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Wednesday, November 13, 2013

46

Writing, Depression and Learning How to Handle Attention: A Conversation with Allie Brosh

Hyperbole and a Half blogger Allie Brosh, who pairs her true-life stories with evocative drawings to inspire laughter and tears and sometimes both, has a book out. In it, she shares hilarious stories from childhood, recounts her recent struggle with depression, explores the search for meaningful identity, and contemplates the psyches of her two dogs. Like her blog, her book is titled Hyperbole and a Half, and like her blog, it is great. I spoke to Allie about what it's been like to find herself a role model for others suffering depression, how she feels about the internet, and what she really hopes people will notice in her book.

Jen: How are you, and how's your tour going? You're everywhere!

Allie: I'm good. It's been constant! Book signings have lasted up to 7 hours, sometimes.

You're a writer with a tremendous internet following. What do you think about the internet as a place of support?

One problem with the internet is it sort of takes away your empathy; you can have less of a connection with people online. But with my readers, I'm talking about things that are more personal, and I started out with this small group of tightly knit readers. There's more empathy and more respect. So, I feel pretty good about the internet. Every once in a while you get weirdos, but you get those people in real life, too.

When did your site really take off?

I started in July 2009, and the blog took off in late March of 2010. I had been working away in obscurity for 8 or 10 months, and someone submitted one of my posts to Reddit. It just blew up from there. My stat counter went from 700 page views — and I'd built that for months and months — to 300,000. It's been a nice, organic thing. My fans helped me get there.

Do you remember which post that was?

It was either the "ALOT" post or the one with the pain faces, the pain scale.

And now you have a book out. Not to sound like a creepy newscaster, but how does it all feel?

It's so relieving. I could have ended up in a job I didn't like. This is fulfilling for me, and I'm really happy. I'm glad that it turned out this way. There were some growing pains, like having to adjust to criticism, and learning how to handle attention.

It's really weird. Clearly I want attention, but you're not supposed to want attention. I wasn't comfortable with this; it felt narcissistic for a long time. But also, if I write about myself, I can insult myself [and not other people]; it's one thing you can know that's true and correct. I also have more insight into my own psychology. But it has this unfortunate side effect of making me feel narcissistic, and my identity doesn't like that, it says I shouldn't want attention.

Reconciling that took a long time. The last two chapters in the book are really tied in with my identity and the discomfort that comes with coming face-to-face with your deep-down desires.

It’s like the question of whether you can truly be altruistic without also being self-interested.

There's no such thing as a selfless act, right? My self-image is so ambitious, I want to feel good about myself, and I want to generally be good, and thought of that way. I don't know if I've ever come to terms with it. That part that is selfish and weird and greedy is part of me, and that's always going to be a part of me, no matter how much I try to cover it up. It's like watching my dogs misbehave, it's like, "Oh you, you're doing that again." I live with these parts of myself and I don't think I can change them, but I can find loopholes to try to circumvent them. When you're aware of those things, you can more consciously control them, and make sure you're not being shitty all the time.

How does this play into how you’ve become, really, a role model for a lot of people in writing about your own depression?

I sometimes think about that to try to comfort myself for the narcissistic feelings; I'm like, I've done these things! But that's still the shitty part of me saying that. I don't know if I can fairly enjoy it without the shitty part reeling its head.

For the most part, my intentions were to make people laugh. I can't take too much credit for helping. That's a byproduct. I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing. I try to be responsible; I don't want to say anything that's going to harm anyone, and I try to be conscious and conscientious about the things I've seen.

It’s funny, I feel like writers who don't write about themselves rarely have to defend themselves against narcissism in this way because they’re "making art." But you’re making art, too! Do you think of it as art?

I suppose you can define it that way. I get a hard time from people who say, "Your drawings are so simplistic, a 5-year-old could do that." But I put a lot of time into it. The tiniest change in a pupil size can make a huge difference. I spend a lot of time capturing these weird intangible things I have a sense of, but don’t really know until I see them.

How long did the book take?

It took more than two years.

What about something like — I love the birthday cake story — how long did that take?

