Wednesday, August 20th, 2014

Polly Asks: New York Magazine Wants Me to Write Ask Polly For Them. Should I Tell Them to Piss Off?

byeDear Readers,

I need to tell you a story. That means this will be just like every other Ask Polly column, except this story is a little longer than usual, and at first, when you read it, you'll ask, "Where's the tepid dude of the week?" Just bear with me.

In September of 2012, after reading and admiring The Awl for years, and writing a few short humor pieces for them, I sent Choire Sicha an email. 

Subject: Existential advice column
That's what I should be writing for The Awl.

Come on, pay me a tiny bit and it's yours! Just enough $ so my husband doesn't roll his eyes and spit whenever he hears the word "Awl."

Choire's one-word reply was:


Two days later, I sent in my first column and The Awl published it, and thus began one of the best gigs of my career. My first editor, Carrie Frye, let the term "pious fuckwinder' run in my second column. My second editor, Choire, was even more tolerant of dubious strings of adjectives. (He also once forgot to pay me for five months, but when I responded with a three-thousand-word screed on the madness of freelance writing, he sent me a check and published my screed and paid me for that, too.) My third editor, Matt Buchanan, let the term "dickweasel" run. In a world full of pious fuckwinders and dickweasels, in other words, The Awl is an island of sanity, and originality, and humility. I had hoped to never leave.

Then three weeks ago, Stella Bugbee, the editorial director from New York Magazine's The Cut, called me. She told me that they've been in the market for an advice columnist, but haven't been able to find the right person. Apparently people want real advice, not gimmicks, she said. People want good advice from a writer with a really strong voice, she said. People want guidance from someone who's wise and thoughtful and fair. 

"Why are you talking to me, then?" I asked.

"We want you to come to The Cut," Stella said, whose voice seemed to indicate that she dresses really well. "We're prepared to double what you're making.” I snorted audibly. Then I multiplied my current rate by two and wrote it down on a nearby piece of paper. Hmm, not exciting enough. So I multiplied my current rate by three and wrote that down. Then I multiplied it by four, then five, then ten…

"Hello?" Stella said.  

"I don't know," I said, staring at the largest number on the page and imagining myself on a beach in Belize, surrounded by bronzed towel boys serving fruity drinks in hollowed-out coconuts. I pictured other bronzed towel boys arriving with huge platters of aged cheeses and soft cheeses and fresh breads and cured meats. "Eduardo, I said Cambozola, not Gorgonzola." "I'm so sorry, Miss Heather."

"Are you still there?" Stella asked.  

"I love The Awl so much," I said. This came out quite naturally, because I wasn't lying like I usually am when people ask me how I like my current employer.

Stella proceeded to tell me more about The Cut, how they don't just write about breastfeeding and sixteen super-sexy summer styles. They cover a wide range of topics, and it's very writer-driven, just like the rest of New York Magazine's empire. She said some other stuff, but by that point I was so deep in a Belizian towel boy fantasy I sort of lost the thread. "So what's it going to take?" she asked. 

"I like aged cheeses a lot," I said. "And they're pretty expensive. But I don't want to change the column, You know what Ask Polly is: It's four thousand words, half of which are variations on 'fuck' and 'motherfucker.'"

Stella sighed. Her lips sounded so glossy.

"You would retain full creative control." Creative control, yes, I thought. The bronzed towel boys came back to mind.

So I got off the phone to talk to my husband, who looked disappointingly unbronzed and wasn't carrying a towel or an array of soft cheeses.

"People will think I'm a sell out!" I told him. "That'll be refreshing, for people to imagine me doing something that someone actually pays me for.”

"What's a sell out?" my husband asked. (I guess people don't use that term anymore.) "Does that mean you'll make some fucking money for a change? Because that would be fucking awesome," he said.

"But it's a fashion and beauty website. People will think I dress better than I actually do!" I said. "That'll be cool, for people to imagine that I'm not just some dipshit who bumbles around the house in soft pants all day. I wonder if they'll imagine me in white linen…"

"White linen? Like Don Johnson used to wear on 'Miami Vice'?" my husband said, who would never sass back to me like that if I made more money. 

So I emailed Choire. I thought he might be really angry or BEREFT at the thought of losing Ask Polly, but instead he was very nice and said it would be crazy for me not to seize a great opportunity, and that The Awl is all about nurturing young writers with cool ideas and letting them fly and be free when they move on to bigger things.

"I'm not actually young," I replied. "I'm older than you."

"Lol," he wrote back. (Did he think I was joking?) 

