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‘The moment and the experience’: Carrie Brownstein on memoir and music

Read Thursday, 10 Mar 2016

In Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, Carrie Brownstein – one third of pioneering riot grrrl trio Sleater-Kinney, and star of comedy sketch show Portlandia writes of her turbulent suburban upbringing and of finding her people in the feminist punk scene. 

In this edited transcript from Brownstein’s conversation with Myf Warhurst, Brownstein explores the process of constructing her memoir, the relationship between music and memory – and her strategic goal as a child: to marry Danny from New Kids on the Block.

Myf Warhurst and Carrie Brownstein
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Myf Warhurst: You’ve said that the role of a memoir is not to write what you know, but to write what you want to know … [in Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl], what is it that you wanted to know about yourself, or about your history? 

Carrie Brownstein: I want to attribute that sentiment to Vivian Gornick, who wrote an essay, ‘The situation and the story’, which was very informative. I was very deliberate when I set out to write this book – I’m an assiduous reader, but I specifically wanted to read about memoir before I set out. 

I guess what I wanted to know was … I wanted to kind of figure out a way of cohering what I consider a divided self. I had started kind of on the periphery, on the margins, really feeling outside as a young person, and I kind of found my way into a sense of embodiment through music and through community. I wanted to find out what that journey entailed, and that’s the story that I that I went in to write.

I was very strategic with boy bands. With New Kids On The Block, everyone loved Jordan Knight or Joey, and I just thought, ‘I don’t have a shot with those guys’, so I strategically thought that if I liked Danny, who was a little bit less popular, then I might have a shot. I didn’t.

But I also discovered that it’s really hard to write a book! There’s just no magic to it. There’s no flash of inspiration – it’s all diligence and setting down to do it. It involves a certain kind of work ethic. I basically just woke up around 5am every day. That doesn’t mean I was writing all day!

For me, procrastination starts out very noble. You think, ‘I’m going to answer emails’, and soon you’re answering emails from people that have written to you months ago, like distant family members and [unrelated] business emails, and you’re signing up for reward certificates from hotels and then you’re just buying things on Amazon … So basically, if I didn’t just get up and make coffee and write, then I would sort of go down those pathways of procrastination. And if you get up early then you can finish at eleven and just drink the rest of the day, so …

How did you start [the memoir]? Did you think ‘I’m going to start at the start, in my younger age’?

No. It was too daunting, and I told my editor that I probably wouldn’t be approaching it chronologically. I did write in sections and later coalesced those things into a structure and filled that in. I had never written long-form before [but] I had written a lot of essays and short-form pieces, and I knew that ‘I was born, blah blah blah’ was just not how the book was going to be written. But I do think outlines are very important for any writing endeavour. We do that for Portlandia. In some sense, we do that for Sleater-Kinney. You know you need to have an infrastructure that you can fill in.

Image: Carrie Brownstein, in conversation with Myf Warhurst
Myf Warhurst and Carrie Brownstein

I like that you shared with us some of your formative musical experiences [in the memoir, which were] perhaps unexpected for those who may have grown up with you knowing your more rock’n’roll and punk side. Especially the early years, in the ’80s, when you mentioned the first concert you went to.

I don’t know how it can be surprising to anyone that as a child in the ’80s, I loved Madonna! I mean, you had to. I haven’t seen her since 1985, when I was in fifth grade. It was her Virgin Tour … and it was my virgin tour – we were virgins in very different ways.

The requisite costume for a Madonna fan at the time was very lace-heavy, and I asked my mum if I could borrow her wedding dress to wear to the concert – and my mum said ‘no’, which I think was very wise.

[The concert] was amazing, and it changed my life. I was very obsessed with pop music as a kid. It was larger than life – George Michael’s Faith Tour and New Kids On The Block … I was very strategic with boy bands. With New Kids On The Block, everyone loved Jordan Knight or Joey, and I just thought, ‘I don’t have a shot with those guys’, so I strategically thought that if I liked Danny, who was a little bit less popular, then I might have a shot. I didn’t. But I think as fans, we maneuver through the world like this – we think strategically. I see this all the time on social media, people vying for extra attention, and I did that as a kid. I wrote letters, and tried to figure out, ‘What’s the way in to this person?’ I wish I could say that Danny and I are married now – that would be such an amazing ending to that story. I told this story on American television and [Danny] started following me on Twitter, so it’s kind of the same thing.

Do you think that music was a way of you navigating through life? Was music a tool that you used to navigate through a childhood that was sometimes difficult?

When you’re young and you feel inarticulate, you know what [an] experience is, but you don’t necessarily know how to name it, or codify it or classify it. And you turn to film or art, but I think music in particular is something that sort of tells your story for you, or you discover yourself through a song and you think, ‘Oh, yes – that’s exactly what I’m going through.’ I really clung to that as a lifeline, and music became a demarcation of certain times of my life. Which is why music is so contextual.

‘I think particularly music in particular is something that sort of tells your story for you.’

