Jenny Slate on How Writing Little Weirds Saved Her Life

Jenny Slate. Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival

Jenny Slate, whose Netflix comedy special Stage Fright recently premiered, has always been open about working to manifest the life she wants and grow into the person she would like to be. In her new book, Little Weirds, Slate invites the reader into her mind, and is honest and vulnerable on every page. Originally pitched as a way to present herself in a menu or bible form, the book does away with overarching plot, and instead focuses on lyrical micro-ruminations that manage to capture Slate’s progress over the last few years, as well as give her the chance to swing from depression to fantasy in the span of a few pages. She recently spoke with Vulture by phone about personal growth, the desire to forge a path forward that’s rooted in feminist thought, the bravery it takes to claim yourself for yourself, and how writing can save a life.

You’re one of very few people who is always honest about what it takes to do the work to grow. Do you feel like the book is a capstone to the last few years of your life? 
I don’t feel like the book is a capstone. I think this book is the start of me saying that this is the way that I really speak to myself, celebrate myself, and that it’s okay to just call something out and gesture to the world and say, “This is what it looks like and feels like to me.” I’ve always kind of labored under the agenda of comedy, and have made it look and feel light, but comedy has some strict rules. You have to be funny, or at least funny some of the time. In my book, I think there are a lot of parts that are funny, and I am a person who has humor in her naturally, but this book represents me doing enough growing and changing to have found this voice, to have found the volume.

I know the pitch for the book was to present the full, multifaceted version of yourself in kind of menu or bible form. How did the elements you started with shift as you worked on it?
The pitch of the book was too strict of a bible, and not a menu at all. When I first started writing this book, I went, Okay, I want to write a book of small pieces that are sort of feminist fables and calls to a system of ideals and ideas that promotes diversity and things being multiple, rather than this sort of elevation of empowerment. I really found myself frustrated with what I see as a confusion between self-promotion and feminism. I just found myself getting so angry about a pseudo-feminism that’s out there — one that is not intersectional or Earth-conscious. I wanted to write a book that’s sort of … I don’t know how to describe it, but my theory was that I want to exist in society in the way that flora and fauna and fungus exist in the forest. Meaning: Everything is supposed to grow, is allowed to grow, and is interconnected, and if one thing tries to take over, it fucks with the balance of everything else, and you end up sitting in a crazy mushroom patch.

However, after a while, even though I do believe this, I realized I didn’t want to write a book focused on that sort of lecture. I realized that what I wanted to do was figure out how I, in my life, as a feminist, can survive and see myself as kind and truthful. What I found was that while I was really unwilling to compromise on my belief system, I really wanted to ease my own struggle and find compassion for the harder feelings I have. I realized I was really ashamed of ways in which I felt angry, or ashamed of images of abandonment in my life, and I just wanted to bring those closer to my heart.

When you were on Sam Fragoso’s podcast, you talked about your frustration with how there are these major religious systems created by men, and how you wanted to create your own space to have a new approach to all of this. 
I went to a conservative Jewish temple, and there’s a sense in the Judeo-Christian disciplines that says “You don’t fuck with the Bible; you don’t touch those stories, you only read them.” In the last few years, I’ve just felt like, Okay, this stuff doesn’t work for me. I’m also tired of yelling at big crowds of invisible men in my brain and asking them to change it. Instead, I’m going to change it for myself. I’m going to go and sit down and write what version of myself feels holy to me.

I’m so tired of being in combat with the rules of engagement under patriarchy, rules which always favor the aggressor and predator, rules that are just not humane. I decided to take that out of the picture, and just like any god in any religious text, I’m going to be a goddess for myself, and I’m going to create and be the character of the Creator my own origin story. I’m not saying I’m a god. I’m just going to mimic. It’s not to be disrespectful to any devout person.

It’s not my original idea to be interdisciplinary, but I decided to show what my idea of an interdisciplinary, interfaith, multi-faith, new invented faith lifestyle might be. I think a lot of people can be really discouraged from fantasy, because people brace for disappointment. This idea of “don’t get your hopes up” is the whole thing, but fantasizing doesn’t necessarily mean that you hope something will happen. It just means you access a realm where you have different powers, and where nobody says you can’t use them.