"I really am older than you," I wrote back.

"OMG, I hate olds! Lol!" he replied.

Anyway. As someone who, generally speaking, hates change, I know this might not sound like great news to some of you who read the column every week. But I think it's a great opportunity for Ask Polly to reach more people, and a great opportunity for me to give the column more of my attention instead of squeezing it in between other gigs. (No, I didn't get Belizian towel-boy money; this is still an online magazine we're talking about, and not the Sultanate of Brunei.) New York Magazine is run by smart people and employs some of my favorite writers. I've been assured that they don't want to change Ask Polly at all, and they intend to nurture and support the column for the long haul.

Writing this column has been much more rewarding than I'd ever dreamed it would be when I first pitched the idea to Choire on a whim. I've gone from getting one or two letters each week to getting ten to twenty letters every single week, without fail. I love writing the column. I don't want to stop doing this anytime soon.

I'm not a big believer in gushing about your love for your readers. But Ask Polly readers are pretty fucking special, let's face it. We have a few things in common, maybe. A certain kind of stubbornness that's often misinterpreted as a bad attitude. A certain kind of skepticism that's often misinterpreted as contempt. We are unique snowflakes who sometimes feel uniquely fucked, even when we can recognize, intellectually, that our experiences might just be universal. We are sensitive flowers who act tough anyway. We are damaged goods who remain optimistic—in spite of having spent a little more time in the half-priced bin than was good for our tattered egos.

I'll publish my last Ask Polly column on The Awl next week at the usual time, which is also the same day that my first column will appear on The Cut. I hope you'll join me over there, among the glossy-lipped and the snappily dressed. The habitat might look a little shinier, and you might be simultaneously repulsed and turned on by headlines that say things like "Yoga For Swoll Hunks." But I'll still be offering up the same digressive opinions and pious fuckwindery you've come to expect from me.

Whatever happens next, though, please keep on telling the truth and sticking your necks out. Good things come to those who are brave enough to show the world exactly who they are, without shame. And look, soon enough, you can be sure that someone will give this owning-of-your-flaws an embarrassing name, in the hopes that we'll all get shamed back into the closet and go back to believing that every misstep and mistake should be airbrushed out or masked behind a smile and a high five.

Let's not let them shame us, though, ok? Let's keep on fumbling along, imperfectly, with pride, with grace, with humility, with an open heart. Let's be messy and courageous, you and me and all of us. Let's not be afraid to ask for exactly what we want, and to celebrate exactly who we are, and to eat lots of aged cheeses if possible. But most of all, let's stick together and celebrate our messiness, and our courage. 


Heather Havrilesky (aka Polly Esther) was The Awl's existential advice columnist. She's also a regular contributor to The New York Times Magazine, and is the author of the memoir Disaster Preparedness (Riverhead 2011). She blogs here about scratchy pants, personality disorders, and aged cheeses.

Photo by itchys

45 Comments / Post A Comment

ragazza (#241,456)

That is great! I am sure the Awl will be sorry to lose you but you can still write for them occasionally, right? Right? Unless you are too busy picking out exotic cheeses, of course.

HelloTheFuture (#259,085)

This is all really great. I love that the Awl is so cool about its mission statement. I love also that you're so clear about what you need to be yourself no matter where you write the column. OMG IT'S LIKE RELATIONSHIPS AGAIN being yourself is so important

KarenUhOh (#19)

Congratulations, of course, from one who usually stands back from this one each week (although I read it! Really!!) because, truly, DOES KAREN NEED ANY FUCKING HELP? (Don't answer that.)


Pardon my ignorance and abject arrogance, but Why the F'in FUCK Can't You Write For Both? Who made fucking NYM's knickers so billowing fancy?

I say to you, The Cut: let this woman operate in BOTH territories! Be a grownup about it, you wusses.

There. That was my Advice Column.

garlicmustardweed (#264,986)

Do we not get advice this week? MY THERAPIST IS ON VACATION AND I NEED THIS. Um, yeah, so . . .I'm such a fangirl. I just hope that your new, wider circle of readers appreciates you as much as the current slate of readers do. Reading and commenting really has been my weekly therapy supplement. Part of me is sad that it will not be such a tight little group as I like to imagine it to be . . .but I am very happy that you're be better compensated for your talents! So congratulations!

I just visited "the Cut" for the first time . . . very sequins. so fashion. much commercial. Can't say I'll visit for anything other than your columns . . .

