How to Trade Awesome for Awesome: A Q&A with Author and HIMYM Writer Kristin Newman

Kristin Newman
Kristin Newman

Throughout her twenties and thirties, whenever Kristin Newman wasn't in Los Angeles working as a writer for TV series like “That '70s Show” and “How I Met Your Mother,” she traveled the world. On communal and solo romps to places like Argentina, Iceland, and Moscow, she learned the art of the “vacationship,” indulging in flings and falling in deep, brief love with Israeli bartenders and Finnish poker players. If you already have a thing for laughter, freedom, and wanderlust, or want some prodding in that direction, her debut memoir is for you. Kristin joins us here for a conversation about What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding, on-sale May 20.

Signature: Your book is more of a comedy than Eat, Pray, Love, but it’s similar in that it’s a travel memoir about a woman finding herself and finding love. Did you feel an obligation to share life lessons, or could you simply tell jokey stories, as men writing about their own lives seem free to do?

KRISTIN NEWMAN: I didn’t sit down to write the book because I felt like I had learned something profound that I wanted to share with the world, or that I wanted to tell people that they should be living their lives any differently than they already are. I’m a comedy writer. I sat down to write some funny stories and to make people laugh. As I wrote a few of them, I realized that there was a narrative that actually went somewhere, but the goal was to entertain in a David Sedaris, Chuck Klosterman kind of way. They’re allowed to do that. No one is asking Sedaris what he meant to tell them about how they should live their lives when he wrote about the talking squirrel.

But when you write a memoir as a woman, especially one that reminds people of Eat, Pray, Love, they expect that you’re going to be giving them some grand piece of advice. Readers who come to the book thinking it’s going to be funny stories from a comedian are surprised by where it ends up, and people who come expecting it to be a collection of life lessons think I am not enough of a philosopher or a guru. God knows, I’m nowhere near enlightened [laughs].

SIG: On your blog, there’s a photo of you flanked by two hot men, maybe in Argentina, with the caption, “This is why I didn’t get married until I was forty.” Without spoiling too much of your story, can you tell us some more about that turn of events?

KN: I got married last weekend! Our honeymoon is going to New York for book events next week, combined with a trip we took to the Galápagos last month with his two kids. At first we thought, “It’s too bad we don’t have time for a honeymoon,” but really, it’s kind of perfect: One trip that honored his past in bringing his kids along, and one that honors my past. It’s kind of romantic.

SIG: I see that you’ll be joining "SNL" alum Rachel Dratch for a conversation at The PIT on May 22 in New York. What can people expect from that event?

KN: Rachel and I have gone on a few trips together. She was in the Dominican Republic on the trip where Will Forte drove over my foot with the car, and I ended up with the Finnish poker player. We went to Portugal together on a big New Year’s adventure, and we have a bunch of friends in common.

Her book, Girl Walks into a Bar, is about being a girl in comedy, and being a woman who is single in her thirties and into her forties, then having this surprise baby at forty-four. We’re excited to share adventure stories about being both the girl in the room with all the comedians, and the single girl spending most of her energy on play and work instead of family.

SIG: Social pressure to settle down can be so strong. I think it’s great that the two of you are acting as role models for women who aren’t in a big rush.

KN: Yeah, it can all work out. A lot of people implied in my twenties and thirties that I was wasting my “high net worth years” – the time that I could use to get a husband – and that I was spinning my wheels by just playing and not doing anything important. Looking back on it, it wasn’t just fun. It was my life, and it made me who I am.

Specifically, traveling alone gives you a sense of confidence and a sense of self. You know that you can fix what ails you. You can get on a plane and go and fix it and have a good time, and you can be safe. You can handle a continent by yourself, and when you come home, that means that you can go out to dinner by yourself with a book and not feel like a loser, or go have an adventure in your own city and have a great time and not feel embarrassed because you don’t have someone with you.

The idea that everything should be goal-oriented – with the goal for women so often being that we’re all supposed to get married and have babies, and if you’re doing something that’s not taking you toward that goal, that you’re somehow off-track or wasting time – I wasn’t ready for that when everyone said I was supposed to be. I worried, but that was the truth, and I hope that honoring that and not forcing myself to do something I wasn’t ready to do helps me have a happy marriage now. A lot of people get divorced because they feel that it’s time before they’re ready, and then they implode. I didn’t want that to happen to me. I watched it happen to my mother and some of my friends. Being single for a long time is like getting on a plane by yourself, which is absolutely terrifying: You’re alone, and you don’t know where you’re going. In life, we never know where paths are going to lead, but that’s the only way to happiness, right?

