As I write this introduction, Deadline reports that Cate Blanchett will join Lauren Hough in narrating the audiobook for her debut collection of essays, Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing (Vintage). The literary star-on-the-rise has been amassing fans—currently over 65,000 and counting on her popular Twitter account—ever since her 2018 viral essay, “I Was a Cable Guy. I Saw the Worst of America.” We were introduced to the writer whose voice seamlessly pendulates between searing and hilarious, commanding and vulnerable.
In eleven deeply personal essays that boast a wit so sharp you could needlepoint with it, Leaving Isn’t the Hardest Thing threads Hough’s myriad identities as an adult: an airman in the US Air Force, a bouncer at a gay club, and, of course, a cable guy. But as a child, her sense of self was non-existent as a result of growing up as a member of the infamous cult, The Children of God. From Germany to Japan to Chile, to other places around the globe, her life was structured by the ruthless axioms decreed by its secretive leader and the trickled-down orders carried out by various ranking officials. Hough’s formative years robbed of the experiences that often inform and guide us for the rest of our lives
After she left “The Family,” a cataclysm of choices ensued. She spent time in the Air Force, then contended with homelessness and hunger, was locked up in solitary confinement, dated lots of women, and dabbled in drugs, until she reconnected with other folks who also grew up in cults. It was then that Hough was able to unearth the identity that simmered below the surface, the constant among the many variables in her life: a writer.
Greg Mania Correct me if I’m wrong, but I noted that you didn’t use the word “journey” once in this book. Nobel Prize!
Lauren Hough God. Thank you for noticing. I really hate that word. I don’t have a great reason. Maybe because it tends to be used by the self-help crowd. I think we use it as shorthand for “I didn’t do the work.” Feels like any time someone’s talking about their journey, they’re trying to get you to look away from the broken souls they’ve left in their wake.
GM In the title essay, you write: “I started writing the truth. Just little stories at first. I’d never show them to anyone. But I’d told myself to get my shit together.” When did you know that this was going to be your first book?
LH I didn’t have any idea. I wanted to write country songs but I’m terrible at guitar, and at writing country songs. So, I tried fiction but I sounded like everyone else. This was how I sounded like me. And when the cable guy essay blew up, it felt like maybe I should go ahead and write what I wanted to write. It’s funny though. That was a throwaway essay. I didn’t think anyone would read it but I needed the money and sure, I’ll tell some cable guy stories. I’m still shaking my head at that. Cable guy stories.
GM Have any of those original stories found their way into this book? What was it like to move from sifting through your memories by way of writing them down for yourself to crafting a collection of essays about your truth that will be published?
LH Some of the stories made it into the book, but not as I’d first written them. I’m a slow thinker and it took a long time, a lot of writing and rewriting to understand what any of it meant, how it shaped me. There were essays I sent to my agent and editor, Jamie Chambliss and Tim O’Connell, that made no sense at all. I was just listing things that happened. They’d come back with a lot of infuriating questions and I’d think, Why doesn’t anyone get this? Ugh. Then I’d be walking my dog and it would sink in, Oh, dammit, they’re right. Again. And sometimes, often, one line, some throwaway aside would turn out to be the essay I should’ve written in the first place.
GM I feel like that happens more often than not. Like, we include the tip of the iceberg but forgo the iceberg completely the first time around. How much has the book changed since the first drafts?
LH It’s impossible to say. I tend to write in layers, adding paint and texture with each pass. I wouldn’t recognize a first draft as the same essay any more than I recognize a pile of wood and nails and paint as a chair. It’s like those interview questions. You walk in with a list of anecdotes and if they mention leadership, you choose the one you can fit. I’m writing memoir so I can’t just make one up. Thank fuck I’ve made enough poor decisions that I had a few stories to tell.
GM What made you want to structure those stories into essays as opposed to memoir?
LH It was my editor who talked me into it on our first phone call. I hadn’t really considered doing essays but they allow so much more freedom to play around with structure and interiority. Essays just sort of work for me. I digress way too much to write a linear memoir and have it make any sense.
GM Did writing this book help you reconcile with certain parts of growing up in a cult that you wouldn’t have been able to reconcile with otherwise?
