Lena Dunham: "I write under duress, often in my bed, often at the last minute"

The "Girls" creator talks to Salon about Season 3, Twitter and letting guys sleep in her bed

Published December 27, 2013 1:00AM (EST)

Lena Dunham                       (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)
Lena Dunham (Reuters/Carlo Allegri)

In college, at the age of 21, she peeled off her clothes in a public fountain, proceeded to brush her teeth and posted a video of it on YouTube. What she revealed was her body in all its pale tattooed glory, and what she unleashed was argument that lives to this day about whether she is or is not fat, is or is not pretty, should or should not be embarrassed of her body.

When she graduated, she moved back home with her parents and made the film “Tiny Furniture” about a confused 20-something who has just moved back in with her parents. And then Lena Dunham, who unashamedly took over the world in her underwear with a sense of self worth, humor and love that earned her a legion of fans, wrote, directed and starred in the HBO show “Girls.” Season 3 of the show will premier this January, and Dunham is also in the process of publishing her first book.

Dunham, a pale pixie in a Cheetah print sweater, walked into Siggy’s Good Food in Brooklyn wearing no makeup. Over lunch and almond-butter-and-banana shakes, we talked about her writing process, how women are taught to take up less space than men, badass grandmas and the inspiration for Season 3 of “Girls.”

I was living in Mexico when I found out about “Girls,” and I want you to know that I watched the whole first season in two days. 

Welcome back to the United States and thank you for watching “Girls.”

One of the things that I love about you and about “Girls” is the way that you occupy space in an unapologetic “this is mine” way. I’ve been talking about this with friends, about the way men take up space vs. the way women collapse into ourselves, cross our legs…

Don’t feel comfortable taking up our full chair, apologize for putting our arm on the armrest.

Yes. Personally, I feel socialized to not take up space, and I have to work to change that. What is it about your childhood, about your mom, about your grandma, what is it that made you able to do that?

You know, it’s funny, I think part of inquiry into that kind of stuff started when I entered high school and went from being a really tiny kid to a chubby teenager and had to figure out how to handle that shift in my body. It’s interesting because I was looking at that transition and trying to figure out how to deal with my new body. It’s funny, I don’t know, maybe it’s a selfishness thing, but when there are only a few chairs or something, I’m never the person who is like, “I’ll stand.” I always sit down, because I prize comfort highly. I don’t know if you saw that slam poem that went viral a couple weeks ago.

I did.

That amazing girl talking about being trained to do that. And actually Jemima, who plays Jessa on the show, sent it to me. She’s like “I know you’re busy, but watch this. It’s very moving.” And I found it very moving, because she was asking a question that doesn’t get asked very often. It was really profound.

I saw that. It made me think about work, where in my office men lay back in their chairs, put their feet up. 

Totally. It makes me want to do something inappropriate. Another part of it is the fun of playing a character like Hannah who is somewhat unaware. She tries to be really aware of social aspects but fails. In that space between trying and succeeding is the comedy of using your body too broadly or knocking into things. I’m also really spatially unaware as a person.

I’m curious about what your mom and grandmother are like. I watched “Tiny Furniture.” I imagine that you have a pretty badass mother/grandmother lineage going on here.

I have an amazing mom. We actually just last week gave a talk together at the Brooklyn Museum, which was an amazing experience because instead of just existing in our relationship, we discussed our relationship and what it means for both of us creatively. On my dad’s side I was super close with my grandmother. She was nontraditional by the standards of her time. She married really late, 35, which in the ’40s is like, you might as well be 100. She’d been a nurse in the army and a counselor for underprivileged teenagers. She took a really interesting route and settled into traditional wife- and motherhood pretty late. She was a good storyteller. A huge part of my childhood and a huge part of my wanting to write was sitting with my grandma and just listening to her talk about going to Germany during the war, going to Mount Holyoke, going to Yale nursing school, going to new cities alone. She had a knack for illustrating it all, and her stories are really riveting. My mother’s mother is much more traditional. She’s a Jewish country club, blowout-having, lipstick-wearing grandma.

