Between Girls: A Conversation With Lena Dunham
On being a woman, writing in the age of the internet, and making friends on Twitter.
Ashley Ford: Hi, Lena! Let's just get into it, OK? OK. So, I was reading an article in Vulture and there's this new show Transparent with Jeffrey Tambor—
Lena Dunham: I saw the pilot, it's beautiful!
AF: I haven't seen it yet, but I keep hearing fantastic things.
LD: It's awesome! My friend, Gaby [Hoffman], who was on Girls, is in it. She's one of my oldest friends. I've known her since we were 3.
AF: She was also in Obvious Child!
LD: Yes, she was, and she was also in the first movie Nora Ephron ever directed, so it all comes full circle. She's amazing. She was a child actor, a really great one, who has now transitioned into being a really great adult actor.
AF: Indeed she has. Anyway, in this Vulture article, the creator of Transparent, Jill Soloway, said something to the effect that you and your writing in Girls was one of the things that gave her permission or inspired her to stop pretending. She said she has been writing for a long time, wanting to write characters like yours but hiding them behind likability. After knowing you and reading things that other people have said about you, one of the things I thought was, Has Lena ever been good at pretending?
LD: Firstly, that's such a nice compliment from Jill! I love her work and she seems like she's always been bravely working on shows like Six Feet Under that really pioneered for me the ability to talk through characters who weren't necessarily behaving perfectly or sympathetically, but who I still cared about. That being said, no, I am the worst pretender in the world. If I'm having an issue with someone, I can't even wait 45 minutes until we can get to a private place to talk to someone.
I think half of my life has been trying to turn my inability to fake it, and my inability to separate myself from whatever emotion I'm feeling at the time into a viable way of life. I was once having a fight with my boyfriend, a typical couple fight, and we were at Mother's Day with his mom and his grandmother. And I was like, "We need to go outside and talk about this right now." And he was like, "Lena, we are going to be 30 years old. You need to be able to stand in Mother's Day for half an hour and know we're going to talk about it in the car." And I was like, "I can't! I can't stand here faking it." I have none of those skills. Can you pretend?
AF: I'm not good at pretending, but I am good at being manipulative in a similar way. I give people seemingly intimate information about myself, that satisfies them, and makes them feel close to me. I want people to feel close to me even if I'm actually too scared to let them in.
LD: I think it's really true that people — especially in this day and age — use sharing as capital in a way to say to other people, "Trust me." In some ways, I share for a living. I've definitely had to reexamine what sharing means to me. There are things I will only share with a true friend. There are parts of my life you know about that aren't in the book and aren't in my show.
AF: I do it because I really hate the idea of anybody feeling uncomfortable around me, or feeling like they can't talk to me about something. Part of it is an offering so people can know I'm a safe person.
LD: That's such a beautiful way of thinking about it.
AF: It's not super important for me to know people's deepest, darkest secrets, I'm not a secret-hoarder, but I don't want people to feel like they can't tell me their secrets.
LD: You want people to feel safe and settled around you, and it helps you feel safe and settled if everybody else does too. That makes sense to me.
AF: When do you feel safe and settled?
LD: I feel safe and settled in a one-on-one context like this, drinking tea with a friend. In this case with you, even while the tape recorder is on. I feel safe and settled in my home reading a book, walking down the street to get a yogurt, or at work when I feel really clear on what we're doing that day. I've always loved a one-on-one conversation, or a constructive work environment, or a nap. Those are my three safest areas. What are yours?
AF: I feel really safe when I'm by myself, listening to music, and reading all at the same time. I'm recently finding that sharing my space when that's happening is really intimate for me. My favorite moments between me and my boyfriend are just that, him putting on a record, and us both reading. He'll be on the couch, and I'll be in a chair, and I don't know that I love him more in any other time than I do in those moments.
LD: The time when I read before bed, or the time I can steal in the afternoon, is increasingly the most sacred time of my day. Especially with the book coming out and all the anxiety I've had about that moment, I can't get enough of that time when it's just me and a book, or that article that I've been waiting to read. That intimate time is when I just pull myself back together. My boyfriend is not much of a reader. He can appreciate good writing, but for him, it's not the same kind of rebirth and rejuvenation that it is for me. He's had to really learn what reading means to me. It's an amazing thing to have had the same escape from the time you're 3 years old to the time you're 30 years old.
