Samantha Irby Writes About Gross Stuff, But There's A Rule-Breaking Reason For That
Samantha Irby has gotten a reputation: She will tell you anything. She will tell you about Fred, the guy she loved in part for his grown-up living situation — "MY MAN HAD CURTAINS," she writes in We Are Never Meeting In Real Life, her third collection of essays, released in 2017 — and who took her to an expensive dinner to explain that he was breaking up with her because he wanted a baby. She will tell you about caring for and losing her mother to multiple sclerosis and her father to alcoholism as a teen; about her Crohn's disease, which has resulted in emergency pooping amid a blizzard and during sex; about her procrastination; about her addiction to junk food. We Are Never Meeting In Real Life opens with a dedication to Klonopin, which is simultaneously a stunt and a joke and a sincere expression of imperfection all at once. It's Irby's transgressive honesty, especially about the body, that earned her a place among Bustle's 2018 Rule Breakers, but it's her unapologetic embrace of all caps and jokes that are so hilarious and also so true that will make you wish you were friends.
Bustle spoke to Irby about why she does what she does, how audiences and critics react, what she won't write about, and the unrelenting self-deprecation that, even if she won't admit it, belies a deep humility. She will never allow that she is better than she is, so you don't have to pretend to be better than you are. Because who we essentially are is OK. That's the statement running through all of Irby's work, and it is the most rule breaking of all.
Margaret Wheeler Johnson: Where are you?
Samantha Irby: I don't have any self control or discipline, so a couple weeks ago, I was like, "I'm going to go to the woods where I don't know anyone" — and I am never tempted by nature. I'm never like, "Oh, instead of writing, I'm going to go look at these trees." So I came up here to write and hopefully feel like a good person who is worthy of this opportunity. People are always like, what's your process? And I'm like, "Uh, fucking around until the day before the deadline, and then panic cry-writing." So yeah, that's what I'm doing, I'm panic cry-writing in the woods of Michigan.
MWJ: Evidently it’s working. You've written about heavy stuff — like chronic disease, death, racism, poverty, and addictions — and then just embarrassing stuff — like sex and bodily functions — with humor, and what some people might even call irreverence, especially with regard to disease and death. Can you describe how readers have responded over the years?
SI: I don't think that someone who really hates what I do is going to take the time either to read it all or to tell me that they hated it. So I get a lot of people who are like, "I have this chronic disease," or "I'm mentally ill in the same way," or "I, too, love to talk about farting." I get a lot of, "Thanks for putting that out there." Especially with the Crohn's, because poop is still so taboo, that I mostly get people who are like, "Thanks for talking about diarrhea, because I, too, have diarrhea all the time, and it's nice to read someone talking about it in not a shame-filled way." I have shame about many things, but pooping isn't one of them.
MWJ: Is there anything you are ashamed to write about, or anything you won't write about?
SI: Most things get to a point that I can pick the funny part out of them, and then I've used that little kernel to write about it. But I've had some friendships that have ended that I was gobsmacked by. Some of them were like 10 years ago, and I'm still like, "I don't understand what happened there." That stuff — things that really do hurt and haven't gone away, or haven't turned into a hilarious joke in my mind — I do not write about those things. But most everything else is on the table.
People are always like, "Man, how does everyone in your life feel about the fact that you have or could write about them?" I only write about people that, if we don't talk anymore, we've had some closure, or if you're still in my life, I have permission. And those old things that are ended that I'm like, "What the fuck was that?" [And] where I don't have closure or permission, I don't write about those.
MWJ: And when you say permission, do you mean you actually show them the piece? Like, did you show Fred the piece you wrote about him before you submitted it to your editor?
SI: I really thought Fred and I were going to spend our lives together, so when I started to write about it, I emailed him. I was like, "Hey, so, I'm writing another book, and you were a big part of my life, and I feel like our story could be both amusing and helpful to people, and I'm going to write about it. Do you want to read it before it's published?" He was like, "OK." I don't think he cared.
