m not one of those people who has always wanted to tell other people what to do. I tried out for this job when I realized that I was good at it. I’ve been the person more likely to be on the receiving end of that. I had been out there as a journalist for a long time. This was an opportunity that shot my way pretty suddenly, and I grabbed it.
*How many questions do you receive daily?*
Well, I get usually between 200 and 300 e-mails a day, and then I get these packets of letters, between 100 and 150 letters a week. A big part of this job is going through the mail. I have various criteria, but I feel that my column should be entertaining. Anyone who is in my life is going to hear a letter read aloud every single day. It’s an icebreaker at dinner parties. It’s great material and it’s fascinating.
*How many get answered?*
What I do is I start to go through — I usually write the column Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, part of Wednesday. I file seven columns a week. Each column contains only 3 letters. I spend a lot of time going through the mail looking for variety.
*How do you choose which questions get answered?*
I’m looking for letters with problems people can identify with. For instance, I just decided to answer a letter from a woman with a guy, been with him many years; he’s an alcoholic. It’s a common issue. Another letter I just answered is from a perennial favorite — she writes to me and says her three-year-old grandson is poorly behaved and his parents don’t discipline him and she wants to say something. That’s something that occurs in lots and lots of families.
I want for readers to read the column and say, “Oh boy, that’s just like me” or “Oh, how strange” or “What an idiot” or “That is so hilarious.” I love letters that are funny, that are written by people who are so delusional that anyone would enjoy smacking them, along with me. I hear from people that the “dumber the letter, the more I look forward to seeing what you will say.”
*How do you decide if a question is legitimate?*
It’s really hard to do, and frankly, there’s no science to it. When I was first hired, my boss asked me how I was going to verify the letters. I don’t think verifying is a useful process … I think like the kind of person who would write a fake letter. I’m sure I’ve responded to a fake letter.
*What is the most common question?*
The most common questions are — I’m gonna put them in a genre for you — a question from someone who wants to work on somebody else’s problem. It’s like this letter from this woman about her husband who is an alcoholic. She wants me to help him get help so she won’t have to leave the relationship. Unfortunately, you cannot force someone into recovery; you can only make the choices that are the healthiest choices for you to make for your own life. It’s something that’s been something for me to absorb in my own life. I live in my own life with lots and lots of relationships. One of the biggest challenges has been to let someone flounder, to make a mistake, to face the natural consequences. It’s so challenging and heartbreaking. You have to tell yourself: “Well, all I can do is assess this relationship and be in it if I can.” Sometimes you have to watch people do really stupid, self-destructive things. It’s a challenge as a parent, as a daughter, [the] inability to save people from themselves. My column has taught me a lot. I have learned so much.
*What do you do if someone seems at risk to themselves or others?*
The most worrisome letter I would never run. The lead time is several weeks. I make an effort to go through all my mail. I’ve only gotten a handful of letters that were worrisome. I’ve never gotten an e-mail about someone who is going to harm someone else. I can only offer myself as a resource. I’m not 911, I write a column.
Once in a blue moon I’ve had to get back to someone and say, “You need help.” I always say, “Let me know if you’re okay.” I want the people to know they’re heard. I’m under no illusions of what I can do, I am no substitute for a hotline.
*Do you ever consult other people with a particularly difficult question?*
Yeah, absolutely. I was a reporter before I did this. I like to think that what I bring to the column is the ability to call in other people who know more than I do. It’s funny — I don’t like to tackle legal questions and I certainly don’t tackle medical questions, but I do tackle relationship issues.
If your siblings are fighting over a mother’s will, I know a little bit about estates, quite a bit about emotional and mental disorders. I try to read up on stuff. A letter that is only looking for a legal answer, I’m not going to run that in my column. Some people think they have legal questions but they are emotional questions.
*Do you ever change your mind after you give someone advice?*
I have. I have changed my mind. My goal has always been that I wasn’t to be factually accurate. There is so much room for valued judgments. I love the fact that readers will respond to me and say, “With all due respect, your answer was terrible.” Very seldom have I looked at an answer and said, “That was wrong,” but I have thought that I would answer it differently, knowing what I know now.
*What is the best advice you have ever been given?*
Actually a very real piece of advice, which I think is excellent but not earth-shattering: never buy a new outfit for a blind date. I chose to not follow this excellent advice, to my regret. Some of this stuff is like the golden rule. It’s an important rule to live your life, do unto others, respect other people, tell the truth. I try to remind people of these universal truths, to tell the truth even when it’s hard, to treat people with respect and be kind when we can, but that sometimes people need to be slapped.
__If you are interested in finding out Amy Dickinson’s opinion on an issue in your own life and in possibly having your question published in newspapers around the country, make sure to check out Chicagotribune.com, where you can submit your question online. Better yet, go hear her talk at Swem this afternoon in the Read and Relax area from 4 to 6 p.m.__