Author Anne T. Donahue explains how she learned to give the best collective pep talk

The writer behind the best-selling book Nobody Cares talks cuddling up to failure and *sigh* the ever-changing media landscape.

Amy McNeil
March 12, 2019

When a conversation ends, the self-loathing begins. The “did-I-do-something-wrong” downward spiral and fear of being talked behind your back (people are people, it’s going to happen) is a rodeo that Anne T. Donahue knows very well. In her essay-cum-pep-talk, “Just Do What I Say,” she guides her readers on accepting the reality that while embarrassing yourself in social situations may be inevitable, it doesn’t have to define you. That sentiment serves as the heart of her bestselling book, Nobody Cares, a collection of comedic and personal essays written in the same spirit as her wildly popular newsletter. Funny, and rich with candor, it will leave you feeling less of an enemy to yourself. Because despite the brain’s ability to subject you to a daftly-made powerpoint of all the cringey and painful things you’ve ever done, you are probably its only viewer. And truly, thank god for that.

It’s a refreshing insight in an era defined by impossible expectations on how we should carry our lives online, smoothing out any creases in our image, so much so that reviews like Nourhan Hesham’s for NOW Toronto hailed Donahue’s book as an antidote to Girlboss memoirs as her “essays avoid the ‘How I Got It Done’ clichés.” Each essay takes us through critiques on gender, class, pop culture, life lessons, and the many little circles of hell Donahue has been through with the awareness that hell’s gates are always near. Nota Bene: skip Dante’s oeuvre and get thee to Donahue’s.

This year marks the decade anniversary of Anne T. Donahue’s career as a writer, and Nobody Cares is well into its second printing. In a reversal, she chats with us about figuring out how to write her own guidebook: “Sometimes I need to tell myself: don’t be a baby bitch.”

Editor’s note: Anne T. Donahue is an A.Side contributor.

  1. A. Side: I’ve been returning to one of the essays in Nobody Cares, “In Case of Emergency,” a lot lately considering this news cycle, and the misery marathon of life in general. What compelled you to include this essay in your book?

    Anne T. Donahue: It was the start of [2018] and I was in the thick of it with personal stuff going on, the #MeToo movement started by Tarana Burke a decade ago had just reignited and turned into what it now is, Time’s Up started, and so on. At the time of writing that essay, there was a lot I was grappling with, and then at the same time taking it all in because every day seemed more and more hopeless in a lot of miserable ways, and I think for women especially—and I say this as a white, cisgender, hetero woman, so right under white men for being a privileged person—but if I feel like this, everyone must feel a thousand times worse. It was more so: how do you pep talk yourself out of this?

The thing about pep-talk essays or newsletters I’ve written in the past is that they’re usually what I needed to hear. I’m kind of pep talking myself because sometimes I need to tell myself: “don’t be a baby bitch, put your head back into the game, there’s still work to be done.” You can be sad and feel the feels, but also you don’t win by just sitting there and being sad. You can deal with everything at a time but sometimes you need something different, and to support yourself for something bigger. So that’s where that idea came from.

I especially liked the candor of Nobody Cares, and how you started off by revealing that this isn’t your first book, that there was a predecessor to your collection but you had scrapped it. What was the process like when revisiting and acknowledging your past work in your book? It can be tough to open up about failures in writing despite how so much of the act of writing itself is essentially just that.

It is, especially since it was bad! That book was not good. I think I operated under the delusion where publishing a book would legitimize me as a writer, and of course, that is not even remotely true. There are incredible writers who will never write a book, there are shitty writers who have written many books like [coughs] Jordan Peterson [coughs]. But publishing a book doesn’t legitimize you.

I really used that first book as a vessel for an “I’ll show you!” which if you go that route you’re not writing for yourself, and if you’re not writing for yourself your writing will suck because it’s never going to be authentic. It’s never going to be honest, and you’ll always be selective with those two. If you’re a personal essayist or writing personally, that means that your readers will never know you. And, you owe your readers your honest self if you’re claiming to be writing honestly. So looking back, thankfully the first blog I ever did is erased from the Internet. It was inspired by watching Julie & Julia.

Already love where this is going.