So, I finished the piece. I sent it to him before I sent it to my editor. I didn't want her to be like, “I love it!” and then come [back] and be like, “Well, dude read it, and he's going to sue me, so…” But I sent it to him and he was like, “This is great. I appreciate hearing your side of it, how it felt to you.” We're still friends, and so I was very respectful in telling how he had wronged me, and he was fine with it. So then I sent it to the editor, she loved it, and now the world has read it. People come to readings all the time and are like, "Do you still talk to Fred?"
MWJ: Fred and his domestic situation were very compelling.
SI: He is great! I don't know what was on that dude's mind that he had to blow everything up, but my consolation is, maybe the good things in my life that have happened since him wouldn't have happened with him. So that makes me feel better.
And he still doesn’t have kids. Kids were his one thing he wanted, and he still doesn't have any. You could have attached your wagon to this train, and you still wouldn't have any kids but your wife would be cooler. But whatever. Whatever, Fred.
MWJ: What piece you've written, or topic you've written about, has felt the most transgressive to you while you were writing it, before anyone saw it?
SI: When I was writing the piece "Fuck It, Bitch. Stay Fat," I was nervous about it from all perspectives. I was like, "Oh man, the health people are going to give me a hard fucking time." But also, body positivity girls like the fat babes who are like, "Be fat, whatever," maybe they're going to give me a hard time because I did try to diet or I did do this dumb thing to lose weight before I evolved.
So many people relate to the things I've written about my body, so I would never not do it, but every time I pick it up, [I think], “What perspective am I writing this from, or how am I going to frame how I'm feeling about myself in this piece?” That's always hard.
Writing about my weight was something that's so personal and hard for me. This whole fat positive thing that's happening is very new, and it's also so fraught, and everybody has an opinion on the right way to do it, or whether or not it should exist. So writing that piece, I was like, "I don't know how to be honest without getting yelled at from multiple corners of the internet." But I did it anyway.
MWJ: So was that the hardest topic to write about, weight? Or has something else been the most difficult for you, personally and emotionally?
SI: I think writing about my weight, especially because people see a fat body and they'll feel entitled to tell you what they think about it or how they can help you. I was in L.A. earlier this year at a Jamaican restaurant [with my friend Marina], and there was a white lady in there who got up from her meal ... to come over and tell us about how holy basil oil has really helped her. I didn't even get it at first. I'm like, is this a seasoning thing? Marina was like, hold the fuck up, are you actually letting your dinner get cold to tell me how putting drops of oil on your tongue helps you lose weight?
Culturally, you're not made to feel like you should love your big body, and I don't even think I'm at the point where I love it. Some days I'm like, "You know what? This is fine. This is my body, I have clothes for it, I can move throughout the world, it's fine." Then other days I hate it and wish I was thin. I'm just like, "Man, if I lost 100 pounds right, now maybe my knees wouldn't hurt, maybe my life would be better." I think because I'm so all over the place with it, it's a really hard thing to write about from a consistent perspective. Also, if I love ice cream, a lot of it's tied to trauma and self soothing and my shitty childhood, and so there's no way to write about it without thinking about that aspect of it, too.
MWJ: Right, of course.
SI: But I have this audience, and so I feel responsibility, especially when young women read my stuff. I can't not talk about all that stuff. It's a huge part, no pun intended, of my life. So many people relate to the things I've written about my body, so I would never not do it, but every time I pick it up, [I think], “What perspective am I writing this from, or how am I going to frame how I'm feeling about myself in this piece?” That's always hard.
MWJ: How much do you think about the audience while you're writing?
SI: I do think about the audience a lot. I don't think about what the casual reader or reviewer might think. Because then you just go nuts and never write anything.
MWJ: Right, of course.
SI: But sometimes I think about a friend of mine, and I'll be like, "I'm going to write this for this person to make her laugh and then I'm going to send it to her, and if it does the job, I'm going to put it out into the world." I think about what's good for the women who show up for me. What do they want to read? What makes them laugh? What do they respond to? Because my whole thing is, I just want to make women laugh and commiserate.
