Heather Havrilesky got the green light to write an “existential advice column” for the Awl in fall 2012. But before she could take readers’ questions, she had to answer a few of her own.
“[D]id I want the column to be funny?” Havrilesky writes in an author’s note to How to Be a Person in the World: Ask Polly’s Guide Through the Paradoxes of Modern Life, her first collection of advice, a book’s worth of best-loved columns and brand-new letters and answers.“Did I want to use the column to rail against the scourge of passivity and avoidance in modern relationships or to address our culture’s burdensome fixation on constant self-improvement? Did I want to sneak in some commentary on troubled friends, Kanye West, weddings, rescue dogs, luxe brands, commitmentphobic men, property ownership, the artist’s life, pushy mothers-in-law, or Game of Thrones?”
Yes, yes, and yes: “Ask Polly” was such a success, it soon moved to New York magazine. With a background in comedy, cartooning, and criticism, Havrilesky offers a signature mix of personal, philosophical, and pop-cultural musings each week, often issued at length and in colorful language. She lives in Los Angeles with her family and is also the author of Disaster Preparedness: A Memoir.
“[With this book], my idea was to have each letter build up to an end where you feel like the whole world is kind of opening up to you,” Havrilesky says. “It was kind of a crazy, ambitious notion, and I didn’t know how I was going to do it...or what would be the most satisfying way to organize the material, to have it develop in a way that felt like an overarching narrative was involved.”
The solution lay in progressing from smaller, more concrete problems to larger, more controvertible ones. In the book’s first letter, “Here Comes the (Anxious) Bride,” a sister asks whether she must invite her glamorous sister’s dashing new boyfriend to her wedding—and risk being outshone on her big day. (“Call your sister, and tell her you were temporarily rendered unwell by an asshole virus and you actually want her boyfriend to come to the wedding after all,” Havrilesky writes.) In its last, “The Bean Eaters,” she takes on nothing less than the meaning of life by examining our reactions to others’ failures:
“Facing uncertainty and failure doesn’t always make people weaker and weaker until they give up,” she writes. “Sometimes it wakes them up, and it’s like they can see the beauty around them for the first time. Sometimes losing everything makes you realize how little you actually need. Sometimes losing everything sends you out into the world to breathe in the air, to pick some flowery weeds, to take in a new day.”
How to Be a Person in the World is divided into seven distinctively titled sections, including “Weepiness Is Next to Godliness” and “Flaws Become You.” But the best match for its key concept comes from Chapter 2: “You Are Uniquely Qualified to Bring You the World.”
“What people need to hear is you already know what you have,” Havrilesky says. “Personal success has nothing to do with achievements you can point to as hard evidence. You know what you believe in, you know what you care about, you know what makes you angry, you know what makes you feel scared—those are the things that make you worthy. You are worthy because you have this spirit inside you. I’m worthy just by existing in my shitty, messy flawed way. I’m already allowed to take up space here.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.