Series 11: For the Love of Books | Episode 05
Tell Me More, Kelly Corrigan: A Live Show with the Poet Laureate of the Ordinary
This is a special week in For the Love world, because it’s our very first live podcast! A few weeks ago, Jen and author Kelly Corrigan hosted 150 women in Jen’s backyard in Buda, Texas, and today we get to share this conversation with you, our beloved For the Love listeners. Kelly is the New York Times bestselling author of four books, including The Middle Place and her latest Tell Me More: Stories About the 12 Hardest Things I’m Learning to Say. In this live episode, Jen and Kelly talk about being raised by dads who loved them ridiculously, their shared crush on Tom Brokaw, Kelly’s brief flirtation as a shoplifter in the ‘80s, the glories and doldrums of writing, and so much more. This episode is extra long, so pencil in a few more chores or squats at the gym, and settle in for lots of laughter and fun as we sit on the porch with Jen and Kelly.
Narrator: Hi everybody, my name is Remy. Welcome to the For the Love Podcast, with your host Jen Hatmaker, my mom. She writes books and speaks to crowds. But she mostly loves talking to amazing people, every week, on this podcast. Thanks for listening. We hope you enjoy the show.
Jen: Hey, everybody. It’s Jen Hatmaker, your very happy hostess of the For The Love Podcast. Welcome to the show.
This week is super special because, in the For the Love world, we are sharing with you, our dear listeners, our very first live show! Special times call for special guests. And I was beyond pleased to host one of, really, my very favorite authors and basically just people in general, Kelly Corrigan, at my house.
If you don’t know Kelly yet, this is your lucky day because you’re about to fall head over heels for her and her work.
So notable: Kelly has been called the voice of her generation by Oprah. All right. And the “poet laureate of the ordinary” by HuffPost. She has authored four New York Times bestsellers: The Middle Place, Lift, Glitter and Glue, and her latest, which we’re talking about on this episode, Tell Me More.
She’s also the creative director at The Nantucket Project, which you guys should look up—what a cool deal. She hosts their conversation series about what matters most with some of the most interesting people around.
Kelly lives in Oakland, California, with her husband Edward and their daughters, 17-year old Georgia and 14-year old Claire.
If you are not new to me, if you have read Of Mess and Moxie, you already know how much I love Kelly’s writing and how long I’ve been talking about it. My introduction to her was simply as a reader. She gets me, and I get her, and I love the way she talks about life and parenting. Her dad Greenie is like my dad’s own personality twin. Kelly and I just have a lot in common.
And she is a writer’s writer, with the most genuine way about her that I don’t know how . . . I can’t overstate it. And you know what I mean if you’ve read her books.
I got to talk to Kelly live in front of 150 people in my backyard. And we had the best time. It was such a good night under the stars, under the twinkle lights, with a yard full of women and cocktails. And we talked about writing, and family, and creativity. It was just amazing.
I am so pleased to share that live conversation with you. And because the podcast world is what it is, and we have to maintain our rating for the For the Love Podcast, you’ll hear a handful of bleeps. You’ll hear a few bleeps! And listen, what you need to know is I am not precious about language. You already know that I have a saucy mouth. But if you want the “unbleeped” version, the whole thing is housed over on my Facebook page because we live streamed it as well.
Live with New York Times bestselling authors Jen Hatmaker and Kelly Corrigan!
Posted by Jen Hatmaker on Monday, September 10, 2018
So you guys are in for such a treat. This is such a great conversation. So welcome to the show, my live conversation with my friend and author extraordinaire Kelly Corrigan.
Jen: Okay. So how many of you—and I talked to so many of you a minute ago—how many of you came all by yourself?
I like it!
Kelly: Welcome! That’s so cool.
Jen: Isn’t it?
Kelly: Good for you.
Jen: Like a bunch of you guys got on a plane and flew here by yourself.
Kelly: How many people got on a plane?
Jen: I know!
Kelly: If it’s not good, we’ll pay you back. I feel that’s just the least we could do.
Jen: It’s the least we could do. And you know, when we were talking about doing this, we were like, Who wants to come to my house on a Monday? What a weird thing to ask. And, you did. You did!
Where’s the mom—you can just slip your hand up—she was like, “Today is my first day of Pre-K.” There she is. They’ll be fine!
Kelly: That is such good self-care. I just . . . congratulations. You got out early. You learned that a lot sooner than most of us.
Jen: “You got out early.” That’s so great.
Well, we are very delighted that you’re here, Kelly and I both. It’s just our pleasure to host you tonight and to have you here, and thanks for coming. A bunch of you I think got the notification that these tickets were going on sale while you were in your cars, and people literally pulled over and bought these tickets on the side of the road, and thank goodness because they went in about a half a minute.
I want to take a really quick round of thank you’s before we get started. I want to thank our donors and our sponsors. We’ve got Noonday Collection, was one of our donors, and you’ve got a bracelet in there from Noonday. And my good friend, Jessica Honegger, who also just released a book called Imperfect Courage, which you got a free copy of also. And she was so delighted to give that to you. Our partners over at Glory Haus, you’ve got the very awesome Moxie necklace. I wore my out until it fell apart. Thank you to Glory Haus, and to Discount Mugs, who worked with us on the tote bags with quotes that we pulled from Tell Me More and from Moxie.
And thank you for flying here from California.
We have a lot of things we want about tonight. We want to talk about writing, and we want to talk about creativity, and we want to talk about our books. I have things I want to talk to Kelly about that she has written and Tell Me More, and vice versa.
Kelly: You did. I almost fell off my chair.
Jen: I told you that I loved you.
Kelly: I know. Maybe I’m a Doubting Thomas, maybe I’ve become a cynic in my old age. But when I first met you, you like threw your arms around me and said, “Oh my God, I love you.”
And I was like, Oh, that’s just like writer talk. People being nice to each other. She’s probably not even read it.
Then I’m reading this book and [it says], “One of my favorites.” It’s in print! “One of my favorite writers, and Greenie reminds me of my dad, and I bought copies for my whole family.” And walk in here and the whole family’s like, “Hi, Kelly!”
Jen: It’s real, it’s real. This is my first book that I’d ever read of Kelly’s. How many of you have read The Middle Place? I want to know who knows about the personalities in this book.
Kelly: It looks like a lot of these ladies have a lot of reading to do.
Jen: They sure do. Yeah. We’ll put up some links.
Everybody watching us, by the way, thank you for joining us on Facebook Live, you guys.
Jen: Hi. We’re so happy that you’re with us, too. We’ll put links up to all this.
Kelly wrote about her dad, who was affectionately called “Greenie.” And, well, let me just let you describe Greenie for a minute, and then I’ll tell you my reaction to it.
Kelly: I mean, the thing about him is he never met a stranger and his sort of default setting was “open delight.” He came at you like, “Lovey! Is this great? Look at ‘em all! Look at the tree with the lights on it. I mean, it’s fantastic! The bartender friends, that’s gal hat. I mean, this place is fantastic!”
He just couldn’t get over how great life was and how great the people in it were. And he just couldn’t wait to know more about you. It’s a really rare art to be as curious about other people as he was. I think most people want to be known more than they want to know. He deeply couldn’t wait to hear your stories. He couldn’t wait to hear what your kids were up to, couldn’t wait to hear where you grew up, did you make a certain pie, did you know how to sew.
He just thought it was all like beyond his wildest imagination. Each person was beyond his wildest imagination.
It sounds like I’m exaggerating, but honest to God, I have a very literal husband who will tell you that it is just as I said. I used to ask him, I used to give him the books and say, “Have I gone over the top?”
And he’d say, “He’s just like this. Just like this.”
Jen: I’m reading about Greenie with these phenomenal descriptors, and then all this life experience that backs it up. And I call my mom and my sister, and I’m like, “You guys are about to freak out when you read about Kelly’s dad, Greenie, because it is our dad.” Like, that is my dad’s personality twin.
I asked Dad to come down tonight. He was going to watch some ballgames, and so he sacrificed to be here with us, in a yard full of women.
I was telling Kelly earlier that my dad shares that zest for life, and he is overly enthusiastic. One thing that Kelly said about Greenie in The Middle Place—actually I think I have this committed to memory, I think this is a correct quote—it was interesting being raised by a dad who crowed over her ordinary achievements like she learned to breathe underwater.