AF: When you say "stitching yourself back together," do you feel like you lose pieces of yourself in the sharing process?
LD: As you know, with memoir or personal essays or autobiographical work, there's always this dance of figuring out what you can share without hurting yourself or the people around you, and when you get that balance right, it's the most cathartic thing in the world. To share enough, but to have still kept a little for yourself, nothing feels better.
When I need that stitch-myself-back-together feeling most is during the promotion of something. You become this kind of weird hologram of yourself, because you're engaging with the press juggernaut, and you can't control it. If you're a creative, controlling person, you still try to. I have been on set for 22 hours and I'm fine. I'm tired, but I'm tired in this really strong way. But if I've done eight hours of press, I'm so tired I can't speak English to you. I don't even know what my name is. I did a bunch of press this week, then I went to my parents' house to stay with them, and I slept for 14 hours. That's what my body needed. It's such a weird thing to spend that amount of time a) talking about yourself and b) monitoring yourself.
AF: This is funny to me because my friend Roxane [Gay] has been on two book tours this year.
LD: I can't even believe what Roxane has been up to. Plus, being a professor? The girl is on fire.
AF: She really is! But, she one day tweeted, "I'm so sick of myself." Which was about talking about herself in interviews.
LD: I think if you don't have her reaction, you're a maniac. If you're content to talk about yourself that much, you have a serious broken element inside yourself. Or maybe that's not fair, maybe you just have a routine down and you're good at it. But I know exactly how she feels. There are times when the sound of my voice makes me want to hurl myself off a large structure. Plus, you already spend so much time trapped with your voice when you're writing a memoir. Do you ever have that feeling?
AF: That's when I know I need to take a break or walk away. I feel like once I start reading back to myself and every thought I have in reaction to the writing is Who the fuck cares? I know I've reached my limit.
LD: Do you feel like it helps you that you can move back and forth between memoir and more journalistic writing for BuzzFeed?
AF: Absolutely. I am exhausting. I'm not sure how anybody who spends a lot of time with me deals with me. I'm moody, not extremely, just in a slightly annoying way. I exhaust myself.
LD: I find you to be a pleasure, but usually I get to have dinner or tea with you, so maybe your moodiness takes place elsewhere. But you know, you and I once spent a very intimate weekend together — I hope people take that sexually — and I feel like I would have been exposed to your moods. But even just what it feels like to be in your own head.
The next film projects I'm working on have a more historical bent and they're about topics I'm interested in. That being said, just to be able to move my attention to a time and place that isn't my own has been thrilling. I know you've found this as you work on your memoir, something that is such an exhaustive accounting of where you've been and what you've been through, even if it isn't the whole story, it takes something out of you.
AF: It does. And my mother likes to remind me often that it can take from other people too. The day I moved to New York, my mom called me because she read an essay and didn't like what I wrote. She said, "You have to understand that when you write things about your life, it's not just about you." And I said, "Sure." But I feel like it is about me. She's part of my life, obviously, but she's not the entire story of my life.
LD: I tried to be careful to show the material to the people who I wrote about. With the exception of the times I thought it would be bad for my safety or my emotional health. That was only, like, two people in the book. Two or three people in the book. OK, four. All men. I'm not of the belief that you necessarily need to break a few eggs to make an omelet. I did not want anyone in my life to feel abused by this book. The fact that something's true doesn't always make it OK for someone to hear it. So, I showed the book to my family and most of my friends.
AF: Do you feel that when you hit something important it's also something that has almost completely laid you bare? Did you have moments like that while writing your book?
LD: Yes. I had a few essays in the book that I thought about not publishing. It sounds like a trite writer's statement [switches to a distinct snobby voice], "I was afraid to publish a few of these pieces." And we're like, "Fuck you, no you weren't." But I truly was. I felt like why, as a person who already has a semi-public life, would I want to put more of this stuff into the universe? And I realized that I only write what I feel like I have to. Do you feel that way?
