Born to Be Public opens with the most stunning photo of a young Greg Mania, dressed for prom, wearing those cute, in-vogue-again tiny sunglasses, with his now-signature Very Tall Hair. How does one get to be so fabulous? Mania grew up obsessively watching comedians on Bravo and the like; seeing Kathy Griffin, Margaret Cho, Joan Rivers, and others deliver sharp one-liners one stage taught him to survive. He would use this sarcastic wit against middle school bullies, turning their thrown slurs against him into shrapnel. Hungry to find a place where he fit in life, Mania left his hometown in New Jersey for NYC, attending Hofstra University, and danced on the outskirts of club kid culture with a character he’d created to get established officially within the scene.
He discusses this, among a milieu of other highlights and pitfalls of NYC life, in his debut memoir, out tomorrow from CLASH Books. There is something not just relatable about this book but also uplifting. Enjoying Mania’s artful delivery and whimsical banter, I was reminded of why books in the vein of Born to Be Public and Wow, No Thank You, by Samantha Irby, are so compulsively readable—I felt I was able to accept and even laugh at my own pitfalls, to remember the bigger picture about life: not everything has to be so serious. You can enjoy life, too. I felt less alone reading Mania’s memoir.
I spoke with Mania about his debut book, fear, persona, and being unapologetically who you are.
The Rumpus: You talked in your book about how you renamed yourself—Mania, because of people mispronouncing your Polish last name, pronounced “Mahn-yah,” in order to more fully live as the self you wanted to be. Is there power in renaming yourself? Do you feel like there is a “Greg Mahn-yah” and a “Greg May-nee-ah”?
Greg Mania: I think embracing the common mispronunciation of my name gave me the space to explore the things about myself that gave me trepidation, namely being extremely gay. But I also wanted to be feminine, wear androgynous clothing, and bring the inward outward. My friends in New York City, all of whom had names like Darian Darling, Breedlove, Lady Starlight, called me Mania, and they facilitated the growth of confidence I needed to be myself.
For the longest time in my early twenties, I only went by my nickname; I allowed people to think it was a stage name as opposed to my actual last name because I was so enamored with persona. But now, in my late twenties, I go by both versions of my name, because I realize that they make up the totality of my identity.
Rumpus: Can we talk about your phobia of tornadoes? I grew up in a city that is one of the most active spots in the world for lightning strikes (so much so that Nikolai Tesla built a lab here) and I still quiver every time I see a thunderhead. Was there a specific moment in your life regarding tornadoes that started this for you?
Mania: You know I love a phobia. And I have a nesting doll of them to talk about. I think the phobia of tornadoes, specifically, stemmed from a particular incident when I was in fourth grade. I write about this in the book, but basically my school threw a Halloween party that included an age-inappropriate “haunted house.” I put that in quotes because they just turned the home economics classroom into a maze of terror. I got in line with some other kids in my class to get admitted, and I didn’t even last for two minutes inside before I blacked out. Like, I straight up fainted. It was pitch black, and right on the side, in the entrance, was a creepy-looking painting. I went up to it and it jumped out at me and grabbed me. The next thing I remember was waking up on the floor outside the classroom with a bunch of teachers surrounding me. I wasn’t the only one who freaked out; another kid got so scared they threw up. The school ended up getting in a lot of trouble because a lot of parents, mine included, (rightfully) complained. It was shortly after that my intense fear of inclement weather, specifically tornadoes, started to surface.
My parents took me to therapist after therapist, but all I remember was hating it because it amplified the things that I thought made me different, and anything that makes you different at that age puts a target on your back. I was already bullied; I didn’t want to make it worse. So, I rejected therapist after therapist, and my phobia continued to take over my life to the point that if I saw one ominous-looking cloud in the sky, I would get physically ill and convince my parents to let me stay home from school that day. The fear of tornadoes eventually abated, but it was just replaced with a new phobia, and as I grew up, my fears grew up with me. In adulthood, they are darker and more existential, but now I have coping mechanisms in place to help me coexist with them.
Rumpus: Are there any coping mechanisms you have that interrelate with writing? (I always feel so much more at ease after I’ve spent a couple hours able to work/write. But I also tend to be too obsessive about my projects, so who knows if that’s good or not!)
