Seven Questions for Advice Columnist Michelle Herman

Suzanne Goldsmith
Michelle Herman

Michelle Herman has taught writing at Ohio State since 1988 and is the author of three novels and three essay collections, including "The Middle of Everything: Memoirs of Motherhood," as well as a children’s book, “A Girl’s Guide to Life.” (And she’s a Columbus Monthly contributor.) Today, she fulfills another longtime writing goal by becoming an online advice columnist at the online magazine Slate’s “Care and Feeding” column, where she’ll join the roster of writers doling out weekly parenting advice—most of it serious, some of it humorous, all of it writerly. You can read her first column here.

What makes you qualified to help people solve their problems? Besides some weird kind of natural talent for it? And the fact that I am now very old (64) and therefore wise? … But seriously: I’ve been helping people solve problems for as long as I can remember. I guess I’d say it comes as naturally to me as breathing. And the fact that I have been doing it—in person and on the phone, over email and text, one on one and in groups—for so long helps. As does the range of people I’ve done my best to help, including over three decades’ worth of my students at Ohio State. I’ve always seen advice, counsel and mentoring as an important—maybe the most important—part of my job there.

How did the job come about? For years I’ve been saying, to anyone who’d listen, “I was born to be an advice columnist. I wish someone would give me that job!” And it turned out I had a Facebook friend (who is also a friend IRL) who actually could. The friend, a senior editor at Slate, knew my writing very well (in fact, he had edited a novella of mine, and I loved working with him: we became friends for life), but I still had to audition by writing a sample column.

Why do you think people write to advice columnists? Do you think they are really looking for an answer, or mainly for confirmation of what they already think? All the letters I’ve read so far come from people who really are looking for answers. The fact is, I’ve been avidly reading advice columns of all kinds since I was a child reading “Dear Abby” and “Ann Landers” and even “Hints from Heloise” in the newspaper—I was enthralled by the idea of people asking for what they needed and someone being available to give it to them (even when I was too young to understand the questions or the answers, or the questions and answers—as in “Heloise”—were themselves of virtually no interest to me).

The array of questions at “Care and Feeding” is huge. “Should I let my bisexual teenager have sleepovers with friends?” “My wife drinks too much in front of the kids.” “I think my stepfather is grooming my kid.” Aren’t these problems a bit daunting? I am amazed by the array of questions, to tell you the truth. And I’m excited about it. But of course some of them will definitely be out of my wheelhouse (just as in life I am sometimes asked a question for which I don’t have a good answer; then I do my best to direct the person who’s asked me to someone who is better equipped for it). Luckily, I am not the only “Care and Feeding” columnist at Slate and we each have the chance to choose questions from among the many that just keep rolling in. I would never answer a question if I didn’t feel I had a good handle on it. And I will definitely grab the questions that I have strong feelings about and feel particularly suited to answer.

What qualities or skills make a great advice columnist? Insight, empathy, life experience, curiosity, kindness, patience, compassion, the desire to do good…and (just as important as the whole rest of the list) being able to write really, really well.

Do you have a favorite advice columnist, and will you emulate them? I have two favorites, over the course of my long love affair with advice columns: “Miss Manners” (Judith Martin) and the old “Dear Sugar” column as written by Cheryl Strayed (the best answers from which are collected in a gorgeous book, “Tiny Beautiful Things”). What I like very much about them both is that they always got to the heart of the questions asked—even when the heart was buried tidily in a lot of noise, equivocation or displacement—and that they were always frank, honest and kind even when the questions weren’t. And that the writing is splendid, always. Also, Strayed in the most interesting of her columns, like Heather Havrilesky’s “Dear Polly” column—which I also love—is essentially writing wonderful, searing, smart, graceful, witty, moving personal essays. I can’t say that I will try to emulate them (or that I could!), but they certainly have inspired me.

So how will you go about answering people’s questions? Will you do research? Poll your friends? Go with your gut? Go with my gut, as I have always done (in writing as in life). Do research when necessary (ditto).