If you live in Boston, chances are, you know Meredith Goldstein. She has been writing the "Love Letters" column for the Boston Globe for nine years, and it's not just local readers who love her: the column is now a national phenomenon. Last week, Goldstein published Can't Help Myself: Lessons and Confessions from a Modern Advice Columnist, a thoughtful and often very funny memoir about her life and work, and the ways they intersect. Goldstein spoke to the Amazon Book Review about how she came to be an advice columnist, how the seasons effect the letters she receives, and her love for fantasy romance novels, which she says, offer her the kind of happy-ever-afters she doesn't always get in the column.
Sarah Harrison Smith: How did you come to be an advice columnist?
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Meredith Goldstein: I had long been someone who gave advice in my real life, as a friend and as a daughter, as as someone who always liked to pay attention to other people’s relationsips. And I think some of that is being a journalist. You are trained to ask a lot of questions and want to know more.
But when I started in journalism and really got into my work at The Globe, I was doing more and more stories about lifestyle, and dating trends, and relationship trends, and I think the more you start do that kind of story, the more you have opinions. So after years of doing that, I suggested to The Globe that they have an in-house, local advice columnist instead of just running syndicated columns. And despite their initial skepticism, they let me try. A lot people say, “What qualifies you to do this?" and I always joke and say, “Absolutely nothing.”
How many letters do you get?
It is really depends. Some days, I'll get one letter, some days, I get ten to twenty. I’m never flooded.
I do notice that cyclically speaking, there are times of year that are more popular for letter writing. When there’s a big snowstorm, I get less letters, because if you are in a relationship, you need privacy to write the letter. So I’m more likely to get a single person's letter on a snow day than a married person’s, because [the married person] is literally stuck with the person sitting there.
I can tell what kind of letter I’m going to get in Boston based on the weather. The real first March or April week that’s warm, I will get a ton of letters saying, "I want to break up with my longtime partner." It’s super weird. People are like,"Oh, it's nice out, I could sleep with other people!"
Similarly, there’s a seasonal depression that happens in relationships in early March.
In January, people are disappointed by the lack of things: some of them were waiting on proposals, gifts, acknowledgements of relationships that happen over the holidays. There’s the post-New-Year's blahs: like, Wait a minute, I thought we were going to sign a new lease, take another step, I thought things would change, feel different, and they don’t. And then it’s January 10th, and I get all these letters saying, “What am I waiting for? The deadline has passed!” We really mess with our heads for the holidays. We really do a number on ourselves.
What about summer?
Summer I think can be a tough time to be single. Anytime you are single and don’t want to be is a tough time. If you are someone living in any seasonal place, if you are someone with weather, it feels like you have a limited period of walking through the city at night being madly in love. And why is that not happening? There’s a lot of pressure to meet the magical soulmate, love of your life, and when it doesn’t happen, it’s like, “What am I doing wrong?”
Boston has a big population of students. Do you see them represented in your advice-seekers?
I love answering college questions, and I get really frustrated when my commenters write off their problems. They’ll say, “Oh, you’re young, it doesn’t matter.”
These experiences we have when we are younger are really formative. So I love college letter writers because I think it’s a great time to be introspective about what you want your relationships to be like in the future. And some people marry and stay with the people they meet at that age.
Do you ever get letters that are so troubling that you feel you have to do something other than just respond to them?
Yes. My main concern is if someone is in an abusive situation. My readers joke that often my advice is to go to therapy. I’m very quick to say I am not the expert about this, you need to go elsewhere. Luckily there are so many organizations that have helped guide me. But that’s only for about 1 percent of the writers.
What's the process of publishing the column?
From the start, I wanted the community weigh-in to be as important as my advice. I thought, This will feel like a day-long discussion. I’m the columnist, but what happens pretty quickly [after I post the letter and my reply] is that my reply is just the piece of advice that kicks it off. I post at 9 o’clock, but what’s crazy is that by 9.01 a.m., there’s a comment.
Then for our print readers, I will take that Q & A and maybe the five to ten pieces of best advice and put it in print, and our print readership will get the best of the crowdsourcing.
What do you like to read in your spare time?
I love romantic fantasy novels, and I read a ton of romance novels, and maybe that’s to balance all of the happily-ever-after letters I don’t hear about in the column. I’m a real escapist reader. When I really want to relax, I will go for fantasy romance novels. There’s a full chapter in my book about the vampire novels I can’t let go of. I will return to Anne Rice. I just read The Hazel Wood and became obsessed. I like to be taken into different world.
On June 19, I have my first YA novel coming out. It’s called Chemistry Lessons. It’s about a young woman who goes to MIT and tries to use chemistry to manipulate her love life. Whenever I get a letter from someone who says about a breakup, “I’m so miserable, if I only I could get them back,” I always wish there was some pill I could give them. I could only play that out in a YA book, in a lab.
Thanks so much, Meredith!
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