Mania: Oh, absolutely. If I can get a few hours of writing in I feel more centered for the rest of the day. Some days I’m not there, mentally or physically. I might have a bad anxiety day or be depressed; a lot of my body pain is related to my mental illnesses. Some days I might have a PTSD flare-up, and I’ll be in actual physical pain all day as a result of my body’s response to trauma. I have chronic headaches, too. So waking up in the morning really is a wild card most days for me, but no matter how I feel that day, I have to remind myself to be kind and patient with myself, and just take the day off if need be. I just try to be in tune with my emotional capacity; if I can sit down and knock out a thousand words, great! If I write one really good joke that day, that’s enough for me, too. I celebrate those few words just as much as the thousand.
But, like you, I tend to be obsessive about my projects, too. Ask our friends at CLASH. I will email them at, like, 1 a.m., questioning a semicolon or restructuring a one-liner. Doing final edits on this book with me has been a nightmare. I see typos in finished books all the time, and I know that there are humans working on these projects like you and me, that minor shit like this happens and it’s okay because the integrity of the book is what matters at the end of the day, but for some reason I can’t extend the same courtesy to myself. I’m working on it. I’m not there yet, but I hope to be. I will keep you posted vis-a-vis neurotic emails in the middle of the night.
Rumpus: In your memoir, it seems like you learned quickly how to network and get to know people in the worlds you wanted to inhabit, because you wanted to be known and accepted and wanted to be more yourself. Putting yourself out there so consistently is a terrifying process, but one, it seems, you marched forward with without giving up. Do you think developing a persona is crucial to a public facing, or writing career, or is it more like an inevitability—something we as creatives do because we are trying to be more ourselves, to bring that inside, outside?
Mania: I can only speak to my individual experience. I inhabited this moniker because I was really insecure, and having a nickname given to me by friends I respect and admire helped me become a person who could eventually marry my outside to my inside. It was, in a way, a coping mechanism for me. But I’ve outgrown the need to just be Mania all the time, because I already am. I’m both of those people: they are both fundamental components of my past as well as my future. It was a lesson in totality for me.
I think persona is polarizing in public-facing industries like ours. So many people will immediately deem a persona as fake or something that’s less-than. Did you know that the phrase “be yourself” is said every .000000018 seconds in the United States? While the sentiment is great, and I agree with it, the execution isn’t linear. Sometimes a persona, character, or whatever you want to call it, will highlight the beauty in the things you’ve turned away from, and help you realize that what makes you unique and special has been under your nose the whole time. It’s up to you how you choose to present yourself; I just hope it’s authentic. Make no mistake: a persona can be authentic in the most beautiful, elevated way.
Also, social media breeds persona by default, no matter the industry. So one way or another, our online presence is performative. Finding that balance—both online and offline—is something most of us, if not all, grapple with.
Rumpus: What are some lessons you have for people who want to be unapologetic but struggle to do so?
Mania: I think the most important thing is to be kind and patient with yourself. So much of it has to do with our immediate environments—social, political, and cultural—and learning to live within them has immediate sway over our growth, decisions, and the directions we choose to pursue. I think making a space for yourself outside of these systems will give you the opportunity to get to know yourself better, find the things you love to do, and, above all, allow yourself joy that will usher in the self-love that many of us strive to find. Allow yourself room for growth and reflection. I’m not saying go do a bunch of ayahuasca in the woods with a bunch of strangers in Portland—although that may be something you want to explore; you do you, boo—but even if it’s taking five minutes out of your day, in the morning, during a work break, whenever, that time will add up.
Rumpus: You are a triple-threat performer. You are talented in comedy, theatre, music. And writing. Okay, that’s more than three. What, specifically, is it you like about the written word, in comparison with other forms of expression?
Mania: First of all, you are too generous. Theatre and music I don’t know about, maybe when I was in high school before I hit puberty and lost my rank as a tenor in chorus; I barely know about comedy. Fingers crossed because I guess I’m stuck doing the latter until I die an early death from choking on Smartfood white cheddar popcorn. The written word sates me in the way the stage does for performers.
Rumpus: Do you think writing is a kind of performance?
