Interview by Marianne Gallagher / Edited by Jessica Ann Richardson
In Conversation with Lesley Arfin: 'Having A Voice Is A Thing'
Marchioness talks the PRE-INTERNET POWER OF MAGAZINES, DIARIES, LOVE and FINDING YOUR VOICE with writer and producer Lesley Arfin.
@ Natalia Mantini
Lesley Arfin is one of those women who lands at the epicenter of things.
A Long Island prodigal daughter, she graduated at an astonishing pace, ditching junior high girl politics for hardcore, rave, and heroin addiction (via a stint at Hampshire University) - emerging a survivor with a VICE column, communing with her teenage self through her old diaries.
Smart-mouthed like you wouldn’t believe, her voice leapt from page to screen, producing some of the funniest, flawed and fully-rounded female characters in TV memory.
Take Mickey from Love. She’s a fucktonne saltier than your typical Netflix heroine - a Parliament-puffing relationship addict with a fine line in vintage t-shirts who hotboxes her way out of hangovers, twinned with her neurotically adorable opposite Gus.
Or her work on the first two era-defining seasons of Girls, bringing gross-out humour and honest dysfunction to a sitcom everyone thought was going to be the next Sex and the City.
And with HBO’s Betty, about an all-female skating collective featuring real-life skating icons Adjani Russell and Rachel Vinberg, she’s done it all over again. Writing believable, flawed and fucking funny women.
All grown up, she now lives in LA with her husband, the actor Paul Rust (the co-authored Love is loosely based on their relationship) and their three-year-old daughter.
Rescheduled due to a broken fridge, Lesley has the grace to give me an hour and a half of her time while I interrupt an embarrassing amount of times to interject like a dick.
Because she’s my hero. And you’re never cool when you meet your heroes.
You started as an intern at VICE, landed a long-running column and then became Editor-in-Chief at Missbehave. Do you miss working in magazines?
What don’t you miss?
There’s nothing that I wrote about (with the exception of the VICE guides and Dear Diary) that I miss. And I don’t miss writing freelance.
I used to write for i.D., which was fun because it was cool, but I don’t like interviewing people. Not really. I shouldn’t say that. I do. I just don’t like transcribing and writing it.
We had to write top ten things on, like, favourite hair products. I mean, they’re not my favourite hair products. It’s stuff companies send us that we write about to get advertising.
TV’s like that too, but there’s a lot more room for creativity and fun, rather than trying to think of another word to describe red lipstick.
I don’t miss the urgency with which everything needs to get done. Screenwriting is much slower.
Did magazines mean a lot to you growing up?
Yeah! Sassy Magazine. Paper. This one called Project X. i.D. Maximum Rock’n’Roll. Index. Interview. Spy. There’s so many.
What did they give you?
There was no internet, ok? You’d read about a band, and see a picture of what they were wearing. And you’d be curious. Maybe you’d buy a single, or a tape, or a 7 inch. Maybe you’d like it, or you wouldn’t. But it was a journey into figuring out what I liked and what I didn’t.
Magazines were like treasure maps of how you found yourself, and how you found out what you were into. It connected me to people, which changed my entire life. It was the best.
A passport to finding out what you like, and maybe finding out who your people would be?
Exactly. Everything was magazines. After a certain point, I had to get rid of all of my Sassys.
Was it hard?
Did you have a moment where you felt ‘this is my voice’ and like you had power to use it? I can hear something and know: ‘That’s Lesley Arfin. Or that was influenced by Lesley Arfin’.
That’s really nice, and means a lot to me. And I do think it’s true. I will say that part of leaning into ‘my voice’ so much is lack of talent. Here’s the thing - there’s the type of writer who has a very clear and defining voice. And they make shows like Girls. Or Love, or Betty or whatever. Like Lena. Like me. Diablo Cody. Liz Merriweather.
Then there are people who can write in any voice. They can write whatever they need to, and those people will work forever. They’ll fit into any writer's room, and have very long careers. It’s not that I wish I had that.
To be honest, I wish I had both. Sometimes, I think I do. One is easier for me and more enjoyable as a process. I never really did that well in school, but I enjoyed writing in my diary, journaling. I wrote every single day. It was the most trustworthy thing that I had.
