Courtesy the Chicago Tribune Amy Dickinson (CAS ’81)

Amy Dickinson (CAS ’81) wanted to be a journalist when she graduated from Georgetown, but the jobs were scarce. So she did the next logical thing: she went down to M Street and got a job singing in a bar.

“They had a radio station doing on-campus recruiting and I didn’t get anything, no interview. Dickinson says, groaning at the memory. “I went to NBC and didn’t get anything either. The man interviewing me had said, `Oh, you have a degree in English . what do you think that’s going to get you?’ I just said, `Well, I know this job is really about xeroxing, and I can do that.'”

But having some tough times in her own life turned out to be very helpful for Dickinson’s current career. After becoming the Chicago Tribune’s new advice columnist two months ago, Dickinson says she often recalls the struggles she faced in her own life in order to answer her correspondents’ mail.

“I feel like that’s part of what this job is all about – remembering how you were at certain ages,” Dickinson says. “When an 11-year old writes to me, I can remember me then. When I get letters from recent graduates who are living in their parents’ basements, I remember that feeling.”

Dickinson replaced Eppie Lederer, known to most people as Ann Landers, after the advice queen died in June at age of 83. Speaking from her Chicago office, Dickinson sounds happy about her newest career move.

Dickinson had been writing for the Tribune as a freelancer when Ann Lander’s position opened. “I very jokingly said to my editor, `Oh boy, there’s a job I could do,'” Dickinson says. “I was quite stunned when he said I should.”

While singing for tips does not sound like the most logical path to a column and head shot in one of the nation’s largest and most respected newspapers, Dickinson’s lounge act actually did help her break into the field. Although she did not net her first job at NBC, some of the station’s employees frequented her bar, and she soon got a copy-aide position there.

It was not exactly a dream job, but Dickinson stuck around the media field, working as a receptionist at The New Yorker and freelancing whenever she could. She kept writing – and editors got interested. Before nabbing the Tribune gig, Dickinson’s writing was featured in The Washington Post, Esquire, Allure and other magazines. She wrote columns for Time magazine and contributed commentaries to “CBS Sunday orning.”

Dickinson says she faced tough competition for Ann Landers’ post. She had to answer five sample questions, which all involved complex situations. One still sticks out in her mind: the query of a man who did not understand why the woman he loved wouldn’t let him tell the family about it. The two knew each other since they were kids, got along well and – oh yeah, – they were also first cousins.

Dickinson took this sticky situation in stride. “I did some research and found out that there is no genetic problem for romance between cousins, and I learned that this is extremely common around the world,” she says.

But that Dickinson knows good advice goes beyond the facts, advising the man to also make sure that the real reason his lady wanted to keep the love under wraps was not because she didn’t really like him. “And I can remember the line I used: `rooftop declarations of love between first cousins can lead to nasty food fights around the Thanksgiving table.'”

Okay, so she’s a bit sassier than dear Ann, but the line did win Dickinson the position. Her slightly sarcastic style makes her column a snappier read, her advice sounding more like that of your feisty best girlfriend.

Last Thursday, for instance, she answered this query with flair: “Dear Amy: My guy just broke up with me and I’m frantic. What’s the best way to get him back? Signed, Broken Hearted.”

Dickinson’s reply? “Dear Broken: The only method I know for sure is to stop caring. Once you really stop caring, they have a way of coming back. By then, of course . you don’t care.”

One day before, she laid into a 40-year old man who claimed he “is not [in] a midlife crisis” but that he just broke up with a 19-year-old girl and although she’s at college, he can’t get her out of his mind. “I realize I have some major baggage here. Many of us do. At least those of us with teenage daughters,” Dickinson wrote. “If you attempt to date mine, by the way, I’m coming after you. Or better yet, I’ll send her father.”

But while Dickinson says finding the perfect line for her eclectic mix of advice-seekers is a lot of fun, it’s not a job she approaches lightly. She does her homework, researching questions that need some hard facts, calling on her daughter or friends when she needs a different perspective.

The questions she gets come from people of all walks of life. Elementary school kids e-mail her, 70-year-old grandmothers write in and she gets bundles of letters from the penitentiary.

Dickinson said she also expects at least a few daily calls for help about weddings. “At first I was floored by the interest in [weddings], people just go crazy over them,” she said. “I’ve even sort of coined the term `bridezilla’ for it. Of course, thank God, people still get married anyway, because that keeps me in business.”

Dickinson said that with her column being so young, she receives a manageable amount of questions, about 50 a day. She always looks for interesting inquiries, ones that take on problems that she feels many readers might have.

An 11-year-old’s question, for instance, recently struck her. The child felt worried because dad drank a lot, mom was ready to leave and the kid did not want a divorce. Dickinson not only could relate to the question – she’s been a single mom for about 12 years – but also felt a lot of children casually scrolling through the paper could use a good answer to that one.

The answer, Dickinson says, wrote itself. “I told him the one thing I know, scary as it is: lots of parents work things out and don’t get divorced . but plenty get divorced and also work things out, that families find ways to love each other,” she says. “I feel like people who divorce well don’t get enough credit.”

“Oh man, the old Georgetown professors are going to love that,” she adds, laughing.

But Dickinson is quick to declare her love for the Hilltop. She transferred to Georgetown as a junior from Clark University, a small school in Massachusetts.

“I was offered a great scholarship and work-study,” said Dickinson says. “I felt compelled to do as much as possible, because I knew it didn’t come easily. Going to Georgetown is the only thing I can point to that changed the course of my life.”

One member of Georgetown was particularly influential in this change – Roland Flint, a former English professor who died two years ago, inspired Dickinson to write. When Dickinson attended her last reunion, the university held a memorial service for Flint in St. William’s Chapel. She learned that many of Flint’s former students had also become writers.

“I know he was really proud of that,” Dickinson says.

Flint, who Dickinson described as a “poet’s poet,” is still inspiring her today; her next goal is to publish some fiction. She’s also working on two feature pieces for the Tribune, one about what people read on the bus and one about revolving doors.

Writing a whole feature about doors seems odd, but Dickinson likes finding appeal in everyday life. “It’s a very kind of graceful portal, its’ really kind of amazing,” Dickinson says of the door story.

In between all these projects and all the other advice-seeking e-mails flashing in her inbox, Dickinson does have a few pieces of advice for the next round of soon-to-be Georgetown grads.

“Take any job, and just start to do it. Work begets work. Cling to each other – it’s much more fun that way,” Dickinson says. “And try to stay out of your parents’ basement.”

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