Rebecca Fishbein is the author of Good Things Happen to People You Hate and a contributor at Jezebel. Her work has appeared in Vice, Splinter, The Cut, Medium, Time Out New York, and Lifehacker, to name a few. She lives in Brooklyn.
Lisa Grgas: Good Things Happen to People You Hate opens with you in a dark emotional space. It’s 2017 and you’ve just learned via email that billionaire Joe Ricketts has shut down DNAinfo and Gothamist in a response to reporters and editors unionizing. You’ve lost your job and access to your archive and are stuck in LaGuardia’s Terminal B with a flight to catch. Somehow, though, your telling of this personal and professional tragedy is funny. Can you speak to the relationship between comedy and tragedy in your writing?
Rebecca Fishbein: Sure. Initially this book was pitched as a kind of humor book. I intended to set out to write a funny book in part because losing your job is extremely unpleasant and I wouldn’t wish it on anybody. I didn’t really want to set out to write a super serious book about small tragedies. It was not a pleasant experience. It was pretty awful.
I happened to be going to Nashville that weekend and happened to be at LaGuardia airport, which is the worst place to get any type of bad news. It’s just atrocious. There was no bar, no place to go. Terrible. I wanted to write about it in a way that people could relate to—not just losing my job but other small tragedies—in a way that was relatable but not over-dramatic. I was certainly overdramatic. I mean, I wasn’t over-dramatic, I lost my job. I mean, at that moment, it was the worst thing that had ever happened. I just completely lost it. I lost my job… A lot of people lose their jobs.
I also think that I’m probably the kind of person that uses humor to mask pain. Probably a lot of people do. I’m pretty used to trying to mask bad things in humor. I do think, sometimes, that it’s easier to relate to something when it’s funny because, instead of feeling, like, it wasn’t so bad XYZ happened, you can sort of laugh at it, think through your own experience, and see how it matches up with the humor that was presented.
LG: Were you able, eventually, to access your archive? I hope your writing wasn’t lost…
RB: Yes. I’m not actually sure what happened. It may have been a CMS issue but we were able to get our writing back. It took a few days. That ended up not being as big of a deal as I thought it was going to be. But in the moment everything was gone. We couldn’t access anything. It was pretty horrifying. Oh my god. Now I have every single thing I’ve ever written downloaded in PDF form on my computer. To lose all of your work—6 years worth of work—is just unimaginable. I have it all back but… Someone wanted to call me in for a job interview right after the site got shut down. He was like, “I would ask for clips, but I assume you don’t have any.” To think about not having any clips, not having anything to show for years of work, was not great.
LG: You mentioned you were approached to write Good Things after your layoff from Gothamist. I’m curious whether the opportunity felt like a welcomed upside to a terrible situation or if committing to a new project in a new form (essay vs. blog) brought additional stress.
RF: I had a little bit of time to ease into the essay form. To write a nonfiction book you have to have an outline, which required me to have a few sample essays and also a list of things I might want to write essays on if the book were to be bought by the publisher. I wasn’t commissioned to write it by the publisher as much as somebody said, “This might be a good idea for you to write.” I put together a proposal and then the proposal got bought. I think I wrote two or three sample essays. My first few were terrible. I definitely did not think I was going to manage to pull a whole book together. After I got laid off, I tried a bunch of different kinds of writing. I wrote some longer form articles, I wrote some blog posts, I wrote essays. So I had some time to practice before I had to sit and write a whole book. It did seem daunting at first.
LG: It’s interesting that you took the essay upon yourself as a new form. What brought you to it?
RF: That’s a good question. I was reading a lot of essays at the time, and it seemed to me that this was something I would be able to do. I’m not sure. If I could go back in time I might tell myself not to write personal essays. But, at the time, it seemed like a great idea. I was reading Sloane Crosley, Samantha Irby, and Phoebe Robinson, all great essay writers. I thought that I could also do it. So, I did. But it’s not easy. I had written a few, I think, for Gothamist. I wrote an essay for The Cut around the same time I was writing the outline for the book. It seemed like a natural fit. Also, with writing blog posts, I did insert the personal in the posts. Not all the time, but quite frequently. I was sort of used to writing about myself but usually packaged as an article. It was a natural transition, even though it did take some work.