What role does writing play in your life? Are you more of a Joan Didion notebook writer, a Hemingway-blood-on-the-page type, or an “I’m emotional, I’m just going to throw it out there” maniac?

I want so much to be someone who sees something and writes it down in their beautiful leather notebook. The fact is that I write under duress, often in my bed, often at the last minute. I’m kind of a binge writer I would say, which I don’t support. I was always kind of that way. Probably the time I was the most regular as a writer was college. It was like, what else is there to do when you’re living in the Midwest studying creative writing?

Now I have to really guard and cherish my writing time, because there are so many other demands on it. There’s what the show takes up, because the show has so many other aspects besides writing. There are a lot of other areas of interest for me, but writing time is where everything comes from. I have to make sure to be really careful with it. It’s hard for me. When I had other jobs, like when I was working in a clothing store, or I was a hostess, I had this weird schedule where I would work, come home, take a nap, then write from 11 p.m. to 4 a.m., then go back to sleep. I basically figured out a schedule where I could have the strength to get something done at night.

Now it’s harder for me to go in and out of various modes, so I have to set aside days where I’m like “I’m getting writing done today.” Because a big part of it for me is being able to dawdle, or look at things on the Internet, or take a moment to answer six emails, or walk around a circle, or go out and read the newspaper. The day needs to hold enough space for all the other stuff that goes with writing. I would say that my writing comes from more of an emotional place than an “I’m in the street, I observe something, and I get an idea” place. I wish that I had more of that. That’s like where more of my tweets come from, which is a bummer. I’m hoping that it can evolve with age, as all things do.

Tweeting can evolve with age.

Tweeting can, and my approach to having a reasonable schedule can evolve.

How do you feel about balancing pop culture, social media and projects?

It depends on the day. Some days I’m like “This is the greatest most fun challenge! I can do this all at once! What a joy!” And some days I just feel like “How are we supposed to fill all of these roles?” I’m a writer, and sort of an actor, and a director, but I’m also supposed to be able to pose for photos and have an amazing Twitter that doesn’t offend anybody.

That is really funny all the time.

All the time. I feel like I miss a little bit the old – I mean it was kind of pre my career – but the idea that you made something, you put out a book or you put out a movie, and then you went into hibernation. You had your experience of preparing to put the next thing into the world. And that doesn’t exist, because people are blogging and tweeting.

I find that a lot. Especially being a writer, you basically have to promo yourself full time, but it feels horrible because you are like “I don’t want to promo myself.” It becomes a complicated question.

It really does. I often find on Twitter that I just want to tweet about SNL. I don’t want to tweet, “I wrote this. Go read it.” It’s an interesting conundrum. But I also feel like my writing can always serve as a place to go back to. It is really comforting. I feel like in bad times or good it is a safe space to enter. It’s easy to forget that, but it’s consistently true. I feel lucky always to have that medium, which is as private as you want it to be and is affordable.

I was looking through interviews with you. It’s always the same questions, “feminism, your body, what is it like, da da da, you’re an exhibitionist, yada yada.”

It’s true and the answers change. But it is nice that you’ve just asked me good questions that don’t live in the usual space. And that’s nice too, because if you don’t get exhausted about talking about yourself and your work, then you’re a monster.

What sort of visual and cultural explorations inform the creation of Season 3 of “Girls”?

We had a few goals for Season 3. One was to push each of the character’s back-stories and histories further and to better understand why they’re facing what they’re facing. I feel like that’s the thing you often don’t get in comedies about a bunch of pals, a sense of where they’re coming from and why. I wanted to talk about that moment when the messiness goes from feeling age-appropriate to “Is this a problem?”

That’s what your movie “Tiny Furniture” explores too. 

