DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #94: The Amateur


Dear Sugar,

I just heard that you plan to reveal your identity at a party The Rumpus is having for you on Valentine’s Day. I don’t know how I feel about that! I really want to know who you are, but I also don’t want to know. I’m afraid knowing will ruin the magic you’ve created here. You’ve thought this through and I trust you’ve made the right decision for yourself, but could you explain your decision further please? Does this mean there will be no more “Dear Sugar” column? Will you keep writing it under your real name?

Thank you!


Dear Unsure,

In the beginning many of you assumed I was Stephen Elliott. Months later I received an email from a reader telling me she’d done her research and figured out I was Elizabeth Ellen. Later still many members of The Rumpus Book Club were sure I had to be Lidia Yuknavitch. I’m none of these people, though the company flatters me.

Whenever anyone asked who I was I told them I would tell them someday. I said it here and here and here and I said it every time anyone inquired over email or Twitter or Facebook. I want to tell you who I am because it feels like the right thing to do, like we’ve reached a point of intimacy where I really ought to introduce myself. I want to see what happens next, to experience the column as the Sugar who doesn’t have to keep that one big secret that hundreds of you have been told or figured out on your own by now anyway. The Sugar column won’t change, at least outwardly. I’ll continue to write it as Sugar. You’ll simply know who I am after February 14th.

As if in so many more meaningful ways, you don’t know already.

I have a book of poems called The Only Window That Counts by a poet named Deborah Keenan that I inherited from my mother after she died. I read it over and over again all through my twenties. I loved that book so much, not only for the beautiful poems, but also for the brief notes my mother had scrawled in the margins in response to them. I read the book so often that I reached the point where I stopped reading it because the words inside had become part of me—both the poems and my mother’s notes. I knew them.

One of the things I knew was that there was a poem in the book called “Anonymous” and beside it my mother had written “someone who does something for Love.” Just like that—with love capitalized and underlined. I’ve thought so often about that poetic definition of the word anonymous over these past twenty-two months that I’ve been Sugar. It seemed the only definition I needed. Love was my mission and my reason.

So it came as some surprise when, as I wrote this letter to you mere hours before it was to be published, I pulled Deborah Keenan’s book from my shelf and paged to the poem I’ve carried in me so long only to see that its title is not “Anonymous,” but rather “The Amateur.” Though I was exactly right about the note my mother had made next to its title—right down to its capitalization and underlining—I was mistaken about the title itself and therefore wrong about the poetic meaning of the word anonymous.

An anonymous person does not do something for Love, it turns out. An amateur does.

That I was an amateur at giving advice when I agreed to take over the “Dear Sugar” column from the genius writer who wrote columns 1-26 was never in doubt. That I would write it anonymously was.

Why not simply call it Ask (my real name)? Isaac Fitzgerald, Stephen Elliott, the first Sugar, and I collectively wondered over email. There was no reason in particular not to, we all agreed. If I used my real name at least I’d get “credit,” which would perhaps make up a tiny bit for the fact that I wasn’t being paid. The decision was up to me. Anonymity won out because I was interested in doing something I’d never done before. I thought it would be a hoot to write whatever I wanted while hiding behind Sugar’s veil. I could be someone I made up—a funnier, snarkier, more outlandishly fucked up and/or more unimpeachably flawless version of myself. I could boss people around without consequences. At last, for once, nothing was at stake.

Or so I thought for about ten minutes.

Way up high on the list of the values and truths I most deeply hope to convey in this column is the fact that something is always at stake. Our integrity. Our internal sense of peace. Our relationships. Our communities. Our children. Our ability to bear the weight of the people we hope to be and forgive the people we are. Our obligation to justice, mercy, kindness, and doing the stuff in bed (or beneath the bathroom sink) that genuinely gets us off.

Given this, I quickly realized there was no way in hell I could write a column that offered advice about how to live and love while making myself into a cooler caricature of someone I halfway sort of didn’t actually wish to be. I had to give you the person I am in response to the people you told me you were; to hand over whatever stories or thoughts or opinions or observations that came to me through my authentic self—the one otherwise known as me.

So I gave her to you as Sugar, while dismantling what anonymous means.

Aside from my name and a few identifying details, I’ve told you many of the most intimate details about my life. I’ve shared my secrets and sorrows and fears and desires and innermost struggles and work-a-day realities. I’ve told you so much that I deleted the paragraph I originally wrote here, in which I summarized the things you know about me, because it went on too long and you know them already anyway.

And yet: you “don’t know who I am.” Isn’t that interesting?

