Of all the books I’ve read this year, one of my favorites is Box Girl: My Part-Time Job as an Art Installation (Soft Skull Press, 2014) by Lilibet Snellings, a smart, engrossing, eminently readable, thoroughly enjoyable and utterly relatable collection of essays that recount her experiences trying to find her way as a twenty-two year old recent graduate, while working as a writer/waitress/actress/Box Girl. Whether you are in your twenties (as I am), you just left that decade behind, or simply remember what that time in your life was like, you’d be hard-pressed not to find something that speaks to you. Last week, I had the opportunity to sit down with her for a conversation. Read on to see what she had to say…
Andrew DeCanniere (AD): First of all, one of the things that I think makes your book so engrossing is that I think it’s just so relatable. There’s that experience of trying to ‘find yourself’ -- not to sound cliché -- of being a recent graduate trying to work out just what it is you want to do with your life and to find a way into that. It’s different things for different people. In your case, it was working in publishing and writing.
Lilibet Snellings (LS): Yeah. Definitely. We all want to be these grand things, but we realize that they’re a lot harder to achieve than we thought. In addition to that, it’s like you’re trying to figure out if you’re a kid or you’re an adult. In our twenties, we all kind of suffer from a little bit of arrested development now, where we’re marrying later. We’re kind of postponing adulthood. We graduate college — if we went at all — and all of a sudden you’re like ‘Am I supposed to get a serious job? Am I supposed to spend a couple of years traveling and figuring it out?’ Then I do think it’s also about figuring out who you are. One thing that I talk about in the book is that we do try on so many different personalities in our twenties. We go through so many different stages and phases. At least I did. I think that by the time you’re closer to thirty, you’ve shed some of those senses of self and gotten comfortable in your own skin, and living with only one.
AD: And part of that, as you say in your book, is because that period immediately after you graduate does feel a little bit like the experience of being in the toothpaste aisle of your local supermarket. There are all these possibilities, which is great but can also seem overwhelming at the same time. Looking back — or look at it objectively — no one would ever want someone to tell them what to do with their life, but in that moment, you sort of would welcome a little guidance. Someone to tell you what you should be doing.
LS: Exactly. Because of this sort of multitude of options, it becomes sort of paralyzing. I think that our parents’ generation often had a more limited set of options — especially women who graduated college. Of course, that’s a generalization. Look at someone like Hillary Clinton. She’s my mother’s age and she may be our next President. Anyway, now it just seems that you graduate college and there are just so many options — especially when you look at some of these kids now who maybe don’t even finish college and are creating these start-ups.
Like I said in the book, when I was about twenty-two, I wanted someone to tell me what I was going to do with my life. I was so exhausted trying to figure it out, and I wanted someone to tell me. I just wanted to know where I would be when I was thirty. Then I thought I could kind of calm down and enjoy my twenties. I don’t know why. No one can tell you that. You just have to kind of navigate your way through the myriad jobs, relationships, heartbreaks, failures and triumphs that make your twenties what they are: the most exhausting and amazing decade of your life. It’s so silly. Now that I’m thirty-two, thirty seems young, but I just wanted to know where I would be when I was thirty.
AD: Well, I’ll be turning twenty-nine in October, so I’ll find out where I’ll be when I’m thirty very shortly. It’s soon to be less of a mystery.
LS: I found my thirties very relieving. I feel like in our twenties, we live so many different lives. It’s this decade that feels like it’s never-ending. It feels like it lasts for fifty years. Then, you finally get to be thirty and you’re so relieved.
AD: And it’s funny, because when you’re a child or you’re a teen and you hear adults talking, sometimes you’ll hear someone pine for this time or that time in their lives, but just as many times — if not more — I can recall hearing adults saying that they wouldn’t want to go back. They liked were they were then, as adults — and I have to say that if I didn’t get it back then, I certainly get it now. Because, as you say in quoting Joan Didion, everything — both the ‘right’ choices and the ‘wrong’ choices, those things you regarded as mistakes — make you who you are.
