Jenny Lawson Talks Humor, Depression, and the Underrated Virtue of Kindness

Posted by Cybil on April 19, 2021

 
Jenny Lawson is the funniest person you know. And if you don’t know her, just read one of her books and she becomes the funniest person you know. It’s like a magic trick.

A big part of this is because Lawson’s writing style is so casual and personal that it generates a kind of instant author-reader bond, an intimacy between brains. When you read Lawson’s stories, she seems familiar somehow, like a friend or a sister or a neighbor. That’s when you realize she’s the funniest person you know, even though you don’t really know her. (But you kind of do.) Of course, none of this works without the funny, and Lawson can bring the funny.
 
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Her new book, Broken (in the best possible way), is yet another showcase for Lawson’s exhilarating blend of heart, humor, and nuclear-grade lateral thinking. Among the topics explored: marriage, Satanic rituals, the U.S. Post Office, ambient anxiety, lizards, dentists, editors, canine genitals, and experimental transcranial magnetic stimulation for treating severe depression. Lawson is renowned, and beloved, for speaking frankly about her experiences with mental illness and for applying the miracle medicine of laughter to our collective open wounds.

Calling in via Zoom from her home in Texas, Lawson spoke with Goodreads contributor Glenn McDonald about the importance of kindness, the benefits of run-on sentences, and the underrated genius of Jack Handey.

Goodreads: First off, I have to tell you that your book just made my week. It’s really, really funny. This is your fourth book, right?

Jenny Lawson: Oh, thanks! Yes, I think this is my fourth book, but my third one was like a coloring book that I did. So this is my third book of essay/memoir, fourth book total.

GR: So, we’ve found that our readers are always really interested in process, in how authors go about their writing. Can you talk a little bit about your routine? Are you particularly disciplined about sitting down to write something every day?

JL: I struggle a lot with writer's block. In particular, when I'm dealing with depression, or when my anxiety gets too bad, I feel like I'll never be funny again. I'll never be able to write again. I’ve realized that that's just depression messing with me, but I will often go weeks without being able to write something that I really like.

So, this book took several years—I want to say four years, it might even have been more than that. The way I work is that I wait for interesting or funny things to happen to me, and then I become inspired by those. But until I know exactly how I'm going to write it, I tend not to start it. Because if I have something written down, and I don't like it, I will usually just delete it. So I'll wait, and all of a sudden, it'll come to me: Oh, this is how I write it, in list format! This is how I'm going to put this together!

Then I’ll yell at my family and be like, "No one bother me for 20 minutes, I've got to get this out!" Because I know if anyone interrupts me, I will never be able to find my track again.

GR: This reminds me of a quote by William Gibson, the science fiction writer. He said something about how, for the reader, a piece of writing looks like one of those cool-looking Chinatown parade dragons. From the outside, it’s all shiny and colorful and impressive. But the writer is on the inside of that dragon and knows that it’s actually just barely held together with glue and papier-mâché and balsa wood.

JL: [Laughs.] Yes, that sounds right. I write things down on Post-it Notes, each one of my chapters, and kind of what they're about. And then I have them up on my wall with the percentage that I have finished of that chapter. That way, at the end of every day, I can take one Post-it down and be like, "OK, well, this chapter was 23 percent finished, now it's 24 percent finished." And maybe it’s just one sentence that I wrote, but it still feels like I’m getting something done.
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GR: Oh, that's so interesting. So you might be writing several pieces at the same time? I assumed these were old-school newspaper-column style, each written separately and compiled into a book.

JL: No, I usually have about ten things I'm working on at the same time, and I'm just kind of waiting for whatever inspiration: "Oh, this is how this one gets finished." Or, "Oh, I should move this chapter in this chapter." It’s very organic.

GR: You’ve been at this for a while now. Would you say that you still ultimately enjoy the act of writing? Or how has that changed for you over the years?

JL: Well, there’s a famous quote, I want to say it was Dorothy Parker—my dog is named Dorothy Barker—who said, “I hate writing. I love having written.” And that is exactly how I feel. To me, not writing feels very unnatural. It feels like it gets all backed up in my head. So when it finally hits, and I know what I want to write, and I get it out, it’s the most amazingly wonderful thing. In particular, if I'm writing about things that are very heavy or dark or difficult to maybe talk about. A lot of times, if I write them down, I'm able to close that chapter. That darkness can live someplace else, not just in my head. And I find that really comforting.

GR: You have a great central credo in the introduction to the book: “Be good, be kind, love each other, and f--- everything else.” I just adore that. Kindness is such an underrated virtue these days, especially in the public sphere.