That’s exactly how my dad was. To hear him tell it, we were the four most spectacular children ever born to mankind. I just loved that. That was my introduction to you, and I felt so connected to you. And our kids are similar ages.
Kelly: Yes. And I believe we’ve both been in in-school suspension and had crushes on Tom Brokaw.
Jen: Oh my God. I didn’t know about the Tom Brokaw piece.
Kelly: Who doesn’t? Don’t you have a crush on Tom Brokaw?
Jen: One hundred percent, I do.
Kelly: Like the little speech impediment thing.
Look at her, she’s like, “I do! I have a poster of him!”
Kelly: No, he’s hot.
Jen: I love him. He’s my very favorite journalist.
Kelly: I’ve made a list of everything we have in common.
Jen: Yeah. What else do we have?
Kelly: We loved Moonlighting.
Jen: Oh, yeah.
Kelly: That TV show, Moonlighting.
Jen: Oh, how many of you watch Moonlighting? Now we know how old you are. Everybody that’s clapping, we know your generation.
Kelly: Loved it. The sexual tension between those two, it was the best, except for Sam and Diane on Cheers.
Jen: Oh, that’s true.
Kelly: Probably the only ones.
We both grew up with the scarcity mindset. I still eat my food in two minutes because I’m super afraid my brothers are going to come along behind me and take it.
Jen: Oh yeah.
Kelly: And we both really love and value our husbands.
Jen: Yeah. That’s a good list. That’s nice.
Kelly: Yeah. Thanks, Jen.
Jen: I like that.
So this is exciting because not only are you here, and we’re here, we’re also recording live for the podcast for the first time. This episode will air in a couple of weeks in a live setting where anything can happen, so we’re just going to roll with it. If something happens here that you don’t hear in the podcast, sometimes things get edited.
I love you because you are such a gifted writer, so gifted that it actually makes me angry.
Kelly is a writer’s writer. Do you know the difference? Not only do you have something to say, but you say it so beautifully. I think one of the qualities that draws me into your writing, it’s hard to even capture it. It’s just like lightning in a bottle because your sense of . . . you kind of just bare it. You bare your soul and you don’t hold back. You don’t polish it up, and you don’t prop it up, and you don’t make it seem better.
I feel like so many writers that are aiming their words at women and at our generation, it feels like almost a game of how to get it all right. You know what I mean? Like, “Here’s the instruction I’m going to give you, and if you do these things, you’re going to have this wonderful, guaranteed outcome.” That instruction always leaves me feeling lonely, because its not real life. That’s not how real life goes.
So when I come into your writing and into your books, you just tell the truth. I cannot explain the sense of relief I feel. I feel understood, and I feel like someone else is just actually saying what’s true, that life is beautiful and also it’s hard and we’re getting a lot of pieces wrong.
And so I wonder if you can just go back a little bit and talk about your path to becoming a writer, and how it was so early on in the game you had the courage and the fortitude to come so genuine. To be so truthful.
Kelly: I don’t know that it’s courage or fortitude. I think it might just be my nature.
It also might be related to my point of view, which is that very little matters. I don’t feel very self-conscious, generally, in the world. And I’m very aware that there are eight billion people here. And if there really are, throughout the world, eight billion people, then how can it possibly matter if I tell you that I screamed at my kids, that my dog ate poop out of the toilet, which was a bummer, which led to more screaming at the kids, which maybe led to too much drinking one night. You know.
Jen: A slippery slope.
Kelly: As you do.
Like, it just can’t possibly matter. The only thing that does matter, which I’m sure you can relate to, is telling other people’s stories. It’s very unusual to have a story that is only yours, where you’re only baring your own soul. Because the really juicy stuff in my life—and I’m sure all of yours—is the stuff that happens between you and your spouse, or you and your kids, or you and your parents. And that means that you have to . . . you’re allowed to lay your stuff bare, but then you have to make sure that they feel comfortable with what you’ve put on the page, that it feels accurate to their memory of the event, that they, too, don’t take themselves too seriously. For the most part, it works out.
There was this story in Glitter and Glue, which is a book about my parents. My mom used to say, “Your father’s the glitter, but I’m the glue, Kelly.” And I think we’re all the glitter. I think it’s pretty hard to be the glitter if you’re the mom. But maybe you’ve discovered a way?
Anyway, in that book I told this story about shoplifting at Sears, which is another great chapter in my life.
Jen: And it’s Sears, no less. I just love that. I love that detail.
Kelly: All the best stuff.
Kelly: And such variety.
Kelly: Also, you can shoplift there for hours. They never—
Jen: Because, like, four people work there?
Kelly: Never run out of stuff to take. So I went shoplifting, like some people go shopping, and I took all this stuff. I took jewelry, I took candy. And then my eyes fell upon control-top panty hose in Suntan, which is my mom’s brand. And it was in September and her birthday was upon us, and I thought, She’s a practical woman. I’m gonna get her ten pairs of control-top panty hose with the reinforced toe in Suntan. So I did.
Kelly: Then I’m walking out, and this guy grabs my elbow. And I’m like, Oh my God. It never occurred to me—I’m such a lark—I actually hadn’t done it before. No, I really hadn’t, it was just a whim. I was cut from field hockey, so it’s the field hockey’s coach’s fault.
Anyway, so my mom has to come pick me up, and then we get in the car in the parking lot after this long ordeal with the security officer from the store. There’s silence. She can’t even put the keys in the ignition, she’s so livid. And then she says, “I can’t even tell your father this.”
And I say, “The panty hose were for you.”
And then she slapped me across the face. And it was winter time, and the nose can be dry. So a little bit of blood went on the window.
I’m in my café outside of Oakland, California, and I’m writing this story and I know it by heart. It’s a moment I’ve relived many times. I’m writing it, and I’m thinking, This is such a colossal waste of a writing session because there’s no way my mom’s going to let me publish this. But I’m just blowing through it, and all the details are right there. It’s everything that makes a good sentence, it’s right on the tip of my fingers. It never happens like that. One in two hundred writing sessions feel like that.
So anyway, I put it in there and I sent in the manuscript. She calls back a week later and says, “Well, Kelly, I think it’s very good. I did not find any spelling errors, and I thought that the grammar was excellent.” Because I said, “to whom.” That’s such a huge thing for her.
And I said, “Okay.”
And then she says, “Yeah, I think it’s ready.”
I said, “You’re not uncomfortable with the child abuse part?”
Jen: “The part where you bloodied my nose?”
Jen: All good.
Kelly: “That’s cool with, like, the bridge ladies. And everybody you bump into at church on Saturday?”
And she said, “Absolutely, I’m comfortable. I think your generation is too scared to throw a fist.”
So that is a very long way of saying, you never know what someone else is going to feel when you’ve gone too far. Because I thought for sure that was going to get a big red X on it.
Jen: I’m so happy it didn’t, because that story is delicious. I like when you lapse into your mom’s accent.
So that probably bears a little bit of history. Can you just kinda high-level it: where you grew up and why you’re talking like that, and where you live now, and where the people are, and who the players are. Can you talk about your family?
Kelly: My mom is Mary, and she grew up in Baltimore. She married George, and George was ten years older than she was. We were raised in Villanova, right near Villanova University. We went to a nice public school called Radnor, which is not Catholic, which is one of my mom’s three regrets.
Jen: Is it?
Jen: Oh, that’s too bad.
Kelly: We almost went to the Catholic school. We went to look at it. And literally, there was this pregnant girl smoking a cigarette out front.
Jen: Oh, oh yeah.
Kelly: Hand to God, I wouldn’t lie about a thing like that.
Jen: That’s a deterrent.
Kelly: Yeah, so we just kept driving.
Jen: And so you went from East Coast to West Coast.
Kelly: I did.
Jen: Which is where you spent virtually your whole adult life, right?
Kelly: Yep, twenty-five. I moved when I was twenty-five. And I’m thirty-two now.
Kelly: Or something.
Jen: Can you tell us quickly about your family that you made?
Kelly: Oh, sure. I married a guy from Arkansas named Edward.
We have these two girls: Georgia, who’s seventeen, and who I really hope is not watching this. And then my daughter Claire, who’s definitely not watching this. She’s a sophomore in high school. So sophomore and senior.