I didn’t write all that stuff about myself because I was freed by my anonymity. I wrote it because I’m me. The way I write the Sugar column is the way I write. Because of this, many of you have figured out my name. You read something I wrote as the “real me” and you recognized me. You knew me without knowing me.

Maybe what scares some readers about knowing who I am is that they don’t want to see me. They want to see themselves against who they imagine me to be. Ruth Franklin wrote about this in her article about my anonymity in The New Republic last summer. She wondered if my “column can continue to maintain its aura of wisdom…if the woman behind the curtain is revealed,” and noted that “‘Anonymous’ swells in proportion to something far larger than an ordinary name.” She expressed concern that it will be harder for you to take my advice once you attach it to a particular person—me—rather than an online persona as “anonymity bestows upon an author something akin to a magical power.”

I think it’s interesting that you both used the word magic, Unsure. As in, the magic will be ruined if I tell you who I am. Mr. Sugar worries about this too, as do many readers who already know who I am, which I find odd, since the “magic” of my anonymity either never existed for them (because they began reading the column already knowing who I was) or it was “ruined” long ago (because they learned my identity along the way). These people are some of my biggest fans. The “magic is ruined” for them, but they’re digging it anyway and so their worry isn’t about their experience of the column, but rather what they perceive as the experience of others who don’t know my identity and therefore must presumably have some level of perceived magic maintained in order to find it meaningful.

The magic of anonymity for women writers throughout history is that it allowed them to publish their work. They wrote under male pseudonyms or they didn’t sign their names at all. A woman’s name on a poem or essay or story or play was the opposite of magic. That has gnawed at me. Virginia Woolf famously said “anonymous was a woman,” but I never intended to be one of those women. I owe them too much to be.

But of course you and Mr. Sugar and Ruth Franklin are speaking of a different sort of magic—the magic of mystery, of knowing something but not everything. Perhaps you’re right about the necessity of this particular kind of magic. Maybe this whole thing will crumble once who I am is no longer a secret. I’ve embraced that as one possibility. I’ve even thought it might be for the best. I respect people who write advice columns for years on end, but I don’t imagine I’ll be one of them. I always believed there would be a natural end to the “Dear Sugar” column—or at least a drastic downshift in its regularity. I’ve written it as a body of work in a way more akin to a novel or memoir than a years-long Q & A. There’s a beginning, middle and end.

I don’t know exactly where we are now. I only know we’re at the place where the plot thickens.

A couple of years ago I was at a big reception where many writers were in attendance and someone pointed out a woman nearby and told me it was the poet Deborah Keenan. I asked the woman to introduce us and she did. I didn’t embarrass myself by expressing my admiration for a poem she never wrote called “Anonymous,” but I did tell her how much her book had meant to me and how much my dead mother had also loved it and how, as it happens, one of the last things my mother did before she was too sick to do anything was attend a reading that Deborah gave, where she also signed my mother’s book. She was gracious and warm to me—nodding and smiling at my little story—but it was difficult to think of what else to say as we stood there being jostled by people all around us.

Maybe that’s what’s hard about knowing people’s names. We don’t know how to tell them we love them. Their particularity makes us vague.

What you get from not knowing my name is that you don’t have to contend with whatever biases you might have about me based on how I look or what else I’ve written. Not knowing me allows you to have a purer vision of me. The actual me can’t interfere with whatever you’ve decided.

If you recognize my name when I tell you what it is, will it disappoint or delight you? If don’t recognize my name when I tell you what it is, does anything change? How am I less anonymous to you if my name is only a name? Here are the names of some of my favorite advice columnists:

Cary Tennis
Anna Pulley
Dan Savage
Heather Havrilesky
Rob Breszny (who is not technically an advice columnist, but close enough).

There they are, but what really do their names mean to me? I “know” them, but I do not know them. Between us there is the porous wall of knowing and unknowing, intimacy and distance, familiarity and formality that exists between any writer and his or her readers. Perhaps with Sugar and perhaps because Sugar is anonymous that wall is more porous than most reader/writer walls and what’s discomforting is that if I tell you one big thing about me—my name—I might feel compelled to tell you fewer little things. Some of the holes in the wall might need to be plugged.

This is another thing about which we’ll just have to wait and see.

I didn’t exactly know that wall would be so very porous when I first began writing this column, but I quickly realized that telling stories about my life was often the only way I knew how to communicate the complexity of my advice. Your story spilled into mine and then I spilled it back into you, with hopes that we’d all find ourselves somewhere in the big story that belongs to all of us in a place we made up called Sugarland, where you know me already, even though you don’t know me at all.