The first thing I almost shouted to Alana Massey when I called her last week was, “I wish I had your book when I was in college!” And it’s true. Had I owned a copy of All the Lives I Want: Essays About my Best Friends who Happen to be Famous Strangers, maybe I would have felt less alone, less guilty for expressing my feelings so deeply, so embarrassingly. The year I graduated, I threw every single journal I filled into my apartment complex’s shared dumpster.
When we spoke, Alana Massey rejected the term I used to describe that feeling: confessional. Because to confess, she explained, means you have something to apologize for — and she had a very good point. Just because you inject yourself into your creative body of work, doesn’t mean you need to apologize, ever. In All the Lives I Want, Massey pushes back against the notion that a writer, especially a woman writer, should create a veil between herself and her creative work. Massey writes:
“Telling people not to do as Sylvia Plath did is universally understood as a good-natured suggestion that a writer not put too much of herself into her creations —lest she accidentally writes about something as ordinary as being a woman.”
As women and as writers, we are warned against being too earnest, or over-sharing — nevermind that to write in the first person, to pour yourself into your work can be a way of creating your own narrative and agency.
All the Lives I Want also examines the way so many iconic women are whittled down to just one-dimensional beings, their narratives closely monitored. Using examples like Amber Rose (who is often reduced to just a stripper instead of identified as an entrepreneur, a mother, an activist, and yes, a stripper), or Britney Spears (hot teen pop star turned hot mess — not a successful entertainer and involved parent), Massey makes the crushing point that our culture so often assigns these famous women one role and one role only. And when this happens, we are distracted from the real work these women do, and their creative genius.
While the crux of Massey’s debut is about the female identity under attack, it’s also an intimate story of her own womanhood. Massey’s analysis of famous women’s experiences runs parallel to her own struggles; she writes about her eating disorders, her relationships, her mental health, dismantling our culture’s fear of TMI as well as the various stigmas each of these topics unfortunately still carry.
And who is Alana Massey exactly? She’s a prolific writer for the internet (you’ve maybe read her work in The Atlantic, or Buzzfeed). She tweets GIFs of Cheburashka, a Russian cartoon made popular in the ’60s. She went to Yale Divinity School. She is all of those things and then some. Wanting to know more about the thought process behind All the Lives I Want, I called her on a Thursday morning, and we talked it out.
HelloGiggles: So, women in particular are told they shouldn’t be so “confessional” and put so much of themselves in their creative or professional work. Why?
Alana Massey: There’s this overwhelming caution lobbed at women about, like, don’t write in the first person and it’s sort of this very paternalistic, “you’ll ruin your life!” And I both reject the notion that it’s life ruining and I reject the word “confessional” because confession is where you go when you’ve done something wrong and need absolution. And reporting that you’ve had an experience in your life, and it has moved you, and declaring it publicly is a statement of I’m alive and I matter, not I did something wrong. But we consider all women who put themselves publicly, who create a public version of themselves as doing something wrong, and I think that’s a really gross and boring double standard. What was [Johann Wolfgang von] Goethe doing, if not gazing at his navel? What was [Karl Ove] Knausgaard doing, if not talking about breakfast in Norway for about 600 pages? And these guys were not like, “Are we sure Karl feels comfortable, like, it might ruin his life,” but we consider the female experience un-extraordinary and less punctuated by major events, catastrophes, traumas, interesting things and being in love with men or validated by a man. I don’t think that’s what’s most interesting to read about, learn about; it doesn’t speak to me in a way that is as life-giving as knowing there’s a personal element when I do want to be reading something that is about a person and their lived reality.
HG: It’s frustrating how the media/entertainment industry so frequently pits women against each other, but we so rarely see it with men. In your book, you use Nicki Minaj and Lil’ Kim as examples of this, and it’s true that the media tends to pit women of color against each other, which is doubly frustrating and gross. What do you think is the endgame? What does the industry get out of it?
AM: When women are pitted against each other, I think in so many cases, it’s not necessary intentional —but it’s rooted in the belief and sort of double speak of what is most interesting about women, and it’s their relationships and the way they live in the world, and their temperaments, and their personalities, and what they’re wearing. It’s not their creativity, their genius, or their body of work. I think that it is partly maybe subconsciously, maybe actively in order to start a scene, to create optics that are highly consumable. Because a fight diminishes the fact that these are brilliant people creating something for the world, because it doesn’t occur to a lot of these writers and radio hosts, even to the public at large, that maybe the coolest thing people ever did was the art they made. I don’t even know if there is an endgame because I don’t know if it’s intentional as much as it’s just an insidious part of the fabric of our culture.
In the case of Lil’ Kim, [she’s portrayed as] drama queen, above rapper, above poet, above woman, above all of these things. And those one dimensional characteristics are about creating a legend, and I think these women deserve a legacy.
HG: Why do you think we become so emotionally invested in celebrities?
AM: Because the stories we hear about celebrities are transmitted in a way that gossip between peers is not transmitted, it’s transmitted in a way that is so much more distilled and so much more …Well, here’s this archetype of a woman, and here is what she does; Angelina Jolie is this character, and Jennifer Aniston is that character. The simplicity of that is very dangerous in a lot of ways. And then to have these experiences in daily life where they are being asked to play to a single identifying characteristic, to be defined by a single event, to become this one thing because they’re not allowed to be multiple things. And it’s easy to see that happen to someone and both empathize and be outraged. And also there’s this sort of optical element of, even though these women are being treated poorly, though some had tragic ends, a lot of them are still alive and refuse to succumb to this narrative, and a lot of them are successful, and I think there’s something to that. Like there’s that meme, “if Britney spears can survive 2007, we can survive this election.” I think there’s this element of…these comeback narratives to it, too — that are hopeful. Like, if she did that, and went through that, I can go to work and I can date again, I can pursue this thing, because in this outsized, big, glossy, terrifying world of celebrities and media, [these female celebrities] still got up and did it all.
HG: I know you probably didn’t have total control over when the book was released, but it’s worth noting that a book largely about how our culture treats women and the expectations we have of them feels more relevant than ever, given that our President is a misogynist. Has the timing changed anything for you at all?
AM: The timing has changed a lot for me in the sense that I go back and forth from feeling guilty that I’m promoting a book when we’re in a national crisis and there are other things that should be front and center in people’s lives. And you know, I don’t want to be like “buy my book!” when I really should be like, “no, give all your money to the international refugee crisis” and there’s something sort of uncomfortable about it coming out in its context because I also feel slimy saying that it’s relevant when it’s about celebrities and it has gold glitter on the front. Because everything feels frivolous. But then I go back because I also say if we were only consuming Trump-related, national catastrophe after national catastrophe, we would burn out really quickly. We would become less interesting by not participating in culture. Because sometimes I just want to do something, I want to read something else, I want to be in a different world, I want to use a different part of my brain and flex a different part of my creative memory, and so I hope it can do that.
It can. And it will. All the Lives I Want: Essays About my Best Friends who Happen to be Famous Strangers is out today and you can buy it here.