Jen: I want to read something that you wrote. I’m jumping ahead and it’s okay, we’re in charge. We can do what we want.
Kelly: You’re in charge.
Jen: Kelly’s latest book is Tell Me More. You all have a signed copy in your bag.
I think I told you that I cried at lots of parts in it, because I felt relieved to have somebody say things out loud that I knew was true. I want to read to you, just so you kinda know what’s up with this book.
This is the dedication that Kelly wrote. She said, “A lot has happened since the last time I had a book to dedicate. I’ve been to two funerals, my father’s, which was kind of fantastic, and my friend Liz’s, which was just devastating. I left the services, as most people probably did, urgently wanting to deserve my life and the people in it. This book is about the things we say to people we love, including ourselves, that make things better. It is for Liz, who I think would have appreciated the effort. I wish we could have done this together, Lizard. Though in a way, we sort of did.”
And so what Kelly walks us through in Tell Me More are ten sentences that . . . why don’t you talk about your own book? And then I’m going to read them the excerpt that I want them to hear.
Kelly: So it came about because my husband and I were debating the merits of saying “I’m sorry” vs. saying “I was wrong.” My position, because I’m a woman, was that “I’m sorry” is somehow less impactful than saying “I was wrong.”
It terms of like “I’m tying a knot between people when it’s really serious,” saying “I was wrong” is so humble and such a gutsy thing to say. It’s such a show stopper. There nothing else need be said after that. As the other party, you’re not waiting for anything else at that point.
That got us talking in a larger sense about what other sentences adults need to be able to say to one another if we’re going to be in permanent relationship.
For a year, for two years, I was walking around with my big ears with my ladies and listening to stories and saying, “What did they say? How’d you get out of that spot?” Or, “How did you move on?” So I started to write them down, I started to keep a list. Things that came up were like how hard and important and essential it is to be able to say “I don’t know” when you don’t know. Critically saying no makes a lot of room for more important things. And then saying “tell me more,” which got the title.
This friend of mine, Tracy Tuttle from college, had told me she had been working on this thing with her kids where she was trying really hard not to solve their problems anymore and just sort of elicit the whole story, like, the story behind the story behind the story, so that you might get behind the thing behind the thing behind the thing instead of falling for the headline.
So they say, “A dude was mean to me, and I’m like really sad.”
And I say, “Tell me more.”
And then needle a little bit more.
“Go on, what else?”
And then just pulling out the whole story, sort of cleaning out your emotional garage. And she said she got to doing it with her husband as well, because you know, sometimes what works with the kids . . .
Jen: It’s true.
So anyway, as I was stewing an this idea—I’m a proactive kind of mom, I’m a lean-in kind of gal. I take initiative and I love to solve your problem, which is just a terrible habit to be in. You can end up kind of superior, if you think you can solve it in two seconds flat. And you rob people of the chance to solve their own problems, which is where self-esteem comes from, and where capacity building comes from. And you know all this, but it’s really hard to execute in the moment.
I go to have a facial. Someone gave me a facial as a gift. I go into San Francisco to have it. I go in there and this woman, Tish, is taking care of me. She’s got that circular magnifying light mirror thing which she’s lowering on my face, which I’m trying not to think about this NPR story I heard that we all mites all over our faces.
Kelly: I’m wondering if she can see my mites.
But anyway, I’m just trying to get there and the music is going and the scents are going through the air. And I’m settling in and it’s wrapping up. Tish’s whole being kind of changes, and I can tell we’re about to launch into that part where she’s going to recommend lotions and potions to make me look better than I look.
I don’t really believe lotions and potions work, because if they did, we would all look a lot better.
Anyway, I said, “Tish, before we do this part, I just want to tell you a couple of things about myself. One is I’m chronically cheap. Whatever Edward puts on his armpits, that’s what I wash my face with. Like, Irish Spring or whatever. And it has little hairs from his armpit, I just pick it off and clean my face with it.”
She’s like, “Go on, tell me more.”
And I go, “I’m not great with healthy habits. I don’t shower that much. Because I don’t exercise, so I don’t sweat. And I have really thick hair so I can go three, four, five days without taking a shower.”
And she says, “Go on, tell me more.”
I said, “Well, if there’s one thing that you could recommend to me for my forehead. It’s starting to look like an eight-lane highway up there. And it’s bumming me out because I can see it in my computer screen. Then I’m trying to do my work all of a sudden I refocus and I can see the eight lanes.”
She said, “Bangs.”
Jen: I love her, I love her.
Kelly: I just felt so heard. You know?
Kelly: So that’s the premise of Tell Me More.
How many of you have teenagers? You are probably at that stage in life where you realize the solving of their problems is over. They don’t want it. That’s not where they’re at, and they shouldn’t want it.
Kelly: That’s right.
Jen: It’s their turn.
Kelly: That’s right.
Jen: But Tell Me More is brilliant because it keeps the conversation open longer.
Jen: It keeps the light on, and there is always something under the something.
Jen: If you can find a way not to come in with all the words to fix all the things, it’s amazing what you find out six minutes in, if you can keep it open that long.
Kelly: Yes, yes.
Jen: This is one thing that you wrote, and I’m assuming that you also get permission from your girls?
Jen: You are telling a story in Tell Me More, and it’s just kind of been a disastrous morning. Everything is kind of imploding. The girls are fighting, and you’re fighting with them. And this is what you write:
“They stare at me. We all kind of hate each other in this minute. Me most of all, because I taught them the word ‘bitch,’ and I yell so they yell, and Edward missed another brawl so they’ll like him more today, and he’s better anyway. And whatever lust for combat my daughter’s have comes straight from me. And I thought I was going to be a good mom like Michelle Constable or Tammy Steadman, and I’m not, and according to a parenting blog I saw, yelling is as bad as corporal punishment and probably destructive to self-esteem so oh my God, what am I doing?”
Right? And then you go on—and I want to read this—in the same chapter because this is one of my favorite things that I read. It’s a really funny story, too, when you cut yourself out of the shirt. Can you just tell it real quick, just that one little piece?
Kelly: I was having a tough day.
Jen: It was like the same day.
Kelly: Yeah. The highlight of the morning was after everyone left the house and I was stuck cleaning the kitchen because everyone is very busy, but I apparently am not. On the kitchen table, I found a little pile of cut toenails.
Jen: That’s not okay.
Kelly: There were, scooped up together. Like, I understand the need to tidy them, but she’ll take them away.
Kelly: I was like having this total fit. And then the UPS man came, who is very fit, aggressively fit and tan, and I think he shaves his legs. I was like a troll that day.
But then he hands me the envelope from J. Crew, and I kind of brighten like, All right. This is it. The day is changing.
I go upstairs and I take it all off. And I pull out my little top, it’s like a little red linen top.
And the thing is, linen does not have Lycra in it.
Jen: No, it doesn’t.
Kelly: Every other thing you’ve been wearing for the last ten years has Lycra in it. So you have no idea what size you really are, right? I mean, so maybe you’re walking around thinking you’re a six, and you’ve actually turned into a twelve, but you haven’t worn binding clothes in nine-and-a-half years.
Jen: Right, right.
Kelly: So I take this thing out and I shake it out, and I’m thinking, This looks a little smaller than it probably should. But I’m doing it.
And so in I go. I got it on and it’s pulling . . . you know how it yanks here?
Jen: Yeah. Oh, I know.
Kelly: And I can see the entire outline of my giant minimizer bra in the background.
Anyway, I can’t get it off. I’m like trying, I’m pulling on this side and pulling on this side. There’s no zipper or nothing, there’s just no way to get out.
I’m stuck. I’m stuck in this brand new shirt. And the only way I could get it off was to cut it. So I cut up the center and made it into a vest.
Jen: That story gives me so much joy. Just thinking about you grabbing those scissors and just cutting right up the gullet.
Kelly: I was so mad!
Jen: I just, I love that so much because I can identify.
Kelly: And Lou Ferrigno’d it. So I cut the bottom and then I just when, sssssssh.
Jen: Oh wow.
Kelly: That’s how mad I was.
Jen: That’s even better.