LG: You mentioned the first couple of essays you wrote were not very good. What didn’t you like about them?
RF: There’s a certain artform to the essay that I struggled with a little bit. Like, what the point was, how much to reveal, how much not to reveal. I think some of the essays are meant to be funny, so they focus on the more hyperbolic aspects of certain experiences for the sake of humor. It was just something new, a new form of writing, and I hadn’t done it in a long time. It required me to flex a new muscle. I think the first essay that I wrote was actually the Sun-In essay. It was a very different essay when I started writing it. The second was the Taylor Swift essay.
LG: I really enjoyed both of those. It’s funny that the early drafts you didn’t like turned into two of my favorites.
RF: That’s good! I did change them. I think any new writing, you try it a few times, and then you scrap it.
LG: Circling back to the opening essay, “The Key to Success Is Never to Have a Dream,” you attribute much of your success as a blogger to being a bad student and habitual procrastinator. I’m going to quote you for a second. You write: “In the blog world, being a procrastinator was an asset. You had to think on your feet without time to prepare, and you had to love the rush that comes with publishing something decent in less time than it takes to defrost a chicken breast.” You’ve mentioned already that you had to change your approach to transition from blog to essay to book. What did you read? What techniques did you use?
RF: When I worked at Gothamist, I wrote a few longer form articles that required me to take a few days or maybe a week to put something together. I had a little bit of practice with longer pieces. Also, before I got into blogging, I was writing articles and I did have to write essays for school. I’d forgotten how to do any of that. Writing essays for the book, I actually set up a schedule for myself, where I was going to try to write one essay a week. I was giving myself a deadline instead of just having an extended period of time to have a big project in front of me. I was nervous about having a longer deadline. That was new for me.
When the book came out and I did a couple of events, I joked that I blacked out and wrote the book, and that kind of is what happened. I really tried just writing whenever I was gripped by a moment, if that makes sense. It was nice that I didn’t have to get something out in an hour. I work really well in the morning and late at night. I would go for five-hour long walks, and then I would come home, and then I would probably put off whatever I was supposed to be doing until, like, two o’clock in the morning and write for hours. I think my process was, whenever it was mostly quiet with nobody around I would put the book together. I ended up finishing by my deadline, so I guess it worked out.
LG: That sounds like an incredible opportunity, to be able to write and think and walk. Did you enjoy it?
RF: Yes, I did. I was working at the same time. I blogged for Jezebel. I wasn’t working full-time. I was working nights for Jezebel, so I did have some requirements. I do some real estate writing, so I did have to balance my writing with work. But I didn’t have to have a full-time job during that period. That was actually really nice. It felt a little bit like what I would imagine it is to pay a mortgage, if that makes sense. I was working, but I was working for myself, paying myself back, as opposed to making something for somebody else. So, that was really nice. I felt really lucky to be able to do that, because so much of my writing has been for other people. It was very nice to have my own time to write what I wanted. It was also very stressful. It went both ways.
LG: I don’t know too much about the blogging world. I imagine commercial publishing is much slower, and maybe having to juggle the insights and feedback of agents, editors, marketing, etc. could affect your process.
RF: Blogging is sort of a general term. What I do for Jezebel is very much blogging. I take a news story and make it my own. For Gothamist, I did a lot more actual reporting. I would go to events and call people, so my timeline was more dependent on other people than my own. I’m so used to writing something and then having it published immediately. I have a story, I write the story in an hour, and the story goes up in another hour. I publish my own stories for Jezebel, so immediately it goes up. I’m not used to waiting a really really really really really long time for something to come out, which was a stress that I wasn’t totally prepared for or used to. But, also, when you publish a blog post or article, it comes out, you think about it for twenty seconds, and then you never think about it again. A book, it’s kind of attached to you for much longer. I wasn’t used to having to take care of something for that long, to carry it with me for as long as I did, for as long as I will. It’s also weird to have writing that you did a long time ago get published. If I read something I wrote a year ago… I don’t write like that anymore. It’s interesting to read something that I wrote two years ago and go, “Oh, that’s coming out now.” Any changes that I made to my own style, things that I may have left out or embellished or whatever… Everyone’s getting an old version of me.