JL: You know, I think one of the great things that comes with struggle—and everybody's struggle is different, whether it's mental illness or whatever—is that it helps you to have a greater empathy for other people. Developing that kindness toward others, it makes a difference in the world that you live in. It also makes a difference in what you're carrying around in your own mind. You don't have to carry around so much anger. I think one of the most important things is that we show kindness toward ourselves. The idea of forgiving ourselves is so hard, and it shouldn't be. But it is.

GR: I recently had a chance to speak with Luvvie Ajayi about her new book, which is great, and she takes it a step further. She says we all need to be proactively or aggressively kind. To stand up for others, stick together, and do the right thing. That seems to be something in the culture right now, do you get that feeling?

JL: I think so. I think people are becoming more confident in standing up for what they believe is right—standing up against racism and sexism and, you know, a million different things that are wrong with us. A lot of times, we might look out across the world and think, "Oh, there's so much bad going on." But in a way, it's sort of wonderful that we're so aware now. Because if we just looked at it and said, "Everything's great," then we wouldn't be focused on trying to fix the things that clearly need to be fixed.

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GR: OK, I’ve got a writer-nerd question for you. You do some wonderful things with phrasing in your stories. You write these beautifully long run-on sentences, where you really need specific timing to make those work. It’s so hard to manage comic timing in text—do you find yourself thinking about punctuation a lot?

JL: I do! It's interesting, that is a very deliberate stylistic choice that I make. Because in my head, I speak in run-on sentences. When I write them out, I think there’s no way this is ever going to end up in a book. Any good editor would look at this and say, "This needs to be at least eight different sentences. Do you understand how semicolons work?" No, I don’t.

GR: No one does.

JL: [Laughs.] But what I have found is that people typically are willing to go with the run-on sentences because they're used to them, too. They have run-on sentences in their heads.

The other thing that I've found is that I'm just not for everyone, and that’s OK. For a while, I felt like I needed to change things because they were too abrupt, or too strange, or too dark. But I realized that when I do that, what I get is stuff that’s nice, and readable, and incredibly boring.

So now I just figure that, even if it's only 10 percent of the world that's as weird as I am and that get my jokes—that’s fine. That's all I'm concerned with. Those 10 percent are like, "All right, weirdo. I'm with you."

GR: Were you into reading books as a little kid? Do you remember the first books that kind of swept you away?

JL: Oh, yeah. My earliest memories are of the bookmobile coming to town, because we lived in the country. In the summer, we'd walk to the bookmobile to get our books. As I got older, I would steal my grandmother's books, and she was really into the dark stuff, so I’d read Stephen King and V.C. Andrews and Agatha Christie.

I would constantly be getting in trouble because of that. When I was in third grade, I did a book report about Pet Sematary. My mom was actually OK with it. She was like, "She's reading above her grade level." So, yeah, I've always loved to read.

GR: With humor writers specifically, do you have any particular favorites or influences?

JL: I would say my absolute favorite would be Samantha Irby. Her writing is such that, when I read it, I'll feel like we’re friends. I mean, we are friends, but I'll feel like we're more friends in books. Because I read her chapter, I'm like: "Oh my gosh, that's so funny. I want to tell you this story." There are so many chapters in my book that are really just conversations I'm having with other authors, that they have no idea about.

What else? Let’s see, I love Allie Brosh. David Sedaris is amazing. And Christopher Moore, I think he’s wonderful. Lamb is one of the funniest, most underrated books. You know who I really like is Jack Handey. I don't think enough people give him credit.

GR: Oh, totally. He’s figured out how to reduce jokes to, like, the atomic level. There’s just no wasted movement.

JL: Yes! He’s got a book, I think it's called The Stench of Honolulu: A Tropical AdventureAnd, I mean, every single sentence is funny. I was like, "How do you do this?" There was not a paragraph that did not have some wonderful, terrible joke.


 

Jenny Lawson's Broken (in the best possible way) is available now in the U.S. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.
 