I enjoyed the act of putting pen to paper and expressing how I felt. I took a poetry class workshop in tenth grade. The teacher told me that I had a very clear voice. I was learning, but I knew what she was talking about. I was writing how I spoke, or thought. And that was the one true thing.
I was self-conscious, I was shy, I’d never been in a writer’s workshop before. But I liked her poetry, she was an authority figure and she complimented that I had a strong voice. And I was like: that I believe.
Did that feel like permission to go forth and use it?
It was more like a gift. Of her telling me something that I didn’t know that people could have. Sure, validation and permission. But more introducing me to something that I’d never heard before. I read a lot. Once she said it, I knew what she meant but I hadn’t heard it phrased like that. Having a voice is a thing.
I don’t question my creative ability to use my voice. Is it the most reliable voice? No.
How was the transition from journalism to TV? Had you written screenplays before?
No. It was very intimidating. I had a friend who said: if I can do this, you can do this. Write a story with beginning, middle and end. Don’t try to be funny. Use your voice. Look at another screenplay to see how it's done. She made it sound easy.
I tweeted Lena (Dunham) and told her that I liked Tiny Furniture. She replied to say that she’d loved the book. Then I said to my agent, I want to write for Girls.
I wrote a screenplay that had 30 pages. It was a sample, based loosely on Tavi, about a girl who was really famous on the internet but a huge nerd in school. I think Lena wanted writers who weren’t super-seasoned TV people but had lived the experiences the girls on the show had. It was a perfect show for me to be on. And it was definitely scary and intimidating. But I got the job.
How did you conquer your imposter syndrome?
You don’t have to conquer it. Everybody has it, and if they say they don’t, they’re lying.
With every creative project, whether you’re directing or painting or writing, there’s never a moment when you’re like ‘I now know enough that I will never have to learn anything ever again’. The creative process is all about mistakes and fucking up and navigating around them, or with them, or finding something new from them.
As you live, learn, and grow, you can write, learn, and grow?
Exactly! There’s no way to conquer it. The only way to not fail at doing anything is just to not quit. That’s it. Like, if I stopped writing because it was too hard then that would be a fail.
It’s never easy. Sometimes, days are more fun. Some days are easier than other days. But in the end, it’s still work. It’s gonna be hard. Just don’t quit. Plough through it. And if you can’t plough, you tip-toe through it. Or you sit with it, and just do nothing.
Do you bring a lot of your real life into your work?
Incidents: yes. Experiences: absolutely. With Girls and Love, I brought the most of myself.
How does it feel looking back on that teenage version of you in Dear Diary? What would you say to her now, if you could?
I would tell her that she’s so pretty. So much prettier than she thinks she is. I was going to say: stop cutting your hair, but I liked it at the time. I would tell her to stop picking at her face. She’s beautiful. If she doesn’t feel skinny, dance more.
I probably wouldn’t tell her anything else. I don’t think I would say to her ‘believe in yourself’. I don’t even think I would say to her, ‘it’s all going to work out’. If somebody had said that to me at that age, I would be like “ok, cool”.
I don’t even think I would say to her to spend less time obsessing about boys. I spent hours doing that, but it fuelled a lot of my work and interests.
I needed to obsess over it. It helped me invent, and find romance in things that weren’t necessarily romantic. When I was obsessing over boys, it was never about the boy.
It was about fantasy. And I would never take that away from somebody. Even if it brought me pain, I didn’t die. Pain is fine.
I would say: don’t say stupid things on the internet when you get older.
What do you think about social media life now?
Social media is awful, and makes people super-uptight and crazy. I’m not on it that much. I’m barely on Twitter. Instagram - I’m not even on that too much. Maybe if I want to get my nails done, I’ll look up nail art inspo or something.
My kid has an instagram account, because I was getting constant messages from family to send pictures so I just made an account. Eventually, we’ll take it down.
At a certain point, she’s in charge of being on the internet and not me. That point is sooner, sadly, than I thought it would be. She has a right to privacy.
How do you feel about raising a daughter in this world?
Every generation that comes before is always like, “this generation, I tell ya!”. She’ll find out what she’s interested in, the ways that are accessible to her. They’ll be nothing like what I was interested in, or they’ll be a derivative of it.