The world never made any sense to Amanda Stern–how could she trust time to keep flowing, the sun to rise, gravity to hold her feet to the ground, or even her own body to work the way it was supposed to? Deep down, she knows that there’s something horribly wrong with her, some defect that her siblings and friends don’t have to cope with. Growing up in the 1970s and 80s in New York, Amanda experiences the magic and madness of life through the filter of unrelenting panic. Plagued with fear that her friends and family will be taken from her if she’s not watching-that her mother will die, or forget she has children and just move away-Amanda treats every parting as her last. Shuttled between a barefoot bohemian life with her mother in Greenwich Village, and a sanitized, stricter world of affluence uptown with her father, Amanda has little she can depend on. And when Etan Patz disappears down the block from their MacDougal Street home, she can’t help but believe that all her worst fears are about to come true. Tenderly delivered and expertly structured, Amanda Stern’s memoir is a document of the transformation of New York City and a deep, personal, and comedic account of the trials and errors of seeing life through a very unusual lens. Amanda currently produces and hosts the popular podcast BOOKABLE. She spent her 20s working in film–for Ang Lee, Terry Gilliam, and Gregg Araki, but primarily for Ted Hope and James Schamus at the famed (and not forgotten) Good Machine, where she worked closely with Hal Hartley. After that she became an accidental comic, co-hosting the Lorne Michaels series, “This is Not a Test“ with host Marc Maron at “Catch A Rising Star.” She was the on-air host of a cable network owned by Lorne Michaels, the name of which is so mortifying she can’t even bring herself to tell me, the fake person pretending to write “her” bio. Later, in the music world, she worked for David Byrne, curating a narrative section of The Talking Heads Box Set, “Once In A Lifetime.” Stern hosts, talks, moderates, and curates for those who pay her. Some of these people and places are the National Book Awards ceremony, “5 Under 35;” the BBC; Soundcheck; the MacDowell Colony; Brooklyn Public Library’s Gala with Paul Auster, and at Powerhouse Arena. She’s also led storytelling workshops for Moleskine, Cirque du Soleil, and Proctor & Gamble. She’s published thirteen books, nine for children (the Frankly, Frannie, series for Penguin under the name, A.J. Stern), two for young adults (You’re So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah and its sequel, under the name, Fiona Rosenbloom), and one novel of literary fiction, The Long Haul, under her real name. Her most recent book is a memoir called Little Panic, which came out on June 19, 2018, from Grand Central. She’s held several fellowships at both The MacDowell Colony (once as the Philip Morris Company Fellow) and at Yaddo. In 2012 she was a NYFA fiction fellow, and she was a Barnes and Noble Discover Pick in 2018.
Amanda Stern is a fourth-generation native of Manhattan; raised without an accent. Her work has appeared in the New York Times; the New York Times Magazine; the New York Times Book Review; Filmmaker, The Believer, McSweeneys, Salon, Blackbook, St. Ann’s Review, Post Road, and others. Her personal essays have been included in several anthologies: Love is a Four-Letter Word, The Marijuana Chronicles, Women in Clothes, the anthology A Velocity of Being edited by Maria Popova, and her Believer interview with Laurie Anderson was included in Confidence, or the Appearance of Confidence: The Best of the Believer Music Interviews, 2014. Her first novel The Long Haul (Soft Skull Press) was published in 2003. Of her metaphors, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, “they’re so fresh, they’re almost jarring.” Concurrent with the publication of The Long Haul, she launched The Happy Ending Music and Reading Series as an antidote to her anxiety. The series, designed around public risks, became a critical success, and its inventive model paved the way for the proliferation of music and reading series created in its wake. Happy Ending had permanent homes at Joe’s Pub in NYC and Symphony Space. She produced a special event in Israel with Etgar Keret, Colum McCann, and Gary Shteyngart. By the time the series ended officially in June 2018, Amanda had produced over 250 shows and welcomed 700 creative artists, from Nelly Reifler to Colson Whitehead. Drop in with Amanda on going from fears to fierce.Leave a comment for radio show guests
What’s the story behind the story? We’ll find out on Dropping In. Our guests are today’s original thinkers. Conversations that spark new ways of seeing what’s going on. We bring it all to the table. Diverse perspectives, controversy, loving and singular voices. Magically stories reveal the common threads that link us. Experience the joys, the fist pumps, the detours and the hard-won truths of those who blaze the trail so that we might do the same and now here’s your host Diane Dewey.
