In February of 2010, an e-mail popped into my in-box. It was from a friend and fellow writer who had a proposition for me: Would I like to take over an anonymous online advice column called "Dear Sugar", which had been running intermittently over the past year on a Web site called The Rumpus? I’d never written anything resembling an advice column. I’d never even imagined doing such a thing. The pay was nothing; the likelihood of mean-spirited Internet floggings and public humiliation, great.
I immediately said yes.
The way it works is this: Anonymous people send me letters via e-mail detailing their problems and questions. I compose a letter telling them what I think they should do and publish both letters online at The Rumpus most Thursday afternoons.
I took on the Sugar gig as a lark. It was going to be this tiny thing that would compel me to write something funny and possibly snarky for once in my life. I’m 42, in the very thick of a literary generation that hung its hat on funny/snark, and I’d never quite fit in. I couldn’t help but be dead serious on the page, unhiply sincere. As Sugar, I was going to change all that by adopting the persona of an aloof and hilarious smart-ass. The fact that the column is published exclusively online seemed almost to require that. The Internet being a place that is really no place at all, a world that exists only on our computer screens, where everything about who we seem to be can be concocted and crafted and faked—why shouldn’t Sugar be a sham?
She would be, I decided. It would be fun, and it would also be funny. Virtually everything about Sugar would be the opposite of who I was. She would not be concerned with how to earn a living as a writer while juggling the constant and sweet demands of two young children while also keeping it happy and hot in and out of bed with the man she’d been with for going on 15 years. There would be nothing mundane in Sugar’s life. Her voice would be exquisitely cutting and witty. The experiences she related would be outlandishly glamorous in an insufferably insider-ish lit-world way. She would have had sexual dalliances at legendary writers’ conferences with prodigal darlings and literary lions. She would seem to have been everywhere with everyone at improbable and contradictory times, to be both 26 and 83, male and female, straight and gay, New York and L.A., from money and entirely self-made. Sure, she was going to make stabs at helping people with their problems along the way, but she wasn’t going to fret too much about it.
Or, at least, that was the plan, until she—make that I—started to write.
The funny thing about people’s problems is they usually aren’t very funny. Despite my intentions, I didn’t find myself awake at night trying mentally to craft a wickedly incisive paragraph into which I could work the “fact” that back in the day, I’d done a line of blow off of Norman Mailer’s cock. Instead, I found myself wondering what I could tell “Johnny” about how he might conquer his fears of emotional intimacy, and whether “Could Be Worse” should let her abusive father back into her life, and what words I might use to console “Stuck” in her grief over her devastating second-trimester miscarriage.
I found there was virtually nothing I could fake about any of this.
It turned out that as an anonymous writer who existed only in the not-actually-a-world world of the Internet, I could do even better than not faking it. I could be the opposite of fake. As Sugar, I could be more real than I’d ever been. I could say anything I dared to say. My cloak of invisibility, alongside the reality of my online nowhere-ness, gave me the nerve to write like the biggest, baddest motherfucker I’d ever been. It wasn’t that I had previously been fearful in my work under my own name; I’ve always tended to go for the jugular, to write with raw emotion. But writing as Sugar enabled me to hit a higher register, to clutch the throat with a tighter grip, to make a home in a nonexistent place.
I call it Sugarland. It’s a world where people dare to be genuine in their vulnerabilities, where they risk love rather than sit coolly back, where sincerity wins out over snark every time. I didn’t build it myself. It’s constructed of the unvarnished letters people write to me and the unvarnished letters I write back to them; of all the readers who sit alone gazing into the screens of their computers or phones each week and those who take the discussion further in the comments section of the column, often offering kind words to each other and to those whose letters were published. It’s an extraordinary thing, the way readers have responded so open-heartedly to the “Dear Sugar” column, and I believe a good part of it has nothing to do with me. I suppose, in her earnestness, Sugar has simply offered a few bites of what we’re hungry for in every world we occupy, online and off: Authenticity. Guts. Forgiveness. Transformation. Grace. My most popular columns aren’t about sex; they’re about sorrow and healing and faith.
Most people who read my column don’t know who I am and have never held my printed words in their hands, but I’ve never felt more personally connected to my audience. It’s as though, at least in this case, the impersonal world of the Internet has allowed us to be more intimate, has transformed the link between reader and writer into a present relationship rather than a one-way exchange. After each column goes live, it’s only a matter of minutes before the e-mail messages and Facebook posts and direct messages on Twitter and comments at the end of the column begin pouring in. People don’t write, “I love your work, Sugar.” They write, “I love you.”
I can’t explain it, but it’s true: “I love you, too,” I always reply. “I love you, too.”