AF: Specifically with nonfiction, yes. I've told people before that I try to write to fill cracks. Whenever I feel like there's something on this side, there's something on the opposite side, and there's a chasm between them; if I have experiences that fill that chasm that could hopefully help these two sides see each other a little better, or if it helps me reconcile both of those sides of myself, then I write. My book is basically about loving fiercely, and in a very complicated way, someone who's done something monstrous. There are parts of that person that are good, and parts of that person that are borderline monstrous. I had to give myself permission to feel how I felt, so I could figure out what those feelings said or didn't say about who I am.
LD: Well, that's the reason I was initially so attracted to your writing. I was at a place in writing my book where I really needed to see someone telling the truth in a way that I could tell was challenging them, but they were doing it anyway. I think I found your writing — not to overstate it, but I kind of can't overstate it — I found your writing at a point where I really needed to. I met your work, and then met you, at a point when I really needed to see somebody else telling a story that they kind of couldn't take back. The couple of essays that I mention in the book that are about the challenges of gray areas of being abused in some way, those are pieces that wouldn't be in the world if it weren't for you.
AF: Shut up.
LD: It's real! I remember you and I were emailing, and my parents were like, "What are you doing for four hours over there, hunched over your iPhone at the airport?" And I was like, "I'm emailing Ashley, and this is what I need to do right now to feel like I can be alive and continue my work on this book!" It pushed me through as I thought about how to form this. It's really amazing to be talking to you about it at this point when you're headed off to work on your book for a month. It feels very synchronous.
AF: I tell people often that mine and yours is the most improbable friendship and relationship of my life. I don't think people in general would think that being friends with Lena Dunham means feeling very well taken care of spiritually and emotionally.
LD: They think you're friends with that asshole who does those assholes things on TV.
AF: I think it has to do with how we became friends, and how you were already such a public figure when we did. I think people would think, You're friends with Lena Dunham so maybe you can get cool things, and I think it's hard to explain to people sometimes that no, that's not it. I'm friends with someone who I would call if I couldn't stop crying, or I would tell about a project or an idea because she is going to be encouraging, even if she's telling me at the same time that it's not a good idea.
LD: That makes me so happy. I remember when we first started emailing each other and I was like, "This is amazing!" Now we get to be a part of the history of women writing each other letters. Even if they're not paper letters, there's something about writing to another writer. No amount of text messages or Facebook posts or Twitter favs can replace that feeling.
AF: I agree. It was surreal when you tweeted me initially, because I knew of you, definitely, but I didn't watch the show. I would read interviews and think, She's funny! But I didn't have HBO, and I wasn't super familiar. I had seen Tiny Furniture, though!
LD: I remember you said that, and I thought that was so cool because I'm always surprised when people have seen that weirdo indie movie.
AF: I watched it on Netflix. My friend Lora said, "You have to watch this movie," and I did. And I loved it! So when you tweeted me, I was like, in what world does this person come in contact with anything I've done?
LD: You were tweeting about R. Kelly. I remember I met you right before the Twitter vacation and we DM'ed each other, and I was like, "Email me because I'm going to try to stay off of Twitter for a couple of days. I just need a little break from this action." Hence our off-Twitter friendship was born. I feel really lucky we met at that moment because in another universe we could have just ended up tweeting each other, and occasionally favoriting each other, but because of where I was, and where you were, we were able to actually enter into a real dialogue in over 140 characters.
AF: I got that DM with you asking me to email you and thought, "What the hell would I email her about?" I had no idea what I'd say.
LD: I was basically like, let's continue this conversation of R. Kelly being an asshole offline.
AF: I eventually decided I'm just going to write to her about the state of my life.
LD: I remember thinking when we started emailing, if Ashley's catfishing me, I'm fucking enjoying it, so rock on. These emails are great, so if this is what it's like to be catfished, then we can just enjoy our lives. But somehow I knew it wasn't a catfish, and I would tell the people in my life, and they would be like, "You know, Lena, you have to be careful. People get nude photos hacked out of their email. Making a friend on Twitter and then proceeding to share all of your personal information with them isn't always the greatest idea." And I was like, "You pessimists!" There was enough evidence you existed, but I'm also not on Facebook, so I couldn't stalk you down. There were just a couple pictures of you and your writing. I was choosing to believe in a miracle.