Diane: Welcome to Dropping In everyone. We’re here with Amanda Stern author of Little Panic to talk about breaking patterns and getting unstuck. During the pandemic lockdown has created a sense of moving neither forward nor back while time has a way of zooming ahead. We’re lost without the feedback loops we normally experience when we’re together and don’t fully understand what the weird chemistry that being with other humans gives us but we do know that sharing insights can help us cope with the loneliness losses and the strangeness of a pandemic that has demoralized even the strongest, most successful among us.
This is not to mention the silver lining of normalizing mental health issues that has resulted during Covid. It begs the question how did Amanda Stern go from being a young woman who is often crippled with anxiety yet always exuding brilliance in performance in writing to becoming an accomplished woman who has tackled and mastered many creative and leadership roles and learned to take personal risks along the way. Welcome Amanda. Great to have you with us.
Amanda: Oh thank you so much. It’s very nice to be here and that was a very generous introduction. Thank you.
Diane: Oh well deserved. I’ll give listeners a short bio of you. Amanda Stern is the author of The Long Haul and 11 books for children written under pseudonyms. In 2003 she founded the legendary Happy Ending Music and Reading series which required creative artists to take risks on stage. The multi-disciplinary series became the gold standard for literary events. It was produced at Joe’s pub and later at Symphony Space in New York City until 2018. Her most recent book is Little Panic a memoir about growing up with an undiagnosed panic disorder in Eton Paths era Greenwich Village that is out now from Grand Central Publishing. Amanda is a mental health advocate, speaker and advisory board member for Bring Change to Mind, an organization founded by Glenn and Jessie Close and Calen Pick to end the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental illness.
Amanda has also acted in several indie films notably with Hal Hartley, the latest being Meanwhile starring DJ Mendel and a comedy series produced by Lauren Michaels of Saturday night live, as a writer Amanda’s required to live in Brooklyn which she does with her daughter Busy who also happens to be a dog. That’s a lot of accomplishment Amanda. I hand it to you. With these many dimensions that we’ve described I wondered in your own words how you would describe yourself now.
Amanda: Well I guess I would describe myself, I mean if we’re speaking professionally I would describe myself as a writer, a mental health advocate and in the before times a live event producer but now I guess I just think about live events. Pretty much the same. I mean I have these disparate parts that all sort of work together somehow. I just seem to vacillate from one to the other and then thread them all together eventually. Not so different.
Diane: It sounds very cool and very interdisciplinary. What kind of live events would you imagine producing these days?
Amanda: Well I can’t give away my secrets but obviously things have to move outdoors. I’ve just been thinking about the way that we could use buildings, the way that we could use space, public spaces and even private spaces to some extent making them a little more public or storefronts or just new ways of using things that we don’t think of as spaces or places for viewing. I’m just running things around in my head and who knows.
Diane: Well that sounds very cool and very community based. I think street life and everyday life takes on new meaning these days and places that we maybe took for granted. I would say too that your job has been to break up patterns, expectations from society. By reading Little Panic I know that your definition of anxiety is an inability to tolerate the unknown which means sufferers of anxiety are frightened by uncertainty since every day is uncertain. Even routine aspects of life feel dangerous to sufferers. We are not negative. We are worried. I wondered how you felt about anxiety being culturally overlooked that somehow this worry is normalized. People often don’t see anxiety.
Amanda: Yes I mean people often don’t see a lot of invisible illnesses but I think well, tell me exactly what is it, ask me that question again one more time.