One of the things the book captures well is how women can just be so kind to each other and lift each other up.
I will say: Mae Whitman and Jane Levy, they’re both actresses, and we all work in this strange world. These two women have saved my life a million times. I wanted to write this piece to thank them, but also to remind myself and everyone else that there is a type of love that can occur that is just as high a love as romantic partnership.

For me, I’d always put romance first. I had always done that. It was always the most important to me to be in love, to be lovable, and to have that romantic, sexual love that turned me on so much. When we went on our trip to the beach, that wasn’t really in my life, and I was not starving. I realized that I hadn’t believed in it before — that the love of friends could be just as nourishing as the intention and primacy as romantic partners. But in situations like that, what I think needs to happen for that vibrant love to occur is what happened for us. We really, really had a big laugh about patriarchy, and some of the inane, oppressive stuff that we see in our industry, and that we see in the world in general. We started to function as if it didn’t exist. The second we started to function that way in our own little house, it didn’t, and every time there was something that triggered a moment where the rules should come down and make us stop or start doing something, we couldn’t. It was wonderful, and it changed my life forever.

You have four places where you’re dying in the book, and then this ending where you imagine having lived a long life where you’ve found true love and had a son in a house near the sea. What did those serve for you in writing?
You know when you find yourself alone, and you think, If only I had done this or that? For me, I found that thought process to be boring, painful, and not helpful. Instead, I wrote for myself what my life would have been if I did have a partner, and we had a complex but enjoyable, deeply loving partnership — what would that look like for me? Where would we live? What would it mean to lose that person after living with them forever, and not having any interruptions in our engagement?

At the time, I was just like, Oh no. Am I just an actress that’s had a lot of long-term boyfriends, and I’m never going to be able to have what I really want, which is just long term, deep monogamy? Am I just a lost cause? So, I wrote down all my wishes.

What’s funny is that, at the time, I had met the man I’m now engaged to, and he does live in a house by the sea. He kind of existed in the back of my mind for a year and a half, but I didn’t really know him. But, it was just a wish, and also a funeral for all of the things that had not worked out. I wrote that for myself so that I could move on. I thought to myself, Well, I’d much rather be wishing for a specific life. And a real wish that includes death. A sensible wish for a full life, instead of this abusive reiteration of what I characterize as all my mistakes. Because that is keeping me in an unchangeable state of isolation and sorrow. I just couldn’t live like that anymore, so I wrote a fantasy for myself where I live a full life, and die at the end of it.

In an interview earlier this year, you said the book saved your life. Would you mind unpacking what you meant by this?
I felt despair, powerless, and mentally, pretty unwell. I felt that my good points were buried, and that I didn’t have the strength to unearth them. I felt like I wouldn’t know how to use my skill set if I were to find it again. I felt such heaviness and purposelessness. Pairing that with living in this America, I just felt very, very lost, and just wanted to connect to positive feelings again. When I say it saved my life to write this book, it’s like saying it allowed me to keep an ecosystem alive. There’s a version of my life where I’m just always super stoned, and not reading, and depressed, and not treating myself well or being active. I haven’t lived that life completely in quite a while, but I, like everybody else, am susceptible to completely giving up.

I just really felt like I can’t under serve myself in this way anymore. I have this idea for this book, and no confidence that I can write it. If I say that I’m going to, and someone decides to pay me, I’m going to have to show up. One thing I know about myself is that even if my methods are unorthodox, I am a good student. I just needed to rip myself out of a heavy, heavy emotional mud. It’s very hard to talk about how sad I was. I also think it’s really important to say that sorrow is not the same thing as pessimism. I felt sorrow, but I remembered to be an optimist, even if it felt totally foolish. There was a thing in my head where I was like, Whoop! Maybe I’m going to have to call these people up and say sorry, I didn’t do it! There’s an option for me in my head, which is me failing. That exists. But, I pulled myself through, or at least so far I have. Maybe one day I won’t, but I’ll just keep trying my best.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Jenny Slate on How Writing Little Weirds Saved Her Life