Every once in a while, a book comes along that helps me see and understand myself in a way I never quite have before. That’s exactly what happened when I read Dessa’s new collection of essays, My Own Devices: True Stories from the Road on Music, Science, and Senseless Love.
If you don’t already know Dessa from the Minneapolis-based indie hip-hop collective Doomtree, her solo career as a rapper, or her track on The Hamilton Mixtape, you’ll instantly fall in love with her beautiful, scientific brain. My Own Devices offers a fascinating look inside her mind. Dessa questions how love works, explores what makes her human, and ponders ways to maximize agency and free will. She opens up so fully and honestly about heartache—not heartbreak, but heartache—that you’ll wonder if you accidentally picked up a copy of her private journal instead of her book.
But what hit me the hardest were her remarks on sadness and blueness. Dessa describes herself as “naturally melancholic” and assures you that sometimes it’s okay to want to feel other feelings more than you want to feel happiness. She understands the importance of processing sadness and is quick to remind us that experiencing it doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong—a powerful notion I wish we heard more often.
I spoke with Dessa about her path from writing lyrics to writing prose, the vulnerability that comes with opening up so deeply, and how she enlisted a team of neuroscientists to help her fall out of love with her ex-boyfriend. (Yes, really. She also once wrote a letter to Geico in hopes of insuring her heartache as a professional asset.) Prepare to feel feelings.
HelloGiggles: What was the road to writing My Own Devices?
Dessa: The cart was well before the horse in that I had wanted to be a writer, and I loved creating nonfiction, since I took my first course in it at the University of Minnesota as a late teenager, 19 or 20. My aspiration had been to become a writer, and having graduated, I wasn’t exactly sure how to materialize that objective. I sent a lot of unsolicited submissions to literary magazines and realized that probably wasn’t going to pay rent. [Laughs.] I entered music rather circuitously through the world of slam [poetry]. After I wasn’t really finding a path into the publishing world, a friend of mine recommended that I compete at a poetry slam, which is essentially competitive spoken word. It was there that I connected with members of the hip-hop community in Minneapolis, who said, “You should try doing that, but over music.” That was my entrance into hip-hop performance. I had wanted the book before I’d wanted the rap career. For the most part, I’ve been writing, not always with an impressive output of material necessarily, but I’ve always been writing on the side throughout my musical career. Writing was always happening on a parallel track.
HG: Your songs are filled with dramatic metaphor, but the book gives you more real estate for prose than a three-minute song does. How was writing My Own Devices different from writing lyrics or poems?
D: You used the term “real estate.” Part of it does have to do with the quantity of ink—how many ounces you’re allotted, essentially, in the course of a three-and-a-half-minute song vs. a couple hundred pages of prose. But I think also, you’re reporting to different masters; your objectives are different on the stage and on the page. In writing lyrics, you want to make sure that you’re penning performable phrases. You care about the sonic quality of the words, and even more than that, the percussive quality of the words. And you want to make sure that you avoid homonyms that can be confusing, because you know if you deliver them—you’re working in primarily auditory form—that those can be an impediment to understanding for listeners. Whereas you’re never reading your own book in a timed speed trial. For rap, being able to deliver a given line is an important concern.
I think the book and a lot of my songs investigate the same questions. There’s a layer of figurative language that provides a veil of privacy in songs, whereas that would get tiresome, I think, for a full-length book. In three and a half minutes, your task is to create a feeling and present phrases that are both emotionally impactful and clever enough to gain purchase in a new listener’s mind. A book is a really different endeavor. Part of it is just temporal. To listen to an entire album, while it may take a year to make, takes about 40 minutes. But to read a book takes hours. You’re asking a different thing of a reader, so you provide something that’s commensurate to the ask that you’re making.
HG: Was it nerve wracking to put your emotions on full display?
D: Yes. Yes. The answer to that is yes. A lot of my songs run on what I hope are very well crafted metaphors, but they’re still metaphors. So you don’t have to divulge the affidavit of an experience; you’re creating an impression of a feeling. In a book, there’s room and good reason to include the details of an emotional experience, which means a greater degree of vulnerability. It’s sort of like having sex under fluorescent lights. [Laughs.] There’s just not a lot you’re gonna get away with and still have an honest experience.
HG: My Own Devices dives into some of your personal relationships, including family members and your ex-boyfriend, who you call “X.” Have any of them read it yet?