I write about this in the book, going back and listening to things that felt so important to me at 16 or 20. And sometimes that stuff sounds terrible, actually. But what was amazing about it was who I was listening to the songs with, or where I was or what was going on in my life. The value is very subjective. It’s about the moment and the experience that you’re sharing with other people.

Tell me about the first time you bought a guitar. You went into the shop and went, ‘That’s the one I’m going to have.’ What was that moment like, and why did you choose the one you chose?

I write in the book that people sort of romanticise and mythologise the buying of a guitar – as if it’s handed down to you from an old blues guy or something. It was not like that. It was in the suburbs, I walked into a store that smelled of antiseptic, there were other kids in there getting their saxophones or clarinets and I just was like, ‘I want the red one’. I had no sense of ‘this is the kind of guitar I should play’ or ‘this one sounds better’, or [any idea about] the thickness of the neck or the quality of the bridge, or any of that. I just thought, ‘Red and white? Looks good.’ It was cheap, and I bought it.

And what did you do when you took it home – what was the first song you played on it?

Well, I don’t know any songs. We had a childhood dog at the time named Buffy, and I wrote a song called ‘Buffy is Fluffy’. It was two chords, and it’s a pretty great song.

Image: Sleater-Kinney in the '90s
Sleater-Kinney in the ’90s

You said that sometimes performance covered up the tough stuff in your life, and you do deal with the tough stuff in your book – you deal with your mum’s anorexia, and I imagine that was terribly rough. Was it rough to write about?

Not necessarily. I think that a memoir is so different from a diary. A diary to me is a first draft, or even something that exists as source material. It doesn’t have that kind of artistry or craftsmanship to it. So even though I was writing about a subject that for the reader might be intense and emotionally exists in a complex realm for me, the process of writing about it is much more architectural. You are really thinking about syntax and the tempo and how to do something more than dictation.

‘I think that a memoir is so different from a diary. A diary to me is a first draft, or even something that exists as source material.’

Despite the subject matter, the thing that was difficult was the writing and was creating the narrative that I wanted to tell. It wasn’t until later, when I was [recording] the audiobook [that I] stepped back from it and … felt the weight of some of the material. But I wouldn’t call the process therapeutic.

There were things that were harder to write about than my mother’s illness, and those things weren’t necessarily the emotionally heavy moments. They were just, ‘How do I, you know, encapsulate this moment on tour?’ or ‘How do I write about music for this particular album versus this album in a way that isn’t redundant?’ Actually, those took more effort than some of the moments that already existed in a kind of a mansion-like way in my mind.

Image: Carrie Brownstein at a 'Dig Me Out' recording session in 1996
Carrie Brownstein during recording sessions for <em>Dig Me Out</em> in 1996

I wasn’t crying my way through [writing the memoir]. It’s like when I’m writing a song. During the writing of it, it doesn’t feel sad, [but the] performance adds a certain emotionality to it. And reading isn’t performance, but it’s kind of as if you have a sheet of music. Zadie Smith talks about the reader as, instead of just someone that’s passive, it’s like you’re looking at a composition and you’re kind of doing the work, and you’re interacting with it. When you’re performing a vocal take of a song, sometimes that’s when you realise, ‘Oh my gosh, this is intense’. And sometimes when you’re reading something, that’s when you’re realising the emotional impact of something, but when you’re actually writing it, it’s so much more of a structuralist exercise. [Subsequent] drafts bring out different emotionality.

You’ve written this book, which is very much a personal thing; you’re on a TV show; you do so many public things – how do you how do you maintain that sense of private self now?

I’m very careful with what I share, and in this book, I knew what the story was, and I knew what fragments and vignettes from my life would serve that story – and I left out things that were superfluous or seemed overly tawdry. It really was intentional. I like interactions that are mediated with a certain formality. I love when the band plays and that is such a wonderful way to interact with the audience – that is a sharing on both sides. I think social media, it has the illusion of being very personal, but in some ways it’s performative – it’s a very curated kind of sharing medium, but I like the access that it brings.

Knowing boundaries and keeping them in mind is really important to me. I really value my privacy and I live a pretty quiet life because I get to do a lot of fun things, so I sort of counter that with things that are a little more introspective.

‘You can’t really write in a vacuum … You have go out and live life in order to keep creating.’

Audience member: Do you think there’s such a thing as work-life balance?

I am very fortunate in that the realms in which I work are not divorced from friendship and from communion and from community. All of my creative endeavours have very familial-like structures. On Portlandia, I have Fred, who’s a dear friend, plus a group of writers, plus a crew who are all very close, so it’s not so atomised or compartmentalised that when I’m writing or shooting Portlandia [I feel] divorced from life.

Same with Sleater-Kinney – getting to tour and be in cities all over the world and be with two of my dearest friends. I do think a balance is important and I think that there are certain kinds of jobs that really take you away from that – and I am grateful that mine don’t do that quite as much. But I do try to create time for myself and for my friends. You can’t really write in a vacuum. I think it happens to television shows to where they become so self-referential or bands that are just like writing about ramblin’ because they’re always on the road. You have go out and live life in order to keep creating.

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