Right? I was like, “I’ll start a blog, and then I’ll get a book deal!” Everything had to be about my work getting recognized by other people. The beauty of time and getting older is that you’ll start to be able to look back at your former self and understand them a little better. I’m less embarrassed by it and see it more like the way you would look at a younger cousin, who was just getting into going to the clubs, and you’re like “Aww OK, well, be safe!” I understand you have to go through this process in order to be the person you are. Perspective happens. Even if you had asked if I would read a chapter, my answer would be absolutely not.

Being a writer takes time. You have to be OK with admitting that, which is the hardest part.

Totally, and you have to learn how to not hate that person. I was such a knob so much of the time, and I wouldn’t want to hang out with former me because I think she’s exhausting in a way that I don’t have the capacity to handle anymore. But you have to almost look upon on those incarnations of yourself with kindness to be like you were figuring it out, and figuring it out is never exciting and it’s always very painful, and always semi-embarrassing. But then when you’re older and hopefully have learned, you can say, “Ah, yes the past.”

What made you finally say yes to pursuing a career writing about pop culture?

Well I would say it was when I was in Laurier University for a year from 2008-2009, and was studying for a degree in communications and history with a minor in film. I was already obsessed with pop culture, so I thought I’ll get my degree, and then I’ll go to grad school, and then I’ll write for television because I didn’t know what the path was, and the Internet wasn’t 100% exactly what it was back then I didn’t know how to get into this world without school because school I think is crammed down our throats.

Now it’s less, but at the time it was heavily stressed. And this summer after first year, I got into an argument with my dad and was very much “I’ll Show You!”, angsty, 23 years-old, and not really looking at anything but the direct picture ahead. So I started applying to random writing gigs that I saw on Craigslist and it was almost like: I don’t love school but I want to be in this world, so I’ll throw myself into it the best way I know how and hopefully it will lead me to a place that I’m interested in, hail mary and be delusional. I was delusional enough to think I could do it, which worked out kind of in the long run, but it was an incredibly painful route because I jettisoned myself away from any sort of safety net and threw myself into this idea. It was a weird delusion.

We’re seeing more and more writers coming out of the woodwork and being incredible and changing the game.

I’m not convinced when writers deny any form of delusional when deciding to write. To want to write or do any form of art —there has to be some kind of delusion driving you to do that. And of course, freelancing and readership now, compared to the last decade, has made this all so different and immediate.

Exactly. I remember working with AUX right at the beginning, so before it had turned into A.Side, and I pitched this essay about the reclamation of the word hipster because I remember reading about about the evolution of the term and how it has evolved for over 60 years, and I remember my editor [at the time] responding with, “People don’t read essays, people want listicles.” It was almost the dawn of the listicle era where lists were just getting big. And you see this arc where it was only clickbait or headline grabbing stuff online, no longform. Now, everybody wants essays, everybody wants longform, and everybody wants to follow voices and writers they like. There’s more room for those things.

It’s a strange time.

It’s a very strange time for writing because we’re watching sites and publications fold and tragically sell, and “pivot to video,” but then on the other end we’re seeing more and more writers coming out of the woodwork and being incredible and changing the game, and giving us many more valuable perspectives than we’ve ever had before. It’s funny to think there was a time I would pitch an essay in 2011 and be like, “People don’t read those anymore,” and now it’s like, “Give us an essay, everybody loves an essay,” which makes me happy because I think that is how we learn, and I’m not just saying me writing those essays, voices that don’t belong to me or white women, or white straight men. Like, Vivek Shraya’s I’m Afraid of Men, a book of essays that’s incredible, and there’s so many amazing writers that have now been granted these perspectives that we’re now finally being treated to.

Especially since essays are a great avenue to process information and various perspectives, the amount of public interest that comes with it is also super exciting.

I think about Scaachi Koul, who wrote One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None Of This Will Matter, and is just so moving and smart. Also, Zeba Blay who writes for HuffPost, who is such a fluent cultural critic, and got a book deal to write about Black women and pop culture, which is called Carefree Black Girl. And there is Sarah Hagi who is so funny, I always think of her writing on pop culture and meme culture. There is this thirst and need for knowledge, and it makes me so happy because it’s not just the Jordan Peterson’s of the world anymore.