D: Before I published it, I sent essays that I thought might be tender to anybody who I talked about. My dad was one of the dudes who was like, “I’m not gonna read it. I think you should write the truth even if it makes you look uncomfortable. It’s your book to write.” And my brother was like, “I would rather have you write a true story than one where I look cool.” I sent the ones that mention my ex to him, and I was like, “Hey, if anything is factually incorrect, or if you remember anything differently, or if there’s anything that’s going to be horrible to have in print, will you holler at me?”
I’m lucky, because the two men I’ve dated as a grownup—one of them I mention briefly in the book, but we’ve been together for four years—are also musicians. They’ve written songs about me, and I’ve written songs about them. It’s not quid pro quo, but in some way, I think all of us are interested in good art, even if it was someone else’s, and even if it meant forfeiting some of our own privacy.
HG: Let’s talk about X. You enlisted the help of professionals for a very elaborate brain experiment and brain training to help you fall out of love with him.
D: I was drawn to this idea about mapping and essentially trying to eradicate the romantic love in my own brain by a lot of forces. I was in the throes of a really protractive breakup, and I couldn’t seem to recover at the rate at which the people around me were recuperating from heartbreak. I didn’t know why it was taking so long and why I couldn’t get over it, and I found that painful and embarrassing and a tax on my other relationships. I’m singing this one song, both literally and figuratively, to all my friends all the time about being blue. And that sucks. So I was drawn to the idea that one might be able to change the way that their brain is functioning in an effort to speed a healthy, emotional recovery. That was fascinating to me, because I very much wanted a healthy, emotional recovery.
Also, I’m a science geek, and I was blown away by the idea that there might be a physical locus for romantic love in the brain that was differentiated from platonic love or a mother’s love. I was surprised by that and my curiosity was aroused. And also, I’m making my living as a musician and a writer, so I’m naturally attracted to unusual experiences and the effort of investigating them artistically, too. All three things—art, science, and a broken heart—coalesced in this one potential endeavor.
HG: Now that more time has passed, do you think it worked? Did it make a difference?
D: It did make a difference. I don’t want to overstate it; it’s not like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. When I see this dude, I’m not like, “I’m sorry, who are you?” But it did help. I did feel like I was in the throes of a relentless fixation. I wasn’t totally feeling like I was at the helm of my own thoughts. Although I can still be sad and have a pang of pain or loss, or contemplate past failed relationships, I don’t feel like I’ve got my fingers in the socket and like I’m being electrocuted by sadness. It’s not all-consuming, and it did feel all-consuming for a while.
HG: You talk about sadness so beautifully that it almost makes it not sad. Something that really resonated with me was that feeling blue doesn’t necessarily mean you’re doing something wrong.
D: I was really slow to consider that. It took right up until writing that; it just hadn’t occurred to me. I thought it was an indictment of me somehow—I was fucking up if I was sad. Like a lot of people, I’ve read, at least in passing, some of the current thinking on mood and sadness. I was actually just emailing with my childhood best friend today, and she was talking about the fact that some recent research does imply that disposition is considerably genetically determined, like your height or your blood type. The best way to be reliably happy is to be born with a genetic predisposition to happiness. [Laughs.]
I don’t want to force the metaphor, but you know how there’s this one look that a woman’s supposed to have in any given American era? We all sort of bend ourselves out of shape trying to meet that model. I wonder if, in some ways, it’s corollary to mood. I’m supposed to be buoyant and Instagrammable, and if I’m not, then I’m gonna take another hot yoga class or whatever the fuck it is that people do to try and feel happy and centered instead of saying, “Oh, this is just how I’m built. If it’s totally impeding my life, then I ought to figure it out. But if it’s just how I’m built, then maybe I should just try to build where I am.”
HG: I like that you embrace sadness. It would be inauthentic to recall memories of past relationships and pretend like they were amazing all the time.
D: I don’t know if that’s universal or not, but I think it’s almost universal that a lot of us, at some point if we’re really pushed to the wall, would prioritize a couple of things over happiness. Ours or other people’s. It’s like that Matrix thought experiment: Would you want to be happy at the expense of understanding your own lie? Would you want to be happy if you were living a lie? Would you want to be happy if you were really just a brain in a vat? No. I think you’d want to unplug and run around with Neo.
HG: “Congratulations,” your track on The Hamilton Mixtape, hits even more deeply now that I’ve learned more about your relationship history. Did Lin-Manual Miranda know any of this when he asked you to do it?