Well, here’s the sentence that you pulled out of there. As one of the ten things that are just good in human relationship and human behavior and in families and in real life.
You get to the end of the whole debacle of a morning, and the question you asked yourself is this. This is what you wrote:
“Why am I so mad at everyone?” Bubbling up from some well of memory comes, ‘It’s like this.’ That’s what Will liked to say, Will the meditation guy from Edward’s office.”
You know those, right? We have lots of those here in Austin and in San Francisco, for sure.
“Will, who had interesting answers to hard questions and didn’t wear shoes. It’s been a year since I’ve seen him, and I’m still not totally sure what he meant by, ‘It’s like this.’ But I’ve come to think of it as, ‘This is the way it is: up and down, good and bad. So don’t worry because it’s like this for everyone, and it’s supposed to be.’”
Isn’t that a relieving thing to hear? “It’s like this.”
Kelly: I say it all the time.
Jen: I like that’s your first chapter.
Kelly: Yeah. Well, it’s the weirdest sentence of all the sentences. It’s the only one that you wouldn’t maybe come up with on your own actually.
To go back to your original thought, which is “I was so afraid,” when you said, “You don’t tell people how to do things, and you don’t act like you have the right answers, et cetera, et cetera,” I was really afraid that if you write a book that’s like, “The hardest things I’m learning to say,” that people might think this is your formula for right living. The only thing that saved me from that is that the subtitle is Stories About the Hardest Things I’m Learning to Say. And my editor, Andy Ward, who I really love and respect and appreciate, kept saying, “Just stick with story. Just tell your stories.”
Somebody asked me about writing here, and I bet there are other people who write here. Are there other writers here?
Kelly: Raise your . . . see now, there’s a lot more writers than that here, and you’re afraid to raise your hand. Good girl.
It’s all in the story. And if you’ve ever told the story at a cocktail party, you know how to tell a story. If you just stick to that, and if you can hear it in your head, and if you could say it to somebody tonight and they followed it and they followed the little arc of it and it resolved in some way, that’s what’s worth sharing, I think.
Jen: It is, and that’s your magic. That’s your magic. There’s something about hearing a story that feels human enough to grab onto because it’s not so prescriptive. It’s simply descriptive, “This is what went down in my home, and this is what I’m learning to say out of it.”
I really like it. I like “it’s like this.” I spend my life essentially serving women, more or less, and so I’m very familiar with all the narratives that are aimed our direction. I know what the messaging is to women. And I find that it’s very, very easy to hook into the fake story, the very shiny, polished one, where everybody has got it all figured out and they’ve sorted it out, and you feel lonely in your messy, crappy life where your kids are going off the rails and your marriage doesn’t look like that, and you lose your temper and you lose your mind.
I like “it’s like this” because it says, “Life is hard sometimes because it is. It’s not because you’re doing it all wrong, it’s not because you didn’t get the right formula. It’s just because it is for everybody, and it’s supposed to be, and it’s good for us.” It’s just honest.
Kelly: Wait. Before you ask me another question, I want to ask you a question and maybe the answer is “it’s like this.”
Kelly: You talked about something that totally struck a chord in me, and I bet you guys too, which is that when you were growing up, you’re one of four and it didn’t seem like anything that was happening in the house would indicate that you would one day be close.
Jen: Oh yeah.
Kelly: You said:
“It took a few years to give each other permission to be different grownups than our childhood roles dictated, and there are days in your own household where you’re convinced your children will never speak again once they move out. It’s like living in my own personal Real World series.”
Kelly: Then you say later, “Is it working? Did it take? Will it ever produce anything good?”
I’ve talked to my husband had this a million times, that we as parents—and I bet it’s so common—so want our children to be close when they get older. We so want to set things up so they will have each other as they get older. I know that it was a huge thing for my parents, and I bet it was a huge thing for yours.
So I wonder if you have a way to articulate why that is? Why is that so important to us? Does it somehow prove that we did it right or that we created some culture or commitment or loyalty that goes the distance? Is it something about mortality and that that’s all going to happen in the wake of our lives? And is it the comfort that we’ve experienced from our own siblings?
Jen: Me too.
Kelly: It’s actually, I think probably more rare than not. I mean most people if you ask them about their siblings are not like deeply, deeply connected and using each other to get through life. A lot of people have a nice rapport with their siblings, but they’re not like leaning on each other the way that I dreamed my children will and the way I think your family does. Both your family of origin and your made family.
Jen: Well, we’re sorting that out as adults. My sister is back there. I’m the oldest, and then we’ve got a sister between us, and then my sister Courtney, and then the baby is a boy.
Kelly: Your private baby.
Jen: My private baby, that’s right. He is very cute. Is Sarah here? My sister-in-law. Yeah, she’s back there too, she married him. She pulled him off the market, so that’s your enemy.
Kelly: But she has a baby that she could pass around to all of us.
Jen: That’s true. And another one on its way, that’s exciting. There was a time growing up—I’m going to come back to you, I’m coming to your question because I think you actually made a lot of salient points, it’s probably a little bit of all those things—but when we were growing up, there’s 10 years between us from top to bottom. We were in very different stages of life. When you’re in high school and in elementary school, you’re so in different planets.
I remember one time we fought, oh my gosh, did we ever fight? Guys, we were vicious. Weren’t we, Dad?
Jen’s Dad: I’ll say.
Jen: Yeah. And Dad didn’t help the cause because he wrestled with this all the time, and he never knew when to pull back. It starts out funny, but we’re all going into rage. And he’s just like, “Let’s keep it going, this is fun.”
Kelly: “Ramp it up.”
Jen: “Let’s see what happens.”
Kelly: “Honey, get me a beer, the kids are fighting.”
Jen: Yeah, kind of was like that. He just stirred this tornado up, and then would just walk in the backyard and leave us to our own carnage.
Kelly: It is true that no one, you’ll never be colder to another human being than to a sibling. I mean, the things that people say to each other inside families are incredible.
Jen: It’s so true.
Kelly: No civilized people act like that in the real world.
Jen: So mean.
Kelly: Unrecognizably mean.
Jen: Yes, like, our darkest devils come out with our siblings.
Kelly: Yes, and they go right to you’re softest.
Jen: That’s it, because they know.
Kelly: Because they know.
Jen: I remember one time—and I told the story maybe in Moxie, it could’ve been in For the Love—we were in the living room, and my sisters and I were in a screaming fight. And it was probably over clothes.
Jen’s sister: It was.
Jen: Yeah, was it clothes?. When you guys were into my Pepe jeans, that’s what it was. Whatever it was, somebody’s wronged me. And we are screaming holy terror. It was just very, very savage. My mom, who’s the most mild mannered person in our family, the rest of us got our dad’s personality, which is say a lot. We’re all kind of just, we’re a lot in a room together. My mom’s kind of the Steady Eddie and never really gets ruffled, doesn’t really get rattled. She kind of is the anchor of the family, but this had gone on for so long and it was so loud and terrifying that she gets in the middle of the room and she just starts screaming at the top of her lungs for like 15 seconds.
Kelly: “Mom’s having an aneurysm.”
Jen: We have literally never heard our mom act that way. She just had it, and of course it broke the spell and we burst out laughing. We’re still talking about to this day. But we did wonder.
There was a season that my brother, who’s 10 years younger than me called me “Aunt Jen,” because I was so much older than him. I mean, I left the house when he was eight. And Courtney and I didn’t get along, and Lindsey used to burn everyone’s saddle. And something happened in adulthood. Something happened. There’s a tiny bit of a magic bullet when one of them goes to college. College is a deal. That turned a corner for us as we started to move out of the house and grow up a little bit.
Now we have built just something really awesome in adult world. Being an adult sibling, when you kind of fight through the old roles and you give each other permission to be new, to be grown, to not dip into the role that you played, sort of the person that you were in the family. I’m really, really grateful. And I want this so much for my kids too.
When you’re talking, I’m nodding my head off because I think it’s a combination of things. I’m 44, and now I realize that you don’t necessarily get a ton of people in the world. You’re not guaranteed a long list of friends and neighbors who adore you and are willing to slog through your mess and show up for your kids and sort of excuse your terrible behavior and still love you through it all.