Diane: Well I’m thinking about when you worry, when we worry and we say well maybe this will happen or if I don’t do this maybe this will happen. Then if we’re not thinking that way, if we’re not in that continuous loop of worrying about oh well what if I don’t pack this and I need it for if the rain is cold or if you don’t do that you’re considered somehow like not thoughtful or you’re stupid or you’re sort of lazy. I mean there’s a way in which endless worry becomes kind of rewarded in our society. Then as a result we really don’t know when we cross the line ourselves and it’s hard to really discern when somebody’s kind of crying out for help that they’re having actual anxiety. It disguises itself in a way.
Amanda: It does but I think that there are a lot of tells. I think that just sort of chronic worrying happens in your head and a profound anxiety happens inside your body. The person who suffers from anxiety knows the difference. Once you get good at discerning the difference between worry and anxiety because worry is something that happens to every single person. Anxiety maybe not but once you get good at identifying the differences you can see it in someone. You could hear it in their voice. You can hear the strain in their voice, the sort of tightness in their throat, the shallowness of their breathing. You can see it. You just have to be someone who is mindful or open enough to sort of absorb other people’s tensions but I don’t know necessarily if I agree though that we normalized worry.
I think that worry is completely misapprehended and that people, a lot of people are more conditioned to view it as negativity rather than as rewarding it for some sort of thoughtfulness or over preparation. That just has not been my experience that worry has been normalized. I’m interested that you see it that way.
Diane: Well I mean there’s a couple of things. One is you had this boyfriend Javier who thought that you’re in the book now you’re relatively I think you’re in your 20s by then right?
Amanda: No I was in my late 30s.
Diane: Late 30s okay and he felt that your worries were he described it as not going towards the light which I wanted to stick my finger down my throat then because I mean that’s just also a way of saying I don’t want to deal with, I don’t want to deal with your worries. I don’t want to deal with the things that you’re anxious about. I don’t want to be responsible for comforting you or bringing you solace to this but the thing I think so that that was nauseating. I think there’s maybe two sides of the same sword because then there’s also the placating that goes on with worry where people say well don’t worry dear. It’s going to be all right. Everything is going to be all right. Then you’re kind of like but that’s not an answer. You’re kind of judged for having worry, you’re kind of judged for not having like a kind of faith in life whatever that is or wherever it’s supposed to originate. How were the labels?
I mean once you understood the difference between anxiety and worry and the other thing is that sometimes I think we tell ourselves that worrying is normal because we’re worriers ourselves. We’re saying it’s okay because it’s part of my shtick. I think that somehow when you talk about this visceral, physical reaction and the anxiety is happening deep inside your body I wondered if you used that self-awareness when you overcame really incredible, you took incredible risks even at a very early age producing your own dramas in high school even to stand up in front of people. You got in touch with yourself somehow. How did that work?
Amanda: Well I think that so a few things. You just touched on a lot of really important things and one thing I want to say is that when people say you have nothing to worry about, you’re going to be fine. They’re missing a very crucial step. They’re missing the step of what is happening right now in the moment. A person with anxiety is sort of trapped in a present fear of the future. People who are attending to worriers often just focus on the future but the worrier, the anxiety sufferer needs help with the present moment and the terrible sensations that are happening in our body.
This is just sort of to say that when people are dealing with others who have anxiety it’s not helpful to say it’s going to be fine. You’re going to be fine because the person who’s suffering is actually not fine. By saying that you’re dismissing and sort of disregarding a very fundamental truth which is that it doesn’t feel fine at all. For me what I understood very early on not with my brain but somehow with my body. I understood that the only, I understood that I could not, it was unbearable to live with the kind of anxiety that I had. It was unbearable because I wasn’t just, I didn’t just have anxiety. I had panic attacks. I had panic attacks constantly. Sometimes they would be very low-grade panic attacks but I would be panicking nonetheless.
