Girl Talk: When An Advice Columnist Finds Herself At A Career Crossroads

Over the weekend, my husband and I took a trip to New Orleans where we indulged in delicious, rich food, probably a few too many Hurricanes, and lots of roaming around and sight-seeing. At one point during the weekend, Drew was in the shower, and I took the opportunity to get online to check my email. Of course, one rarely just checks email when she’s online, and before I knew it, I had wandered over to The Frisky and taken a peek at my weekend Dear Wendy columns (written prior to my trip) and subsequent reader comments. Big mistake. What had been a really nice vacation up to that point suddenly turned into a minor existential crisis — at least for the next hour or so as I brooded over “the point of it all.”

I’ve been writing since I can remember and listening to people’s problems — and working through quite a few of my own — and somewhere along the way, I’ve developed an ability to craft responses that elicit a reaction from people.

I’ve been an online writer in some form or another for close to seven years. Reader comments shouldn’t bother me anymore. At the very least, I should be used to being on the receiving end of negative ones and ought to have developed a defense mechanism by now. And, in fact, there are many posts and articles I write where I simply don’t read the comments, which certainly helps, but my advice columns are different. I pour a lot of myself into them and I’m naturally interested in how people respond and react to the advice I dole out. I like to think that most of the time I have a positive impact on readers — not just the ones writing to me for advice — but people who are reading for entertainment value, too. It’s my hope that there are words in my columns that are exactly what someone out there needs to hear at just the right time. Maybe they’re words of comfort … or maybe they’re a kick in the butt when a kick in the butt is just what’s needed. Maybe my words help illuminate a situation or a perspective that hasn’t been thoughtfully considered yet. But, I’m not naive. I know my brand of tough love isn’t for everyone. And I know I’m not always right. Definitely, there are columns I look back on and shake my head at wondering what I was thinking. Still, I’d say 90 percent of the time I remain confident in the advice I’ve given, and certainly 100 percent of the time I have the best intentions at heart.

It’s difficult, then, to read things written about me that suggest otherwise. It’s difficult when I get 100 letters a week requesting advice — some of which are really heartbreaking and emotionally taxing — and thoughtfully consider all of them, answer quite a few of them (many that don’t make it to the site), spend hours — sometimes even weeks — sitting on a question, mulling it over, thinking about the best way to respond, and then read comments that suggest my “bitchy” tone is because I’m having a bad day or I must have PMS or I “need to get laid” or that all I’m interested in is page views. Of course, in this business page views are important, but if that were my main concern, I’d answer a lot more questions about porn, sex and weight — the magic trifecta when it comes to traffic.

The truth is, I genuinely care about helping people, and just because my brand of care is sometimes rough around the edges doesn’t mean it’s any less genuine. But it’s not always rough around the edges. I strive for balance in the letters I choose to publish and the advice I give; I try to temper some of my “harsher” replies with softer ones. And I think I do a pretty good job of that. Or, I thought I did. But maybe I’m wrong. I’m certainly second-guessing myself now. Especially after reading a recent comment that said something along the lines of: “Nine out of ten of Wendy’s columns are full of ‘tude.” If that’s the case, I must be failing, because what I’m aiming for is about two out of ten to be full of ‘tude. Why? Because about 20 percent of the people writing to me really need it.

Who am I to say what someone needs? Hey, I’m just someone with an opinion and a column. I’m not any more qualified to give out advice than anyone else, and I know that. I suspect that’s where some of the reader animosity may stem from. But, I do do this every day. I do this every day and

I’ve been writing since I can remember and listening to people’s problems — and working through quite a few of my own — and somewhere along the way, I’ve developed an ability to craft responses that elicit a reaction from people.

Unfortunately, it’s not always the reaction I’m going for. And that’s when I question “the point of it all.”

In short, I’m at a crossroads. I’m doing something I’ve wanted to do all my life … but suddenly, I’m wondering if it’s really the best match for me. If I’m doing more harm than good, it’s certainly not. If all I’m achieving is controversy and page views, I’m failing at my own personal goals. If I’m allowing the reactions of people I don’t even know to affect my emotional well-being — to affect a weekend getaway with my husband, even for an hour or so, that’s messed up.

So, this is something I have to think about for a bit. I’m going to have to do a little soul-searching, and perhaps change some of my patterns. I’m going to answer fewer letters so I’m not so emotionally spent by the end of the week. I’m going to try to stop reading comments (including the comments on this post), and just go by my gut. For good measure, I’ve even blocked a few commenters who seem particularly venomous. The point is to try to silence the chatter out there — both the bad and the good — and listen to myself instead, as well as those letter writers who give updates after receiving my advice. It’s not unlike being in a relationship in crisis, actually, and I’m going to take the advice I’d give to someone who’s in that kind of situation: Where do you see yourself in five years and what decisions do you need to make now to get yourself there? If you aren’t happy, start with the lowest-risk, least-resistant changes that you can make and work up from there. If those changes aren’t enough, go bigger. And, finally, tune out everything else and listen to your gut. Hear what it’s saying and follow it. If I know one thing — and let’s hope I know at least that much — one’s gut is rarely wrong.

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