LS: Absolutely. My favorite part about that was that she said she realized it had all counted, after all. All of the mistakes, all of the procrastinations. I loved that word — counted — because exactly, you take it all with you. It’s all there for a reason. The good, the bad, the ugly and the otherwise, and that really shapes you as a human being. At a certain point, you start to get comfortable in your own skin. You start to feel like ‘I’m okay with how this is panning out’ and you stop having anxieties about how it’s going to work out and start feeling comfortable with the way it is. At least, that’s the hope. For some people that happens at thirty, for some people that happens at fifty, for some that happens at twenty, and for some people that never happens.
AD: And then I think there’s also this kind of tension between what you want to do and what you perhaps feel like your parents expect you to do.
LS: Right. Absolutely. I think those things, more often than not, are not the same thing. I also think that’s something that really is unique to our generation. When my dad graduated, he was expected to go work for a company and provide for a family. I think that now, with our generation, we’re all kind of idealists, too. We believe that we shouldn’t do work that isn’t going to fulfill us in some way and isn’t going to make us happy. Whereas, I think that prior generations just did that work, because that’s what provided for their family. So, I think while that seems like a wonderful notion — that we should pursue these dreams that fulfill us emotionally or spiritually — that only makes it more confusing, because often these things that we want to do don’t make enough money. But I do think that, yes, you should do what you love to do. My dad worked in the paper industry for thirty years — cardboard paper, not newspapers . It was a hard job, but he always said to my brother and to any young person who would listen, he still enjoyed going to work everyday. He really liked what he did. So, I think whether you’re doing something sort of glamorous and bohemian, or you’re doing something sort of very traditional and corporate, if you dread going in, then you’re not doing yourself service. You’re not in service to yourself, and you’re not in service to the company you work for, either.
AD: Jumping to your time as a Box Girl at The Standard Hotel, something you said in your book also really interested me. You mentioned how even in the age of social media, the box was sort of seen as voyeuristic, even as we’re all basically living out our lives online for all to see.
LS: Right. That’s something I talk about in the book and something that I found so fascinating. People think ‘Didn’t you feel so vulnerable in there with all of those people looking at you?’ And I thought ‘These people don’t know my name, they don’t know anything about me, there’s a one-and-a-half inch thick piece of glass separating me from them.’ In some ways I feel like I’m under sharing compared to what the general social media user shares on their Instagram or Twitter or Facebook or whatnot. I just found that so interesting, and I found that the box was a vehicle for exploring some of these social media issues. One thing that I found sort of funny is that in the box I was this pretty, tidy, model-esque person, whereas in real life I’m this sweatpanted, slovenly, gluttonous writer who hasn’t taken a shower in two days. On social media it’s the same way. Whereas in real life someone is probably covered in cat hair or baby vomit, and on social media they’re always in fabulous locations going on incredible locations, doing really cool stuff and wearing really cool outfits. It’s a very curated collection of things that we present online that are supposed to represent ourselves. In some ways, it’s like we’re art directing our online lives. We often don’t put the truth up there. We don’t put up what we actually look like on a Tuesday. We put what we look like when we’re dressed up on a Friday, or what we look like when we’re on vacation in August or something. I just found that very interesting. I just think we’re living in a really interesting time right now. Something that I really cherish about my time on this earth is that I got to experience so many years of my life without the Internet, and then also without social media. When I was a kid, I remember when America Online came to be. It blew all of our minds. That was something that you did at your one friend’s house who was cool enough to have it in sixth grade or something. In high school, I never had an e-mail address. I had an e-mail address in my freshman year of college, because they gave me one. I didn’t have a cell phone until my sophomore year of college. In high school, people actually had to call my house. You knew everyone’s home numbers. You had to actually speak to their parents and ask to talk to them. You had to drive into town on a Friday or Saturday night to find out what was going on. That was our social media.
AD: You mean you actually socialized?! I can remember when people still did that.
