Interview with Jasmin Singer: on life writing and authenticity
Our Hen House Executive Director Jasmin Singer on the freedom of writing, going viral, and her memoir Always Too and Never Enough (just published). Buy it here.
How long have you been a writer, and how did you start?
My first published piece was a poem in a kid’s magazine when I was in third grade. It went something like:
It doesn’t matter if you’re red, green, purple or blue, You’re still a person, and you should be treated like one, too.
It doesn’t matter if you’re Chinese, Japanese, or from the USA, “I’m a person!” is what you should say.
So wherever you are, whatever you do, Be a person! That’s what you should do.
I had another one published just after that, only some of which I can remember:
Someone to talk with, someone to chat, Person or animal, could be a cat.
Someone to cheer me on a Little League Game, Someone to help me, get in Notre Dame.
Ugly or pretty, skinny or fat, Could be a nice one, could be a brat.
Someone to show me what’s good and what’s fair, All that I need is someone to care.
(How weird is that Notre Dame line?)
So I guess you could say I have considered myself a writer, in one way or another, since I was in elementary school. And having my poems published as a little kid gave me a lot of confidence. Writing always came naturally to me, and, when I was younger, even when I felt bad about myself, I had a level of confidence about my writing, and an eagerness to do it, that gave me comfort and somehow brought me closer to myself. But since theater was my main passion throughout my youth, writing always played second fiddle. Still, I considered the muscle I used to write the same as the one I used when I would do theater, since they are both about telling a story.
I always journaled and wrote short stories. When I was in college for theater, I did a bit of writing — including writing a play that my department performed. In my mid-twenties, when I was a struggling actor in NYC, I started to freelance here and there for various magazines. My first paycheck for writing was for $35, and I still have a photocopy of that on my bulletin board. I started writing for VegNews Magazine ten years ago, and then wrote for various animal rights organizations. Our Hen House (www.ourhenhouse.org), which I co-founded in 2010, had an online magazine as an integral part of its programming, so I did a fair amount of writing and editing for that, too. Eventually, I was writing chapters for anthologies, and then I landed a book deal in 2014, two years before my memoir came out.
Did any particular writers inspire you?
As a kid, I had a somewhat maniacal fascination with Sylvia Plath.
What does writing mean to you?
It depends on the project. There are pieces that make me feel closer to myself, such as my memoir, and there are more journalistic pieces about animals that make me feel a responsibility to get it right, for them. I strongly believe in the power of personal narrative — and of using the written word, in general — as activism. So I feel really lucky to have written a memoir. A lot of my memoir is about finding personal authenticity, and for me, finding personal authenticity emerges through my own process of writing. Getting the words out of my head and onto the page is almost like an energy release — like sweating. And once other people read the words, it’s almost as if those words no longer belong to me. At that point the words become about how others choose to interpret them, and that in and of itself is a very freeing process.
Do you have a writing routine / ritual, and what/who does it involve?
During the process of writing my book, I woke up and wrote each morning at 6 a.m. I would do at least two uninterrupted hours, with a cup of coffee beside me. Oftentimes, those two hours became longer than two, but I knew that at least I would have those. While working on the book, I had to be very regimented about writing, even — especially — on days when I didn’t want to write. Sometimes I would just sit and stare at my computer screen and nothing would come out. Sometimes a sentence would come out. Sometimes the words would just flow out. I tried not to judge the process, and to instead just focus on putting in the time. I can’t wait for inspiration. I have to let my schedule be the driving force. Naturally, since writing is a muscle, when I kept to regular writing hours, inspiration would often follow suit, so I would jot notes down throughout the day while on the subway or at the grocery store.
What moved you to write your memoir?
I wrote an article for the website Mind Body Green about how the world treated me very differently after I had lost a ton of weight, and — even though I didn’t think too much about that article at the time I wrote it — it struck a chord with a lot of people, and wound up going viral, getting 100,000 Facebook shares in a day or so. I was then approached by a publisher who said they would be interested in reading a book proposal, and asked if they could speak with my agent. I didn’t have an agent at the time, but because of the article was approached by some agents, and wound up working with Folio. I spent three months putting together a proposal — a process that was the most difficult part of writing my book. Ultimately, that part was the most rewarding though, since it created the bones of the book, and I wound up using a lot of what was in my proposal throughout the book itself. I always knew I would write a book, but I wasn’t totally sure what book I’d write. As this started to unfold, it became obvious to me. Of course this is the book I will write.
How did you hook up with your publisher?
