Jenny Lawson on Mental Health, Writer’s Block, and Her Unofficial Role as Den Mother of Misfits

The Author of Broken in Conversation With John Scalzi

Jenny Lawson and I met online years ago, so it’s only right and proper that this conversation happened over email, across a couple of months. Between when we started the conversation and when we ended it, I had the second season of Love, Death & Robots come out and Jenny stormed up the New York Times best seller list (again!) with her memoir, Broken (in the Best Possible Way). We were both having a lot going on, basically, and that’s where we started our chat.

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John Scalzi: I’M HAVING A LOT, JENNY. And I know you are too! Tell me about your “a lot” right now!

Jenny Lawson: I am a little overwhelmed myself, which is why I have been hiding out and binge-reading all day. It’s so strange publishing a book right now. Touring virtually instead of in person has been so odd, but actually really wonderful. I had so many great friends and mentors agree to moderate my events, and so many people who also deal with anxiety are getting to see us on tour (virtually) without ever leaving the house. It’s sort of fantastic.

JS: Tell me more about your thoughts on touring virtually. I did it almost exactly a year ago when The Last Emperox was released and after I did a couple I realized that they wiped me out even more than an in-person event. I finally figured out for me, it was the complete lack of audience feedback. But you are doing this a year later, so: Is it different now?

JL: It’s still exhausting but not traveling is divine and by this time in the tour I’m usually sick because of my autoimmune problems and the stress makes my RA flare-up. Comparatively, this is lovely! It was hard to not hear the audience, especially when it comes to the reading part. Usually, I pick one chapter and tweak it each night, and then by the end of the tour it’s a well-polished (ish) piece but since I can’t hear the laughter (or lack thereof) I just pretend I’m reading it to myself and cross my fingers that it works.

But I LOVE having friends as the moderators because then instead of me “presenting” I just have a glass of rum and have a fun conversation with them that everyone at home gets to listen in on. I always worry that people don’t enjoy it as much as I do but then I had so many people reserve tickets for each night so I guess it must be fun for others as well.

JS: I think your way of writing makes a lot of people feel seen. You mention it a little in Broken, where people come to your events and share those super-embarrassing moments as a way to bond. They’re sharing because you’ve created a space where they can do that that they may not have done before. It’s awesome, but it seems to me that you may have picked up the responsibility of being the den mother to a whole nation of Best Possibly Broken folks. Is this something you feel, and if you do, is it a delight, a burden, somewhere in-between or something else entirely?

JL: Bookselling is so unpredictable right now but, readers read always. Reading has saved me this last year so it’s nice to put something out there that might help others to escape their own heads for a little bit.

Den Mother of Misfits is a title I take very seriously even though I’m often the one flailing about in need of help myself. I think a lot of people who read my books enjoy the silliness but I do get a lot of feedback from people who read my stuff and find themselves in the pages or find that they’re able to understand loved ones better and that’s so wonderful. I often hear the lies that depression tells me (that I’m worthless or a drag on my family or that at any moment people will realize I’m overrated) and then I’ll hear from someone that I’ve helped them and it’s a reminder that we’re all helping others more than we think.

Bookselling is so unpredictable right now but, readers read always.

I do sometimes get overwhelmed, and I have had a really hard time with people sending me suicide letters. (It’s rare, luckily, but it’s still hard to read.) And I’m so glad that they reached out to me and often I’ve been able to get them help but it can put me in a really dark place so I’ve had to get help with that. I have a super-secret email account that I answer all the time but all my regular emails are read first by Victor or my sister because they don’t deal with suicidal ideation and can reach out to try to help. They still keep me informed and pass on stuff to me that they know I can handle, but recognizing that there are limits on what I can handle and setting up boundaries has been a really positive step in dealing with my mental health. I’ve realized I can’t help other people when I’m so low I can’t help myself. Keeping myself on an even keel can be a full-time job.

JS: Keeping on an even keel is hugely important, and a thing that I found myself struggling with more over the last year than I ever had before. 2020 knocked me for a real loop in terms of being able to do work—I actually abandoned a novel I was working on last year because while I was writing words and sentences, they really weren’t turning into an actual story.

