Lena Dunham’s probably younger than you and she’s definitely more famous. She wrote and directed and starred in the independent film Tiny Furniture, and now she’s writing, running and starring in her own show for HBO: Girls, nominated for four Emmys. She’s inspiring of course because she made it all happen at such a young age (26!). But more importantly, she’s not afraid to go where other people fear to tread.
From nude scenes with a normal body in a world that prefers perfect ones – to challenging storylines about entitlement, privilege, HPV and abortion – her work always features frighteningly high personal and creative stakes. Young or old, man or woman, we’ve all got something to learn from Lena.
1. No one ever knows how to start.
I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker but I had no sense of how to go about it. I didn’t know if there was this thing in the world that could sustain me that I could be good at that wasn’t filmmaking.
2. Acting/writing/*insert creative act here* isn’t just for other people.
It never occurred to me that I could be a showrunner and it never occurred to me that I could be a person who was on television.
I remember going to see Les Misérables on Broadway as a kid. I was so jealous of the girl that got to play young Cosette, but I never had a moment where I was like, Oh, that’s something I could do. I just felt like, Oh, that’s what certain people can do. I also never got good parts in school plays, and it would incense me to no end, but I was like, “I’m not cut out for this.”
I think it was hard for me to acknowledge that acting was something that I wanted to do, both because there is a little bit of the perception that it wasn’t sort of an intellectual pursuit because of the fact that it didn’t necessarily feel like there was going to be a place for someone who looked and acted like me to play anyone besides someone’s sort of like a sassy best friend who can’t stay away from the buffet.
3. Image is nothing…
I feel like my work is dependent on the fact that I’m an everywoman. I’d be an everywoman if I lost 20 pounds or if I gained 50 pounds, because of my attitude and it’s my relationship to the world and the fact that like I have two front teeth that are bigger than the rest of my teeth.
4. …connection is everything.
The thing that I love… was that I spent so much of my time when I was younger feeling like such a weirdo that it was hard for me to imagine that anybody was sharing my experiences. And the fact I put out this thing so personal and specific, where the character is going through emotions that feel so mine, and so many girls have gone, “That’s what it’s like to be me” or “You and I are the same,” it’s really been heartening.
I read this quote somewhere… It said something like, ‘Start your attempts to tell stories close to home; the better you get at it the farther you can move away.’
I’ve always been someone who feels better, if I see what I’m going through in a movie. So, I really wanted that for me, and for other people.
5. Don’t be afraid to get personal…
I play these girls who are close to me, but they’re the parts of me that I find the most shameful, or the parts of me that I kind of want to excise. So I sort of distance myself from it. I have the comfort to feel free and un-self-conscious. I sort of go, “These are all the awful parts of me that I don’t get to talk about all day. Here she is.”
6. … even if you’re a woman (especially if you’re a woman).
…I think that people challenge women more who want to tell their own story. Nobody challenges why they want to watch Larry David at lunch. You know why you want to watch Larry David at lunch: Cause he’s fucking hilarious and it’s amazing to watch him at lunch. You don’t care that he’s mean to his friends and lives in a giant house, it’s just interesting, and I think that women often have to make more excuses for why they want to portray themselves.
7. Don’t lock yourself in an ivory tower.
I used to be really scared of what hearing the reactions to the show would do to me. My parents are artists; in their world, in the world of modern artists, you are supposed to just go into your studio and tune everything out, and your entire relationship with your work is supposed to be a super private one. That was the way to do it and you weren’t deeply truly artistic if that wasn’t the way you were engaging the press. But I realized more and more that as the producer of the show—and television being such a medium of the people—I don’t feel I can responsibly ignore the conversation that’s happening with the show.
I used to think Twitter was a waste of time and sort of ran counter to my ability to be productive and to write and now Twitter feels like a really cool part of the creative experience… You get reactions and you connect to people and I love Twitter.
8. Don’t be a hater.
Jealousy and regret are the two things that I try to avoid most in my life, because I think they’re two of the most corrosive human emotions. I’ll totally go with lust, rage, hatred and feelings of demoralization, but jealousy? No. That being said, there are so many things I want to do in my career, there’s no one whose career is like, that is what I want.
My thing is that I respect so much anybody, even 50 Shades of Grey, I respect so much that anybody sat in their house and wrote three books, it’s hard for me to fully hate on it. Because I’m like “ugh!” but then, “you did it, girl! You did it!”
9. Even people who’ve “made it” wonder and feel scared.
A creative career is always up and down, so I think, from having artist parents, there’s a way you never quite get settled and that’s maybe part of the beauty of it. But I’m definitely still having that experience of wandering the Earth wondering if this the right place for me.
My biggest nightmare is that I do something where they’d be like, “That’s why you don’t give shows to 25-year-old girls.” I’m always afraid that I’m being unprofessional, yet I continue to sign all my e-mails “xoxo.” All my freakouts have been pretty private and directed at family pets and/or people I have been dating for too short a time to freak out at in that way.
10. Success is not money or fame – but sending your message to the world.
I think success is connecting with an audience who understands you and having a dialogue with them. I think success is continuing to push yourself forward creatively and not sort of becoming a caricature of yourself. I think success is figuring out a balance between a really rich, intense, fulfilling work life, and the kind of personal life that makes that work life possible and that makes that work life meaningful. I think failure would be the opposite of those things. I think it would be becoming too involved with sort of the traditional markers of success. I think it would be stopping my sort of pursuit of new forms of expression. And I think it would be putting something out in the world that didn’t feel honest and exciting to me.