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Can’t Help Myself: An Interview with Meredith Goldstein

Meredith Goldstein is the advice columnist for The Boston Globe’s Love Letters, which gives her access to all sorts of stories related to matters of the heart, for her readers. Her memoir Can’t Help Myself is a look at the woman behind the column. I found it funny in places, moving, and deeply relatable.

I caught up with Meredith to talk a little about the book, and see what advice she has for us.

Tell me about your book?

This book is a memoir by an advice columnist—me. When I was first approached to write a book the publishers were interested in a memoir and my first thought was ‘Who cares? Who cares what I’m doing in my column? I’m often giving advice and not talking about my own life.’ So I started thinking—is there a story to tell here? The truth of the matter is I started the column after a breakup, a breakup I didn’t see coming. I got green-lit to write the column and then had the breakup, and my mother was diagnosed with cancer. I was sort of fielding all of these questions from people going through turmoil as I was going through turmoil myself. I think it’s always much easier to give advice then to take it, but I really wanted to tell people how the column had helped me in my real life and how the real life influenced the column.

For every chapter I also include one to two letters that are related to that chapter. I really felt like it was a good way to show people: here’s the story. You can see very clearly how my life and the column sort of became this one symbiotic thing.  As much as I was sort of doubting the interest level, I grew up reading advice columns and I was desperate to know—what are the personal lives of Ann Landers or Carolyn Hax? Who are these people and what are they like in their real lives? I think that you take for granted what you know about yourself but since the book has come out I’ve heard from a lot of people who feel better, that we’re sort of all in this together.

What’s the hardest thing about responding to reader letters, and what is the most rewarding?

The hardest thing is that I don’t have magic pills for all of these problems. So when someone says ‘How do I meet someone?’ which is really the most common question, I wish I could just say ‘Here is the answer.’ Similarly, when people say ‘How do I get over a breakup?’ I wish I had some magic tranquilizer dart that made them feel better. I don’t have one easy answer that works for everyone, especially with those two questions, so that can be frustrating. I’ve been in both of those situations and I wish I could make it easy, but I don’t do magic.

The most rewarding thing is that often people will write to me and tell me they feel better, or they feel less alone, or they have a new perspective on their problem. Especially with the modern advice column, there’s email, it’s not just some mailed letter like it used to be. I will keep in touch with these people. In writing the book, I revisited a lot of old letters and reached out to former letter writers to see that they were in completely different places—and in many cases much happier—it was really a fuel for optimism.

This book is about your column but it’s also about your life, including some very difficult seasons of it. How did your perspective on love and relationships change during the events of the book?

I think it’s also age specific: I start this column in my early 30s feeling like everybody is getting married but me. The book takes me through my mid to the start of my late 30s and it took a few years to realize that sometimes you see yourself through the lens of what’s lacking and you make assumptions about what everybody else has. I think by chapter three of the book I’m starting to realize that you can be in a relationship and lonely and you can be in a relationship and feel like you don’t have friends. I think that I was much better throughout the course of the book at realizing that we have this greater community—sometimes there’s a romantic partner, sometimes not—but I think especially at a time where there is this wave of marriages, you can feel like here is this one gaping void, and it’s not that simple. Even if I had found a perfect boyfriend, that wasn’t what it was about. I think that’s what the characters: my mother, my sister, all of these people in the book were in a constant state of wrestling with: ‘Am I doing this right? Am I putting the right energy into the right relationships and do I have enough support in my life?’ I think that’s what I learned throughout the book, that through a family illness, through marriages, through breakups, that it was never just about one person or the lack thereof, it was about all of these moving pieces and all of these people in my life. I think that at some point in the book, my attitude changes from ‘I don’t have this person and I’m floating in the air’ to ‘Look at this great community I have.’

Would you give our readers a little advice? What words of wisdom do you have for those who are hoping to find love?

I think that with online dating and app dating it can feel like a job. I think it’s so great because I always wish that my mom had had apps when she was newly divorced—it was just the internet had not been invented yet—and so she was really isolated in the suburbs. I can’t even imagine how she was meeting people. But I think the flip side of that is that you can always be looking. At these readings I’ve done, I’ll say to people ‘You could be on Tinder right now. You could be on eharmony right now. You could always be doing this thing. You could be constantly thinking about your possibilities.’ I think that for your readers in particular I would say that back in the olden days you didn’t have to do it full time, and if it starts to feel like a horrible job, you’re allowed to take breaks, you’re allowed to say, you know, Fridays are my day when I’m going to look at all of these opportunities. I’ve known single people to say ‘Well, now I’ve just wasted a whole afternoon.’ This idea of wasted time because you weren’t actively pursuing this like a job. I think it’s okay to take a breath. Do self-care so that dating fatigue doesn’t negatively influence your ability to be a good date. If you feel like ‘I’m going to go out and be a terrible date’ that’s not good for anybody.

As this book goes out into the world what are some of your hopes for your readers?

I do hope that they see that there are so many ways to do this. I start the book as someone who is so upset about a breakup but not because she wants to be married with kids. I didn’t know what I wanted, which is part of the problem, but I didn’t see the same endgame for myself as other people. There are people in the book who do see those things as an endgame, and that’s okay, too. There are many opportunities and many options.

I hope that they transcend some of the cliched things we think about relationships. I think one of the things I wanted to get through in the book was: we talk about this concept of sickness and health, and we hear it in vows. I always sort of pictured one partner taking care of the other, right? But sickness and health is a much bigger concept—for my sister it was taking care of my mother, but it was also taking care of her relationship. The sick person wasn’t her husband or her boyfriend. Sometimes when we have to be the caretaker for a family member, our relationship is the thing that gets ignored. That’s not necessarily what we think about when we hear that in a vow at a wedding. So I hope that I took some of those trite ‘Here’s what we know about relationships’ sayings, and made them a little bit more dynamic than that.

I also think—I don’t know, maybe this is just a woman thing, but I do think there becomes this moment where when you are the last single person or you don’t want to get married, where you feel like ‘I am on the outs, and my married friends don’t understand me.’ There’s a thing that happens a lot in the book: I have this best friend, Jess, and I keep not calling her. I mention it a number of times in the book: and I didn’t call her here, and she’s not my first phone call here, because I always assumed she was too busy, or she had these kids, and I didn’t want to impose. And I thought, while writing the book, ‘Well, what a lonely experience for her.’ She wanted to be imposed upon. She was, and is, my best friend. So feeling as though this person has entered a new phase of her life does not mean that they are any less present for you, and they have just as many insecurities about what they can offer. It’s interesting, she’ll always say to me: ‘I don’t want to talk about my kids all the time.’ I love hearing about her kids. So we make a lot of assumptions about what single people are like and what married people are like and how we are different, and I’m not necessarily sure that that’s all accurate.

Cara Strickland writes about food and drink, mental health, faith and being single from her home in the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys hot tea, good wine, and deep conversations. She will always want to play with your dog. Connect with her on Twitter @anxiouscook.