I held myself in panic attacks by avoiding situations that I thought would give me panic attacks. That is what a sufferer does. It’s a protective mechanism. It’s a strategy that doesn’t work because the more you avoid something the scarier it becomes. What I understood somehow was that I wanted a big life. I wanted to do certain things that scared the hell out of me and that only a person without panic attacks could accomplish but I wanted to accomplish those things. I knew the only way to conquer or get through my anxiety was to face the very things that terrified me. That is what I did. I just sort of forced myself to walk toward the thing that made me panic. It was horrifying but I’m not talking about dangerous things. I’m talking about very simple things like producing plays in high school or standing in front of, standing on stage in front of an audience things like that that would give me panic attacks or like make me feel nauseated and throw up for days in advance. I think that that’s a type of exposure therapy that I didn’t know existed but that’s essentially what it is. It’s one of the most profound and effective ways to handle anxiety.
Diane: Your fears became your fierceness almost. You confronted them in a way that people around you were not confronting them. I mean they were doing their best and trying to help it as you say. Can’t acknowledge your present reality. There’s a lot of euphemism going on and a lot of kind of compensating. Oh well we’ll get you a doctor. We’ll get you a pill. This is not denouncing medication at all but your way of direct observation of your feelings and then confronting them it’s going to strike a lot of people as being very brave. It sounds like for you it was survival. You did it.
Amanda: Yes, it does sound very brave even when I hear it now and I don’t disagree but it doesn’t feel brave when I think about what I’ve been through and what I have to do. It doesn’t feel brave. You’re right. It feels like it’s life or death. It’s survival. That’s really what it feels like. When you’re sort of forced into like I was forced into situations all the time that were just too overwhelming for me but I had no choice. As a teenager you want to belong, you want to fit in. A lot of the time I would just hide as best I could this fear that I had and do the thing that terrified me without anyone really realizing that’s what was happening. I really like the way that you put that but yes, it felt like a survival mechanism.
The other thing is that a lot of people who have panic attacks and I’m one of these people has something called dissociation. They dissociate. They separate from themselves it feels like. Feels like you’re sort of leaving your body and you’re watching yourself. You float up to the ceiling and you sort of watch yourself down below. It’s a trauma response. It’s a way to protect yourself and that would happen to me constantly. It still happens to me and that in some way makes it easier to face your fear because you’re not all the way there. You’re separated.
Diane: You can identify it or you can see it for what it is. Okay and I wondered if at times it enables you to even laugh at your fear or objectify it in a way. I don’t know. Is that part of it where you can say right now I’m gonna look at this fear and I’m just gonna say you don’t own me or talk it down somehow?
Amanda: No, I’m not that expert but I think that what I what I do and what I’ve done is I would always say to myself. Everything is temporary. Everything is temporary. Everything is temporary. You will get through this. There’s always later. Later is always going to happen. This is not going to feel like this forever. You are always going to have a later. I would sort of hang on to that as my sort of soothing, medicinal mantra to get me through things.
Diane: I think that’s beautiful because I mean I think time pressure there’s never enough of it. I’ve missed the boat. My ship’s coming in. I’m not at the dock. All the pressures that we exert on ourselves are about never enough. That pressure is one that’s maybe self-inflicted but there are scores of others that you talk about the pressure to fit in as a kid. We’re going to take a break now but when we come back we’re also going to look at the pressure of education, standardized tests, the definition of intellectualism and how these things can make a kid feel completely other and completely different. Don’t go away. We’ll be right back on Dropping In with Amanda Stern.
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Diane: Welcome back everyone. We are here with Amanda Stern, author of the memoir Little Panic which at times isn’t little at all. There are lots of stress-inducing anxiety-producing pressures that we just touched on. Time being one of them. The thought that you don’t have all the time in the world that there won’t be a tomorrow. Amanda, what are some of the other I mean you really I think described it in such a vivid way in your book but there were so many other standards and maybe continue to be standards of time what you should be like when you’re 16, what you should be like when you’re 20. What you should be like when you’re 40. These measuring up and conforming to other people’s standards. It’s exhausting and what is the influence of that and how do you get around it?