For so long, it’s been white straight men who got to do these things–– and there’s so much more that we need to do, but it’s just like, finally, they don’t only get to be the ones to do it. It’s also to think, as a writer of essays, the more platform you have and the more you are afforded, the more room you need to make for other voices. I’m lucky that I now have a platform where I have a certain amount of Twitter followers where people read my work, and now it’s my turn to bring people up with me. I think that should be the valuable part of these conversations. As long as we continue to do that, it will only get more and more exciting.

While Nobody Cares deals with failure, I think it also discusses the societal norms that are put upon us. Not only do you touch on topics like your relationship with religion and gender, but in various stories in the book you’ve also played with formal education, and the elitist idea of getting the paper. What made you want to explore that in your book?

It was a big part of my life, and I really equated formal education to success. I thought that until I got my degree, I’d be a failure, and I genuinely felt when everyone else went on to graduate, why couldn’t I, and that there’s something wrong with me. Then I went back last year for a history class–– and I got an A, thank you very much–– but I couldn’t keep up with myself because I was writing the book at the time, and writing full-time, and I was going to school and had a ton of fun because I missed learning in class. By the end, when I signed up for the second class, I knew I couldn’t do it. So I ended up dropping that class.

I realized that formal education is a privilege that a lot of people do not get to have and that doesn’t make them any less smart than the rest of us. That’s the funny thing, I would never view anyone else less smart than a person with a diploma, but I was putting myself in that category because it was something I felt pressured to care about because so many people did it and did it well, and it was something that I couldn’t seem to do.But then I resigned myself to the fact that maybe it’s just not for everybody, and that’s OK, too. Maybe it looks different, and that you’re doing it at 65 and it’s free, but as long as you hold up of those norms in that light, than you’re just perpetuating the same cycle that ensnared you.

You’re also a prolific writer. Any breaks in the future?

That’s the thing, I impose these cycles on myself. I took a break the most of August. I wrote a bit but not much, and September was only some book stuff, and for the most part I chilled out and took a vacation, from both my work and social lives. I like being busy, but I like business on my own terms. I’m still trying to figure out what makes me comfortable. Years of therapy to unpack I’m sure, but I’ve given up so many vices that maybe working and being busy are the ones I need. I quit smoking, just let me have this.

Just let me be overworked!

Just let me be over-caffeinated and tired, and then I’ll be fine!

Alright, last question: you used to live in Toronto, now you live in Hespeler (Cambridge). Why did you decide to end the book with an essay about staying in a small town for the time being as opposed to the usual genre of leaving the big city?

A lot of the essays I write are about me working stuff out and processing that. I feel like a lot of the essays I don’t think I’ve processed 75% of the things I’m writing about until I’ve written about it, which definitely has sent me to a therapist’s arms, because all of a sudden you’re like, “Wow, these are feelings that I haven’t unpacked. Here we go!” So the hometown was the last original essay I wrote for the book, and I moved into a new apartment at that time. It was a strange thing because I feel this idea of permanence that is attached to where you live–– and I rent, so I can leave whenever I want. But I still think we attach a lot of permanence to the place someone happens to be living in, so when I moved to this apartment, I grappled with thoughts like whether I’m going to stay here forever, and whether that is OK, and then I just started writing the way I felt honestly at the time and realizing that home isn’t a place, it’s just abstract.

It doesn’t matter where I am living, Hespeler is still my home. My high school had this roots and wings mantra and I hated it, but now I get it because you may have started somewhere, and that place will always have your heart, and it doesn’t make it any more or less important whether or not you’re physically there. The essay was me working out a very complicated relationship and embracing it for what it is, even though the specifics may change over time. Also we have the Internet now. We can work anywhere now. I mean, it’s easier to work anywhere now, I should say. If you’re doctor, you should probably work at the hospital. But not living in a metropolis isn’t as baffling as it was 20 years ago. People are living and working from different places, living their lives and being successful, they can travel. We’ve changed the way that we see the idea of home. At least in the arts, I think, in our industry it’s a little more boundary-ful–– I think I made up a word.

Pretty sure you had to make up a word in order for this interview to end.

Good! I’m living for all of it.

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