D: No. [Laughs.] I sent him the book, so if he’s had a chance to read it, he probably does now.
HG: At 5 a.m. you’ll be tagged in a long tweet about seizing the day.
D: [Laughs.] Oh, yeah totally!…Oh, god.
HG: You had a lot of big questions going into the book: How free is free will? How does love work? Is it always good? Do you feel like you have some answers now?
D: I think that I’ve got better lenses. I know that some writers really derive a therapeutic value from the articulation of their struggles, worries, and conflicts. I don’t know that I do. But I do derive, I think, an intellectual clarity. When I have to sit down and write something out—a philosophical question that’s been nagging at me, or a moral question that I’m struggling with in my own life—I think being tasked with the job of writing it in plain, clear language helps me better understand my own questions, even if I don’t arrive at perfect answers. I understand the field before me. But some of those questions to which I feel I’m attracted, you don’t answer definitively for your whole life. Love is not always, as I’ve experienced it, and as I’ve talked to a lot of people—I don’t think it is always good.
HG: I agree with that.
D: It’s funny how many people don’t. Most everybody thinks love is always good, but I don’t think so. I just finished reading Trevor Noah’s book. In other cultures—we’re a minority in almost every way, the way we live our lives in the U.S.—love looks really different the way that it’s behaved around the world. And love is often coupled inextricably with a lot of less praise-worthy feelings and practices.
HG: How do you deal on days when it’s hard to make art or bring your vision to life?
D: I think the hurdles are different on different days. Sometimes, it’s just that I can’t seem to figure out what the puzzle picture is supposed to be. I’ve got all these pieces and they seem meritorious considered individually, but I’m not sure how the fuck to put them together. So that’s a hurdle internally—a lack of vision.
On the days when I feel like I’ve done something wonderful and I don’t know how to get it out there, I admit that sometimes I vacillate. I know some people don’t read any comments, and they don’t care what the marketplace thinks, and I admit that I’m not that. I do care about reaching people. My opinion matters more than those of my friends, and way more than those of people I’ve never met, because I don’t know what their tastes are, and I have no idea how to calibrate their tastes to my vision. But it does matter to me if it’s not resonating with an audience. Sometimes, if my work isn’t resonating, I get frustrated and wish that I had the budget to do an extraordinary marketing campaign. Sometimes, if my work isn’t resonating, I’ll second-guess the work.
HG: What is the most useful career advice you’ve ever gotten?
D: I think it’s changed a lot over the years. When I was starting, my dad said, “Keep your overhead low.” I think that was one of the pieces of advice that best shaped my early career. I didn’t have to spend as many hours working to finance my life, because my life was really inexpensive. That means that there’s a lot of time to hang out with artists and try to get better at what you do. I was hanging out with the editor of Rain Taxi once, drinking after a show, and he said, “The hardest thing to be is yourself.” And at that point in my career, I thought, “Shit, yeah.”
I have a sign in my apartment right now that asks, “Is that what you really think?” We fall into habits of mind that, unless we really take inventory, we might not realize are outmoded. I realized two years ago that I was buying more clothes that were green. And I was like, “Wait a minute, I’ve never liked green. Maybe I should check what my favorite color is. Maybe it’s fucking changed and I just said red all the time, because that’s always been true. Do I like green more now?” That’s a fundamental truth of yourself. Unless you check, you might have incrementally changed in a way that would surprise you—how far you’ve drifted or evolved since the last time you actually took an appraisal of yourself.
More than that, how many assumptions do I take on face? Even things I know I believe, like climate change. I realized I should fucking know what studies I’m sourcing instead of just saying, “There’s a scientific consensus.” If someone said, “What the fuck are you talking about?” I do not have a good answer. Make sure I have a good answer. On what grounds are your beliefs founded? I think it’s surprising how many of our fundamental beliefs are not grounded on anything. I remember reading some book about how the biggest things you know about yourself—your name, your birthday—are total heresy. Check. I like that.
HG: What’s your favorite book that you’ve read recently?
D: I like Gulp by Mary Roach. I’m still sort of deciding what my final review of it is, but I really liked reading the short novel Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter, because it’s such a different way of using language than I know how to use language, and it made me want to figure out how to work in that lane a little bit. Oh, and one more: Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain. Aw, man.
My Own Devices is now available wherever books are sold.