Amanda: Well I think it’s really easy to get trapped in the standardization of American life. Our entire society is set up around these rites of passage and these expectations. I think for some people it’s very calming to have sort of set parameters for what is expected of you but for a lot of other people it’s not. It doesn’t work at all. It’s just a different way of being in the world and experiencing life. I think that for people like me who never felt normal, who never felt like they were, the way that we sort of deal with humans is as though we’re not human at all. The things that make us the most human are completely misunderstood and sort of thrown to the wayside.
The very basic example education. There is no literature that will tell you that the best thing for children is to have them sit in a chair for eight hours a day. There’s no study that will tell you that that is the best thing. There is no reason that our education system should be based around sort of fundamental misapprehensions of what it means to be a human being. That’s just how things are. They’re sort of based on our inhumanity and not on our humanity. It’s very odd to me and it’s always been very odd but I think that a person who is struggling with these time frames and these rites of passage it’s really, really problematic and hard to sit down with yourself and say okay. The world has a mission statement that it wrote on my behalf and it doesn’t match at all with my own mission statement that I have on my behalf.
I advise people to really sit down and actually write like pretend they’re a business and write their mission statement. What do they value? What do they stand for? What’s important to them? That is your blueprint and not the blueprint that other people who don’t even know you wrote on your behalf. It’s a hard thing to do but if you feel like you’re here for other reasons other than getting a PhD and getting married and buying a house and having two cars and having children. If your life is not about that then you would need to get clear about what those other things are and live to that ideal.
Diane: To your mission to find out your calling, your purpose, what gives you passion and juice? I think it’s interesting the similarity between standardized tests and the tests of each decade in passage. As you say the standardization of American life. It’s very similar somehow. You have to pass this test in order to go on to that. If you don’t detach from that and you don’t look inside of yourself. I mean you say in the book the story of ourselves that other people tell are not ourselves. I mean that’s such a fundamental profound observation. It sounds so simple but the rewards are there. I mean if you dig down and do this hard work of tuning in it’s a different, it’s a way different kind of reward because the rest of time you’re just trying to measure up and you’re creating false selves which I think you did that for a while. You tried on all those people it seems to me. How did that go?
Amanda: Well not well because when you adopt different personas to be able to sort of acclimate and sort of survive when you have a very strong sense of self but it’s not in alignment with the world’s idea of who you should be then you take on other selves. You try on different personas in order to cover up this first self that is too much or not right or that you think is defective. You adopt all these other selves and what you end up doing is living a life that is not incongruence with the person that you truly are. You end up spending majority of your life having to take apart these other personas. Sort of strip them away and be like oh that’s not who I really am or this is not working for me. Sort of strip all the foundations away until you actually get to the root of who you are and then you could start living from that place but it takes forever if you spend most of your life covering that original self and playing other parts and trying to perform and fit in and be right.
Diane: Well you were all about trying to achieve love, get love and get approval from people and also really what you’re defined as. There was a lot of deficits people saw in you because you weren’t keeping up at school. You weren’t interested in sitting in the chair without getting restless. You weren’t interested in focusing and I think even know it’s kind of a phenomenal coincidence. You open the book talking about time, the construct of time and not understanding as a little girl with your dear friend Melissa the concept of AM and PM. I mean these are things that really don’t make sense when you scratch the surface. I mean okay, there’s two seven o’clocks.
Okay you had the curiosity of someone and this curiosity of someone who wasn’t going to get rewarded for it. You weren’t necessarily gonna get love for that. You were gonna like you get that side eye for that. Then you started to disguise yourself but then there was a way. I had to ask myself when you were a teen you actually put on some armor. You got the discarded clothes of your brother who was kind of a like sort of a punky kid. Did that disguise actually help you in a way project a strength that you didn’t really feel?