That didn't take quite as long. I hadn't figured out how to perfect the facial expressions for the first one, and I redid the art for the book. I was working off material I'd already created, but it took days of working 14 hours, straight through. That's how the last two months of writing that book were. Shut up in my room, for two months. I would wake up, make myself coffee, write all day until I was too tired, and sometimes I'd go for a walk or run with my husband, but we'd be talking about the book. Deep down I had a whole lot of doubts that I'd be able to finish. I've had ADHD my whole life, and I get really enthusiastic about something, and then it trails off. I was so scared I'd squander this opportunity, especially since the depression hit in the middle of trying to write that book.

How did you cope when that happened?

I was fortunate to have a really a supportive editor and agent. This was during the worst part of my depression, and I was feeling suicidal. I said, "I think we need to put this on hold," and they understood. I was afraid they'd say, "We can't do this project." But they gave me time to work through it. The book was put off for at least a year, and it was really important I had that time.

Was the depression you faced then your first major bout with it?

I haven't always had depression. I talked to a few of my friends who knew me when I was in high school, and it was sort of this tragic/hilarious thing to explain to them. They were like, "But you were so happy," and I'd be like, "That person's dead, I'm sorry."

I’m at a good spot now. I'm still depressed, and it comes and goes, but I used to be very anxious, but now I'm not. Now, for me, 20% depressed is like perfect. I'm not anxious but I'm not mopey and numb, I'm just chilled out. I care just enough to be connected to life. I have to keep an eye out and notice the signs when things are taking a wrong turn. There's not much I can do, but I can try to offset it. So far it hasn't gotten back to that point.

Does writing help?

Oh, yeah. It always helps to understand what's happening, and to be able to understand your enemy. It helps you cope and helps you panic less. Now that I know what depression looks like and I know what the general steps are, there's also a progression I can look at and feel comforted by. I can feel horrible, but I know what's happening, which takes the fear out of it. You also have that little bit of, "Well, this ended before, maybe it will also end this time."

But being depressed is still one of the most terrifying things I can imagine. After I saw the movie The Matrix, it was terrifying to imagine waking up from reality and being in this blank room and having nothing to entertain me. That's sort of what my depression was like, living my worst nightmare of being in this room alone, and complete boredom.

I saw you did a Reddit AMA and people were asking for advice to help depressed friends. Can you share your thoughts on that?

It's tough because with depression, there’s no root cause. There's nothing anyone can do that flips the switch and makes you better, but you don't want to watch someone suffer, and it's really hard to deal with that helplessness. You're in this weird situation of trying to help someone who can't be helped without time or medication; you can't logic your way through it. The best thing is to be there for them. Let know it’s O.K. if they’re not enthusiastic about the story you’re telling. When I'm depressed, I become worried people think I'm bored or don’t like them. If I'm not reacting on that level, maybe that's me being depressed.

And also, treat them normally. Don't let the depression define the relationship. You can ask them if they want to talk about it. It's helpful sometimes to let them explain, and just listen and try to meet them there. The way I explained depression to my husband was that it's like being trapped in outer space, and no one knows you're out there, you're floating all by yourself. If you explain it to someone else, they can’t get you back from outer space, but at least someone knows you're there. That little bit of comfort means a lot. I think the most important thing is to treat the depressed person sort of the same. Once people find out you're depressed they feel reluctant to experience happiness around you, but for me, it was important to feel that life was progressing as usual.

Your husband, Duncan, shows up in your posts sometimes. How do you decide whether to include him, and what was happening with him as you wrote the book and dealt with your depression?

I chose not to include too many details about Duncan in the piece about depression. He was around but I chose to write it that way because of how isolating it felt. He was sort of depressed at the time, too, though not in the same way I was; we were both going through some rough stuff. We were quite the pair. That was when we invented "fat nachos," potato chips with all the cheese we could scrounge up on them.

We've been together 9 years, and we're really comfortable with each other. He wouldn't judge me even if I was wearing the same sweatshirt for the 9th day in a row. And especially as I came out of the worst of it, it was helpful to have him there and have him laugh.