LG: Absolutely. Shifting gears a little bit: Many of the essays in Good Things explore the new (and awful-sounding) world of contemporary dating. Your essay “Sex Is Good for Your Complexion, but I’d Rather Have Acne” introduced me to the concept of the Sex Date and the subtle (and unsubtle) ways dating culture shapes women’s expectations about sex and intimacy. Can you speak more to this theme, which recurs in the book?
RF: Sure. I have been on a lot of dates in the last ten years. An interesting thing about dating in the modern age is that it’s mostly done online. It’s pretty difficult. My therapist has said repeatedly that I would have done better in Victorian times when you’d just marry your neighbor or cousin. I think that my friends and I have talked a lot about online dating and how difficult it is and how pressured it feels. You don’t really have time to get to know somebody. Then there’s also this added pressure of feeling like you’re not putting your best foot forward or you’re not trying hard enough. You know, women need to settle, women need to not think so highly of themselves, women need to find somebody before they expire, right?
This is a very pressured system, I think, that has evolved in online dating, especially in a major city where we’re trying to also figure out our careers and what we want. Maybe we’re not supposed to think so much about what we want and maybe our careers aren’t so important. There’s this weird balance that single women, especially in their twenties, have to sort of play with. I think this has been something that has plagued me for a very long time. I lie awake at night being like, “I’m going to die alone, and this is how it’s going to be.” I don’t think I’m the only one who thinks that but, I wanted to write a little bit about how much it sucks to try and date these online strangers. I’m sure it goes the other way, too, for men seeking women. They have their own sets of dating problems. I hear it from my guy friends all the time.
When I was writing, Kristen Roupenian’s “Cat Person” essay had come out, and we were sort of dealing with the beginning of the #MeToo movement. People were starting to think about dating in a different way—how women are not trying to inconvenience anybody and how that puts them in difficult situations. Sometimes this pressure to not ruffle anybody’s feathers puts you in a dangerous situation, or it’s your fault for doing something wrong; it’s your fault for not being accommodating, or it’s your fault for being too accommodating—whatever. I think there’s this ecosystem-building around dating and consent and sex. I wrote about it a lot. Maybe too much. I’m thirty now, so I feel more adult than I did at twenty-eight. But, in my twenties, I definitely thought about dating all the time. So, that I guess became a major recurring theme in the book.
LG: You’re reminding me of the man you met at Union Pool who you bit (not in a sexy way) to get him out of your apartment. Though this may not be an intention in your book, the essays function like advice columns for young women. Was that intentional?
RF: Actually, this was pitched as a sort of anti-self-help book. It’s not so much that I was intentionally giving advice so much as we would take on a theme. The titles of each essay are turns on self-help phrases. “Good things happen to people who wait.” “Good things happen to people you hate.” I’m trying to think of the other essays titles, but of course I’ve drawn a blank on my own book. I wrote a book for the younger version of me. I could have used a book when I was, let’s say, twenty and incredibly depressed and trying to figure out my stuff. It would have been nice to hear from somebody else that maybe it’s okay to not have it all figured out. Like, you’re not an aberration for feeling the way you do about yourself or the world or men, or whatever. It was maybe more of an advice column for me. I’ve gotten messages from a bunch of other college kids who have also sort of felt it was an advice column for them. I’m not trying to moralize or have the answer so much as to point out some things that may be bothering people and say, “Look, I also see these things and here’s my experience with them.”
LG: I found that especially to be the case in your essays that deal with mental or emotional health. In “Don’t Cry Over Spilt Milk, Have a Full-On Breakdown,” you describe a bad experience with Sun-In that is, essentially, the tripwire for a “full-on breakdown.” There is so much to enjoy in this essay, partially because you are honest and exposed, and partially because the experiences that stack up and lead to your crisis are so relatable. As I read that essay, I was reminded of my own version of that experience. My friend was dying of breast cancer and I’d been recently diagnosed with a brain tumor. I did a Komen walk (alone!), got a pink ribbon spray painted on my face, and then went on a sweaty shopping spree in a Ross store. I came home with four bags worth of crap, including half of a bird-shaped bookend and a reclining Buddha statue. I felt a sort of camaraderie while reading your essay. Is it an intentional aspect of your writing to not just tell a good story but to commiserate via the text? Have readers reached out to you with their experiences?