This is hugely unusual for me, and also, I don’t feel bad for having done it because sometimes it’s just not working and you have to let things go. What helped me through this—my family support structure. In particular, it was immensely useful for me to have my wife Krissy on hand while I was working through this all. We’ve been married long enough, and she’s seen me do my work long enough, that being able to tell her my frustrations and rely on her to basically be a control rod in the literary meltdown I was undergoing helped me get through it, deal with it, and then ramp up to write again.

I think it’s interesting because in both of our cases our readers know of our spouses and see them as characters in our adventures, but maybe don’t realize how much doesn’t get done if their support is not there (and if not them, then others who we love and trust and can lean on). But honestly, there are no books from me without Krissy.

JL: So, did you give up that novel altogether or set it aside for another time? Because I’ve set aside books that I couldn’t finish writing before and it’s such an uncomfortable thing even when it’s necessary. I actually put Broken aside for quite a while because my head was in a bad place. Instead I wrote You Are Here because it was easier to draw than write at the time. And then I started writing fiction for a bit because I needed a change but then I got stuck on that and came back to finish Broken. I feel like I always have so many projects that are unfinished. It’s actually really comforting to know that I’m not the only writer getting stuck.

JS: I don’t know yet if I’ve given up on the novel entirely or just put it aside. For now, it’s “on pause,” meaning that I’m supposed to get back to it at some point, but the only other time I abandoned a novel (more than a dozen years ago), I never came back to it. It’s rare for me to abandon something mid-writing, and it makes me deeply uncomfortable on a psychological level since part of my reputation as a writer is that I’m “reliable.” But “reliable” doesn’t mean anything if the end result isn’t good, and also people aren’t machines.

Which is a really hard thing for me to remember! I agonized over whether to stop writing that novel. What actually got me to do it was writing a chapter and then having Word not save it, which isn’t supposed to happen in this era of auto-saving programs, and yet did. And when that happened, I was all, “You know what? Even Microsoft wants me to quit this shit.” So, I did and then I felt massively relieved, and the next day I had an idea for a story that I wrote into a novel in five weeks. It’s the power of positive quitting! Or more accurately, admitting to yourself when something isn’t working and giving yourself permission to let it go to try something else.

Given how much I like Broken, I think it’s probably a good thing you set it aside to let it ripen and let yourself come back to it. Do you think the nature of the book—a collection of essays and thoughts —had an effect on that in any way?

It’s actually really comforting to know that I’m not the only writer getting stuck.

JL: I think part of the issue is that because Broken is all about me I have to wait for things to happen to me that are worth writing about and I also have to enjoy the subject matter, which isn’t always easy when I don’t like myself. Sometimes the ideas come quickly, and I know exactly how to write them, and other times I just live with myself until I can find a way to look at the darker things in a warmer light. I rely a lot on tricks to help me write because I really struggle with it sometimes. How about you?

JS: Honestly, my biggest trick, especially when I’m writing essays and personal observation, is volume. I’ve had my personal site up and running for 22 years now, and I’ve posted there most days. Not all of it is intensely personal, and sometimes I’m just “look, here’s a picture of a cat, this is all you get for the day, later.” But that the fact that I’ve done so much of it and for so long means that the muscle memory is there when I want to write something longer and more about me.

I also think it helps that before I was writing on my site and before I was a novelist, I was a working journalist and then freelance writer. So much of the mechanical aspects of writing got rammed into my brain simply by having non-negotiable deadlines and by the fact that this article paid an electric bill and this freelance assignment paid for the car. That’s not a trick, that’s just training. But training does feel like a trick given enough time.

By the way, Krissy has absconded with Broken, which is not surprising to me because she’s been a fan almost as long as I have. What’s been interesting is seeing what pieces hit the most with her. It’s all good but some resonate more with her, and other pieces work better for me. This is actually one of my favorite things about being an author; the fact that everyone reads the same words but that those same words hit everyone’s brain just a little different. It’s not one big audience, it’s thousands of people with a different take. Is this a thing you think about at all?

JL: I always think of my blog as sort of a testing area to see what works for people and what doesn’t and a way to get out some of the stuff that wouldn’t work in a book. It’s so much more flexible and I love the real-time feeling of it. Sometimes when I’m writing something for the blog, I’ll suddenly realize that it’s fleshier than I thought, and I’ll instead save it as an idea for a possible chapter. And then sometimes years later I’ll finish the book and realize that the post wasn’t right for a book and then I’ll publish it on the blog, but I always want to say, “Hi. This was from four years ago. Sorry.”

