When writer Meredith Goldstein pitched a relationship advice column to her Boston Globe editors in 2008, her life (and relationship) were sailing smoothly. By the time that column launched on the daily newspaper’s website in early 2009, not-so-much. Recently dumped by her boyfriend, Goldstein felt more equipped to be a letter-writer than the person responding to their pleas for relationship advice. Nonetheless, respond she did, offering sincere and good-humored wisdom on everything from bad dates to breakups, online snooping to May/December romances, incompatibility in the bedroom to sex after cancer, and more. That column — Love Letters — quickly evolved from a daily Q&A to a massive online community with a global cult following.
In Can’t Help Myself: Lessons & Confessions from a Modern Advice Columnist, out April 3 from Grand Central Publishing, Goldstein gets even more intimate with her readers. Can’t Help Myself is part-memoir of family, love, and finding yourself; part collection of some of Love Letters’ most memorable columns; part history of the origins of the column itself. It’s funny, it’s enormously relatable, it’ll make you want to subscribe to The Boston Globe immediately.
Can't Help Myself: Lessons & Confessions from a Modern advice Columnist by Meredith Goldstein, $17.10, Amazon
And while the minds of today’s readers might instantly turn to Dear Sugar — the advice-column-turned-podcast that first ran in The Rumpus in 2008 — Goldstein actually joins a centuries-long tradition of writers offering their own hard-won advice to angry, lost, and heartsick readers. The first advice column dates all the way back to 1690, in a British publication known as The Athenian Mercury. Newspaper columnist Marie Manning began writing as Dear Beatrice Fairfax, in the New York Evening Journal, in 1898. And Dear Abby, a classic and long-running advice column even Millennial readers should recognize, was first printed in 1956.
“To start, my idol is the late, great Ann Landers. Also, Dan Savage is incredible, and I’m constantly grateful that his column has been in my life and the lives of my friends,” Goldstein tells Bustle. “As for my place in the world of advice, when I started this column, I figured I’d be a local Boston voice and that’s it. But then I started getting national and international readers. I just think people are hungry for this kind of content — and community. Also, I try to write the kind of advice that I’d be comfortable saying if the letter writer was standing next to me. That means I’m always pretty nice.”
A large factor in Love Letters’ success, other than Goldstein’s candid advice and big-hearted generosity with stories of her own successes and failures in the love department, is the fact that she set up Love Letters to be a conversation between herself, her writers, and her readers, from the start. Each column ends with the invitation: ‘Readers? What do you think?’ followed by a comments section that has earned as avid a following as Goldstein herself.
"I try to write the kind of advice that I’d be comfortable saying if the letter writer was standing next to me."
“There’s so much excellent advice on the site,” Goldstein says of her reader commenters — some of whom, like Wizen, Two-Sheds, RealJBar, and one of Goldstein’s personal favorites Bklynmom — have become column regulars. “We still have these incredible regular commenters who show up every day and say wonderful things. Some of them have been commenting for the full nine years. One of my favorites is Bklynmom. If Bklynmom could advise me in my own life every day, I’d be psyched.”
But still, I have to ask: what about the trolls? (I mean, there must be So. Many. Trolls.) In Can’t Help Myself, Goldstein explains that even though Love Letters was always designed to hold space for serious readers to offer advice to writers, alongside her own, she has still had to navigate a few trolls over the years.
"If Bklynmom could advise me in my own life every day, I’d be psyched.”
“When I started the column, the comments section was much easier to police. There are more trolls in 2018, for sure,” Goldstein says. “Every time I start to think that the entire internet is a garbage fire, I hear a story about two people who found love online, or I’ll discover some brilliant digital community that provides support to people who need it. I grew up in the suburbs with a single mom who often felt isolated. I know that if she’d had the internet in the '80s and '90s, her life might have been totally different. Probably better. I just think there needs to be more accountability and protection.”
In Can’t Help Myself, Goldstein gets real about her own friendships, breakups, and even her mother’s cancer diagnosis — all occurring simultaneously to her pouring out advice to letter writers with similar struggles, concerns, and heartbreaks. And while Goldstein admits it’s always easier to give advice to others than to listen to it yourself, she also says the column has helped her as much as it’s helped others.
“Writing this column has stopped me from making a few bad decisions,” the writer says. “For instance, I remember stopping myself from texting my ex because I was like, ‘Come on, Meredith, you would NOT advise a reader to do this.’ That said, it’s always easier to give advice than take it. I’m always telling my readers to ‘get out there and meet people!’ Meanwhile, I’m home watching iZombie and eating Halo Top. But at least I’m self-aware about it. Mostly.”
"Writing this column has stopped me from making a few bad decisions."
And, not surprisingly, she finds the breakup letters she receives the hardest to respond to. “Honestly, it’s the basic breakup questions that keep me up at night,” Goldstein says. “So many people write in because they’re heartbroken after getting dumped, and there’s no easy cure for it. I just wish I could make everybody a mixtape and feed them kettle corn and convince them that it’ll all be OK. The classic breakup letters are the toughest to read because there’s little I can do to ease the pain.”
But what about when Goldstein is stumped by a letter? As a daily giver-of-advice, I imagine she must receive letters for which there is just no clear answer. What then?
"The classic breakup letters are the toughest to read because there’s little I can do to ease the pain."
“I got a letter the other day from a woman who was in her late 20s and didn’t want kids, but couldn’t say for sure that she wouldn’t want kids ever,” Goldstein says. “Her partner was sure he didn’t want any. And she wondered: Should she stay? I’m still not sure about my answer. I told her that if the question was haunting her, it was probably a deal-breaker. But it’s a tough call, right? Do you leave something great for something you might not even want? Feel free to tell me what you think in the comments section. I’m still trying to crowd-source this one.”