Learning from Lena Dunham’s Mistakes

By EP Williams

So Lena Dunham is in the news for a few passages from her recent book, Not That Kind of Girl. In them she describes some rather, shall we say, risqué or taboo topics. I’ll leave you to read them on your own time. As writers, though, we can learn from this episode. Both Dunham’s work and the viral backlash (and her own backlash to the backlash) give us a valuable insight into the current writer-reader-pundit relationship.

As an author, my initial response to this situation was to reaffirm my belief in the importance of strong writing. It’s simply not enough to have a shtick or a voice. Strong writing needs a voice, of course, but a genuine command of the prose is a necessity for success. It can be argued that part of why Dunham is in trouble is the sloppiness of her prose – possibly the most damning critique that can be said about a writer. I would guess that Dunham’s day job as a screenwriter, where the words are only the first part of a performance, is partly to blame here. That’s just a guess, though, and one easily undone through examples like Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants, which is almost nothing more than three pages of dialogue, and yet one of the most powerful short stories I’ve ever read. Still, the situation is one of Dunham’s own creation. Her critics aren’t manipulating her words, they’re using her words verbatim. In her reaction to these critics, Dunham obviously can’t see that others have read her words in a different way that she intended. Reading the passages, and knowing (admittedly only a little) about her personality, I think she meant those anecdotes to be read in a quirky, cheeky way. Unfortunately for her, not many others have read those passages and inherently understood the quirkiness in the narration. When your critics are using your own words against you, that’s a failure of you as an author.

This brings me to the second point: all of us need to remember that once we publish, the words are no longer ours. Sure, legally they’re protected and all that, but once your story, your words enter the public sphere you no longer have the ability to dictate how those words are used or even how they are read. This is both a practical and theoretical lesson for us. Anyone can read your work and imprint their own worldview and life experiences into the narrative. That’s part of the fun of writing, after all, so that shouldn’t be a revolutionary idea. That effect is not always a positive, though. We want to believe our words are helping the reader access their memories or imagination in vivid, meaningful ways. But that’s the rub, isn’t it? Once a reader takes our words and personalizes them, whatever meaning we intended is no longer guaranteed. You better be sure to make your intention very clear and explicit in the prose itself because once it is out of your control, it is truly out of your control. If the reader can’t understand your words “correctly,” that’s a failure of you as an author.

Writing is tough. (Just ask the thousands of folks who won’t finish NaNoWriMo this year.) Writing well and with a commanding voice and powerful prose is even tougher. Ms. Dunham is learning some very valuable lessons in very public ways at the moment. We should all take notice and learn those lessons ourselves. Simply typing out the voices in your head is not being an author. No, writing at its best – a state for which we all strive – has the ability to be read and understood by any audience in any circumstance. If your critics are able to use your own words against you because their ambiguity is unresolved or because they have to be read in a certain way, you’ve lost already.

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One thought on “Learning from Lena Dunham’s Mistakes

  • Really important for authors to understand they must choose their words thoughtfully. Even then, they can’t control the way others read them. Great advice, EP.

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