The older I get, that percentage of people I have shrinks. And I’ve realized, Oh, you need each other. Maybe all you have at the end of the day is the family that you grew up in. I don’t know, I’m still in the . . . It’s still a test case in my family. I’ve got two out and three at home, and I’m just not sure. I just don’t know how it’s going to work yet, but I so hope that they love each other, that they call each other to go to dinner, that they go on vacations together without us, that they adore their nieces and nephews. That’s my goal.
Kelly: That college thing is so resonant for me. I’m the youngest of three. I have two older brothers and my older brother went to Washington and Lee. I used to go watch their lacrosse team because it was 20 cutest boys you’ve ever seen with the legs.
Jen: Yeah. Yeah.
Kelly: Then like the soccer butt. Anyway, I digress.
But my brother Booker went to Roanoke, and I remember, this is in the olden days, kids, when you had to go to the hall and use the phone, like you were in prison or a fraternity house.
Kelly: Anyway, he called me with his quarters, he called me instead of Mom and Dad. And at the end of the conversation he goes, “Love you.”
I was like, What? Freaky. Okay, we can do this “Love . . . you . . . too.”
You just totally honed in on it. That is the requirement is to say, “Let’s start today. Let’s just be adults together. Let’s stop retreading everything that happened before this date, and let’s let each other be the new, improved versions of ourselves that we most surely are at 25 than you were at 14 when you were fighting over a Target T-shirt in the hall, while your mother, your lovely mother is having a minor aneurysm.”
Jen: I wonder if we could talk a little shop for a minute.
Jen: I would love to hear you talk about writing for a few minutes: what kind of writer you are, and how you like to write, and what your processes are, and where the tension is for you. Where does it rub? What’s your sort of ideal working environment? When do you feel like you have the wind at your back as a writer?
Kelly: Rarely, wouldn’t you say?
Jen: That’s just a fact.
Kelly: I mean, reading is where writing starts and knowing what speaks to you and what you respond to, and then starting to do that great deconstructive work of understanding why, which is so satisfying. I have a Master’s in English Lit, so I got to do that. I got to learn how to have the critics do it, and that was a really fun way to look at craft and think about exactly how this magic is made.
It’s a funny thing to deconstruct magic, because it’s an incredible chemical moment between everything that you have lived through, every book you’ve ever read, the day you find my book, and then everything I’m saying and lived and putting in front of you. And in that moment, something so big can happen. The potential of a book to be meaningful for someone, to open something up for someone, to set someone free is so thrilling. It’s like a wonder to me that everybody doesn’t want to try at one time.
Jen: No, it’s great.
Kelly: You know it, you hear it. And especially with The Middle Place because I was really writing about identity and who I was. Because in my head I was my father’s daughter. But on paper I was two people’s mother and somebody’s wife and a resident of California, but mentally I was just Greenie’s kid. In fact, that’s how I started my eulogy for when I said, “I’m George Corrigan’s daughter, like, today, forever.”
When people come up to you and say, “I had a Greenie,” like you. “I have that person, I know that love. I have been loved that well for all my life, and you crystallized it for me.
You said it the way that I could never say it. And it’s exactly, that’s exactly right. That scene where you were at odds with your in-laws, exactly. That’s exactly how I feel sometimes.”
That word I was telling somebody earlier, “exactly,” is super big for me. That’s, I think, what I’m gunning for, is for somebody to say, “That’s it, right on the nose.”
That seems lIke a great job, to chronicle ordinary life in a way that’s useful to others.
When you get a Master’s in Literature, you’re reading Dickens and Shakespeare and a little bit of Marilynne Robinson and some more current stuff. But you know, the very best of the best, the award-winning stuff that lasts is going to last for hundreds of years. When you’re steeped in that, you think, Oh my God. I can’t even believe I would ever say the words out loud ‘I want to write a book.’ Like, I’m a moron compared to these people. And I am, there’s no question.
But then I read Anne Lamott for the first time. I read Operating Instructions. Have you guys read it? Surely you’ve read some of her stuff.
To me, I was like, This is so satisfying as a reader. I’m so loving this, and I didn’t even know this type of book existed, and this is something I could try.
Yours was A Girlfriend’s Guide to Pregnancy, Vicki Iovine, right?
Jen: Right. High brow, right here. Yeah. Just the kind of book they assigned to a, you know, English Lit Master’s class.
Kelly: Did I set that up that way? I totally didn’t mean to.
Jen: No. I’m tickled because—
Kelly: I loved that book.
Jen: Because I’m actually completely agreeing with you. Anne Lamott also set me free in a similar way, which is that I think beautiful, timeless literature gives us many, many gifts. It really teaches us prose and it teaches us classic writing and gives us some of our most beloved characters. But there is something to be said for discovering an author who gives you humanity, who gives you life.
I remember reading Anne Lamott. I remember just reading the very first book of hers I read, which was Traveling Mercies. For one second, I just closed the book and I wondered, Can we say that? Are we allowed? Are we allowed in this sort of Christiany-ish space to talk like that? Because I didn’t know that I have permission for it, and I am here for this.
Then when I read A Girlfriends Guide To Pregnancy. Did any of you read that?
Kelly: It’s great.
Jen: Yeah, it sold millions of copies for a reason. Again, it was this revelation to me of going, Oh, it’s possible to talk about a fairly serious subject that has some gravitas to it, like childbirth, in a way that is warm and funny and irreverent and hysterical, and kind of breaks the rules a little bit. Writers like that gave me permission to be myself, to write in my own voice.
Kelly: Yeah, and you know what I think all the time, this is such a funny thought. It’s a little bit embarrassing, but a lot of times—you’re going to think I’m so weird—a lot of times I think this sentence: I can’t believe everybody has a different face.
I know, this is super weird. But it’s amazing. There are 8 billion people here. Your face is, you’re the only person with your face.
Jen: Yeah, what are the odds?
Kelly: There’s never going to be another person with your face. How many versions of this [are there]? It’s just a nose and a mouth, like how many iterations?
Anyway, I think that about books. I feel like there’s a lot of ways to be beautiful, like there are beautiful redheads, and there are beautiful little petite women, and there are beautiful big women. There are beautiful black women, and beautiful Asian women, and beautiful Serena Williams, and beautiful Naomi Osaka, both beautiful.
Kelly: Both beautiful, so different.
And that’s like books. Marilynne Robinson’s books are beautiful. David Sedaris books are fantastic. There’s plenty of ways to be useful, and that’s really my thing, is I really want to feel . . . You said something in your book about, “I want to honor your time. I recognize that you have a lot to do. You’re busy and you picked up this book, you bought this book, and you read this book.”
I feel that way. I feel like I’m asking a lot of you, and I want you to finish it and close it and say, Oh, so worth it.
Jen: Yeah, it’s good.
Kelly: Worth every minute. That’s what I want you to feel. I’d feel mortified if you were kind of like . . . Meh. That’s my worst nightmare.
Sometimes I used to have these horrible images in my head that I just scrub out, of two people I really respected in particular. It was Doug and Tracy Lane, which is this couple we know. And they’re really, really smart and they read great [stuff]. Then I was publishing for the first time, and I kept picturing Doug and Tracy Lane in bed, and Tracy reading the book and Doug saying, “How is it?” Her saying . . .
Kelly: Thinking like, It’s so embarrassing. It’s so embarrassing, you’re so exposed. Nobody, you can’t even believe how exposed you are, and if you face it, you would never do it. You have turn, very deliberately turn away from that thought. Because first of all, it’s taking yourself too seriously. And second of all, you would never try anything if you thought about the people going, Meh, it’s okay.
Jen: Don’t ever do that to our books, or don’t tell us.
Kelly: Yeah. Well, you can be super delusional in our world too, because we just go on book tour and the only people who come are people who like the book.
Jen: Like y’all.
Kelly: 100% of the people we interact with love our [stuff]. That does not mean that my nightmare scenario of Doug and Tracy Lane didn’t actually happen.
Jen: Yeah, it’s true.
When do you write? How do you like to write? Do you need a quiet room? Do you like a noisy white noise space?
Kelly: There’s a café in Oakland. And I really like it because they have really good coffee and then they have this incredible breakfast. It’s avocado over greens with two poached eggs and a little crushed red pepper and then this flaky salt that’s like, I don’t know where they get it, but the salt is worth the whole thing. It feels very decadent to be there, and I feel like I’m getting this giant treat, because it’s a beautiful space, and the light’s incredible, and there’s a nice hum of productivity, so everyone’s kind of doing their thing. And that feels great to me.