Amanda: Absolutely. It was soothing beyond measure. I felt very much like if I wore my brother’s clothes I would have my brother’s essence of coolness and a looseness. I could keep people at a distance and they wouldn’t come too close. They couldn’t see what was underneath. I was so afraid that people could see right through me and into my like large tank filled with fear. It’s so strong those feelings of panic and anxiety. They’re so strong you really, you find it miraculous that people don’t see it. I think that putting on his clothes helped me feel like I had another layer between me, between my fear and the world. It was a type of armor and a type of like I was a character. I had I got to create a character and live in a world as this character who was an extension of me. It was the armored me but it was the only way that I could actually truly manage my anxiety.
Diane: Well what if people do see it? I mean now you’re sharing it in a way that I think is so helpful for those of us out here who may feel isolated. How is coming clean with how has that helped empower you in a maybe more authentic way. I don’t want to put words in your mouth but how is that for you?
Amanda: I can’t even overstate it enough. It’s life-changing. It’s completely life-altering. When you feel panic you don’t get to really express it because you don’t really know how or no one’s listening or no one understands it but when you do express it when you finally can express it and people hear you or see you don’t feel that panic anymore. It’s sort of a way to face your, by talking about your panic, by talking about what happens to you are facing what happens to you. It sort of gives you more power and the panic less power. It sort of strengthens your confidence and your sense of self and your resolve to conquer this. For me it was terrifying to do this but sometimes when things just terrify you know that you’re on to something. When you’re doing something and you know that it’s right and it terrifies you then you’re doing something right. I just needed to keep going towards that rightness.
I can’t tell you how I advocate so hard on behalf of people being open and honest. I know how scary it is. I know how terrifying it is but I also know how liberating it is. You just have to find that one safe person. If that one safe person is a stranger that’s okay. If it’s me it’s okay. Like if you don’t know me and you can’t have no one to tell or no one to talk to email me. I’m here. There are people who exist who can be there for you even if you don’t know them. I think that’s important.
Diane: Well sometimes it cuts through even being familiar. You don’t need to be familiar. You just need to sense that you’re getting it. I wonder also about that dynamic of you so powerfully taking back this energy that was robbed, was seeping out of you. I think the dynamic of other people hearing it and responding to it also gives it just that much more of right a push forward even now as you’re speaking. You’ve really articulated this I think so well and also you talk in the book about greeting the self you find rather than the one you were taught to expect. Maybe it’s finding the stranger in yourself, finding the stranger in us.
Amanda: I love that. I love that except that that person’s not a stranger. It’s just estranged but it’s who you are. It’s truly who you are. You’re just estranged from your original self.
Diane: There’s a certain point where you say I just think I’d like to get to know that girl which is I think all that girl really ever wanted I mean is this acknowledgment.
Amanda: I mean if you spend your life trying to get other people to see you and hear you and they don’t and they can’t you come to a point very late in life often where you’re like wait a minute. There’s no one who can do this and then you realize you are someone. You’re someone. You can do it. We always overlook ourselves. It’s that self that we most often need the most.
Diane: Exactly. You can in fact save yourself. We have a couple of minutes till we need to take a break but I wondered about a certain kind of trope maybe too overworked but the link between creativity and feeling this otherness, the link between creativity and being an observer. Is it because the creative space gives you permission to be who you are or what do you think these links are about? We don’t have to answer at all right now but are they real? Is this trope based on something that’s substantiated? Is the creative person an outsider and then becomes an insider for being creative?
Amanda: That’s interesting. I mean I think that a person who feels like an outsider has nowhere to put that sense of outsiderness. If they can find a place to put it and make something from it and express themselves that way then in doing so I think they feel, it’s just the expression of it that you really need. I don’t know. I honestly don’t know enough about sort of the science of creativity or the psychology of creativity. I’ll tell you why. It’s because I worry that if I put my finger on something that is very dear to me but is ephemeral like why is it that I write. If someone wants a real answer to that I don’t really want to know. I don’t want to give the, I don’t want to know because if I know I feel like it’ll break the spell. The mystery will be over and I’ll no longer want to be creative. I’ll no longer want to write because I’ll know exactly why I do it. I’m not sure that I can entirely answer that question but I do think that there is a link. I think that a lot of people with pain have no place else to go but off to the side. That’s where they make their pain look like something else.