I also think about being sensitive to things that might hurt someone — learning what ableist things are. I don't want to say crazy, because we don't say that anymore. I don't mean to unintentionally hurt someone with a bad word choice when I can put my targets on people whose feelings I'd actually like to hurt.
I think being a mildly unapologetic fat person breaks some societal rule. It definitely breaks a lot of men's rules for how women should be.
MWJ: How do you deal with haters?
SI: As a general rule, I don't ever, ever, ever read anything anyone says about my writing if I can help it. Good, bad, otherwise, I don't read. [And] I don't publish my shit at a place that has comments, because I don't want to hear that shit. I don't have a comment section on my blog because I don't need to host a forum for you to tell me what a dumb piece of shit I am. I don't want to be complicit in talking shit about me.
My books — I don't know, I'm sure there are places in the corners of the internet where people say I'm dumb and the book is stupid, and that's fine as long as they paid to read it. I don't care. Give me that $1.50, because you bought my book, and then you can say whatever you want.
MWJ: What’s your next book about?
SI: My uterus. I want to call it Dying In Time.
MWJ: What's the most rule breaking thing that you do, in writing or in life?
SI: In life, I'd say honestly being a happy person at this giant size is not allowed in America. I try to be. I try to make jokes and be funny and live a life of joy, and still eat cheese and all those things you're not supposed to do. So in a super literal sense, I think being a mildly unapologetic fat person breaks some societal rule. It definitely breaks a lot of men's rules for how women should be.
And this might be too literal, but in my writing I do a lot of cursing and all-capsing or caps locking, and so many people hate that. Mostly dudes. People hate a bitch to use caps lock, and it is my favorite device. It drives people nuts. They’re like, "Why do you shout so much?" I'm like, "So many things are bad. So many things need to be shouted about." Or, "I really want to make sure that you get this point."
MWJ: That begs a broader question: What is the overarching point you're trying to make in your writing and your comedy?
SI: Life is hard, and there is not a lot of shit to laugh about. And if me processing the dumb shit in my life brings you a smile, that's cool. So on the one hand, I want to just give somebody 10 minutes of joy on the subway. You're reading this thing, it makes you chuckle, that's what it's about.
But for me, on the other side of that is getting approval. Not even praise, because like I said, I don't read tweets or reviews or whatever. But knowing that people like something that I've made and want to know me or want to be my friend or whatever, I think ultimately that's it. I was a very lonely child, didn't get enough affirmation, and have spent much of my childhood forward just trying to get people to like me.
I used to do a lot of readings in Chicago before I moved, and I still will occasionally go back and do some. It's a good feeling to have a audience show up, see you, and also respond to what you're doing. I'm like Tinkerbell. I need the applause to stay alive. I like the idea that I create a thing that someone looks forward to or would spend money on. But the minute that stops, the minute people are over [me] or it stops feeling useful, I will stop and catch up on all the shows I've been missing.
MWJ: Really? You started your blog with no one reading you, because you had something to say and a point of view.
SI: Let me tell you why I started my blog. I started writing my blog because I wanted to impress this dude who said he was into writers. I was like, "I'm a writer," and he was like, "What do you write?" So I started a MySpace blog to make the dude like me, specifically writing it so [he] would read it. He read it, and we dated for a while, and then when it was over, I was like, "Fuck this, I'm not doing this anymore." My friend was like, "No, no, I love it, you've got to keep doing it." And that's how we ended up here. Gross. Now you see, this is who I really am: a gross, needy person who exploited her one talent, to have sex with an idiot.
MWJ: So maybe ruthless honesty is the most rule breaking thing you do.
SI: Yes. That's probably the truth. Being too honest. I never think of the consequences. But you know what? There haven't been many negative consequences. People are always like, "How can you say all this stuff?" It's just like, "Well, what's going to happen? Am I going to get murdered?" I have been embarrassed before. Embarrassment, you can survive. I'm like, "If I control the embarrassing thing and I can spin it in a way that makes us all laugh, then it works." I would say reckless honesty, because really, I don't ever think about it until later, and I'm like, "Oh, that probably made me sound stupid, huh?" But it was real.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.