Lesley Arfin, though only in her 30s, has already lived the varied writerly life of someone much older. To many girls under the influence of growing up in suburbia, she is best known as the author of the reflective cult-memoir Dear Diary. For most of her early career, Lesley was a NYC-based freelance writer, where she gained a following as a VICE columnist during its younger years, and also served as Editor-in-Chief of cult ladymag Missbehave (RIP). She now resides in Los Angeles as a TV writer for Brooklyn 9-9 which will air this fall on Fox, and has written for other series including Girls, Portlandia, and Awkward. Whew! Below, Lesley shares more thoughts on the suburbs and the “bomb” that changed the way she writes. —JL
What one book or piece of writing changed the way you think about your own work?
A million years ago I did an NYU summer program with Tim O’Brien. Tim was amazing. He drank and cursed and hit on all the girls—total Texan, total novelist dude, didn’t give a shit about anything. He would look at us and say “Tell me a story. Now. Make it up as you go along…” and we would start and kind of finish and then he would scream at us and say “That’s not a story! That’s a situation! I want a beginning, middle, and end.” He taught us not so much about writing but rather storytelling, which was a refreshing and necessary.
He gave us John Cheever’s “The Country Husband” to read and it changed everything for me. Tim told us that on the very first page of anything we write, we need to make a bomb explode. Something major needs to happen. On the first page of “The Country Husband,” the protagonist gets into a plane crash. After the first page though, the plane crash is barely mentioned. He doesn’t get hurt, no one died on the crash, so no one really cares. The entire story is about how he makes the plane crash affect his life even though it never did. There was something about that idea that I felt deep in my bones. A “bomb” exploded only on one page, but continued to explode into his suburban, upper middle class existence. When you grow up in that environment, you want the bombs. Bombs beat boredom.
I grew up in Long Island. I always had the feeling that dead bodies and kidnapped children were right beneath my feet and everyone knew it and no one would say it. “The Country Husband” awakened my urge to tell stories about the suburban underbelly that is so familiar to so many of us. For me, it never gets old. TC Boyle’s Greasy Lake is about it, filled with style and sadness. Tom Perrotta wrote a whole book about it (Bad Haircut), every story both hilarious and heartbreaking.
All I ever want to do when I write is make bombs explode on page one, grab the reader in and get them to shut the fuck up and listen. And then I want the bomb to keep exploding and exploding until the reader feels what I feel straight to the core. This is communication. It is connection. It is identification.
And It is why I write.@lesleyarfin