So many people feel they know you, because of your blog and now your book. What's that like?

It's funny now that I've made friends who knew about my blog before they knew me. This is the most pungent side effect: I'll be telling a friend a story and they'll be like, "I know." I don't have new stories to tell my friends if they've read my blog!

Do you feel like you owe anything to the internet community that got you started?

This has been the hardest thing. I hate getting gifts because I don't like the feeling of owing people or not showing enough gratitude. I feel this moral responsibility to give as much as I get. But I don't feel like I can do that with the people who comment on my posts; I can't give them the level of interaction that they deserve, and that drives me nuts, not being able to listen as well as I can to all the people who want to interact. I don't want anyone to feel I'm not respecting them as a person. But there is no way to respond to every comment. I hope they understand, I still love them. I try to sign books and draw pictures for everyone and take enough time when people come to signings.

Speaking of new stories, will there be another book?

I would like to write another book. I've started working on it already. I think it will be a similar format, more new material, similar stories. I also want to keep posting blog posts.

What do you read?

I don't read other people's stuff while I write because I'm afraid I'll subconsciously start writing like them, so I'm excited to have a break so I can read again. I'm re-reading all the Douglas Adams Hitchhikers books, and then after that, David Foster Wallace, maybe Infinite Jest. I'll probably be writing after that, so it will be a short reading break. I also read a lot of articles, mostly online through Reddit, especially TrueReddit. The content is really great.

What else do people need to know about your book?

There are a bunch of little things I included that I hope someone notices that would make me super-happy if they did notice. I can't expose them all!

How about just one? A clue?

The character Eric, who is my psychological gate-keeper guy, I put a Livestrong bracelet on him. I used to wear those bracelets, and I felt really smug and good because I was helping to fight cancer. But all I did was pay $1.50, and got this thing to show my identity, to prove I helped.

If even one person notices those little details, I will feel so happy.

Do you have any favorite moments in the book?

My favorite image is the "Fuck the system" image in Identity Part One, when I'm running away after taking the popsicles. I think that image is entirely me, at my core. I very rarely will have a face in my head as I'm trying to draw and be able to get it exactly how I want it, and it's so close. It's my favorite image I've ever drawn.

There's also a line I wrote in Motivation, and for a similar reason. Often I don't feel I'm very close to the sense of what I'm trying to say, and this was what I was going for. I came up with this line when I was on a run and I had to keep repeating it to myself until I got home and could write it in my notebook, about how the future "is just this magical place where I can put my responsibilities so I don't have to be scared while hurtling toward failure at 800 miles per hour." That's really how I treat the future. I store everything so I can continue living in the moment.

Jen Doll is a regular contributor to The Hairpin.



46 Comments / Post A Comment

I'm Right on Top of that, Rose

OOOOH Allie Brosh. I just got my copy of this book in the mail and read it in one very happy sitting on a Saturday. It's so good. So so good. And so funny. I laughed out loud a lot.

packedsuitcase

@I'm Right on Top of that, Rose It's at the top of my Christmas list. And also the only thing on the whol damn list whose sole purpose isn't to keep me warm.

1960473698@twitter

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packedsuitcase

ALLIE BROSH!

This line stuck out to me: This has been the hardest thing. I hate getting gifts because I don't like the feeling of owing people or not showing enough gratitude. I feel this moral responsibility to give as much as I get.

But the thing is, people are responding *because* you're giving them something, and commenting to show you that you've affected them. You started this interaction, you brought all of this into the world, they're recognizing it. I mean, seriously, my life would not be nearly as entertaining without the ALOT, and reading message boards would be much, much more challenging without it.

mochi

@packedsuitcase yes!

ru_ri

AAAAAAAAAAH! *muppet arms*
Interview with Allie Brosh has officially Made My Day. Thank you, I needed this.

likearollingpin

Did you guys listen to Allie's spot on Fresh Air yesterday? Am I the only one who thought Terry Gross was being really pushy and invasive? "Did you have a plan? How did you want to kill yourself?" Cripes, that made me uncomfy. This interview was much more enjoyable/informative/interesting. Well played, Jen Doll.

drunkennoodle

@likearollingpin Ugh, I was like TERRY! STOP! and then I got all weird and choked up when Allie did.

themegnapkin

@likearollingpin Terry Gross is a terrible interviewer, I can only listen to her when I'm so interested in her guest that it overrides my loathing of her interviewing style.