Writing at home is terrible. Writing at home alone is really hard for me to get in the zone because I just glance up. I mean, you can always find something to clean in your own house.
Kelly: You just glance up, and there’s like your kitchen cabinets, your shaker cabinets. Then the next thing you know, in some kind of aphasia, you’re down there on your knees with a toothpick, or like one of those disposable toothbrushes you use in the car, cleaning. Then you think, Oh my God, look how far you will go not to do this.
It’s true. You would never do this under any other circumstance, other than you’re supposed to be writing.
Jen: It’s true. Yeah. It’s like a psychosis.
Kelly: It’s the most screwy . . . The attraction and then the revulsion of writing is so weird.
Jen: Yeah, it is. We double down at deadline. If it’s due tomorrow, I am cleaning my ceiling fans.
Kelly: Oh yeah.
Jen: All of a sudden, I’m real interested in social media. I just can’t wait to hear what you’ve said that day.
Kelly: You know what I do? I go a-plucking. Yeah, I get out my tweezers and I just . . . I just feel real close, and I just get things out. I’m not going to meet the president of United States and not go to the trouble that I’m going through right now, because it’s due day.
Jen: It’s all real. Being a writer is, it’s like part magical, part nightmare, very vulnerable.
Kelly: Can you believe you’ve finished? I can never believe I finished.
Jen: I know.
Kelly: I mean I never, ever, ever thought I could ever finished a book, never.
Jen: It’s true. And you’ve finished, what, four?
Kelly: I am not that person. I am a B student, I am not impressive in any way. I don’t exercise, I don’t clean my house. I don’t know how to cook, really. I am not doing a great job in any area whatsoever. I love my friends. I’m good at that. I think I’m good at friendship, and I think it’s worth being good at.
Kelly: It’s amazing to me that anything gets finished.
Then people ask, “How you do it?”
I’m like, “I don’t know, I swear to God.”
I feel like I was drugged and then came out the other end and they’re like, “Here’s your book, go on tour.”
Jen: Well, there is something true to that. I would say most of the time for me, writing feels, it’s my favorite thing I do, it’s my favorite work of all the work that I do. But a lot of times it feels like a grind. I’m just grinding it out, I’m pulling words up from the bottom of the ocean. It’s work. But occasionally there is a moment where you catch the fire, and you can’t keep up with your fingers flying over the keyboard. And the next day when you read it, it’s almost like an out-of-body experience, like, Who wrote that good paragraph? Who told that good story?
Kelly: At max, it’s one paragraph.
Jen: It is. That’s sad.
Kelly: Just in case you thought it was like a 20-page chapter that she was talking about.
Jen: It’s only one paragraph.
Can I read something else I want you to talk about?
Kelly: Yes, but I have a few things of my own, young lady.
Jen: All right you can go next.
This is another bit that you wrote. And this is in the chapter where the sentence to grab onto is “I don’t know.” And I really resonate with this because I come from a culture that prioritizes certainty and values dogmatic, positive certainty in virtually a lot of areas. And it is disorienting for me, and it has never really rung super true.
Anyway, this is something that you wrote:
“ ‘I don’t know’ is a fairly humble position to take as a parent. Humble and astute. Me, I can’t do it. I latch onto some idea about who my girls are and who that means they’ll be, and boy, I do not like it when they evolve or change. God help the kid who loves scavenger hunts and tag and singalongs and then becomes hesitant to join in all the reindeer games, who plays three sports and then quits them to try on makeup with her new friends Imogene and Jada at the mall, who likes boys and then likes girls. Edward reminds me that I once seemed genuinely betrayed when Georgia changed her mind about hummus. ‘But you told me you loved hummus.’”
Kelly: I’m still buying it. Still unpackaged. She goes, “Mom, I don’t like hummus.”
I’m like, “You said you did!”
Jen: You’re hurt by it.
Kelly: I’m so pissed. “You promised me!”
Jen: This is where you landed the plane in that chapter. You said you wrote:
“There are exceptional people who can live with the complexity of things, who are at peace with the unknown and the unknowable. I love these people. I feel safe with them in a way that I never could with the men and women of resounding conviction, even though in the game of influencing people saying, “I’m not sure,” or ‘Sort of,’ is about as winning as body odor. Remember Fast Times at Ridgemont High when Mr. Hand destroys Spicoli for admitting he doesn’t know why he does the thing he does? Why we don’t value intellectual honesty over easy answers is beyond me. I’m just saying there are no inspirational management posters celebrating ‘Still thinking,’ and I’ve had long arguments with Edward that came down to this: someone changed their mind, and the other person didn’t like it one bit.”
I just would love for you to talk about that for a minute because I’m very drawn to this thinking.
Kelly: I am very drawn to people who think like this too.
My cousin Kathy is a huge person in my life. I’m one of a gazillion Corrigan cousins on that side, and I don’t have a sister. Kathy’s 10 years older than I am, and I’ve always admired her. She taught high school English, which is my dream job. And she’s a great reader. She’s the person who has little lines of poetry sprinkled all over bookshelves. And she has like 4,000 books, so she’s just cool. She’s also very wise and has been made wiser, sadly, by the loss of her son. Her 19-year-old, Aaron Zentgraf, was killed in a car accident after freshman year in college.
I spent so much time talking to her about it. She said this thing to me that I thought was so interesting and poignant and devastating, which was that for easily 10 years, she just asked herself all the time, Why did this happen? She couldn’t rest until she could answer that question, which is a question that’s asking for some kind of certainty that’s probably not there in the world. She said, “I finally realized it happened because it can. Cars can flip and glass can break and metal can pierce.”
That was super grounding idea for me, which is that as much as we want to make stories that make sense and then we want to say, “Somehow it’s my fault,” or, “It was Tony’s fault,” or, “It was that friend Aaron was with,” or, “It was Charlottesville fault, they party too much.” We just want answers so badly, we want a narrative to unfold. We want it to have a denouement, a moral of the story, somewhere we can land and dismiss the thought, the circling.
That is very rarely possible. You hear it all the time. The whole world has answers for everything all the time. This is why so-and-so was elected. This is why we have these problems in America. This is when everything went wrong at the company. This is why the marriage broke up. This is why this kid didn’t get into such-and-such. Right? There’s always an answer.
But there’s never an answer. There’s almost never an answer.
I heard recently that this friend of mine’s son broke up with this girl. And he, the kid, told the mom why he broke up with her. And I thought, That girl will never know that. She will work this through in her mind and with her girlfriends a thousand times why he broke up with her, and she will be wrong forever because there’s no way he’s going to tell her what he just told his mom. It’s too hurtful. That’s a simple thing, a relationship between two people.
Imagine like the failure of a company or in a massive campaign, the amount of armchair diagnosis that goes on or even just medical issues. When I was sick, I had breast cancer in my 30s. And the first thing everyone asked me is, “Is it in your family?” I knew they wanted me to say yes, because if it’s yes, then there’s a reason and then they can separate from that. They say it’s not in my family.
The same happens when a marriage breaks up. A friend of mine just broke up with her husband and it was stunning, super surprising to me. And I said, “Do you have anything for me? Like, anything I should know?” I had never listened to somebody as intently as I was listening to her in that moment, like, “You’ve got to tell me why, so that it won’t happen to me.”
That’s just never how it unfolds. And to the extent that we can get kosher with “I don’t know, and neither do you,” we can have way deeper, richer conversations, way more connection between us. And the purpose of life isn’t to come up with the answer. It’s to enjoy the journey with great people. It’s not actually particularly satisfying to come up with all these answers because you’re just undermined later when life shows you that you were wrong.
What’s satisfying is connection. This is satisfying for me anyway. This is satisfying. When you said your favorite part of the job is working, my favorite part of the job is this, like, right now. I would never do it if I didn’t get out, get to be with people afterwards and talk about it. All I want to do is start a conversation.
Jen: I think that our aversion to holding tension and to imagining that maybe it was twelve factors that factored in, and I think we see that right now, right? We see that kind of in public dialogue where it is all or nothing, you know, it is winner take all.
