In her new memoir and first book, Save the Date, Jen Doll takes readers through nearly 20 of the weddings she’s attended, as she comes to terms with own feelings about what, commitment-wise, does and doesn’t work for her. A former blogger for the Atlantic Wire and the Village Voice, Doll uses her conversational voice and self-effacing humor to entertain us with ill-advised wedding hookups and drunken street tantrums but also to normalize the various shades that women—and their ideas about marriage—come in.
When I meet Doll for the first time, at happy hour on the Lower East Side, she looks just like her bio photo: big, easy smile and hazel eyes that twinkle with the right kind of mischief. She goes in for a hug, but then stops herself. She tells me how she just went to get cash from a street ATM, and when she pulled out her money, she touched some kind of used tissue that was stuffed in the dispenser. “It was quite gross,” she says, making a playful, scrunched-up face. “I probably shouldn’t touch you just yet.” She excuses herself to the bathroom, and when she returns, she finishes our hug and promises that she’s not a germophobe but that the ATM was indeed very foul. I tell her not to worry. I’m already charmed.
It is this same warm, girlfriend-y tone in which she writes that brought me here in the first place, excited to talk to Doll about women’s complex relationship to marriage, fraught with implications and expectations—and why she feels drawn to writing about it. I, myself a many-times wedding guest who never held any fantasies of wife life but who did get married last year at the age of 35, could easily relate to the mishmash of emotions, dynamics, and open-bar hijinks that Doll wades through in her book. So we sat down to chat, naturally, over a few glasses of wine.
The Rumpus: Some of my favorite moments in the book unfold when you take a date or a boyfriend to a wedding. Because as many know—myself included—nothing can amplify any underlying feelings or insecurities you may have about the relationship like a wedding can. How hard was it to dig back into those scenes and re-examine what was really going on in your head and in your heart?
Jen Doll: It was strangely easy. I took two months of book leave at the Atlantic, and all I did for 10 to 12 hours every day was write and remember these stories. I also reread diaries and emails—I mean, the emails that still existed; during some of those weddings, I had an AOL email address. I found myself going back to those times in my mind, and this may sound like some weird writer mumbo-jumbo, but it wasn’t difficult to feel the me that I had been. Maybe also because weddings are so photographed, they are formed solidly in our minds during the time they’re happening—like the way you can still smell your prom date or a whiff of Drakkar Noir, and be like, “Ohhhh, I remember the limo and flowers,” and you’re taken back to that moment. So there was a bit of that in writing it. And because I was doing it for so many hours a day, just doing that, I really was transported in a way that I don’t know if I’ll ever have that again.
Rumpus: When writing memoir, you have to be willing to own your shit: I was jackass here; I didn’t know what I was doing there; I didn’t really care about that guy after all. Was it hard to get to those points?
Doll: I was able to let go of all of that. I know I’m a different person now. I wanted to show the layering: Being that younger person and how I remembered feeling then and, on top of it, the me I am now. I was more worried about hurting people’s feelings than me looking bad.
Rumpus: Right. It’s your memoir. The stakes should be yours.
Doll: I feel like I could control me looking bad, or the consequences of me looking bad. I was way more comfortable being the shittiest person in that book than having someone else be the shittiest person. And in some of those situations, I absolutely was the shittiest person. At that wedding in Connecticut [after which she hurled her shoe in the road and made-out with a guy at his own bachelor party], I was a shithead. I would have hated me. Now though, my friend who got married is like, “You were hilarious. You were the story of the night!”
Rumpus: I also think you did a great job of capturing a sentiment that many ambitious, fulfilled-in-other-ways women can relate to: Marriage isn’t necessarily the be-all and end-all, but it’s not off the table either. And in the meantime, there’s this push-and-pull of wanting to feel close to somebody while valuing your independence and personal space. Did writing the book give you clearer feelings about marriage, or even about being single?