AF: I was just like, why not? My mom definitely thought I was going to get murdered.
LD: When you came to visit me, she was like, "You're going to get your head dumped in a gutter, and I want you take responsibility for it."
AF: That was her position, yes. I was at this place in my life where my boyfriend and I had just started dating, and I was trying to learn how to be vulnerable with him, and you were this great trial for vulnerability.
LD: I got to be your test vulnerability run!
AF: I mean, you really were. Maybe the second or third email I sent you I was basically like, "I really like you just from these emails and conversations we're having, and I understand that you're busy and you might go away, but just don't go away without telling me that you're going away."
LD: I thought it was so beautiful. Like, "Oh my god, she's just asking for what she wants." I spent my whole life thinking all of my friends are mad at me. Jenni Konner, who I run Girls and my company and my life with, made a rule where I'm allowed to ask her, "Are you mad at me?" and she can say yes or no and the answer is usually no. But to have that with a friend where you can just ask for what you want? What a revelation. Especially if you're somebody who was used to being kind of mean-girled in your seventh- through twelfth-grade years. You learn as a young woman a lot of habits of dishonesty. Bearing your fears, bearing your feelings, and not expressing your needs to the people who are supposed to be close to you.
AF: I still worry about that with you. Not about you leaving, but I worry, Is she telling me she's not busy while she's actually super fucking busy because she doesn't want to hurt my feelings?
LD: Well, I would rather be with you. But also, don't worry. I'm always going to complain when I'm feeling too busy. I'll always take an opportunity to complain to someone who I think can take it. You're that someone.
I have a question for you: In the time I've known you, your life has changed a lot — you've moved to New York, you've gone from working an office job to writing full time — so what effect do you think it's had on your book and other personal writing, to suddenly be a full-time writer?
AF: You're right! When we met, I was a receptionist in Indiana who freelanced a little. A lot of people warned me that once you start writing full time for work it becomes harder to do it for yourself. That has not been the case for me. I've written more here than I did all of when I lived in Indianapolis. Especially editing. Working on deadline taught me to just get words down on a page and not self-edit as I write. I've learned that self-editing, at least as much I have been, isn't good for me as far as being productive. That lesson has been life-altering.
LD: I feel like you and I have in common the fact that you're working on your book as you try to turn out these smart thoughtful pieces every week for BuzzFeed, and I was working on my book as I also tried to make a television show. This idea that having this secret place you go, which is memoir, there's something I love about. And I feel like there's a really rich history of that where authors are secretly plugging away at that super-personal manuscript while they do other things. I know it sounds like a joke because my show is also super personal, but the memoir was like taking that to a whole new level, because it removed the lens and veil of fiction.
AF: Even as I am reading [Not That Kind of Girl] now, the first thing I noticed was that this is all Lena. This is not Hannah Horvath at all.
LD: It's funny because I get it, conflating a person and a character. It's confusing when someone looks and sounds like the person they play on television, and I'm also the creator. It's interesting because I saw an article floating around after Alessandra Stanley wrote that incredibly ignorant piece about [How to Get Away With Murder]. Did you read that?
AF: I did.
LD: She also just wrote another ignorant piece of Transparent. So she just cannot stop.
AF: I didn't even read it.
LD: It was a bummer and disappointing. Anyway, there was a piece that came out in response to that that asked, "Why do Lena Dunham and Shonda Rhimes get confused with the characters on their show(s), when so many male showrunners do not?" I don't know if people assume Larry David is his character on the show, I don't know if people assume Jerry Seinfeld is his character on the show, I don't know what that experience has been like for them, but I will say that people have a lot of trouble imagining that women have the imagination to create a separate persona.
AF: Don't you feel like that with memoir it's kind of the same thing? For a long time what hindered me with writing my memoir was the fact that it's a little tragic, it's not a happy-go-lucky kind of story, and I'm not a tragic person.