Diane: Look like something else. You gave a platform for many others and many distinguished people to give expression to themselves when you created the happy ending. I mean that seems to, it seems to me that you’re involved with the process and kind of supporting it and don’t need to dissect it but embrace it you rather holistically rather than let’s not take it apart. Let’s just embrace it. Let’s give it a place to be. That’s really cool. We’re going to take a break now and it turns out that Amanda Stern is writing a novel. Is that correct Amanda?
Amanda: Well yes and no. I was writing a novel. I’ve since pivoted and we can talk about that when we come back.
Diane: Okay, good. We’ll have some unanswered questions on the process, the writing process and the whole evolutionary process and what kind of immersion happens to create such immediacy has occurred in your already published memoir Little Panic. It’s something I recommend people get their hands on. We’ll be right back with Amanda Stern.
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Diane: Welcome back everyone. We’re here with Amanda Stern who is by her own testimony on her website a writer etc., a multi-faceted person Amanda, you’ve acted. You’ve performed on stage. You have written a memoir. You’ve written children’s books and at first a novel. At a certain point you were given to write a novel again and what’s happened with that project.
Amanda: Yes, I have been working on a novel. Apparently once you start writing memoir and non-fiction it is incredibly hard to stop. I started cheating a little bit on the novel I was working on with another I don’t know I guess it’s a book of non-fiction. It’s memoir-ish. I’ve been working on that for the past several months. It’s got more legs than the novel had or at least I have more energy for it than I’ve had for the novel. The novel’s not completely gone. It’s just taking a rest. It’s having a pandemic. I’ve been working on a book about mourning this thing, mourning a loss of something you never had.
Diane: Yes that nirvana. That’s very cool. That’s very cool because I think that occupies a lot of psychic space in our lives for sure. Nobody better to tackle it than you because I’m really actually very grateful that you’re writing nonfiction and going back into more of a memoir-ish tradition just because you’re gifted at it. Also because I wondered how you would make that shift. Even when you’re writing non-fiction, without giving away too many secrets, do you envision the whole? Do you work episodically? How do you work or is it by scene? How does it work?
Amanda: That’s a good question. I just power forward. I have a sense of the whole not really intellectually but I think very much in a rhythmical sense. Structure to me is rhythm. I know the whole book rhythmically. I know the patterns of the book. I know the thread and the shape but I don’t know what all the disparate parts are necessarily going to be. I think for me with non-fiction what I what I like so much about it is that I don’t feel that pressure to know everything in advance. I don’t feel the pressure to plot it out. I feel much more open to just explore where with fiction it’s much harder for me. I get so lost and so in over my head that I have to really plot it all out. That for me takes away some of the joy of just writing. I think I’m just very, I’m very instinctual. I’m a very intuitive human being and a very intuitive writer. All the other stuff comes after that.
Diane: You’re gathering then. It’s more organic. It sounds like it’s more organic. Then you’re just opening yourself to what the concept might attract as opposed to plotting. Plotting sounds scary to somebody that has as much…
Amanda: It is.
Diane: It’s scary. That’s scary. Oh it’s like almost sterile okay but now you also act and I wondered if these, that’s more physical. I feel like it probably involves a lot of intuition as well. Do you look forward to doing more acting? Does that bring you something else to the table?
Amanda: I don’t actually really act so much anymore. I more like perform. A lot of what I do is more improv based. With Happy Ending I was the host of the whole event and I would write a monologue. I would sort of weave together all the different elements of the show as they came together and sort of cohere it into a whole. I would do it improvisationally. That’s sort of more my style is just being on stage and improvising. Acting to me is really strangely inorganic and too inauthentic for me. I feel like there are people who can act, who can come in from the really authentic side and that’s not me. I’m much more authentic with improvisation but with acting I feel like there’s much more of a boundary that I don’t really know how to penetrate or to cross.