Doll: I think in order to be at a place where I could write it, I had a sense of what my feelings were. And in the end, it made me feel more than ever that it was okay to admit how you feel. And that admitting how you feel is not just okay, it’s necessary, and it can get you where you want to be. Early on, as I saw my friends get married, I had this sense that I’m not just like everyone else who’s doing this same bullshit thing just to do it. I didn’t actually understand why they were so eager to do this thing that no one had thought deeply about the meaning of. And I know this is a total generalization—some of them got married in different ways, and some very much thought about it—but in a worldview kind of way, most people don’t think about marriage as a choice.
Rumpus: In your twenties, this seems to happen more often—you’ve been in a committed relationship for a while, you’ve gone down this path, you should take the next step.
Doll: Yes, because your parents have done it, and your grandparents have done it, and you see people around you doing it, and you think, “Oh, shit, am I going to be the weird one that doesn’t do this thing that I’m supposed to do?” But to me, and others may not agree with this, I think the most beautiful thing about contemporary society is that we don’t have to supposed to be doing anything. I mean, aside from don’t kill people, don’t be a jerk. But you don’t have to get married if you don’t want to, and also, how horrible would it be to marry someone you don’t want to marry just because you’re afraid? So I think it became okay to admit that I never want to do anything out of fear, and that I wanted to be thoughtful about all of these choices, and that I did and do want to love someone. It’s not about that; it’s not about some anti-marriage or anti-wedding stance. But I want us all to make the important decisions more thoughtfully, and not just check boxes we think we have to go through. We can do things our own way, or not do them, and still be happy.
Rumpus: I’m with you. In my twenties, I thought I had a sense of all this stuff, but I still found myself taking inventory when I turned 30.
Doll: I think before you turn 30, as you’re getting close to that age, you start to freak out, especially as a woman, because people have told you all of these things, or you believe all these things, or popular culture is set up in this way to make you feel like—and maybe guys feel like this in some way, too—30 is this age at which you’re supposed to have things, or have done things. I remember a long time ago being like, “If I don’t have my first book published by 30, I’m nothing.” But then you get older, and things keep happening, and you’re like, “Thank God that didn’t happen when I was 30. I needed all of this time to get to where I am!” I’m so happy my first book came out when I was 38. I’m so happy that I’m not married at 38. There’s still all of this time stretching out in front of you to live a life that you want to live. I wanted to express, maybe not in a self-help-y way but in an I’ve-experienced-this way, that the pressure that seems to build around certain life points is really false and self-created, and if we could just be nicer to ourselves and allow space for “look, we are all just going to live our lives in different ways,” it would be much more empowering and gratifying. Don’t be stressed out that your friends are getting married at 30 and you’re not, because you don’t have to do that.
Rumpus: I ask this as someone who has also written about drinking, who still drinks and finds no shame in my liking to drink: I saw that a few commenters on Amazon were a little tsk-tsk about all the drinking you did at weddings. Does that bother you? What do you make of that?
Doll: Every negative thing stings a little bit. I know you’re not supposed to say that—“Who cares what they think?” or “You’re not even supposed to read that!”—but I do care what they think because it means what I hoped people would get out of my book was not gotten out of my book, and then it makes me think, Did I fuck up? Should I have written it differently? Was there a better way to do this where everyone in the world would understand where I’m coming from? And there’s just not. I know what my history of drinking has been, and I know what kind of drinker I am, and I know I’m not an alcoholic. The comments from people about me drinking were funny because I had a moment where I was like, “Wait a minute, I told you I drink too much. You can’t throw it back it me. I told you!”
I’m writing about these ratcheted-up experiences of high emotion and intensity where there’s basically an open bar throughout 90 percent of my book. If you take me out of those scenarios, the stuff I don’t write about in the book, I’m just soberly going to work, or alone in my apartment, cooking dinner. But these people are seeing what they want to see in it, and there is a different drinking culture in different parts of the country. I’m a single person, a childless person, and a majority of my work meetings involve drinking. To me, it’s not as big of a deal that there’s a lot of wine in my book than it is maybe to someone who doesn’t live in New York. But yeah, I don’t like people telling me to dry out [laughs].
