DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #60: The World Lit By Other People


Hello sweet peas! It’s become my tradition that every time I reach a new decade of columns, I do a Q&A, in which I whip out short answers to several brief questions instead of the usual longer, single column. Happy holidays!


Dear Sugar,

I’m in my seventies. People have been saying to me for decades: “You were born to write. When are you going to write something for publication?” I’m thinking of taking a creative writing course. Do you think that doing so will help me break through my lifetime writers’ block? I keep thinking that anything I have to say has been said before and better said than I could say it. I want to write like a motherfucker. Please advise. Thank you.


I want you to write like a motherfucker too, sweet pea. But there are some things it seems you need to get clear on before you begin. The first rule of motherfuckerhood is that it comes from within. It has nothing to do with other people’s amplified or muted expectations of you or your own amplified or muted expectations of yourself. You cannot be a motherfucker because other people think you were born to be one. You cannot be a motherfucker because you believe you either do or do not have the capacity to write something that someone else will want to publish. You can only be a motherfucker if you decide to adopt the principles of motherfuckerhood. Namely, the one that has to do with getting your ass on the floor and doing the work you need to do in order to write something that makes you feel like the whole-ist, true-ist, most gigantic and humble and human and humane version of yourself. Which is brilliant news. It means that everyone has the ability to be a motherfucker. Including you. Most of all you, dear human with so much to tell us about the many years you’ve lived through. Sign up for that creative writing class. Never utter the phrase “writers’ block” to yourself or anyone else again. Quit worrying about whether others have already said what you have to say and said it better than you (they have; they do and will—there isn’t a writer on the planet for whom this isn’t true). Just write. Give yourself this one gift. Let the motherfucker who does that rule you.


Dear Sugar,

I am not someone who cares too much about whether something I am reading in true or not, but it seems like the letters addressed to Sugar are always extremely well written and polished. So I am wondering: are the letters written by writers or are all these people in need of advice just really eloquent with a pen?

I’ve received some variation of this question about once a month since I became Sugar and the answer has remained the same: the letters published in my column are sent to me by anonymous people who seek my advice. When necessary, I lightly edit the letters for clarity. I don’t know how to convince you that this is true other than to tell you that it is. I suppose many of the letters are well-written because many of the people who visit The Rumpus and read my column are writers, so it might follow that a sizable portion of the letters I receive are indeed written by people who exert some effort at being “eloquent with a pen.” Another factor is that well-written letters probably have a better chance of being published—though the quality of the writing is not a concern of mine when I’m deciding which letter to answer in any given week. The letters you read are only a small percentage of the letters I receive. I have many amazing, heartbreaking, soul-rending, sweet, fantastic letters that present situations both common and unique and pose questions both shallow and deep. I can’t get to them all at once. I will dole some of them out to you over time; many you’ll never see.


Dear Sugar,

Where to start? We’ve been together almost a decade now. I’m HIV+; he’s not. I recently stopped working due to fatigue and drug side-effects and the onset of some major medical problems related to HIV. I’m much older. He’s an alcoholic and bipolar. He relapses at least once every couple months. There are good days, but many bad days. I sometimes feel like I don’t even care about the dreams and aspirations that he constantly talks about. I try to be interested. I try to be understanding, but I seem to have completely lost interest. Likewise, he never seems interested in anything I have to say. I do love him, but it feels like our relationship is dead sometimes. He’s seems afraid to touch me, to kiss me, especially during sex. The sex is awful, no foreplay, no passion, not loving, not fun. I never get my needs met. He just wants me to give him blowjobs. Sometimes he just walks up to me out of the blue with a towel wrapped around his waist and pulls out his dick like he expects me to just blow him right then and there, like we’re in some kind of sex club. The sex is so one-sided that I loathe it. I’ve told him all this, but nothing ever really changes. He’ll try the next couple times to be more passionate. Sometimes I wonder if he treats me this way because deep down he hates me? If we broke up, I’d worry about him. He’s dependent on me financially. I’m just tired, maybe a little scared of being alone. I really don’t know what to do.


You start by keeping faith with your own clarity, sweet pea. With the knowledge that you must change your life. Tell your lover that you love him, but that you are deeply unhappy in your relationship—that you cannot and will not continue on this way. Lovingly insist on an honest examination of whether your relationship is dead or not. If it is dead, map out a way to separate your lives—financially, sexually, and emotionally—and do it with as much love and respect as you can muster. This is neither an easy nor a pleasant thing to do, but people do it all the time and so can you, no matter how impossible it first seems. If the two of you discover that your relationship isn’t dead, find a way to begin again by celebrating your strengths as a couple and identifying the negative patterns and practices in your relationship and modifying or negotiating them. Some couples aren’t able to do this on their own. If you think a counselor would help you in these difficult conversations, I suggest you seek one out. Good luck.