Better to Eat You With

@likearollingpin Terry Gross is always like that. She drives me insane. Our household favorite was when she interviewed Anna Pacquin and asked her about 12 times whether, when she was in The Piano as a little girl, she got to see Harvey Keitel's cock.

Anna Weber@facebook

@likearollingpin I AM deeply delighted to find this cohort of fellow Terry Gross haters. She makes me so uncomfortable on behalf of all of her interviewees but all my intellectudork friends worship at her feet.

LMac

@likearollingpin Ugh, that was so uncomfy! Right up there with the time she asked Elizabeth Smart if her kidnapper/rapist had terrible breath.

likearollingpin

@LMac Another one of my favorite Terry Gross WTF moments was when she was interviewing Lena Dunham and she said (totally paraphrasing here), "So you have tattoos of pictures from children's books. Aren't they weird to look at when you're having sex?" Even if I were armed with tons of media training by a publicist, I would not know how to tactfully answer an awkward interview question like that.

shantasybaby

@LMac See, I liked that...both the Elizabeth Smart interview and this one, I mean, it's the interviewer's job to push someone to give unique insight and well within the interviewee to refuse to answer so I like that she isn't afraid to "go there."

themegnapkin

@shantasybaby I had less of a problem with the Elizabeth Smart question, maybe because she's had more time to process what happened and it's over, while Allie is still depressed. But in both cases, I don't see what those questions added. Especially for Allie, isn't it enough to know that she had thought out how to commit suicide while causing the least pain to her family, without pressing her to explain the detailed mechanics? What does it add to know exactly what method she was considering?

Talix18

@likearollingpin Yesterday I asked (on Tumblr) if I was the only person who disliked Terry Gross (more specifically, her interview style) and got little to no response. Thank you for letting me know I'm not alone on this mountain.

PomPom

@Anna Weber@facebook I also cannot stand Terry Gross!! She is officially The Worst. A few of her stand-out terrible interview questions: when she was interviewing Melissa Leo a few months before Leo was nominated for her Oscar, TG asked her NUMEROUS TIMES questions that were: "In [such-and-such film] you worked with [so-and-so male costar] -- what was that like?" Over and over again she asked these questions, as though the only possibly interesting thing this very accomplished actress could talk about is what her experiences with dudes were like. Gah! Another quintessential Terry Gross moment of terribleness: she was interviewing the delightful, terrifically talented cartoonist / illustrator Christoph Niemann, who had just published a children's book, and TG idiotically asks, "What is it about animals that kids like so much?" ...Huh? Great, incisive question there Terry.

WorldofSass

@likearollingpin I love Terry, so I'll just say that upfront. But I really don't get why people think that "plan" question was so terrible. It didn't happen out of nowhere: Allie wrote, at length, about her depression on her blog and in her book; her book got published; Terry asked her about one of the topics in her book; Allie answered in detail and mentioned her mom asking her about a "plan"; Terry asked Allie if she did indeed have a plan. If you're a writer and you put certain material in your book, which you've taken two years to write and have seen go through rounds and rounds of edits, you're not going to feel ambushed when someone asks you something about the content of your book.

Elizabeth Smart laughed when Terry asked her the bad-breath question. It was charming. Listeners seem to project their own fears and discomfort with the subject matter onto the person who actually lived through them. Smart has been matter-of-fact and forthcoming about the details of her captivity; she wants to help destigmatize rape. So a question about her rapist's bad breath is a guileless piece of dark humor that Smart seemed to get a kick out of.

That said, the only time I got really uncomfortable from a Terry Gross interview was when she kept asking Jay-Z whether he'd really dealt drugs when he was working the streets. She came back to it several times. It was kinda racist.

