DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #84: The Distance of the Leap


Dearest Sweet Peas,

One month ago I received an email from a woman named Colleen Wainwright. She wasn’t asking me for advice. She was writing to tell me about what she called a “crazy little project,” in which she was hoping to raise $50,000 for a nonprofit organization called WriteGirl by her fiftieth birthday on September 13. (The project’s official title is “50 for 50” and you can read it about it here.) WriteGirl serves high school girls who live in Los Angeles by promoting empowerment through creative writing workshops, individual mentoring, and more. To attract attention to her campaign, Colleen is publishing interviews daily on her crazy little project’s web site. All of the interviewees are women who write. Would you please be one of them? she asked me. And oh yes, she added—if she managed to raise the full amount by her birthday she’d be shaving her head.

Girls? Writing? Empowerment? The chance to play a role in compelling a witty middle-aged woman to shear herself bald?

I couldn’t possibly say no.

Sure, I replied, after glancing briefly at the links Colleen had sent—mostly to confirm that her crazy little project was not, indeed, crazy.

And then I carried on with my own crazy little project of a life, doing this, seeing to that, writing the column, taking care of my kids, pretending to be a vegan for three weeks just for the hell of it, and so on. It was September by the time it dawned on me that this Colleen Wainwright woman needed the answers to the questions she’d sent me and she needed them soon.

She asked every woman the same writing-centered questions, I saw after I got around to perusing the other interviews—even of those who do not self-identify as writers. She did this because, as she said in her first email to me, “writing is central to *all* women’s growth and economic opportunity.” The questions were simple enough—when did you decide to become a writer, who was your favorite teacher and so on—but as I wrote my answers, which you can read here, I realized the questions weren’t simple at all.

It’s in the most basic, essential, beginning stories that so much of our lives are written. Who loved you best? What made you finally believe in yourself? From what garden or pot or crack in the pavement did you grow? How did you get your water? Colleen didn’t ask these questions directly, but they were there, thrumming beneath the surface, wanting to know. They were the questions I saw between the lines, the same way I often see the unstated meaning in the letters readers write to me seeking advice.

As I crafted my answers, I thought about the girls in the WriteGirl program and I thought about the girls very much like them, who I wrote about in my column “How You Get Unstuck,” and I thought about myself too—not the woman I am now, but the girl I used to be, who seems wholly different from me now, but isn’t.

All of those girls, for all of their differences, have something in common, though we haven’t yet agreed on the language that best expresses what it is. At-risk. Impacted by poverty. Living in under-served communities. Disadvantaged. None of those words or phrases captures the complexity of what any single human being must confront in order to thrive. We are all at risk of something. Of ending up exactly where we began, of failing to imagine and find and know and actualize who we could be. The only difference is the distance of the leap.

What Colleen Wainwright is doing is offering a firm grip to those who have to leap the furthest. So many of you have written to me expressing surprise to find that you took meaning from one of my columns when in fact the situation the letter writer presented seemed to have absolutely nothing to do with your life. But I have learned not to be surprised by this. The particularity of our problems can only be made bearable though the recognition of our universal humanity. We suffer uniquely, but we survive the same way. Not one of us made it without someone offering a firm grip. Who those girls are and what they are up against and how it is they might become and heal and flourish is entirely central to the questions I grapple with in this column most Thursdays—how it is that you and I might become and heal and flourish.

I believe that so profoundly that I decided to publish this letter along with links to Colleen’s crazy little project this week in place of my regular column. There isn’t any advice I could give you that would be more powerful than to simply step back and show this to you: Love in action.

When I knew I was going to do this, I sent Colleen an email and asked her to tell me about herself and then I went to her web site to read up on my own. I learned that she’s a writer, speaker and communication consultant with an acclaimed former career as a television copywriter and actress. But when she emailed me back, she provided a very different bio. The short story is this, she wrote. I was a big, confused, self-involved asshole until my 41st birthday, when I got smacked upside the head by a severe onset of Crohn’s disease.

And yet here she is, nine years later. Colleen Wainwright is turning 50 in our beautiful, fucked up world on the thirteenth of September and she isn’t an asshole anymore. Isn’t that sweet?



To learn more about the 50 for 50 project, watch an adorable video of Colleen (which includes a glimpse of her in a bikini), and donate money to the cause, click here. To read Sugar’s interview on the 50 for 50 blog, click here. To learn more about the WriteGirl, click here. To visit Colleen Wainwright’s web site, click here.