I always think it’s so interesting how different chapters speak to different people. In a way, I find that very comforting because it reminds me that even if one thing didn’t work for one reader it may really help another. When I first started writing I was so worried that people wouldn’t understand me, and that definitely happened at times but what I’ve learned is that I am not for everyone and that’s okay. And maybe I’m right for someone but just not at that time in their life.

Whenever I worry that my writing is too weird for the average person I remind myself that I’m not writing for the average person and that if I took out all the weird stuff it would maybe be more relatable to everyone but it would also be boring as hell. There’s a song called “DIE, VAMPIRE DIE” from [title of show] that perfectly says exactly what I’m trying to say here but better.

JS: My relationship to the vampires in my life was (and is) slightly different. I don’t want my vampires to die, I want them to live a real long time and grind their goddamn teeth every time I publish a book or get on a best seller list or am a finalist for an award. As it happens I have a lot of very loud examples of these sorts and while I don’t go out of my way to antagonize them, the fact that my mere existence infuriates them does not displease me. I note that my ability to have this particular relationship to some of my vampires is totally couched in cishet white dude privilege. Others who would take public pleasure in their vampire’s spittle-flinging do not have the luxury of feeling that it’s mostly consequence-free. The internet is a different place for them.

Be good. Be kind. Love each other. Fuck everything else.

It took me a while to realize I didn’t have to write for everyone. Part of my journalism training was the idea that you are writing to everyone, and also, I like being liked widely (I have a huuuuge ego). These days I think of it this way: I write in a way that my words are accessible to almost everyone—I don’t write particularly complicated prose, even when I’m writing about weird or abstruse concepts in science fiction. But that doesn’t mean that everyone wants my words, or that my works speak to some people in a way other than “Yes, I am literate, and I can follow this sentence.” I’m okay with it now, but it took a while before I got comfortable with it in my brain.

Now, let me wrench everything over to another topic entirely but one I think about a lot when it comes to you is the Nowhere Bookshop, the bookstore you founded in San Antonio. I would love to know how and if running a bookstore is changing your relationship to your own books and writing (or other people’s books and writing).

JL: Owning a bookshop is so terribly wonderful. We’ve been running for over a year but technically we’re still not open to the public because of the plague, although it feels like we may be sometime soon if the vaccination rates keep going up and the death rates keep going down. It’s saved me this past year. I wasn’t able to leave the house at all because of my autoimmune stuff but I could sneak up late at night and have a whole lovely bookshop to myself.

I started a book club called The Fantastic Strangelings and that’s been popular enough that it’s paid for rent and for our staff and kept us from going out of business. It’s super helpful to me because it gives me a reason to read constantly because I’m always reading upcoming books that would be good as a pick. And it gives me a chance to read dozens of wonderful new books each month. And often the authors come do Zoom calls with me and everyone gets to listen in while we talk books. It’s the closest thing to social interaction I’ve had in this last year.
We opened for a few hours last month as a surprise for Independent Bookstore Day and we had a line all the way around the block. Of course, it’s easy to have a line all the way around the block when people are standing six ft apart, but still… I take that as a win.

JS: Yes, you should take a line around the block as a win. Even at six feet apart that’s a lot of people and a lot of love for the store.

I think it’s about time to wrap up this conversation, but before we go, any parting thoughts or advice, to me or anyone else on the planet?

JL: Let’s see… advice to the world? Be good. Be kind. Love each other. Fuck everything else.

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Broken (in the best possible way)

Broken (in the Best Possible Way) is available from Henry Holt and Co. Copyright © 2021 by Jenny Lawson.

John Scalzi
John Scalzi
John Scalzi is one of the most popular science fiction authors of the 2000s. His multiple New York Times bestsellers include Redshirts, which won the 2013 Hugo Award for Best Novel, Lock In and The Last Emperox. His debut novel Old Man's War won him the Astounding Award for Best New Writer; his other awards include the Locus, Seiun and Audie. Whatever (whatever.scalzi.com), his online site, has been published continuously since 1998, and has earned him two other Hugo awards. His television work includes Stargate Universe and Love, Death & Robots. Scalzi lives in Ohio, where he takes pictures of cats and sunsets.





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