LD: In my book, I had a fear of putting in challenging events, that would force a new identity for me. I was concerned that if I write about rape, I will always be known as only a rape victim. If I write about having a teacher being inappropriate with me in my childhood, I will always be someone who has been molested. If I write about having been bulimic for two weeks, I'll be a person with an eating disorder. I think suddenly these labels are applied to you that you aren't prepared to deal with and they don't jibe. Because you do not walk through the world like "someone who has suffered tragedy." You are someone who has been through a lot of complicated things, but you move through the world purely as Ashley. So, I think a part of you wondered how to reconcile the labels that come with publishing something like this, with the person you are.
AF: How do you do that?
LD: So much of it is just about letting go of the concept that other people have the power to form your identity. I've spent a lot of time thinking about that and finally deciding that person's perception of my body isn't my perception of my body. That person's perception of my ability isn't my perception of my ability. It doesn't really matter how I'm being labeled as long as the experience that I'm sharing is an honest one. I don't think I would have had the fortitude to tell some of these stories a few years ago. Getting beaten around a little bit, having people say some rough things about me, and having lived through it took away a lot of fear in a certain sense. You would think having nasty things written about you or having people form assumptions about you would create this fear and defensiveness, but it just made me go, "Fuck it. Let's strap the bungee cord on and go!" I guess you can live through all kinds of things that your 14-year-old self didn't think you could handle.
AF: Hell yeah.
LD: How did you come to a place where you felt like you could finally write about your father?
AF: The first time I wrote about my father, which incidentally was on a blog, it was a blog I shared with five other girls. We called ourselves the ChickLitz. We wrote about books, writing, and being women.
LD: I wish I could have been part of that.
AF: Most of us were in the same nonfiction writing class taught by a professor who became our soul-leader, Jill Christman. I was a huge fan of Roxane Gay, and she'd recently been putting up some nonfiction things in different places, and I had always been scared of people not agreeing with my opinion. At least my written opinion. But I wanted to write about certain things in my past. I wanted to be more honest. I'd been lying to people for a really long time about my father, and about my relationship with him. I would tell people he was in prison, and when they'd ask why he was in prison, I would say that I didn't know. I'd usually say that no one in my family ever told me, and I was too afraid to find out. I knew that my father was in prison for sexual assault. For some reason or another I wanted to stop lying about it. Probably I watched an episode of Oprah that broke me open.
LD: She breaks everyone open.
AF: She does. I decided to write this blog post about my dad. At that time, it was the hardest thing I'd ever written. Roxane had been reading the blog, she saw my post and asked if she could publish it in Pank magazine. I said yes. I was tired of hiding.
LD: What I think is so important, and what I try to live by, is that when you have a painful experience that you know other people have shared, there's something generous about finding a way to put it into the world. I have so much gratitude for writers who tell the truth, and the books that have laid bare many of these experiences. I know so many people will have so much gratitude for your book. Think how many women on an abstract spiritual level, and on a concrete level, you can touch with what you're saying. To me, there's this amazing personal freedom that comes with talking about these things. And you know how it's nicer to give presents than to receive them on a purely selfish level? Like, it's just fun to watch your friend open a present and shriek? That's how I feel when someone connects to something I've written. It's the same fun feeling where you're like, I just got to do something that made me feel good, and made you feel good? Holy shit!
AF: Yes! That was the first time I'd written something where people emailed me, Facebook messaged me, or DM'ed me to say they'd gone through something similar, or I am going through this thing. It blew my mind. It made me feel less alone.
LD: Everyone connects to the concept of shame. Shame is what everybody's carrying. Whether they're trying to pretend they don't have acne, or they're trying to pretend their father is not in jail. If I believed that my whole career existed for my own catharsis, I'd be pretty bummed out.
AF: When I write nonfiction, I'm mostly writing about humans, just through my human experience. At the heart of it, I'm writing about universal issues. When I write about my dad being in prison for sexual assault and me lying about that, I am writing about that specific situation, but I'm also writing about shame in general.
LD: There are a few common human emotions that unite us all.
AF: I read nonfiction by men that is very emotional, but for some reason, memoir is so often relegated to an emotional women's genre or a vanity project. When I started writing nonfiction, my then-boyfriend called it "emotional porn."