Kelly: “It’s her fault, it’s his fault, it’s their fault. It’s their fault.”
Jen: And it’s simple, it’s simple. “Here’s the simple answer to it.”
I feel this tendency in myself, and I actually think you mentioned this and Tell Me More, I have a tendency to reduce because it’s easier for my mind if I could just reduce it down and find the grain, like, the hard grain in the center and go, Well, there it is. It’s just this simple. And if everybody could understand this in the way that I do, we’d sort this out. I think because it offers me a backdoor to working things out, to holding nuance, to saying two things can be true at the same time, and not everything is right or wrong. I think we would be so much better if we could sort this out.
Why do we do that? I mean, is it because it’s easier and less painful?
Kelly: I do think it has something to do with like our animal brains. I do think it’s like a cognitive inclination to simplify. I think it’s like a fight-or-flight thing. It’s like our friend or foe, like, that’s the initial job of our survival is to determine whether we’re safe, whether we should flee, fight, or embrace.
So there’s all this speed processing, this “thin slicing,” as Malcolm Gladwell would say, that’s trying to help us sort all the incoming messages and people as fast as possible. But in the sorting is the reduction, and in the reduction, it does create a set of expectations that “you’re the bad guy, she’s the good guy.” Then as soon as she becomes a little bit more complicated and does something good, there’s no way I can say, “You did something good, because I already called you the bad guy and it messes up my whole map up here.”
So I think we can blame evolution for our crap brains.
Jen: It feels fair.
Kelly: Because we’re not on a Sahara anymore. I mean, we’re safe right here, right now. We’re all, no foes.
Jen: Well, and to be fair, to give ourselves a tiny bit of credit, there’s no precedence for the amount of information that is coming at us now. There’s never been a generation who has had to take in so much, so fast. It is endless. It’s literally 24 hours.
Back in the day, if you’d watch at all, you watched the 6:00 news. That’s what you got. If you missed it, you can’t stay up for 10:00 news, it’s too late. And so it was just a different, I mean, I grew up like that. Of course, we didn’t have social media and so we don’t have—
Kelly: And there one story of the world. There was one story about what happened today. Peter Jennings told you the story or—
Jen: Tom Brokaw.
Kelly: Tom Brokaw told you his story, and that’s what happened today. It wasn’t like if you flip the channel, like, the day that the Manafort and Michael Cohen stuff happened, I was flipping back and forth between CNN, MSNBC, and Fox. And I was like, If you are only watching one of these, you have no idea what also happened today. Because it was also the day that Mollie Tibbetts, is it Tibbetts, I think?
Kelly: I think was killed, and so that was the lead story on Fox. The lead story on MSNBC was Manafort. It was like, Well, this is part of the problem is that you can just, you know, I think it’s called “epistolary circularism” or something.
Jen: You learn that when you get your Master’s.
I want to talk about another piece in your book if you don’t mind.
This is you writing in a chapter called “Good Enough” and we’ll start to land the plane here. You wrote, and you tell this hilarious and self-deprecating story of a running list of failures in adolescence and young adulthood. And then you said this:
“But Greenie, blind to the flaws of his beloveds, and I learned a bit of a late bloomer himself, dismissed my plunging trendline.
‘I’m telling you, Lovey, you’re going to get there.’
Where? When? I wondered.
Finally, 10 years later after I’d set up a decent life as a functional 40-year-old, after I’d become something closer to the person he always thought I would be, I asked Greenie why he had been so sure I’d sort it out.
‘You know, Lovey, you were never down for long. You get cut from field hockey and trial for cheerleading and then—’”
Kelly: “After you went shoplifting.”
Jen: Well, there was a little inbetweener.
“‘When that didn’t work, you did chorus or the diving team. You don’t need to get it right every time. You know what I mean? A couple of wins here and there is plenty.’
That’s how it works. Someone important believes in us loudly and with conviction and against all substantiation, and over time we begin to believe too. Not in our shot at perfection, mind you, but in the good enough version of us that they have reflected. The mentors and rabbis, the grannies are certain about things we can’t yet believe.
That listening is huge. That there might in the act of committing yourself to a cause, that trying again is both all we can do and our great enabling power. They see clearly that we weren’t wrong, our aim was. They know that we are good enough as we are with not much more than our hopeful, honorable intent to keep at it. And they tell us over and over until we can hear it.”
I have written something similar about good enough. I think it’s powerful. I think it’s got legs. Can you talk about it?
Kelly: Yeah. My daughter Claire’s best friend is this girl, Ruby. And we went to Ruby’s bat mitzvah. Which of course, my mother was like, “I read your book, and I just think you should double check if it’s ‘bat mitzvah’ or ‘bar mitzvah.’ I don’t know if you’re aware, but one is for girls and one is for boys.”
I was like, “Mom, everyone in publishing is Jewish. Every single person who’s read this manuscript knows which one it is.”
So anyway, we went to her bat mitzvah. And it was so incredible.
Has everyone here been to a bat mitzvah? Like, in the Jewish religion, what a 13-year-old is expected to do in front of people like reading backwards, and reading a different language, and singing in front of their peers, and doing a massive community service project, and learning all of the Torah, and leading us through this thing. And then we keep saying these words and the words more or less translate to, “You are enough. You are enough. Even at 13 you are enough to participate meaningfully in the world. Not as a needy child, but as a contributor.”
And I just remember thinking like, God, I want my girls to feel that.
Something I say to them a lot is, “I don’t care what you do, I just want to you to take yourself seriously as a person who has something to offer.” I just didn’t do that for so long. Like I just totally abdicated my opportunity. It was like I had this idea that I wanted to be a writer, and then I realized that would never happen, and so then I should just like melt away into nothing. And then I got this great second chance.
I feel almost like we were saying about the writing or like all the different kinds of beauty. Like you know, you have something to offer. People have something to offer, and they don’t do it because it’s unnerving what you have to do to offer it. Because you can’t offer your ordinary, superficial thing. You have to like go well beyond the surface and offer something more true, that is more hard to share. That’s where all that potential for connection comes in that’s so rewarding. I mean, it’s like the reward of our humanity is that we might connect to another person.
We were just talking about this with this great girl I met tonight—woman—whose mom just died. I was saying to her that after my dad died, I cried so much. I cried for like everyday for six months, and I just was really crying. Even six months into it I was like really, really, really crying in a way that I hadn’t before. And what I was mourning was like, I’ll never have that kind of love again.
It was so simple. It was so pure. It was totally effortless. We were like made for each other. It was just totally, he was my guy, he was my person.
And then maybe three months passed and I thought, This is incredible. An 85-year-old man died, totally fair. I am 50 years old, driving around in a car, crying so hard I have to pull over and blow my nose. That people could ever love each other that much, it’s amazing. And if my kid is crying that hard when she’s 50 years old because we had it, because we felt each other that much, and we meant that much to each other, that is incredible. Absolutely incredible. There’s no higher moment in a human life.
Jen: I am so thankful that you’ve shared Greenie with us. Thank you for doing that because you gifted him to the rest of us, so much so that when you wrote online that Greenie was gone, I texted my mom and my sister and I’m like, “We lost Greenie.” And we felt devastated because we loved him through your eyes. We loved him through your telling of who he was and who he was to you specifically, and it was such a gift.
Kelly: And can I just say, I think it’s so cool that an ordinary person could be that special. We both rail against the word ordinary, both of us brought it up in our books.
I remember when The Middle Place was on the bestseller list for six months. It’s on the nonfiction side, so the only other books on the whole list were famous people. So it was like Tony Dungy, who I think is a football coach, and then there were like four politicians. Obama had two books on the list at that time. Bob Newhart had a book on the list. Steve Martin had a book on the list. Jack Welch had a book.
And I kept showing Greenie the list. I’d say, “Greenie, look at this. You’re on the bestseller list with CEOs, world leaders, legendary football coaches, presidents. And then there’s some guy that loved his kid. That’s what’s on the bestseller list.”
So good. We could be that. We could be like for somebody. Somebody could like bawl their eyes out after we die.
Do it. Let’s do it.
Jen: All right, we’re going to wrap it up. I’m going to ask you three questions that I’m asking everybody in this For the Love of Books series on the podcast, and here’s the first one.