SIG: Is that ability to trust your instincts – or maybe an inability to do otherwise – a common denominator between your love life and your willingness to be the woman speaking up in a room full of men? Has being brave enough to travel alone also served you well in your career?

KN: For sure. It’s also gotten me into tons of trouble personally and professionally, but I’ve definitely gotten a lot more out of my over-sharing instinct than it’s cost me. The reason I over-share, both conversationally and in this book, is because of a desire to connect.

That’s why I loved Israel. They don’t small-talk. Conversations with Israelis are super direct and super personal. You don’t talk about the weather. You don’t talk about how you slept last night. You don’t do all of that boring stuff that people do, and as a result, you get these incredible connections. My wedding was this festival of personal connections, and it’s because I over-share. It makes people over-share back.

SIG: [Laughs] The world needs it.

KN: You say something personal, and suddenly, you’re really close. It happens fast. I love that. As much as I put out there, this book is going to bring all kinds of great and all kinds of super-mean back at me, but at least it’s connecting with a lot of people, which is fun.

SIG: In an interesting piece you wrote called “Why I Refuse to Hide in Fiction,” you talk about how gratifying it is to inspire people with your real-life experiences. What’s an example of someone making a bold choice as a result of knowing your story?

KN: Suzanne O’Neill, my editor at Three Rivers Press. She bought the book, and then she had to reschedule our first notes meeting because she had gotten inspired by the Iceland chapter and took a trip with her girlfriend to Iceland.

And then I had a friend who gave an early copy of the book to a friend she traveled with to Italy, and he kept insisting that they stay out later, or go to this bar, or on this gondola, or do whatever it was, “Because we have to do what Kristin would do, and do the thing you’re supposed to do in the place you’re supposed to do it.” That mantra of mine really captured his imagination. She said, “You made our trip so much better because you made us push ourselves to capture every moment and suck it for everything it had.” That makes my heart sing. I’m so happy about that.

SIG: You’re helping people be more alive.

KN: And then there’s this guy I’ve never met. My friend Bernadette – she’s Parker in the book – she went to Iceland with me. Her boss was really stressed out, so much so that he lost all of the hair on his body. He was a workaholic, and she told him about the part of my book where I talk about trading “awesome for awesome.” Life is usually not a series of choices between something you don’t want and something you really want. Usually, you have to give up something you want – in my case, the freedom and adventure of being single – for something you want a little more, which for me now is love and family and a sense of stability.

That captured his imagination, and he started using the phrase “awesome for awesome.” He started leaving the office at five o’clock, he bought a boat, and he spends every weekend with friends in Palm Springs now. For him, trading “awesome for awesome” meant trading some of his career success for a happier, less stressful life. I’ve never met the guy, and that gives me joy. You often have to give up things you really want, if you’re lucky.

SIG: In the book, you mention the overt sexism in writers’ rooms when you were starting out in your career. Has that situation improved?

KN: There are still rooms run by last-generation guys who shall remain nameless but say things publicly like, “Women aren’t funny.” And there’s one very famous, very successful sitcom creator who told my friend who’s a woman that it’s unusual that he liked her, because usually he doesn’t like the sound of women’s voices [laughs]. Those people exist, but I feel like the next generation of guys that have come after, those that are thirty-five or forty and younger, generally don’t think like that.

This doesn’t mean that sitcom rooms are half women – they generally aren’t – but the one I was in for the last two years, “The Neighbors,” that was half women, and I felt very respected and heard there. People like Tina Fey and Amy Poehler and Sarah Silverman and Kristen Wiig have made a big difference in terms of people’s concepts of women and funny, which is crazy, because there have been hilarious women for generations, forever. Things really have changed for the better, but still, when I have to hire writers, the people who come to mind often are men, because that’s what I’ve been exposed to. It takes some hunting to meet women to work with.

Also, there’s still a double standard in terms of how aggressive or how bossy you’re allowed to be. Women couch their notes or criticism or feedback in much softer or gentler ways than men do. Men are allowed to be gruff and smack each other on the butt and move on. Women tend to offend each other and men a lot more easily. We have to work a little harder at our delivery than men do in order to not be shut out and seen as unattractive. That’s still very difficult. I find that women offend women more than women offend men. I feel that we all need to learn how not to expect to be best girlfriends who squeal and hug each other every minute, and when we need to disagree because we’re working together, not get so offended. Women can be their own worst enemies in terms of helping each other out. A lot of times there’s not room for more than one alpha woman in the room, and I hope we can change that.