Mavis

@likearollingpin I'm sort of on the fence about Terry Gross, I don't listen to her show enough to form a strong opinion. But I love Allie and Hyperbole and a Half so I made a point to listen. I thought Terry went too far. Allie did bring up the plan, and she was not out of line to ask her about the plan, but she just KEPT GOING ON about it. It felt ghoulish. She asked the follow up, 'what was the plan' question. She didn't have to ask for minute details about where and when and how and if she thought it would be painful. Allie even said her husband didn't know that level of detail. And sure, she could have refused to answer, but it sounded like she was extremely uncomfortable and maybe wasn't sure how to just refuse.

Mira

ALLIE BROSH. I'm so excited for her book! And I really enjoyed this interview. Her posts about depression are still the best explanation of what it's like that I've ever seen, and I'm really glad she's feeling better now.

paper bag princess

I love Allie Brosh and Hyperbole and a Half so, so, so much. I got the book and it is obviously amazing but WHERE IS THE ALOT.

packedsuitcase

Totally off topic, but I keep getting the "Combat Bounce" sports bra ad on this page, and it's lined up perfectly with the eyes in Allie's drawing, so it's like she's staring at these weird disembodied boobs and smiling to herself.

kellyography

YES! I love Allie and Hyperbole and a Half! I cannot wait to get her book, and would have loved to meet her; she seems great. I missed her on both coasts because I had the misfortune of traveling in the opposite direction of her signings. Booooo. Moar Allie!

katiemcgillicuddy

about how the future "is just this magical place where I can put my responsibilities so I don't have to be scared while hurtling toward failure at 800 miles per hour."

Love this woman, can't say it enough.

AbbyHasIssues.com

As someone from rock bottom looking up from the depths of depression who also writes a humor blog, I can say that Allie is one of the only famous women on the Internet that I honestly say I relate to 98 percent of the time. Her book is hilarious, but I also know the pain behind the laughter.

I wish her nothing but success and happiness and the fact that she's been so gracious with interviews says so much about her character. She deserves all the fame that she has.

Queen of Pickles

I was having a terrible day today and went to the Strand for my lunch break. They didn't have the Les Mis book I wanted, but at the information desk I saw Allie's book - which I'd known about - on display. The display copy had been snagged by another person, so I took the one under it. :)

There's this secret team of worthwhile people out there. Allie Brosh is on the team, I try to be on it, and a lot of people I know are on it. This team of people makes you feel saner and heard, just by being themselves and explaining their experience of things. It's not about being perfect at all - being impatient or sad or whatever is ok. It's just, somehow, the people on this team restore balance to the world and help things make sense - even if things don't always make sense to them.

It's a secret team because you don't know who's on it until you do - like the Allied spies in WWII. They're among us, being awesome, sometimes in private. And sometimes when things are hard and you're isolated, you wonder if you're still on the team, or if your transmissions are getting through. AND THEN you get a broadcast from another secret team member, or see a sign... and this book is like a big sign that the secret team still exists.

And so when I saw the book, I was like, "YES! Secret team member book, all right," and it is on my work desk now.

Spaghettius!

@Queen of Pickles Thanks for putting into words the vague happy feeling I get when I encounter a person or work that *feels* like it's on my wavelength. Secret Team FTW!

pinchweasel

Bought mine the day after it came out! Not only was I excited to get it, I was just so thrilled it actually DID come out! If I remember correctly, it was supposed to come out in 2012, and when it didn't, I knew the depression was responsible, and I started to worry; not just for Allie's health, but also for the potential loss of such a great future. If depression robbed her of making a living off of something SO awesome & fun, that would have been BEYOND heartbreaking.