RF: Well, first, I’m sorry that happened to you. But, yeah, I have had a lot of people reach out to me about that essay in particular. I think that a lot of people have maybe not that exact kind of meltdown, but bad things happen and happen and happen, and you sort of have to push through and push it down and push it down, and then one stupid thing can set you off into a full-on breakdown. That’s exactly what happened with the Sun-In. It wasn’t that big of a deal. My hair fully recovered. It’s just hair. But I was nineteen, and I had just suddenly realized the people I loved were going to die, some were already dying, bad things happen. There was no way to control it or fix it. One tiny bad thing happened and it melted me down.
A bunch of people have said that they have the same kind of anxiety meltdown. Depression is its own animal. But anxiety is such an extreme form of panic, I think. It’s hard to describe and it’s hard to even pinpoint it when it’s happening because you think that the world is changing on you, and it’s shifting, and your brain can’t really make sense of it. It’s nice to look back on it and be able to pinpoint exactly what was going on. It’s harder to do in your own life. I’m always drawn to stories about anxiety and depression because it’s sort of nice to recognize it in somebody else’s writing and to be like, “Oh, I know exactly what that feels like! Thank you for putting words to this experience that I had!” I’ve had people reach out to me about that essay and be like, “Thank you! This happened to me too, and I also experience anxiety and depression.” You know it’s nice, it does feel like you’re not the only person experiencing it and you’re not alone, you’re not broken. It just is what it is to be a person. So, yeah, that essay was nice for me to write because I was like, “Oh, now I feel less alone too, because other people are relating to it.” It’s cathartic in it’s own way.
LG: I wanted to ask about that. Reading about depression and anxiety can be cathartic. Is that also true of writing about your emotional health (or drinking too much, or dating the wrong men)? Does writing help synthesize chaos or add to it?
RF: I read some literature about writing essays before and after I wrote this book. One of the things that somebody wrote is that you’ve written a good essay when you yourself have come to a new conclusion. Like, with the personal essay, you learn something from writing it. I think writing some of these essays did feel very cathartic. I figured some things out that had been plaguing me, that I hadn’t quite come to terms with yet. I think the drinking essay was the most cathartic for me. I was not sure about that essay. It exposed a lot about myself that I don’t particularly like. It’s hard to put that into writing and give it to other people and have people look at it and judge you and maybe not understand what it is to create something (and that’s fair). I wrote that essay after getting so drunk that I blacked out on somebody’s roof. I was all alone. Like, my friends had left. I made it home and I woke up and I was like, “Oh, that was really dangerous. That can never happen again.” And then I sat down and wrote that essay.
Actually, after that, I reassessed my drinking and cut back tremendously. I’ve gone multiple dry months and I come back to drinking. But that hasn’t happened to me—not even close—in. I guess, a year and a half. I wrote the essay in August 2018. That essay actually did change my life in a lot of ways. I think sometimes you sit down and you’re like, “I’m doing something and it’s not making me happy and I can’t figure out what it is and I can’t figure out why I’m doing it and I can’t figure out how to stop.” It’s a little bit like like journaling. But because I had to come up with some kind of conclusion to present it as a publishable piece of writing, it took the extra step of making me think about it objectively. I had to sort of read these essays as if I was another person reading them. I was able to read through that essay and some other ones and say, “I’m doing this thing, it’s not making me happy, I keep writing about it and saying it’s not making me happy. What can I do to address it or fix it?”
LG: With these essays where you feel maybe a little exposed—did you find yourself editing out any material that, in retrospect, you wish you had kept?