Also it’s terrifying to me. I don’t think I’m a very good actor. I think I’m pretty good at improv but I don’t think I’m very good at acting like memorizing and then performing. That’s not my strengths. It also gives me so much anxiety and panic. It’s not something I want to get good at or need to get good at so I don’t need to face that. That’s not a fear I need to face but yes so.
Diane: Well it’s also scripted. It’s scripted so you have to, it’s not that you can’t but you’d have to so believe in the script or the words. There are also the words that you’ve written. I mean there were parts of little panic that I thought oh I so want this to be a film. I don’t know how that would feel for you. It wouldn’t be improvisational but it would be your words.
Amanda: I mean definitely wouldn’t act in it. I am actually working on a sort of a pilot episode or pilot for Little Panic just not for anyone just to see if I can do it and then if it’s good we’ll see but even that I don’t think I could do. I would rather show up in a cameo as like I don’t know the dog walker but I don’t unless the whole show was improv then I could do it.
Diane: That would be that would be really interesting. You could just set out the kind of intent and that would be really interesting. Let the dialogue take shape. I mean a lot of people are scared to death of improv like that’s like oh no scaffolding.
Amanda: I know it’s weird. It’s weird that I’m like this. It makes no sense.
Diane: It’s an inverse strength. It’s like a strength but it’s one that you’ve tapped into. That’s the important part. You’ve connected with it and then once you have that you kind of can’t go back. You can’t go back to just words on a page. I think that’s really interesting and the structure of it you just feel like maybe that’s not really so necessary.
You’ve had a lot of passages in your life where you were trying to work with the script. It’s just not that much fun either. I mean that’s the other part. It’s not your personal comfort level. I wondered if you feel as though you’ve come to some point of arrival or some sense of peace. I mean much has been made of the idea of like becoming friends with yourself and even self-love. I wondered if your evolution has brought you to this place of peace or if you would describe it or how you would describe it.
Amanda: I definitely would not say I’m at peace. I think that that where I am is I’m no longer ashamed. I’m no longer humiliated and embarrassed by the truth of who I am and what happens to me. I’m quite open about it but I’m also really and have been like this my entire life. I’m very committed to overcoming all of this. I’m also very clear that that takes a full life. It’s a full lifetime. I’m not over when people have asked me like how did you how did you conquer this? How did you get over this? How did you, what was your a-ha moment? There’s no such thing. There’s no a-ha moment and I hate that expression. There are billions of a-ha moments and they all sort of guide you. This is like conquering something that is sort of almost a biological disorder. It takes a lifetime. I think that I’ve reached the point where I’m really committed to that devotion of spending my life facing my fears and getting better and better and better and stronger and stronger and stronger and where I’m no longer paralyzed by panic. That when I start to panic and I feel those sensations in my body that I know how to go towards those feelings more and more and more because I still get panic attacks. I still have panic. It’s not resolved entirely. It’s a work of a lifetime.
Diane: It’s a work in progress. I mean there is no over. There’s no just a-ha.
Amanda: There’s no over right.
Diane: There’s not over. There’s through maybe. The great part I think you’re sharing it takes away so much of the shame and stigma that surrounds it, surrounds mental health issues. We can’t thank you enough for being with us on Dropping In and sharing more with us. Also refraining from blaming I think is a brilliant solution to this. It’s something we didn’t say explicitly but thank you so much Amanda Stern. I’m just going to leave us with your social media handles Amanda Stern on Facebook , Instagram A Little Stern and as well as the website amandastern.com. You can reach out.
Thanks to our engineers Matt Weidner and Aaron Keller to our executive producer Robert Giolino. Most of all to you our listeners. Remember to stay safe and remember to talk about your fears as they become your fierceness. Till next week thank you for dropping in.
Thank you so much for dropping in. Please join Diane Dewey again next Friday at 8 AM Pacific Time and 11 AM Eastern Time on the Voice America Variety Channel. We’ll see you then.