Rumpus: When you began writing it, was there something you didn’t want this book to be about?
Doll: I didn’t want it to be about finding someone to save me in the end or about getting married. I was dating someone while I wrote the book, but it was not going to be about that. I think when I finished the book, I was still dating this person, but I purposely made the last chapter unclear about what happens. It’s not a book about finding your soulmate. It’s a book about being okay.
Rumpus: What do you make of being pegged as some hip, modern Sex and the City type of gal, like People magazine insinuated?
Doll: I can’t be bothered by anything that People says. If they put my book in their pages, I have to be happy about that. I think it’s wonderful that they chose to acknowledge the book in any way. I also I don’t think of myself as a Sex and the City-type of person. I understand that description trying to convey “single women experiencing life and having fun,” so I think it’s more like a phrase that’s supposed to indicate something and not that I’m Carrie Bradshaw—because I’m not at all. She would never wear my clothes.
Rumpus: If you had to peg yourself, how would do it?
Doll: Hmm… I think I am a fairly average sort of person who has chosen to look at things in a way that goes beyond just accepting them. I’m someone who’s searching, because I’m still searching for answers to these questions.
Rumpus: At what point where you like, Aha, this is the book I want to write? Was it the success of the Hairpin piece?
Doll: Yes, that had something to with it—not just that it did well but that so many people wanted to share their stories. And if other people have had this experience too, maybe we can have a conversation about it. I don’t think of a book as simply being, “These are my words and you must read them.” I was more like, “These are my words, and you have your words, and if you meet me, I want to hear your wedding story. Let’s talk about this stuff: How does it feel to be a wedding guest?” All of those stories that were being shared on the site made me feel that there wasn’t a lot that had been explored or written about and validated from a guest’s experience. I love stories so much, and I love that everyone has stories, and it’s not just the bride and groom that get to have their stories. We all have stories. Sometimes ours are even more interesting.
Rumpus: Yeah, let me tell you, as someone who just had her own wedding, it’s all a blur after the vows. It’s like your own birthday party, where looking back, you feel like you didn’t talk to anyone except that one random guy all night. I always have more fun as a guest than a host at any event. But going back to that starting-a-conversation thing, I agree. This is what you hope to get out of writing—have it resonate with people and make them want to talk about it and feel validated. Is it harder to get an immediate grasp of “the conversation” writing a book rather than a blog post?
Doll: I think it’s nice to put something on a table and walk away from it, and see how people react to it. You don’t have to be managing that conversation. Especially with a book, you’re already working on other things by the time it comes out. It’s also supposed to just entertain and be something to spend some time with.
Going back to the Amazon commenters, there’s this scene where I freak out over a date playing beer pong after a wedding and I have a little shit-show fit, and people are like, “She’s 35 years old, isn’t she over that by now? Hasn’t she learned?” Part of the book also is about the idea that we are imperfect. There is no one who behaves perfectly in every situation in life, especially not at weddings, where there is so much room to make a mistake, or to be seen as making a mistake, even if you don’t make a mistake. The idea that at 35, that someone would suddenly have figured it all out? I’m glad people say those things, because my book is not about being perfect; it’s about being imperfect but loving yourself anyway.
Rumpus: I agree. I believe in memoir there should be some personal evolution over the course of the book or piece, but not a lot—you are who you are. I’m still going to have drinks on a school night, but maybe nowadays, I won’t do any shots.
Doll: Oh, I still do shots [laughs]… I’m still thinking over what you asked about how I’d want to be pegged. In her review of the book, Rebecca Traister [of the New York Times] called me “funny, bright, complicated.” I’m good with that. Doesn’t everyone want to be that?
Featured image of Jen Doll © Sarah Shatz.