Melissa Kirsch answers that question and more for young women just starting out in the world.
Photo by Leslye Smith.
How do you say “no” without feeling guilty? Should you take “Dry Clean
Only” tags seriously? What are you going to do with the rest of your life? These are just a few of the many pressing questions — and, let’s face it, the dry cleaning issue may actually be just as important as the other two under certain circumstances — that Melissa Kirsch (English, French ’96)
addresses in her new book, “The Girl’s Guide to Absolutely Everything.”
Shot through with wisdom and humor, the guide runs the advice gamut from tips on how to get along with your family once you’re all adults, to the basics of investing, to dating (she refers hilariously to the Internet as “The Big
Electronic Boyfriend Warehouse”), to an illustrated chart that depicts the proper way to shake hands at a job interview.
“So many smart women are running around with jellywristed shakes that have all the sincerity and moxie of a dead trout,” Kirsch deadpans, wagging her finger from the page with great comic effect. She’s earned the right to laugh at us because she knows as well as anyone what her readers are going through; her guide is precisely the kind of book she sought but never found in her first years after graduating from U.Va.
Like many young women just starting out, Kirsch found the world a more complicated place than she’d imagined. Working as a producer at Oxygen, the women’s media company, she read advice manual after advice manual, but none of them really spoke to her. “I had lots of questions that I wasn’t able to articulate,” she remembers, “but the ones that were being articulated for me in these books seemed really facile and ‘Sex and the City’-inspired. I love ‘Sex and the City,’ but that’s not my life.”
In response, she started writing an online advice column for young women “over my exasperation that I couldn’t find the book for me or answers to larger questions. My most burning question was ‘What’s my next move and why isn’t there somebody to help me with it?’ Even somebody saying, ‘Look, it’s going to be crazy and you’re going to make a lot of decisions and you might screw up, but it’s going to turn out OK’— even that would have been helpful.”
And so the guide was born. Kirsch started by asking 60 or so of the smartest women she knew, “What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you were just out of college that would have spared you heartache or eased the transition?” The responses were overwhelming — everyone, it seemed, had a list, and they included “everything from practical things like credit card debt to more emotional and psychological things.”
Kirsch was excited. “These are all things I want to know!” she remembers thinking gleefully. As the book took shape, she pestered everyone she could find — becoming, she admits, “the most annoying person at every dinner party.” The result is a book that “doesn’t make any presumptions about the woman who’s reading it. I came at it from the perspective of ‘I’m here, I’m living through it, and I’m going to figure out the answers.’”
And while Kirsch initially set out to help other women, she’s discovered that she helped herself in the process as well. “I’m excited about whatever comes next,” she says happily of her future, “but I’m not concerned about it. I think that being OK with not knowing is something I learned over and over with the
book. What you don’t know about your future is in no way dangerous to you.”