Comments Showing 1-18 of 18 (18 new)

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message 1: by Angela (new)

Angela Knight I adore Jenny. She’s just freaking hysterical. I struggle with clinical depression, and I’m a writer. But too, I’m damn weird as hell. So I got her first book with the grinning raccoon for the cover, and I started reading it. And I thought, my God, this woman is my spirit animal. And she probably has it stuffed and mounted.


message 2: by Teresa (new)

Teresa Jenny is quite possibly my favorite author!! She is vulnerable and so open about herself that it’s impossible not to love her and want to be her best friend just so you can go on adventures for chupacabras or to find her lost shoe. Meeting her and going to her bookstore is on my bucket list! I’ll probably have a panic attack if I ever do get to meet her and we’ll both be completely awkward so it’ll be loads of fun. I have all her books, am part of her fantastic strangling book club and consider myself lucky to be able to read her books which make me feel less alone in my own mental health struggle.


message 3: by Norma (new)

Norma Endersby Jenny is beyond amazing ... anyone who can make me laugh so hard I pee myself is number one on my list - no pun intended! Her uncanny ability to laugh at herself is a talent not often found.

She is my soul sister in more ways than I can count. However, I’m not a professional writer nor do I suffer from anything other than continuing to grow older, and older ... damned if I can find a cure for that! Regardless, I can totally relate to everything she writes. And, that’s what makes her so special to me.

I don’t think I’d want to meet her, as I’m sure I’d just smile (looking like a stuffed animal with glassy eyes) and be all tongue-tied ... and there’s that peeing myself thing.


message 4: by Gerardine (new)

Gerardine  Betancourt jenny lawson is my favorite author hands down the best person in this world


message 5: by Amy (new)

Amy My friend bought me an autographed copy of “let’s pretend”. I loved it so much it is quite possibly the best gift I have ever received . In my dreams I wish I were as funny as Jenny!


message 6: by Lauri (new)

Lauri Saplad I absolutely LOVE Ms. Lawson! I am clinically depressed and not the least bit shy about discussing it, but Furiously Happy was the first book I read that openly talked about it & even normalized it. Then I realized I was actually laughing while reading it! I can't wait to read her next book...


message 7: by Deb (new)

Deb My now deceased daughter (31/2 years ago at 35) introduced me to Jenny’s books. She had depression and anxiety and they made her laugh so much. Thankful she had many happy moments reading these books. I too laughed so hard tears came. I believe Jenny Lawson’s honest and open writing style helps you feel you are not alone and she is your friend speaking.


message 8: by Tina (new)

Tina Marking I. Love. Jenny. She gets me.


message 9: by Jozzy (new)

Jozzy I love Jenny Lawson. First book I read of hers was "Furiously Happy." I often read at night in bed. I had to put the book down many times because my snort-laughing would wake my husband. Dammit. She is like a mentor to me. I struggle with several mental health disorders along with a feeding tube and I am a writer. I have and am still learning from her. I was so happy to read who her favorite authors are. She pointed me to more humor and writing styles. So, thank you. Jenny is my best friend and she doesn't even know it. ;)


message 10: by Courtney (new)

Courtney Just got my copy of Broken from one of her virtual book tour events. It’s interesting to read about her writing process. Can totally relate to the having something written being better than writing! Love her humor and authenticity!


message 11: by Andrea (new)

Andrea Just got my copy of Broken in the mail. Loved her virtual interview with the amazing Judy Blume, can’t wait to read this book!


message 12: by Lindsay (new)

Lindsay Thanks for sharing. I appreciate also learning who she reads when she wants a smile or laugh.


message 13: by Erin (new)

Erin Walton This was great, and I am so excited to read her new book! Her writing is so fun to read, and make me laugh so hard. I also really appreciate how open she is about her depression and anxiety. I also have my own struggles with this, and her humor is so healing.


message 14: by Kelly (new)

Kelly I was so excited to realize this book was out. As someone that’s been going through a lot the last couple years, it’s like “ok weirdo... something to smile about”


Also Jenny and I are best friends she just doesn’t know it because we’ve not been able to meet yet lol


message 15: by Deborah (new)

Deborah D. As someone with depression influencing my decisions (and lack of them...) I am thankful for Jenny's writing. Her humor suits me to a T, the way she talks about the way depression lies I feel much less guilty about those days of immobility.

Her first books were fantastic on audio CD. Broken is the first time I will read the book first.


message 16: by Becky (new)

Becky I love Jenny Lawson. Her humor is just my style, and I feel a deep sense of solidarity with her struggles with depression. I want to write more than I do, and I relate to the “leave me alone until I get this down” situation. Someday I will go to TX and meet Jenny, and it will be awkward as hell, and we’ll laugh!


message 17: by Caitlin (new)

Caitlin Aggressively kind. Nice idea.


message 18: by Angie (new)

Angie Alston I love knowing more about her writing process! It makes me feel better about flagging so much of my own work to revisit while I go work on something else. :)


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