After putting together the proposal, my agent offered Penguin Random House’s Berkley a seven-day exclusive. They were the ones who had initially approached me about the book. In other words, they got first dibs. The editor who had first approached me, Allison Janice, was a vegan herself, and I was really excited about the possibility of working with her — especially when I read why my original article had spoken to her so personally. I also loved many of the books that Berkley had published, and felt mine would have a good home there. So when they bit, I didn’t want to look any further.
When did you think of the title, and how key was it to the narrative / story?
Actually, I didn’t title it. It’s pretty common when working with a big publishing house for the publisher to title it, and that’s what happened here. I had a vote, and I could have probably nixed something that I wasn’t into, but I felt really good about this title. At first I was concerned it might be too clunky, or too hard to remember, but I was quickly proven wrong when people started emailing me and waxing poetic about how how the title was exactly how they felt about food, about their bodies, about their charitable giving, about their relationships with their spouses, etc. The idea of being Always Too Much and Never Enough is, it turns out, a pretty universal theme. It can speak to people on a variety of levels, some of which might mirror mine and some of which most certainly won’t.
For me, Always Too Much and Never Enough was, first and foremost, about food. It was indeed always too much. I was constantly reaching for moremoremore, not realizing that the food industry was reliant on my willful ignorance to do that — creating my processed junk food with the precise amount of sweet to salty to fatty, then given the exact right version of smushy to go down my gullet at the exact right speed, and hit that part of my brain that then insisted on more. It was always too much, but it was also never enough, because “more” was always just a fistful away. I felt my body was always too much and never enough, too — taking up too much space in the room, both physically and energetically. Yet I was never enough — never able to live up to what I thought society wanted me to be, or what I assumed my (thin and beauty-obsessed) mother wanted me to be, or what I thought I should be.
Did you have an idea of the structure when starting, or did that come later?
Yes and no. My proposal had a bunch of snippets from chapters, as well as full chapter samples, and I knew they’d wind up in the final book, which they did. But it was my editor, Allison, who helped me figure out the structure of the book in a way that didn’t make it a simple, boring, chronology of my life. She helped me focus on the various themes, break up the book into parts, and have those themed parts include their own type of chronology. There are also flashbacks within scenes, which — once I had the basic layout of the book — unfolded organically.
How did you approach writing about people you’re close to? I’m thinking especially of your mum.
It’s not easy. You can’t write a memoir about food and body image without throwing your mother under the bus a little. But I think anything that’s written from a place of honesty and, hopefully, humility, will paint a picture that includes a lot of depth and dimensions, and that’s what I hope I did here. I am not interested in pointing fingers — my mother is, after all, fantastic — but at the same time I had to expose some of her flaws in order to point out my own. I was loving to her throughout the book, making very clear that this book is representative of my own experience, and I’m sure her book and story would be very different. What is memory, after all? It’s skewed by our psyches and the ways we experience this world, and no two people remember two things the same. So, much like the way I explained animal exploitation, I explained my understandings of my mother with a level of personal bias, and was very clear about that. She ultimately took the whole thing like a champ, and with a lot of grace. I’m not sure I’d ever have kids — and one (of many) reasons why not is because there’s a chance they’d grow up and write a memoir! It’s can’t be an easy thing, being a person whose story is out there so openly, and yet you’re not the one who told it, so you can’t even defend yourself. My mother was very generous with me after reading the book. She was loving and empathic. She understood that this was my experience, and she felt it was important for me to be heard. (I also called her beautiful throughout the book, and I’m sure that didn’t hurt.)
How did you work out what to leave in and what to leave out? Were there many drafts?
The most difficult part about deciding what goes and what stays was during the proposal process, which was by far the most challenging part of writing the book, because you’re really still just figuring out what you want to say, and how you want to communicate. A lot of stuff got cut from that. My initial proposal was something like 80 pages, but got cut back to about 50. I did try to hold onto some of the stuff that didn’t wind up getting used there, but I didn’t do so in any kind of organized fashion, which I’m sure was a flaw of mine.
For the actual book writing process, I submitted the initial draft to my editor, but of course that draft had included countless rewrites and reworkings on my own, so I don’t know how to count how many actual drafts that means. But my editor got my initial submission, and then there was one major edit after that. She sent me back my manuscript with hundreds of comments, requests for clarifications, and re-orderings. The third draft was very close to final, and then there were multiple back and forths with small tweaks, copyedits, etc. So I guess the short answer to your question is that there were three major drafts, but within that there was a lot of rewriting.
Was feedback important? If so, at what stage?
Yes, throughout the entire process, feedback was extremely important. That’s partly because I had a great amount of trust with my editor. Feedback from my agent, during the book proposal process, was also really important because it paved the way for my book. And my agent and his team were pretty heavy-handed, for which I was later grateful. Nobody could possibly overestimate the helpfulness of feedback. Otherwise, you’re flying blind. Writing a book is, in many ways, a collaborative effort.