LS: Right, it was actually real socializing. There was something really romantic about that. I can’t help but think about it in a really romantic way. There’s something really cinematic about it, too. I don’t know why, but it’s like everything was a little bit more dramatic, because you knew so much less. You never knew who you were going to run into.
AD: Now you can just see everyone’s whereabouts — or know of them — because it’s all on social media, out there for all to see.
LS: Right. Even in college, we had to write on each other’s whiteboards on our dorm doors to let someone know where everyone is and to meet up there. By my senior year in college, everyone’s head was just down and they were all on their phones. So, anyway, I do often find myself longing for that pre-Internet age.
AD: I can definitely relate. Now it seems like everyone’s attention is almost always on their devices. We’re all sort of very hyper-connected, so that we almost don’t question it now. Do I like being able to call someone on their cell phone, especially if they’re late and you know it’s not like them to even be 10 or 15 minutes late? Yes, but there’s a difference between calling to make sure someone is okay and being hyper-connected all the time to the point of ‘Here is my salad.’
LS: Right, and something that I talk about in this book is this concept that if we don’t document it on social media now, it doesn’t exist. It’s as if it didn’t happen. If there’s not a picture on Instagram, then it just evaporates. And that’s so sad, because memories are no longer just saved in our minds — or in our hearts — they have to be forever memorialized on the Internet.
AD: Exactly, as you said then there’s the whole person versus persona issue.
LS: Yeah. Going back to this whole thing of us being the art directors of our online lives. It’s like there is the person actually doing the action, and then there’s this persona — which is basically how we’re hoping people will perceive us.
AD: It is, as you mention, sort of today’s version of the photo album. As you say, you had found some pictures, some photo albums belonging to your parents, and that’s kind of the equivalent for them, this more carefully curated collection of photos.
LS: Right. But also their photos are in a photo album and that’s it. Those albums live in the cabinet below their TV. No one else has access to them. They can show them to people as they wish, whereas with all these photos that I am posting now and think are great, when I’m their age I’m probably not going to think that. I’m going to wish that I can unlink or erase, but I just feel like there’s no amount of unlinking or erasing that could get anyone back to zero.
AD: And, as you say in your book, it seems like you were also kind of ‘on the fence’ as far as whether the box was an art installation or simply this gimmick. What does it all mean as far as the way people view women? Is it this sexist thing or not? You sort of tie all of it back to Gloria Steinem and wonder how would she view the box. What would she make of it?
LS: Right. I think that contradictions and tensions were kind of a theme throughout the book. Me navigating my own personal tensions. Could I be someone who both scoffs at and makes fun of something like this, but also someone who sort of enjoys it at the same time? Could I be both a piece of art and a piece of ass? Did I think I was contributing something to a larger art installation, or did I think that it really was just more of a gimmick to get people into the hotel? So, I think that was something that I kind of discovered. That was sort of a happy accident in writing the book. Originally, I thought that this would be a book about being the girl in the box. Then, also, zooming out to my larger life in Los Angeles, going on auditions and cocktail waitressing and all these various ridiculous things that kind of made me the typical LA ‘slash.’ I kind of just thought that would be it. It would be a collection of funny stories. Then I did this fellowship in upstate New York one summer at Skidmore. I had this professor and he had 25 pages of the thing, because at one point the book was a 25-page essay. He really liked it and was very encouraging, which is great, because I owe him a lot for that early encouragement. One of the things he said that really stuck with me was that I couldn’t just splash this ambivalence on the page without reflecting on it. You can’t just be like ‘Oh, isn’t this funny? Haha.’ You have to really stop and pause and take a step back to ask yourself ‘How does this actually make me feel?’ 'Why do I like it or why do I not like it?' 'Do I feel degraded or do I feel empowered?' Anyway, I think that something so wonderful about the form of the essay is that, often, you arrive at answers at the end that you didn’t know you were asking at the outset. So, literally, in the writing of this book — basically, it started as a 150-page manuscript and then grew an additional 150 pages — and in that growing or expanding of the book, a lot of these questions were raised, and in that process I found the answers to questions I didn’t even know I was asking. I think that made the book a lot deeper and a lot richer than it just being funny.