@garlicmustardweed Girl if you aren't reading Ann Friedman's column on the reg you're depriving yourself!

garlicmustardweed (#264,986)

@Lily Hudson@facebook Thanks, Lady! I have started reading. Very good!

paddlepickle (#8,731)

But. . .but. . .I've been holding off on ever sending a question because I wanted to make sure I'd have a REALLY IMPORTANT one, but now there will be so many more and I'll never get published! Why can't you make this decision ALL ABOUT MEEEEEE.

If you can't change your mind on this for my benefit, I am thinking about moving to LA, so could you maybe promise to become my best friend when I do?

aglines (#285,504)

Congrats! I say if you can't do both (Choire, make her do both!), then: Go make some fucking money for a change. But don't lose your voice. Because we'll know. We'll be monitoring a "fuck" word count.

(We know you'll miss us, too.)

Mackenzie Kelly (#8,235)

Ah, I wondered how long it would take new management to start cleaning house.

Mackenzie Kelly (#8,235)

@Mackenzie Kelly
that's wundered

melis (#1,854)

is it really swoll? I always thought it was "swole"!

grendan (#269,504)

@melis swöl

Jen Gann (#286,244)

@melis Hi! I'm Jen Gann, the Cut's copy editor. You're definitely right that a lot people use "swole" (Urban Dictionary, which we consult sometimes for slang usage, lists it). For this post, I chose "swoll" for two reasons: (1) Maggie Lange, the post's author, wrote it, and I trust her humor and slang instincts, and (2) "swoll" is closer to "swollen" visually, which I think helps get the meaning across to people who might not be familiar with the term. The copy desk at debates slang usage pretty often; we like to have fun while remaining comprehensible to a wide audience. We've already discussed the kinds of entries Heather Havrilesky is going to get into our style guide. Can't wait for the first opportunity to add "dickweasel."

melis (#1,854)

@Jen Gann that makes sense, thank you! when i see "swoll" i mentally pronounce it closer to the first syllable in "swallow," which i think might be why i prefer "swole," but that's helpful, tytyty

Jen Gann (#286,244)

@melis Oh, that's interesting! I hadn't considered the "swallow" possibility before. Thank you for bringing it to my attention (and for posting your comment in the first place; I love a good copy chat).

darlingmagpie (#286,252)

@melis AAAAAAmazing. I look forward to this new advice column on the Cut! May another awesome Awl writer take up Polly's lead.

KimO (#10,765)

This is really wonderful! Congrats. I like the NY Mag sites, though I don't visit them often because there's just so much sprawl. They're smart to recruit you. I always pay attention when writers I like move on to less familiar places–and I'm sure other readers do, too.

whizz_dumb (#10,650)

@KimO When writers move on from this here site to write at more lucrative positions, it could be called "awl sprawl".

Congratulations!! First Cary Tennis leaves Salon and now you. You are my favorite thing about Wednesdays. As soon as you relevantly used a Kanye West reference from his latest album, you became my hero
I wish you the very best you weirdo!!!

Danzig! (#5,318)

Yes! Go! Go before it's too late!

arletterocks (#225,922)

YES. Do whatever you have to do to keep yourself in fancy cheese. That is what is right and true.

chevyvan (#201,691)

I've been wondering when a bigger site was going to snag you. I'm shocked that it took this long. Godspeed! I will follow you there! Expensive cheese 4ever!

RobotsNeedLove (#236,743)

My new favourite cheese is called Cuor di Fieno, and it's aged for at least 90 days wrapped in hay, but not lots and lots longer, and it is amazing, although not a soft cheese. Just in case you wanted to branch out in celebration.


stinapag (#10,293)

Technical question: is there an RSS feed? Otherwise I may have good intentions about seeking out Ask Polly, but forget because it's not in my Feedly.

Madly (#276,079)

Yay! You deserve this, Polly. I'm a little nervous about a wider troll pool, but dickweasels are people too and they might learn something. Now go eat all of the cheese,

kittenplan (#339)

As always, the accompanying image is perfection.

Congratulations, Ask Polly, and thank you again for telling me some hard things I needed to hear (along with some soft things I also needed to hear) when I wrote you many months ago. You are a treasure and I'd follow you absolutely anywhere on the internet.

Barry Grant (#239,287)

By all means, take the opportunity. But I'm sure you've seen enough indie movies to know that they'll start jerking you around sooner or later because of some corporate blah blah blah. At least for a while you'll be able to sneer at your husband's puny salary.