Dear Sugar,

Why do you call everyone who writes to you “sweet pea”? I love your column, but I think “sweet pea” is patronizing.


Trust me, darling, if I wanted to patronize you I’d do a hell of a lot more than call you sweet pea. I use terms of endearment liberally in my actual life, so when I adopted Sugar as a literary persona sweet pea came rather naturally to me. Before long it was my signature phrase. Referring to those who write to me as sweet peas is my way of soothing the sting of what they asked to hear: my unvarnished opinions about the weak spots in their lives. In Sugarland, sweet pea is code for the affection, regard, respect and sympathy I have for those who seek my counsel. Words have power, but their power has everything to do with intent. It took me a long time to understand that.


Dear Sugar,

If I was raped at a young age (5 and 11 years old) and had a miscarriage at 14, am I still able to get pregnant?


Yes. If you are having sex with boys or men and you do not wish to become pregnant you need to use birth control. Planned Parenthood can assist you in exploring your options. But I don’t think you wrote to me because you aren’t sure if you can get pregnant, sweet pea. I think you wrote to me because you wanted to bring voice to your private pain over the sexual violence you’ve suffered. It’s a powerful move—one I recognize—and I know it’s born of strength and sorrow and courage. I don’t know how old you are or where you live or how much good love you have in your life, but if you’re looking for support and resources, RAINN (The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network) is a good place to start. I hope you’ll keep bringing voice to your pain until it isn’t really much there anymore. I hope you’ll dedicate yourself to healing your wounds rather than only covering them over. And, quite importantly, I hope that before you become a mother you first make yourself into the woman you can be: whole again.


Dear Sugar,

How do you get over a break up? How do you cope with that amount of pain, logistical nightmares, and abject sadness?


You let time pass. That’s the cure. You survive the days. You float like a rabid ghost through the weeks. You cry and wallow and lament and scratch your way back up through the months. And then one day you find yourself alone on a bench in the sun and you close your eyes and lean your head back and you realize you’re okay.


Dear Sugar,

You give a lot of great advice about what to do. Do you have any advice of what not to do?


Don’t do what you know on a gut level to be the wrong thing to do. Don’t stay when you know you should go or go when you know you should stay. Don’t fight when you should hold steady or hold steady when you should fight. Don’t focus on the short-term fun instead of the long-term fall out. Don’t surrender all your joy for an idea you used to have about yourself that isn’t true anymore. Don’t seek joy at all costs. I know it’s hard to know what to do when you have a conflicting set of emotions and desires, but it’s not as hard as we pretend it is. Saying it’s hard is ultimately a justification to do whatever seems like the easiest thing to do—have the affair, stay at that horrible job, end a friendship over a slight, keep loving someone who treats you terribly. I don’t think there’s a single dumbass thing I’ve done in my adult life that I didn’t know was a dumbass thing to do while I was doing it. Even when I justified it to myself—as I did every damn time—the truest part of me knew I was doing the wrong thing. Always. As the years pass, I’m learning how to better trust my gut and not do the wrong thing, but every so often I get a harsh reminder that I’ve still got work to do.


Dear Sugar,

Sugar’s identity: Not Stephen Elliott.


Well done!


Dear Sugar,

I just had a brainstorm. What if you are Isaac Fitzgerald? Then it would be like you were right there the entire time hiding in plain sight.


Yes, if I were Isaac Fitzgerald it would be like that.


Dear Sugar,

I wrote to you last week about my feelings-bereft relationship and now I’m scared you might answer because I actually was in kind of a pre-menstrual depressive breakdown fog when I wrote, and in fact things are fairly decent and okay here, and I should fucking know myself better than to act out said depressive pre-menstrual bullshit, but apparently I don’t. If you’re not going to answer me in the first place, that’s good. If you were going to answer, don’t worry about it. I am a freak. Things are pretty okay in my house. Thank you. I love you.


Thank you. Good. Rock steady, sister.


Dear Sugar,

In column #32 you said: “Stop asking yourself what you want, what you desire, what interests you. Ask yourself instead: What has been given to me? Ask: What do I have to give back?” I’m still wondering what you mean by “what do I have to give back.” I thought you meant skills, but then my boyfriend thought you meant things relating to character. I’m trying to figure out not only what I want to do in life, but what I’m suited to, so either way it’s a great list to make.


