Last night’s episode of Girls, the penultimate of the season, addressed jealousy. The episode starts at a book party for Hannah’s former classmate, Tally, who has just published her memoir — which includes the story of her boyfriend committing suicide by driving a vintage car while on Percocet. Hannah, an aspiring memoirist herself, is jealous of Tally’s closet full of emotional experiences to draw on, of her ability to “water-birth” a book (her words, not mine). She’s jealous because she feels like Tally has a story to tell, and she doesn’t.
Occasional pangs of jealousy of the success and good fortune of peers are natural for a young, ambitious person. When a friend gets a promotion or publishes a novel or gets married or buys a big house or gets invited to a fancier party, feeling a little green is normal when you’re struggling to establish yourself, like Hannah. You can try and emulate the things that got that person whatever you’re jealous of by, say, mimicking their work ethic or the way they conduct themselves around coworkers. But what Hannah fails to realize is that you can copy someone as much as you want, but you can only achieve your own success by being yourself. It sounds cheesy, but it’s true.
Hannah’s jealousy here is truly demented. She’s not just pained by the book deal she didn’t get, but also the author’s tragic life experiences that became fodder for the book. Feeling like you need a tragic “story” to tell to be interesting as a writer isn’t unusual. But trying to force it won’t lead to your best work (or best life), as Hannah and a whole slew of writers (myself included) have all found out.
I took an eight-person fiction writing class my freshman year of college with a guy who had been in jail for five years. He had been out for about a year, but while in jail had discovered he loved to write. So he had enrolled in a few workshop classes. When we went around and read our pieces each week, he routinely stole the show, despite his frequent grammatical errors. His stories — about crime and life in jail — made mine feel trivial. So for much of the semester, the rest of the class wrote forced tales of death and sickness and crime. Most of stories were terrible. They were imagined tales of war and soldiers suffering from PTSD — the writers hadn’t been to war, but it seemed like a serious and weighty topic worth writing about. I wrote something overly dramatic about 9/11. I was averaging a C+. But for the final project, I finally relented and wrote about the bourgeois act of getting one’s wisdom teeth pulled out. I got an A.
Hannah’s experience is similar: when she agrees to participate in a reading hosted by her former professor, she thinks she’ll read a funny story about dating a hoarder who filled his dorm room with Chinese takeout boxes. But right before the reading, she decides — due to the urging of her serious-minded friends — that it’s too trivial. On the subway ride to the reading, she writes a terrible story about death that she ends up reading. Needless to say, she receives no applause. Her professor says she should’ve read the story about the hoarder. I wish I’d gotten to hear the story about the hoarder.
Hannah thought she needed an intense, emotional story to be interesting as a writer — which often ends badly when forced or fake. Need I remind you of James Frey’s exaggerated addiction memoir, A Million Little Pieces? No one was happy when they found half of it was made up.
Lena Dunham is a great poster child for the truth in the adage “write what you know.” I don’t want to discount the fact she has numerous connections and privileges — her parents are both famous artists and she grew up in the company of influential people in the entertainment industry — that most of us do not. But a big part of her success and the success of the show is that she’s not scared to just tell everyday stories. She wouldn’t be so successful if her work consisted of Eat, Pray, Love-like stories of manufactured adventures and dramas.
Stories of death, war, and hardship desperately need to be told. But it’s fine to leave them to the people who’ve actually lived them. Stories about dirty dorm rooms, annoying boyfriends, and inappropriate bosses need to be told too.