Mr. B (#10,093)

Haha, as long as I can stay younger than Choire, I'll never be an old. (Choire's like 50-something, isn't he?)

goosegirl (#286,262)

i've never posted a comment to any online forum ever but wanted to let you know i love your column, its one of the smartest i've read and its moved me to tears (of joy? hope? feeling for the human condition?) on more than one occasion. the story of how you got your job at the awl is poignant and inspiring without irony. keep on keeping on.

amockingbird (#2,015)

Congratulations, and enjoy all the cheese and pool boys! The Cut is a good site. It can be frustrating that NY Mag shuttles stories about lady issues to it, even if they're politically as important as ones covered on Daily Intelligencer, but it means it's not just clothes and makeup and they cover important issues. What I'll really miss is the commenters here, y'all added so much value every week. I hope people follow you over there and wade into the comments. I've been an occasional commenter there since Gossip Girl days, and it can be a great group. Fewer comment on The Cut, their system gets as many complaints as any, and they have a couple resident trolls on the site of the highest level of cray cray. As in, they have a whole site dedicated to mocking other long-time commenters and threatening to dox them. I won't bother posting user names as they're due to be banned and come back with new ones any moment now, but you'll recognize their style quickly. It's not worth engaging with them, just tag offensive comments as such and move along. But please, do come play over there folks, this column just won't be the same without y'all.

Reburkel (#261,628)

Congratulations, Heather!! I am so pleased for your good news. You deserve it and I continue to look forward to every Wednesday (or whichever day The Cut chooses for Ask Polly). You're a true idol for all of us sharp knives out there.

revengeofpompom (#240,509)

Congratulations Heather! You are a fantastic, incisive writer and your advice is so true and thoughtful and nuanced that I, like many others it seems, had been wondering how long you could stay tucked away on The Awl. Best of luck and rest assured that you have readers who will follow you anywhere.

potatopotato (#286,366)

Let's not be afraid to ask for exactly what we want, and to celebrate exactly who we are, and to eat lots of aged cheeses if possible.

I need this on a fancy art print to hang on my wall. And I maybe need to send copies to a few friends.

baorange (#272,037)

Ahhhhhh!!! I do think the world is better off with your advice in it, so if this move will help it spread and bring you lots more moola, I applaud it. We will miss you here, though. It kinda feels like you were invited to sit at a more popular table in the cafeteria, and we can't help but worry those cool kids will try to dilute some of your spark. Stay strong, Polly!

Fern Reno (#277,053)

Congratulations! You're amazing, lady.

Fizzbin (#260,272)

Mazel tov, Heather! You deserve it!

That said, I wish The Awl would stop with the nurturing.

charlsiekate (#231,720)

Will you draw us a cartoon before you leave? A special cartoon for all the tough acting sensitive flowers?

Also, we are all so proud of you. Sniff. Congratulations! I hope you are celebrating with aged cheese and whiskey. Or maybe a nice rose, since it's really hot outside.

Koko Goldstein (#234,489)

Go! Go make money! You are good and wise and more people should read your words.

woodenhobbyhorse (#22,371)

I love this damn column and have lines from it printed up and stuck on my bedroom walls just to keep me from clawing them too much. Love the commenters, too. Go, bloom and flower and get that money, I'll follow, though the comment section will probably be ignored.

ambergris (#245,900)

This is my little area of the internet that I quietly retreat to every Thursday. Your column has helped me to gain perspective and wisdom on many areas of my life and the comforting objectiveness that I will always, always be a bit nuts, and that the world is nuts but that's ok because its not all my fault and that nothing is ever fixed forever or perfect. But beauty is in the cracks! The cracks between the polished patina of glossed lips and kale smoothies.

Go and be awesome! See you at The Cut. As I'll still have either the Awl/Hairpin/Billfold open its just another tab on my browser.

Lee Meade@twitter (#13,845)

Been following since you were writing for Salon. Onward and upward i guess. Not sure my kind are welcome where you're going. So, goodbye, good luck, and God bless.

wendy darling (#250,908)

someone needs to make all the ask polly columns into a book. please.

JaceyMac (#267,240)

I'm not sure I've ever posted before, but I read your column every week and forward on its sage wisdom to friends and acquaintances. You are a huge talent and so wise, and I'm thrilled for you that you're being recognized and paid. I hope The Cut appreciates what they're getting and doesn't change a SINGLE THING. I will obviously follow you there. Congratulations, and thank you, thank you for sharing your insight and wisdom and for being so damn funny and awesome too.

Love your column, love your advice. Will be awesome to have an intelligent advice columnist in mainstream media (though my heart belongs to Dan Savage, fisting isn't mainstream.. well.. yet. Congrats you talented fucker.

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