AD: It really took it to this whole other level, unbeknownst even to you.
LS: Exactly. I used to really consider myself a humor writer, exclusively. When I was freelancing for magazines, and even when I started the MFA program at USC. I thought of myself as a humor writer. Period. What I came to learn is that in studying some of the people that have done humor really well is that some of the funniest writing in the world is also some of the saddest, or also some of the most thought-provoking. Basically, you have to give a little of the salt with the sweet.
AD: You also mention that there’s this similarity between being in the box and being a writer — this idea of wanting to be alone while simultaneously wanting to be social, which as you say is also this part of your personality, something that you say is kind of typically Gemini.
LS: Yeah. I think that was definitely another one of the themes or tensions that I explored in the book. This idea of isolation versus exhibition, and that goes for both my life in the box and my life as a writer. As a writer, you know, we have this impulse and this urge to perform, in a sense. Writing is performance. It’s not as bold or as obvious as acting or singing, but we’re still writing words that we hope people will see. I guess I’d say it’s similar to painting. You paint for yourself, but you also paint because you want to get your work in a gallery or get your work noticed.
AD: Sure. Out into the public.
LS: Exactly. You want your private work to become part of the public sphere. I’ve always been drawn to writing, because it speaks to two parts of my personality. I am a classic Gemini, in that I either want to be completely by myself and I’m totally anti-social and break out in hives when my cell phone rings, or I want to be the life of the party. I’m out there. I want to make people laugh. With writing, I get the pure uninterrupted luxury of being completely by myself, most of the time, and when I want to come out of my little cave, I can take a piece and try to get it published or whatnot. It’s the same thing with the box. I get to be both sort of alone and not alone at the same time. I’m protected by this glass box. No one cane come in there. No one can bother me. No one can ask me questions. No one can flirt with me. But, at the same time, I’m still kind of getting to perform, as well. That’s something that I enjoy about the performance aspect of both writing and the box, and I say that in the book. Attention is seductive and it’s intoxicating and fun. That’s not really something that you’re supposed to admit, but that’s the truth. It’s nice to get recognition, whether it’s the recognition of ‘Hey, that girl doesn’t look so bad sitting in that box’ or recognition of ‘Wow. Look at this book she published,’ or recognition of any number of things. We all sort of toil away in obscurity for so many years, and then it’s nice to have something to show for it in the public arena.
AD: And then, as you said, you got to be the observer as well as the observed.
LS: That was something that I loved. I think that was probably my favorite part about being inside this box. I got to sort of be the animal at the zoo — but the animal at the zoo with a laptop and a human-sized brain. The whole concept was just supposed to be all these people observing the person in the box, but what was so cool was that I was also observing them, and it was just such an interesting experiment to be a part of and such a fun peek into human nature, watching people and listening to them, too. That probably was my favorite part about the whole thing. Everyone assumed I could not hear inside the box. They assumed that it was soundproof and so I couldn’t hear anything. If I chose to listen, and if they were close enough or loud enough, I could hear everything. I could hear everything from just the funny, random things that people said — especially drunk people at the end of the night, which was very hilarious — but I could also hear all the things they were saying about me.
AD: Which has to be kind of funny in and of itself.
LS: Right. I mean, how often does one get to kind of hide in this glassed-in room and listen to people make observations about them? It’s both terrifying and really fascinating.
Lilibet Snellings was born in Georgia and raised in Connecticut. She earned her MFA from the University of Southern California and currently resides in Chicago. Her work has appeared in The Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, Anthem, Flaunt, and This Recording, among other publications. For additional information about her book, Box Girl: My Part-Time Job as an Art Installation (Soft Skull Press, 2014) and event information, please visit her website. You can also find her on Twitter.