I also wanted this season to have more alone time with each character. I don’t know if you know the filmmaker Agnès Varda. She’s a French filmmaker. She’s amazing. I actually just met her. She’s in her 80s, and she was having an exhibition in Los Angeles and I was like, “I’m going to meet her.” Her movies have a lot of quite interior time with female characters. I’m not going to say that this has turned into epic, lonely episodes, but I liked the idea of seeing them together and seeing them alone and seeing what the differences were. Also, for Hannah I really wanted it to be about why she wants to be a writer and what it means to her, to make it less about her relationship to any particular guy and about how she is defining herself.

The crushing weight of wanting to be a writer and getting to the point where you can give that up and still write.

I think what we are going for was to look at about how much of her desire was about actually wanting to write and how much is wanting to have this life. I remember this, and I still sometimes I’ll be like “I’ve got to make another feature this year. It’s ridiculous that I haven’t made another feature.” And then I’m like “Where is this coming from? This is coming from some macro sense of what should have happened?”

What have I produced? What am I producing? Looking at life like that.

It’s exhausting and ironically ultimately unproductive. Although I do think it drives a lot of what is made. I was trying to look at what role that type of pressure plays in her writing.

Do you have time to read?

All the time. But it often exists in a very different world than the show does, because the show is such a specific universe that reading is my escape from it. This summer I was reading a bunch of Diana Athill. She’s amazing. When she was 75 she decided to write her first memoir, and now she’s written like seven memoirs. I read "The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P." and I loved it. It was the first novel I’ve read that was taking place in the same world as “Girls.” It was cool to see how fiction could deal with that differently. You get an internal monologue, and that was cool. When you’re making a show where you don’t ever get inside anyone’s head, you don’t get a voiceover, there’s only so far you can go to illuminate somebody’s thought process.

Something that’s in “Girls” and in “Tiny Furniture” that I can relate to as well, especially in “Tiny Furniture,” is the situation with the guy living in your house who is a terrible moocher, and yet you want to make him happy. That’s something that happens so often. Why do we have that feeling that “I want to please this person?”

Even though they’re not that wildly impressive.

Not at all.

It’s an interesting thing. I think a lot of it is our desire to show off and our mothering complex join forces. I think also a lot of it comes from not having the confidence that you have something to offer as your own entity. You think either this person isn’t going to be impressed enough about you just through the art of conversation or through the privilege of getting to look at your face. There’s also the sense that this person’s addition to your life is going to up your worth in some way. Even if you intellectually know it’s not true, it’s hard to let go of the emotional component that tells you that it is. I still find that all the time I want to say, “Stay in my apartment when I’m out of town. Sure, I can get you tickets for that.” Half the time I’m offering something I don’t even have, and I’m just scrambling around. It’s very female. I wish I could say that making a movie about it ended it for me, but it did not.

I’ve been thinking about it for years, and I still have to work not to do those things, bend over backwards for people who don’t care about me at all.

It’s horrible. I think I also liked the feeling at times of people being a little indebted to me, which is a darker angle of it, but it’s definitely there. There’s a piece of my book about letting guys sleep in your bed. You’re not sleeping with them, just letting them sleep in your bed and what that is. It’s really interesting, because I’ve done a lot of that in my day. And now the idea of someone sleeping in my bed with me who I’m not sleeping with is literally my worst nightmare. I’m like, “I cherish my sleep. I worked hard for my bed.”

That was my favorite part of “Tiny Furniture”– when your Mom, who plays your mom in the film, screams, “You’re not even sleeping with him!”

My Mom and I just re-watched that at the event we did together, and she was laughing because it all came from our life.

What is the status of your book?

I’m almost done. I’m spending another two weeks on it, and then it goes to copyediting. I just saw some covers. I’m actually reading at Carnegie Hall tonight. The book has been a joy to write and a completely different experience than making the show.

By Alice Driver

Alice Driver is the author of "More or Less Dead." She writes about feminism, activism, and social movements for Vice, Al Jazeera English, Ms. Magazine, the Texas Observer, and Vela. Follow her on Twitter @DriverWrites

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