Aparna Nancherla on Writing as a Procrastinator
In Conversation with Maris Kreizman on The Maris Review Podcast
This week on The Maris Review, Maris Kreizman talks to Aparna Nancherla about her new memoir, Unreliable Narrator: Me, Myself, and Imposter Syndrome, out now from Viking.
Subscribe and download the episode, wherever you get your podcasts.
from the episode:
Maris Kreizman: Tell me about writing this book as a chronic procrastinator.
Aparna Nancherla: Yeah. Like many maybe procrastinators and many perfectionists, I sort of had this idea in my head of what it looked like to write the book, and then was so very wrong and inaccurate of what actually writing anything is like. I think I really had to meet myself in the middle in terms of being like, okay, you’re gonna write from, like, 11pm to 12am today, and you’re gonna maybe get three good paragraphs, and that’s gonna have to be okay.
So it’s a lot of trying to be nicer to myself. You’re not necessarily going to be the person who’s like, I’m at the writing center for seven hours, five days a week. Because I think my attention span tends to ebb and flow. And a lot of it is around anxiety, where it’s like, I’ll sit down and write, and then I’ll just start to feel really uncomfortable or self critical. And then I’ll just have to switch to something else. And that doesn’t feel like writing, but I think for me, it’s just as important to do the writing as it is to step away from it.
MK: That is very comforting. And another concept that I took away from that essay that I will put in my own Google Doc so I can quote you someday, is that I haven’t considered how perfectionists really are set up to procrastinate because everything is kind of perfect until you actually start the process of writing.
AN: Totally. I don’t know if this is a philosophy thing I learned a long time ago, but it was maybe Plato, but it’s there’s like a golden ideal or like an example of the perfect chair, like all the ideas of the chair are just trying to approach this one perfect chair.
And I think for me there is this golden thing I create that’s just perfect and unimpeachable and flawless and I’m just forever trying to reach it and nothing ever quite comes close. It’s just so disappointing to never come close to it so I kind of self sabotage because I realize that once I start I’ll just be reminded of how imperfect my actual work is.
MK: And accepting that is a lifelong process.
AN: I think I also was like, I’ll write a book about self doubt and it will fix my perfectionism. But no, you’re just going to be especially disappointed in your book about self doubt.
MK: I was really struck by how you talk about racial diversity in comedy and how we’re still at the point right now where if you’re diverse at all, you then have to be everything to everyone. You have to be the spokesperson. And how similar that is to talking about mental illness. it seems like, and I’m, I am guilty of this, we have an expectation of what a depressed person or an anxious person will look like. Tell me about that a little.
AN: I think it is really interesting that I’ll even have that thing where I’ll have sort of the petty human thought at a show where it’s like, I used to talk about depression and anxiety on stage and I might be the only person who talked about that night. And now I feel like every comedian I see is sort of like, “I struggle with anxiety and I…”
MK: You started a trend.
AN: I don’t know if I was responsible, because there were definitely people talking about mental health before I was, but I do feel like since then it’s become even more common. And in my head I’ll just be like, oh no, like, what is my thing now? That was supposed to be my thing, and now it’s everyone’s thing, and…
Even in my own head I’ll sometimes flatten myself into what’s my hook? Like what makes me stand out from everyone else? And forgetting that I am like a three dimensional human and not just reduced to these three qualifications of like, brown person, soft spoken, mental illness, yeah, it’s hard when you’re in kind of this world that’s so driven by being a marketplace that you need to be like, what are my selling points or something?
I continually wrestle with that in my own self. I think making sense of myself as an artist where I have to remember sometimes it’s what you’re saying, it’s not just the package that you’re saying it with.
MK: Yeah, and you even talk about the disconnect between when you were doing material on anxiety and depression, how there was a disconnect between what you were saying to the audience and what you’re presenting and what was actually going on inside your head.
AN: Yeah, because I think anytime you make more personal stuff or more vulnerable stuff into work that’s then commodified, it just changes your relationship to it. And obviously, that sort of more polished, presentational, edited form of it is never going to be the same as the actual experience or how you reckon with it as a person in your day to day.
So I think trying to make those line up for me never quite worked. It always felt like a little bit of a deception, being like, yeah, I struggle with these things. So sometimes people would ask me, how do you write about it? Like, I just struggle and I can’t really make sense of it.
And I think for me, it is a little bit of a compartmentalization or even just a separation of this is anxiety and depression (™) in the work. And then there’s the actual experience, which is a lot messier and not at all presentational. Like if anything, it’s probably why I canceled my spot.
MK: You’re also inspiring because you have stopped basically checking social media.
AN: Oh my gosh. Yeah.
MK: The Swifties came for you. I had forgotten that.
AN: I’m sure they’ve come for other people, but one afternoon of being mildly targeted by Swifties was more than my fragile ego could take.
MK: And so, aside from who’s paying attention to you, this is when you turn it around a bit and you start thinking about what you choose to pay attention to. I think I’m looking for a magic bullet here, but have your thought processes changed outside of the world of groupthink?
AN: Yeah. I mean, I have friends who are like, do you feel so much better? Like, are you just happier? And I wouldn’t say it’s cured me at all. But I will say it’s created space that I think I didn’t even realize I was missing when I was just on the platforms all the time. Just maybe being able to decide things for myself or really have perspective on what is important to me. Because I feel like when you have so many other people’s voices in your head all the time, you kind of lose sight of whose voice matters, or of your own voice. I think some people are good at keeping social media in its lane and being like, this is a fun thing.
I check sometimes, but for me, I just couldn’t handle that, that big a cacophony of other people’s opinions. Because I think I have been so driven by a life of seeing what everyone else is doing to make sure I’m aligned correctly. And with social media, you’re getting so many conflicting ideas of how to be or what’s good, what’s bad. It kind of left me unable to do anything in terms of making a decision or knowing how to be.
MK: I feel like social media is the worst place to try to get involved in gray areas, or to be unsure about just about anything.
AP: But my life is like one big gray area. Like that’s where I live, I’m changing my mind on things like in the same hour. So I felt like I don’t think I can survive here for long without being completely confused.
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Aparna Nancherla is an LA-based comedian whose stand-up has been seen on late-night TV, HBO, Netflix, Comedy Central, and the occasional meme. Aparna also wrote for and appeared on Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, and has contributed multiple op-eds to The New York Times.