You’re both right. The things we have to give take both practical and spiritual forms. They are discreet as well as overt. They can be as private as raising a child with values rooted in love and tolerance and generosity or as public as founding a nonprofit aimed at helping others thrive. An honest accounting of what we have been given and what it is we have to give is vital to both individual growth and the survival of humanity. The point is, it isn’t all about you. Even your own life. That kid who wrote to me? His (or her?) conundrum swirled around one self-absorbed conceit: that if he only knew what he wanted to do he’d be happier. Like many basically privileged people in their twenties, the letter writer essentially had the luxury of doing whatever he wanted to do and therefore didn’t want to do a thing. In suggesting that he compose a list of what had been given to him and what he had to give back instead of delving ever deeper into the over-asked question of what he wanted to do, I was attempting to knock him off his boring-ass track. I was compelling him to find the answer to his question by first tunneling through its opposite—the question that doesn’t deliver you back to yourself but rather to a place you’ve never been.

We don’t reach the mountaintop from the mountaintop. We start at the bottom and climb up. Blood is involved.


Dear Sugar,

Do you think the advice you write in your column is always right?


I stand by the advice I’ve given. I don’t take anything back (so far). But I wouldn’t claim that what I have to say to any given person is “right.” Mostly because I don’t think of the advice I give as necessarily on the right-wrong continuum. I sometimes state that I firmly believe a person should do one thing or another, but more often I try to help those who write to me see a third way. I’m not so much telling people what to do in my columns as I am attempting to either present a perspective that might be difficult for those who write to me to see on their own or to more complexly hash out the either-or options that the letter writer has posed. I think the answer to most problems is more often than not outside of the right-wrong binary that we tend to cling to when we’re angry or scared or in pain. We are a complicated people. Our lives do not play out in absolutes. I want my column to reflect that, but it’s always only my opinion. There are others too.


Dear Sugar,

What is love?


Love is so many things that it’s impossible for one person to answer that question, so instead of answering this one myself I decided to ask my readers. Here are the replies I received when I posed this question on my social media:

Spike Aroo: Love is the ability to be vulnerable.

Allison Mcg: Love is the opposite of fear.

Jennifer Ad Meliora Reeves: I think love, real love, means acceptance of the whole person—their faults, attributes, shortcomings, gifts, abilities, inabilities, etc. Love shouldn’t be based on hope or potential, which I am learning the hard way. We would never want someone to say to us, “I love you, but…” and then tick off the ways we could be better or different. We want someone to love us just as we are—here, today. And we need to love ourselves, and forgive ourselves, in this same way. Love is a state of grace.

@Miss___B:  Love is something infinite and sublime that can only be made wrong or less-than when you try to box it into definitions.

Jan Cooper:  Favorite quote: “To love a person is to learn the song that is in their heart, and to sing it to them when they have forgotten” (unknown author).

Sara Habein: I can’t be the only one who, despite seriously considering the subject, had visions of “A Night at the Roxbury” dancing through my head. (Woah-oh-oh-OH-oh-oh *ahem*) All right, I’ll go back to serious contemplation.

@RumpusPoetry: It’s a song that causes severe neck injury and won’t leave your head once it gets in there.

Terry N Teros: Love is the glue that holds the whole program together.

Carolynne Reina Mielke: Love is thinking of others before yourself!

Bill Mazza: Generosity without expectation and trust without judgment.

Joan Rogers: I tend to think of it as the profound knowledge that the equation is more important than either of its component parts.

@ayse: I just read a beautiful evocation of love by @tracyclarkflory.

Roberta  DiBisceglie : For me, love means caring for someone not despite their flaws but because of them. Love transports us to a better place, not always a happier one, but one that helps us to grow and find balance. Love is truth and it will set you free.

@blandroid (Jason Asher): Acceptance, faith, patience, healing, openness, honesty, cherishing, giving, receiving, growing, and being vulnerable.

SonYa Eick: Love is when you’ve found someone who makes you want to be the best version of yourself possible. To fix all your flaws, yet accept them at the same time. It’s when you’ve found the one who inspires you and motivates you especially when you’re weak and unable to do so on your own.

Denise L. Moore: Love is a relationship without apathy, honesty without judgment, laughter without embarrassment, belief without proof, compassion without end on a road traveling both ways.

@saribotton (Sari Botton): Whatever love is, you can’t experience it until you stop confusing validation with satisfaction. Awesome when you do, but so many don’t.

April Cooper: I have always liked this definition: “Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled. I also think love is the energy that powers the Universe (all of reality) and that it is our life purpose to lose our fearful perceptions of separation and experience Oneness with All That Is as fully as possible.

Brenda Lehman Gorenc: Love is the act of putting someone else first, even when your heart doesn’t feel like doing it.

Ryan Nance: Love is what we have decided to call the world lit by other people.


Amen to that.

This is my final column of 2010, sweet peas—I’ll be back on January 6. When this old year dawned I hadn’t even begun to imagine you or all the things that being an advice columnist named Sugar would be. If Ryan Nance is right and love is what we have decided to call the world lit by other people, then surely it’s love that you’ve brought into my life. Thank you for making my world so dazzlingly bright.