Mania: Yes! At least for me. I’m sharing my art with an audience and hope to elicit a reaction. Because I’m not a stand-up—and have no immediate plans to take to the stage anytime soon besides the occasional reading—writing gives me the same thrill performing would. Because I’m sharing my story, I have control over voice, tone, and the overall arc, which for me is an entire show that is meant to leave you with one or more feelings.
Rumpus: What kind of feelings do you hope to leave the audience with?
Mania: My hope at the end of the day is to make people laugh. But draft after draft included more personal things, especially surrounding my mental health. I admitted things I have never told anyone before, like how I used to self-harm. How I used drugs to cope. How poorly I treated myself and sometimes those around me. But I realized that calling a book Born to Be Public needs to make the coin defy gravity and stay on its side, because both sides—the funny and the sad—make the fiber of who I am.
Rumpus: What was it that motivated you to explore the memoir form?
Mania: I didn’t even know I was writing a memoir when I started writing this book, when I was twenty-one. Twenty-one! An actual infant. Honestly, I thought I was just going to put together a bunch of funny stories of my adventures in NYC, humor pieces that the New Yorker rejected, and maybe include some memories of growing up in New Jersey with Polish parents. My goal was just to be funny. But, as I grew up through my twenties, Born to Be Public grew up with me. It started to take a more visible form. At some point I was like, oh, I think I actually might have written a memoir?! because I looked at it in totality and realized it was a clear snapshot of a specific era in my life: from growing up closeted, to NYC nightlife, and, to eventually, finding writing and comedy. Figures, because memoir is my favorite genre to read.
Rumpus: Early in the book, you mention cutting your teeth on Twitter long ago when you’d started your blog. A hundred and forty characters taught you to keep things brief and quippy. Can we talk about vintage Twitter for a bit? Sometimes I scroll through my old archives and cringe— as a journalism major when I started my account in 2008, I used to aimlessly tweet news articles out about LGBTQ topics that were trending—like five an hour, all day, for no reason at all! I can’t imagine doing that today. Do you ever look back on old tweets and cringe?
Mania: Elle. Do you know that I actually paid real money for an online service to delete almost thirty thousand tweets because twenty-nine thousand of them were me @-ing celebrities like Winona Judd just to say, “hey, how’s it going?” back in 2009.
Rumpus: I’m SCREAMING.
Mania: Then, as Twitter started to gain popularity, the advent of the Twitter persona bore people like Rob Delaney, Megan Amram, and Melissa Broder’s So Sad Today. I wanted to follow in their footsteps, so I started to use Twitter to workshop my own jokes, which were… not good! They were hack-y and just not funny. Like, I’m talking difference-between-LA-and-NYC hack. As my friend Sam Irby would say, wow, no thank you! Let me give fifty dollars to some sketchy-ass website that will probably give me a computer virus to delete all of that shit.
Rumpus: You mentioned becoming obsessed with the sound of speech, the order of words, when you began investigating comedy. What is your approach to craft?
Mania: Yes! This is super dorky, but I love the sound of words. If you’re a comedy writer, you’re probably familiar with some of the basic axioms, like how monosyllabic words tend to be funnier. And it’s true. Seriously, say “cranberry bog” out loud right now and try not to chortle. But it goes deeper for me. I love words at a sonic level, that, when ordered, I feel like I’m composing a melody as opposed to writing.
Rumpus: What do you think you struggle most with?
Mania: Definitely my obsessive tendencies. I know we talked about this earlier, but I just don’t know when I’m done. Every project needs to be pried from my cold dead hands. I told you that I think of sentences at a sonic level, and if a rhythm is off I won’t be able to rest until it’s just right. I need to be reminded to step away sometimes.
Rumpus: Do you ever get writer’s block? What do you do to get unstuck?
Mania: I need to create distance between myself and the work. But, as you very well know, I have issues stepping away because I’m an impatient-ass bitch and I need whatever is stuck to just click into place. My roommates and/or boyfriend will recognize when I start obsessing because I will start babbling incoherently and slowly start to resemble the Corpse Bride with steam coming out of my ears, so they know to physically remove me from whatever it is I’m trying to force to work and plop me down on the couch to watch an old cycle of America’s Next Top Model and, more times than not, when I’m not thinking about what has me stuck, the idea will come. I just need to learn this lesson.
Photograph of Greg Mania by Pete San Pedro.