What’s the first book that you ever read that you distinctly remember having like a impact on you?
Kelly: To Kill a Mockingbird.
Jen: Oh yeah. How old were you when you read it? Do you remember?
Kelly: I don’t remember. I just remember the voice and thinking like, Oh, this is amazing that they’re telling this, because you hear about that book for a long time before you actually crack it. It was like, Oh my God, I can’t believe the choices she made to tell the book this way through this person’s eyes. I’m a first-person reader. I like everything first-person. So and anything super voicey like that, is really thrilling for me.
Jen: Oh yeah, that was special. That was a masterpiece. I actually have regret that I didn’t name my daughter Harper Lee.
Kelly: Oh my God! I have the same regret!
Jen: Another thing in common.
Kelly: And Claire just told me the other day, she goes, “Let’s face it, you kinda like choked on my name,” because George is named after my dad and it’s like, “Oh, Greenie and Georgia!”
And Claire is like, because we were watching Six Feet Under and there was some character on there named Claire. We were like, That’s an all right name. All right.
Jen: “That’s cute. Write it down.”
Okay, how about this one: I have not asked you if you’re a re-reader, so I don’t know what you’ll say here, but what’s one book in your life that you’ve read over and over again?
Kelly: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Do you know Gilead? Like then definitely don’t read our books first. Read Gilead first, and then you can read ours. Actually read ours, then read Gilead.
Jen: Yeah, which you can get on Amazon.
Kelly: Yeah, I think there’s a link, but Gilead is so beautiful. She’s amazing, amazing writer. She wrote those three books, Gilead, Home, and Lila. And they’re all the same characters and they’re each told differently. They are absolutely stunning, I promise, promise, promise. I’ve given Gilead to 30 people. And it’s a pastor who’s dying, who is writing to his young son. He found a wife late in life, and he’s dying, and he’s talking to his son about his faith and his regrets, and the writing is so beautiful. I mean it like slowed my heart rate down. It’s so line-by-line beautiful.
Jen: Oh, I’m thrilled to hear that. Okay. Last, this is just a twist on a question I ask every guest on the show, but this is for the book series. Do you have a book that is saving your life right now?
Kelly: Yes, and it’s so good. And it doesn’t matter what your politics are, but it’s going to sound like it does because the name of the book is To Obama. But what it’s really about is people who write letters to the President of United States and the people who read them.
So there’s this woman, Fiona. And Fiona runs the OPC, the Office of Presidential Communications. They process the hundreds of thousands [letters] and then suddenly millions because he said somewhere along the line that he reads 10 letters a day. So it just, the numbers just went through the roof. There are 50 people, they process the letters. Every day they read every single letter that comes in, and then they hand back 10.
So this woman who wrote it, Jeanne Marie Laskas, and she would read a letter. This couple wrote a letter to Obama saying, “Our daughter died in 9/11. She worked at Cantor Fitzgerald. And we want her remains and we can’t get them.”
So imagine that the two of these people writing this letter after some time has passed, the hope that that implies. So then Jeanne Marie Laskas, the woman who wrote the book goes to them and asks them to tell the story of why they wrote the letter and what they hope to get back, and when they heard from Obama, and what it meant to them. So to me it was an exercise in compassion because it actually includes the letters that people wrote. And the things that people are struggling with in the United States . . . you are not often exposed to a first-person, unprocessed account of another person’s life.
So it’s like a person who’s a veteran. This 21-year-old writes a letter. It’s like four pages and handwritten to the president because her father is suicidal, and he was a veteran. He’s like struggling with PTSD, and she wants him to be able to find mental health services. And she’s asking the president to like save her father.
The letters alone are worth it. And then these backstories of going to find the people, and then the beautiful moments that happen when they receive the return letter.
Then the idea, like, Obama would keep some in his pocket and walk around with them. And for the people who worked at the OPC and this Fiona, they would hear back. I mean, they had never met him. They’d hear back through the system, “Obama carried the daughter’s letter today.”
Then this is really cool, and this is why we should all write letters and not give up, that’s how I felt. That’s why it’s saving me right now is it’s, like, you don’t have to give up. Like these are cynical hard times, but guess what? There’s still reason for hope.
So these people write the letters, somehow it would get all the way to go up his desk. It would go in his pocket. And then after only a couple months, people in the administration said, “I want to see the letters.” And so they became this friends of the letter and anything Obama got, like Valerie Jarrett was like, “I want to see whatever he’s getting. I want to see them. He talks about them all the time in every cabinet meeting, I want to see these letters.”
And now 30 people at the top are getting them, and 50 people at the top are getting them. They’re totally in a direct relationship with an ordinary American who could never even buy a plane ticket to go to Washington DC, much less have the clothes to walk through the White House. Super, super regular people with no reason to hope who are actually hoping anyway. Such a great read.
Jen: What’s it called again?
Kelly: To Obama.
Jen: To Obama. Great. Thank you.
Kelly: Thank you.
Jen: Thank you for coming to Texas.
Kelly: Thanks for the porch, I love the porch!
Jen: The porch.
Kelly: So cool. Did you get enough Jen? I feel like it turned into like Jen interviewing Kelly for the podcast, and maybe you didn’t get enough Jen.
Kelly: You’re all right.
Jen: No, never enough Kelly.
Thank you once again to our donors. Noonday Collection, my friend Jessica Honegger for giving all of you a copy of her brand-new book that just came out. If you’re still watching with us, first of all troopers.
Kelly: Yeah. First of all, go to bed.
Jen: Yeah. Second of all, we’ll put a link up there too for Jessica’s book and for Mess and Moxie, for Middle Place, for Tell Me More. They’re all on Amazon for sure. Also, thank you to Glory Haus and Discount Mugs for sponsoring the evening.
And thank you to all of you. Everybody watching this should know that we had women fly here from all of over. You know what?
Kelly: You thinks they came the furthest?
Jen: I might want to just show it real quick. One of you guys just grab that phone off there and do a little, who can do it? Who feels confident? Come on, who can like pan the crowd. You go it, get in there.
Kelly: I know someone came from Seattle, right.
Jen: Look, she’s young. She knows how to do it.
Jen: Will you turn it around and just pan the crowd so everybody can see? There you go. There you go. Look at all of them. They’re so pretty. There it is. There it is.
Okay everybody, thank you for joining us online. Thank you for coming to my house. It was a delight to host you. And thank you for coming all the way from California.
Kelly: You bet, anytime.
Jen: Let’s do it again.
Kelly: Yeah, let’s.Jen: Okay, you guys.
What a girl. What a girl. We had so much fun, you guys. I’m still grinning. I’m still grinning about that dreamy night that we shared under the twinkle lights in my backyard with 150 of our friends, new friends, hilarious friends that made us laugh. And you should just know that we finished that episode with a plateful and nachos and a cocktail and sat in a circle and laughed for another hour.
So I hope you loved our conversation. I’m so happy for you to know all of her stuff is going to be linked over on my website. So if you go to jenhatmaker.com under the transcript, sorry, under the Podcast tab, you’ll have not only the whole transcription of our conversation, but all links to her books and her sites in The Nantucket Projectand all the cool things she’s involved in. You guys will follow her and give her some love. You’ll enjoy her. She, well, she’s obviously hilarious, so she will be a bright spot in your life, if she if she hasn’t been already.
So, guys, thanks for hanging in. Thank you for all your fun feedback about the book series. I too am loving it and I wish it was ten times as long. So there’s no question this is going to be a series that we probably return to again and we repeat it. But come back next week. We have more for you, more guests. We’re so excited to bring all these fabulous people to you.
Thank you for subscribing, you guys. Thank you for rating and reviewing this podcast like you do. You just give it so much momentum and so much umph. So thank you for doing that, and go do it if you haven’t already done it. Because it is our joy to bring this to you. When I say “our,” I mean me sitting here at the microphone, my producer Laura, my assistant and partner Amanda. We all just hustle for this because we love it and we love you.
So thanks for being awesome listeners. See you next week.
Narrator: That’s it for today’s show. Hope you enjoyed this chat. Be sure to subscribe to my mom’s podcast and give it a “thumbs up” rating if you like it. From the whole Hatmaker family, hope you have a great week and see you next time!