RF: Not really. There’s maybe some stuff I would have edited out in retrospect. No. I worked with an editor on this, and there were a few moments where my editor was like, “You maybe don’t want to say that,” and she was right. And there were moments when she was like, “Draw this out more,” and I did. I’m trying to think if there was anything that didn’t make it in. There’s just so much in there. I should have just written a book of fiction. Why am I like, “I’m just going to publish my journal for everybody to read?”
A thing that I tried to do when I wrote this book was not write about anybody else. I didn’t want to tell anybody else’s story. This is sort of like a Portnoy’s Complaint kind of book. It’s my own anxieties and neuroses. I didn’t want to analyze anybody else. I didn’t think it would be fair. I didn’t really write about, like, my family that much. I tried not to tell anybody else’s story, especially not without their permission. I’m a journalist, so most of what I do is telling other people’s stories, but in this particular case it didn’t seem fair. So if I were to write another book, I might focus less on myself and more on other people. I think I’ve had enough of myself. I didn’t want to hurt anybody. I think the whole point of this is that I made myself the enemy. I was the villain of the story. Nobody else is meant to be. Maybe there are a couple of people I could have come for, but I didn’t. I tried to be tactful in what I was writing. There are two sides to every story, you know?
LG: I think that’s a really fair approach. In a personal essay, there’s usually someone who goes down with the narrator, and this book does successfully avoid that. Many readers will be drawn to Good Things because they are familiar with your work with Gothamist, Jezebel, and other blog outlets. I was. Did you feel an impulse to write toward your former audience and deliver the type of content you knew they’d want?
RF: Not really. I’m trying to think. I mean, when you write for a website, you are writing for their audience. My natural voice is very comfortable writing for a place like Gothamist or Jezebel, but I was writing a much longer form. I think an excerpt of one of my essays was up on Jezebel and I was so terrified of even looking at the post because I know how the commenters can really dig into you. I would probably never write any of this stuff for a website. I did write an essay for The Cut that I didn’t put in the book, but the story I addressed in that piece I also mentioned in one of the book essays. I didn’t really write this for an audience so much as I wrote it and hoped it would find an audience. It’s definitely different than the blog posts that I’ve written. I don’t know that a whole book of blogs from Jezebel would have been fun to write. It’s hard to make a book out of blog posts. The book is marketed to everyone, but it’s really for young women maybe eighteen to twenty-five. That’s like the target range because—I don’t know—I think many of the experiences in it are about me at that time, and that was a very traumatizing period for me. I think it is for a lot of people. So, I think this is a very long-winded answer to that question but, no—I wrote it for whoever it speaks to. Hopefully a lot of people.
LG: You mentioned the way comments on blogs can get kind of…ridiculous. Do you pay attention to comments that are posted on say, Goodreads or Amazon?
RF: I blocked Goodreads on my computer, so I could never look at it! The thing about making something or writing something is that everybody is able to critique it. One of the beautiful things about making something is that everyone can have their opinions about it and that’s great. If you hate it, if you love it, if you feel ‘eh’ about it, that’s fine. But I don’t want to know. It’s definitely something that’s personal. A negative review feels like a personal attack. There’s no need for me to face it. I’m able to criticize myself enough without anybody’s help. I actually had to stop reading all the comments, too, because people are going to say whatever [they want]. Sometimes comments are totally right, and I wrote something terrible and that’s fine. But I don’t always need to know.
LG: Before I let you go, one final question: As a young writer with an impressive resume—Time Out New York, Jezebel, Vice, Lifehacker, and now a first book from William Morrow—I’m curious: What does literary success look like to you?
RF: A studio apartment. I’ve been freelancing for over two years now, so my focus on any type of success is just a full-time job with health insurance. That to me is the biggest form of possible literary success. I just said yes to a bunch of projects and tried to see where they led me. I don’t have a plan. There was a time where I wanted to be a famous writer and, you know, win a Pulitzer and an Oscar. Not an Oscar for writing—but you know what I mean. I have put those plans behind me. I’m pretty sure none of that is going to happen, which is totally fine. I’d love to write another book if this one sells okay. I’d love to find new projects. But, yes, literary success to me right now would be having a studio apartment. If I could do that as a writer, I’d have really made it. I may have a better shot at that Oscar.
Photo credit: Maggie Shannon.