In Delusional Downtown Divas, a made-for-the-web comedy series, Oona—played by Lena Dunham—stands before her friends and asks for their advice on an outfit she is considering wearing to a gallery opening for her favourite “women’s art collective.” Her pretentious friend sits back in the sofa and opines, “I think by wearing the banana shirt, you’re saying, Well, I’m the one with the penis. And also you’re wearing the cut-up banana, fruit-salad necklace, so you’re kind of making these references to bananas constantly, which I think is kind of interesting.” Another friend chimes in, “It’s very, very provocative. It’s like you’re going bananas.” Lena-as-Oona considers it earnestly. “Yeah, that’s what I feel.”
The series was created in 2009, before the release of Dunham’s adored second feature film, Tiny Furniture, about creative 20-year-olds in Manhattan trying to navigate their futures; before the creation of her hit HBO series, Girls (which Judd Apatow produces, and she writes, directs and stars in); before the frenzy of discussion it created around feminism, female friendship, body image and sex; before her two well-regarded New Yorker essays; before her Emmy nominations; and before her contract with Random House to write a book of essays and advice. I felt certain that with all this—and being only 26—she must by now certainly be going bananas, not just playing the part.
But she was inquisitive, centred and cheerful when we spoke on Skype. She was in a hotel room in London, where she was on business. When she mentioned that she “tried to move forward” every day, I stopped her right there. I was most curious about that: how she had created a life that allowed her to accomplish so much. I asked her to elaborate, and she did, lying face-down on the bed before her computer. By the end of our conversation, she had gradually and unconsciously worked off the green socks she was wearing, pulling them off and laying them on the white bedspread with her toes.
Lena: I don’t feel okay about going to sleep if I don’t feel like I’ve gotten myself a little farther towards my goals or figured something out. A day that’s just another day? It wouldn’t be a nice day for me.
Sheila: So you try to move forward each day in all the things you’re doing?
Lena: It depends; some days my goal is just to get all my emails out of my inbox. Other days it’s like, I’m going to figure out how to pack a suitcase so that any time I go away, it’s the most efficient thing. There are certain days when I’m just trying to get the business of living out of the way. At night, I move things around on my to-do list and put the most pressing at the top. But there’s no rhyme or reason to it; it’s not like I always take three hours in the morning to work on prose. It’s this really intuitive thing about whether I’ve achieved enough to feel like I’m going to wake up the next day feeling like I’ve chipped away at something and there’s space for me to do more things.
Sheila: So you don’t trick yourself—like, “I’ve written a page!” You actually do have to feel you’ve accomplished something.
Lena: Yeah. Sometimes I have this horrible feeling of shifting around in bed. I’ll be looking on the internet for something—and I don’t know what it is—or I’ll be scrolling through Twitter, and I’ll realize what the feeling is: I haven’t made enough of a dent in my to-do list to feel like I’m ready to go to sleep, then wake up feeling better. Sometimes my mother says, “Lena—if you go to sleep right now, tomorrow’s going to be much more manageable.” But it’s hard for me to imagine, because I’m used to making it manageable through my actions. I wondered if she felt that her mother, Laurie Simmons—a successful and respected artist—was a good role model for her. Lena said yes: “She kept having a life after she had children. People act as though having kids is the thing that makes you selfless or makes you finally engage with the world the way you’re supposed to, but I don’t think it’s that; I think it’s like another thing of your list of things you want to do.”
Sheila: So what are the various categories of things that can be accomplished? You said there’s life things-
Lena: —Sometimes there’s emotional things. Like, I’ll, like, see my grandma, or spend time with a friend I was in a fight with—and it will feel like, Okay, now I’m not burdened by those anxieties, so when I sit down to do my work, there’s going to be a real space for it. Or there might be a day where you get your toenails done, get a bikini wax and trim your hair. Maybe I want to enrich my pop culture or literary brain. It becomes harder to write when you haven’t been reading, so on certain days, I’ll be like, If I finish a book, I’m going to feel like today was this massively productive thing; tomorrow’s going to be easier. I’m just articulating it for the first time—this idea of “tomorrow will be easier because of what I have done today.”
She recently figured out how to make even shopping more sensible. She said she “always loved clothes,” but “used to shop recklessly.” Now, she explained, “part of making my own money and taking charge of my own life has been being more specific, so that everything I own speaks to me and reflects me—not just me on a wild night or me when I’m sad.” Every season she makes a list of the things she most wants, then is very picky about what she gets: “I just bought a new winter coat. It was a big deal to me. I spent a long time picking one out, doing research. I stalked it for weeks after seeing it at my Emmy dress fitting; dreamed of the life I would have in it.”
Dressing, for her, is an activity that has something to do with “putting on a costume,” which seems in harmony with being a director and actress. “I thought a lot about my tour wardrobe.” When meeting with book publishers, she tried to look like “an academic-type lady.” These specific, shifting selves seem to align with a carousel of ambitions. For instance, back when she was in college, she “put the premium on clothes that were witty and interesting.” Like a banana shirt? “Yeah, I’m definitely less interested in being defiant by wearing a weird skirt or something, and more interested in being defiant in my work.”
Sheila: So, do you actually have concrete, written-down goals?
Lena: Yes, I have—let’s see—I keep lots of sticky notes, and I have a list called My Goals, and next to it I put a star if I’ve achieved it or a pound sign if I’m not interested in doing it anymore. (She glances over her monitor.) I haven’t done very many of them, to tell you the truth. Oh! I just saw one I’m not interested in doing anymore so I just put a pound sign next to it!
Sheila: What was it?
Lena: “Buy an apartment in L.A.” I realized I don’t want an apartment in L.A.! I’d just been feeling like a fully formed person would have two apartments…I put a pound sign next to “get a Maurice Sendak tattoo”—I don’t want that anymore. I put a pound sign next to “go to grad school.” I was going to go to graduate school for American history, but my mom was like, “Lena, just read those books!” I put a pound sign before “do a bike race or a marathon”—I don’t want to do that.
Sheila: What are some things you put stars beside?
Lena: Let’s see: I put stars next to “keep doing good work with Elizabeth”—that’s my therapist. I put a star next to “write a New Yorker essay I’m proud of”—cause I’m proud of the essay I wrote.
Sheila: When I was much younger, I was dating a guy I didn’t really like, and I wanted to break up with him, and I couldn’t bring myself to do it, and then I put it on a list of things to do, and I broke up with him!
Lena: That is so smart!
Sheila: What are some things you don’t have stars or pound signs for?
Lena: I don’t have a star next to “read my book”—my book’s not done. I don’t have a star next to “adopt a dog.” There’s two scripts I want to write that I didn’t put a star next to. And I could add—Oh! You know what I’m going to add? “Have a baby when I’m ready.”
I watched her type it in.