Anyhoodle, from one mental illness sufferer to another, and from one huge fan, THANK YOU FOR THIS BOOK, ALLIE. :)

Pochine

Years ago, a friend of mine sent me a link to a blog. She said when she was reading it, she imagined the pink dress triangle hair girl to be speaking in my voice. I read the blog and archives in one day and fell in love. Her stick figures speak to my soul and also bring up childhood memories that would have otherwise been forgotten. After the depression posts, I can't see a piece of shriveled up corn on the floor without smiling. Once I read that post, it's actually incredible how much shriveled corn (and peas and god knows what else) I find on my floor now. Maybe I'm subconsciously putting it there? I'm a fan for life.

kimkrypto

I love everything she writes, pretty much. "The God of Cake" is still my favorite thing on the internet to make people read. So I've been nursing this level of admiration for her, just like everyone else. Then I read her Reddit AMA and OMG she plays Magic: The Gathering! And she's really good at it. That basically made my feelings about her change into rock-solid adoration. I find it really tough to be a woman of color trying to learn Magic and get out in the world and play, and it's so nice to learn about any woman who's doing it, and doing it well.

adorable-eggplant

@kimkrypto Yay! I hadn't read that. Super cool!

TARDIStime

ALLIE!!! The ALOT alone is the greatest gift - you never have to respond to anything I ever send you, not even this comment, because you have already given me that.
And as someone who has a parent with depression (undiagnosed, but I can totally tell that's what it is) I really appreciate your candid discussion of the topic, and your post about what it's like to have it. It has really helped me and given me insight into my Mum's brain. It's vastly improved my relationship with her (see all you do for me?!), so you've already given so much. An internet comment is truly the least I can do for you.
Thank you.

nothingcutesy

'Adventures in Depression' and 'Depression Part Two' changed my life. I'd never seen any perfect description of what I had been going through until then. Allie rocks, and I cannot wait to get my hands on her book!

antilamentation

I got my copy of the book the other week from Amazon, and have been reading it slowly to make it last longer. Great stuff. :)

Beaks

@antilamentation I have been reading it slowly to avoid dying of laughter. The slow dog/ helper dog moving story had me laughing so hard I was crying, and that was a re-read!

kitryan

I always remember the eagle typing with his claws when I'm reading horrible writing in emails or online- 'It's ok, he's doing the best he can with these claws!'

ScienceGeek

I used Allie's pain chart during childbirth. It worked really well, especially when I made the joyful discovery that I'm really susceptible to the Happy Gas. I'm lying in the bath, sucking down the gas whenever a contraction hits, and when my husband asks what my pain is like, I say (giggling) 'I see Jesus coming for me, but it's okay. Want some of my gas, JC?'. The midwive is very confused, so my husband is all, 'Uh, there's this website called hyperbole and a half, and there's a pain chart on it and..'
'Oh, I remember that one,' says the midwife. 'OK hun, let me know when the bear's mauling you.'
It was a Bonding Moment.

klemay

"I don't want anyone to feel I'm not respecting them as a person. But there is no way to respond to every comment. I hope they understand, I still love them. I try to sign books and draw pictures for everyone and take enough time when people come to signings."

Allie, I was at your book signing at WORD in Brooklyn and the 5 minutes you spent talking to me and drawing dogs for me was the highlight of a very rough month-long period for me. Trust me, we understand. :)

shousto

I'm so glad you posted this interview! I immediately checked the book signing schedule and was able to make it to the Seattle signing last night! It was so amazing to meet Allie and other Hyperbole lovers!

1967336072@twitter

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cosmia

Is it weird that I freaked a little when I found out she's married now? I've been reading Hyperbole and a Half since 2010 and I remember when she just called Duncan her boyfriend, and I'm so happy for her that she has such a strong and committed relationship with someone who loves her.

davidfranks

I really like the way you start and conclude your thoughts. Thank you so much for this information. keep posting such good stuff.Dosage Forms

hipnoterapi jogja

Great post for this interview, interesting person :)

bingbongbang

yes very agree with this quoete "I store everything so I can continue living in the moment"
you must store everytthing for continue living in the moment.
Keep posting good stuff ^^ Fever Patch plester penurun demam dari Rohto

alamakota33

hm, congratulations :)
reedit can help, and back then it was much easier.
Now it is a bit more difficult. wynajem samochodów Kraków

maebytonight

Thank you so much for this interview. I worried for Allie during the long silence, and now to see her doing well enough to publish and enjoy the success of her book, and to be generally feeling okay, makes me happy. It also gives me hope that I'll be feeling better too.

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