LD: I think women's memoir is one of the most disparaged genres of writing. Confessional poetry by women also didn't get its due. They're both treated like a symptom of hysteria. Male memoirists are heralded as these brave, heroic figures who are here to give us dispatches from the darkest places in the world.
I was watching a documentary of the punk singer Kathleen Hanna, and she talked about how as a woman you often feel there is this voice that is automatically set up to question whether your experience is valid, or whether your experience is real. How many women say, "I didn't report my sexual assault because I thought people would think I was lying?" That's one of the reasons I was scared to put that essay in the book, because I thought, People are going to find a way to negate my story.
AF: Do you think that's a matter of the kinds of people who write reviews, or feel entitled to write reviews, or more symptomatic of how we culturally value women's voices?
LD: I'm sure it's a combination. I think we're realizing more and more that we have a long way to go, and it's very comforting to me how public this discourse is right now. How it's easier than ever to point it out and make the inequality clear. Do you feel that way?
AF: I do. I feel like we're at a really great and important time. This is a time when women are not just talking about what it means to be a woman, but we're publicly talking about what it means to be all different kinds of women. So many of us approach our womanhood differently. It's not enough to be tolerant of that, we need to be accepting as well.
LD: We have to take it to the next level. I've had such an education since the show first came on the air for me to realize that part of what feminism meant was not just fighting for your own concerns and for those of your closest group of friends, but fighting for each woman to be able to live the best version of the life that she wants. Feminism is that we all protect each other's right to live in a way that is safest and happiest for us. That's one of the reasons that I called the book Not That Kind of Girl. I wanted to play with the idea that there even is one kind of girl. It's helped to talk to you and understand your concerns and your version of feminism that isn't wildly different from my own, but it has its differences. I think the more of that that we can do the better off we are.
AF: What memoirs do you feel informed your feminism?
LD: Mary Karr and Jo Ann Beard in their total openness, ability to examine, critique, and love their female role models. Those were just hugely formative. Nora Ephron's ability to casually capture then dismiss everyday examples of chauvinism is meaningful. Joan Didion's deep intellectual cultural criticism. I read so much Dr. Maya Angelou as a kid and felt like the language was designed to make you soar. You and I texted a lot the day she died. Don't you feel like there was something about that language that was designed to light up a little girl and get her fired up?
AF: Dr. Maya Angelou always wrote for the people who needed to hear her the most. I think that's why she wrote in a way that was both aspirational and lyrical. It was gorgeous. I wanted to keep going. I felt that rhythm.
LD: And that's why some snotty fucking people have an attitude about her. Those are the people going, "I haven't read much Maya Angelou," and you're like, "You should because she's really famous for a reason. She's really fucking good." There's a tendency for people who read and write for a living to want to love the thing that nobody else knows about.
AF: Do you think you'll write more memoir?
LD: Right now, it's not where my head is. I have ideas for essays and I have ideas for moments. I'm not saying I've written down every experience I've ever had, but there are things I need to understand in a different way before I can return to this format. I know there's a story in me about my mother and her family, but there's a lot that's still unfolding. I'm sure there will be a story in me about motherhood and what that means, but it's not here yet. Do you imagine nonfiction will be your form forever? Do you have an interest in writing fiction?
AF: Oh yeah. I love writing fiction. I have ideas for fiction. I'm learning that I like
screenwriting. Thanks to your encouragement.
LD: Screenwriting is really fun. I love how immersed you can become in the dialogue and the patterns of a character and how much you get to know them in an entirely different way.
AF: I've had a habit my entire life of walking somewhere and coming up with scenes in my head and starting to make up dialogue on the spot and saying those lines to myself.
LD: I'm so glad all of those scenes in your head haven't been replaced with tweets. I'm a little worried that sometimes when I walk down the street that I'm forming a few too many tweets and too few actual sentences. That's exciting to me. I can't wait to read what you're writing next.
AF: I'm excited about being able to share things with you. I've been working on the book for a long time, and I'm not the kind of person who gets my excitement from the sharing. I'm satisfied by doing the work. But I'm finally at a place where I feel like I am excited for people to actually see what I've been working on.
LD: I'm ready to see it all. I love you, Ash.
AF: I love you too.