Any breakthrough / eureka moments?
Yes, mostly in the process I’m in now — touring around with, and promoting, my book. I feel a lot less alone than I had in thinking I was the only one who was “always too much and never enough,” now that I realize how much it resonates with others.
What did you struggle with?
I struggled with the structure of the book, but — as mentioned — received a lot of helpful input from my editor. I struggled with how to move the message about animal rights in a way that wasn’t proselytising. I struggled with telling very personal stories about myself in a way that was honest but not tragic, and I often dealt with that by inserting humor or lightness throughout.
Has it been cathartic? Have you learned, changed, grown etc?
I don’t think it was cathartic exactly, because I think things that are cathartic involve moving through something and letting it go, yet my book will remain there forever, stuck in space. But it was healing, which I don’t think is mutually exclusive with being cathartic, if that makes sense. I have indeed grown, and am growing every day. The basis of my book is finding personal authenticity, and that’s something that shifts sometimes rapidly. The process of talking about my book, as I am here, and as I am on my tour, includes a lot of opportunities for self-growth. I’m grateful for that, and I’m ready for that. I hope to be a lifelong learner. I see my writing as part of my own process of getting there.
How long was the gestation, from conception to birth — and what was it like to see your baby in print?
Two years. I wrote that article for Mind Body Green in January, 2014. That was when I was initially approached about writing a book. Then came the proposal, the book deal, and then the process of writing it. My book came out on Feb. 2, 2016. Seeing the book come to the world was an extremely rewarding, and mildly terrifying, moment in my life. Suddenly, I wasn’t the only one seeing my words. My stories — many of which are extremely personal — are now out there for anyone who wants to read them. I hope that, ultimately, this isn’t a self-focused process. I don’t think it is. I wouldn’t do it if it was. So that keeps me going; knowing that my words have the potential to speak to someone in a way that can ultimately make them want to shift in themselves, to a more authentic version of who they are. I hope my book can help.
What impact would you like your book to have?
I hope it helps people want to grow in a direction that can serve them, help them thrive, and create connections on a greater level when it comes to how their behaviour can impact social change — as well as personal change. I hope it creates an inroad to have discussions about body image, food, eating, and self-care — all under the umbrella of identity, and perhaps ethics. In short, I hope that my book allows people to ask themselves whether they are living in a way that is truly in line with their ethical beliefs. I ask myself that question every day.
You’ve been on a book tour. What’s that been like: do you get a rider? Vegan treats?
It’s been the best experience of my life, and I’ve only just started. I’m getting to meet activists and vegans from all over the place, and — most excitingly — I’m also getting to meet people who are veg-curious and show up because they want to learn how to take the next step. I also get to meet people who are struggling with their body image, and are desperately seeking a road that will lead them to finding peace, and joy, within themselves. It’s a remarkable and moving experience. And yes, people have been very generous with me. I’ve eaten some fantastic food along the way, even already.
When are you coming to the UK?
I’m hoping for October!
What next? Are you planning more books?
Yes, but I’m still in the thinking and brainstorming process. But I have a few ideas that I’m excited about fleshing out. It will probably be personal narrative again, and — since I’m me — it will always be centered, in one way or another, around animal rights and identity. I’m also thinking about putting together a one-woman show based on Always Too Much and Never Enough. I hope that those two things — my second book and my solo show — are the focus for 2017, along with, of course, my ongoing work with Our Hen House. There’s a great synergy between all of those things.
Advice for aspiring memoir writers?
Be remarkably honest — with yourself, and with your readers. But be humble, too. One other thing: Nobody wants to read about a perfect person. We all have hairy warts. Writing a memoir includes showing those warts, and maybe braiding those wart hairs.
What’s your favourite memoir(s), and why?
My favourite memoir I’ve read recently was Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, by Sarah Hepola. It was incredibly honest, and read very much like a novel. I really admire Sarah’s willingness to bleed all over the page, yet she always took care of her readers. I’m also fairly obsessed the work of Alison Bechdel, especially her graphic memoir Are You My Mother? When my book was being written, I emailed Alison and said, “Hey, I’m also a lesbian memoirist writing about my mother!” and was gobsmacked when she wrote back. Sarah Hepola wrote back to me too, which pretty much made me faint in my seat. They were both so incredibly kind and supportive. I keep Sarah’s first email to me in my wallet. It emboldens me. In the days before Always Too Much was released, Sarah said to me: “Maybe it gives you a small measure of comfort to know that many people have walked across these hot coals and made it out alive, and you will too.” I’m still grasping onto that advice. During the scarier moments of my tour, that’s sometimes all I’ve got, and I’m so grateful for it.