LH I think a lot of the reconciliation just comes with age—realizing how very young my parents were, realizing no one knows what they’re doing. It’s hard to tell the story of a cult without making it salacious and I really wanted to avoid that. But when I talk to others who grew up in it, for the most part we’re just laughing at how ridiculous it all was, and maybe some of that’s a coping mechanism. But a lot of it is ridiculous and that realizing that disarms so much of it.
GM As queer folks, we are not only perpetually coming out as our LGBTQ+ identity marker, we’re also coming out as other things: I’ve recently come out as someone living with chronic pain and illness. Your second time coming out was as a cult baby. As you mention, and as many of us who’ve had to come out know, shame is the common denominator here. I’ll never forget when I interviewed Brit Bennett and she told me: “Shame is the hardest emotion to write because it resists facing itself.” I still find myself contending with shame, in a number of facets, especially when it comes to coming out as anything. What was it like to confront the shame that you’ve carried for so long in your writing?
LH Shame is such a weight to carry. It seeps into our DNA, every interaction, every relationship. I mean, we’re all in therapy to deal with the shame that’s crushing us. I think maybe it’s easier to write about than it is to talk about because writing can feel so secretive, the furtive scribbling in a notebook no one will ever read. Then you hold your breath and send it to your editor.
GM What was that feeling like for you, sending it to your editor for the first time?
LH It’s not really a first-time sort of thing. It’s a conversation that goes back and forth for a year. What it’s like is you get stoned and watch some Schitt’s Creek and work on the next essay until the last comes back. I think when you’ve been doing this awhile, it stops being such a question of “Do they hate it? They must hate it.” At some point that becomes, “Here’s the mess I just wrote and a couple weird sentences I left at the end. Please tell me any of this shit can be used.”
GM I’m sorry, but I have to ask, because she’s been brought up a number of times in your book: favorite Dolly Parton song, outfit, moment, etc.? Truly a space for Dolly Parton anything here.
LH I used to write her letters when I was a teenager. I think because I’d stopped praying and stopped believing in God. Why would I need to, Dolly Parton is real and really does love us the way we are. She’s a gift.
GM I’m obsessed with your friend Jay. I want to sing the Reba theme song with him at karaoke. Are you still in contact with him and/or any of the other friends you made early on from your Air Force/bouncer/bartender/cable guy days? Have they read your book?
LH Oh, Jay. Jay’s read it and loves it. You can sing karaoke with him but I’ll be outside smoking. I’m not surprised so much that people from my past find me and reach out. I’m more surprised at who. So far, it’s been a fun bonus to being so visible. My friend Eudy from basic training just found me on Twitter and I sent her the book. She was horrified she’d called me a lesbian, not even registering at the time that I might’ve been a complete fucking closet case. But someone needed to fucking tell me. I’m glad it was her.
GM And what about your family: have they received early copies? Are you going to do what I did and just let the book come out and pace back and forth anxiously while you wait for The Phone Call?
LH I’m actually really lucky with the family I have. They’re all very supportive and excited about it. I had to send my dad an abridged version, by which I mean I taped post-it notes over the sex scenes. He doesn’t need those images in his life.
GM As someone who writes about mental health myself, I always check myself to make sure I’m not being prescriptive. What works for me may not work for someone else, but it’s always important for me to be honest. I admire that the way you write about your own struggles with mental health reads this way, too.
LH It’s strange because I get a lot of mail. People pour their souls out to me. And I’m not sure what to do with that. I don’t have anywhere to put it. I understand they just need to tell someone. But I don’t have any advice. Maybe it’s enough for them to write it down, too. But our country’s not a great place to be if you do have mental health struggles. I had to stop making fun of astrology, for the most part. It’s such a fun thing to mock because I was raised on it. But in the end, telling someone not to buy into astrology is just as prescriptive as anything else. What other option does anyone really have? If knowing you’re a Taurus explains some things to you, awesome.
GM I think that’s just what people need the most: someone to tell. Did writing about your struggles with mental illness help you find a way to coexist with it, or at least accept its role in your life?
LH That’s between me and my therapist. It’s something I’ve been working on lately. I got a little too active on Twitter during this pandemic. I think we all did. There are people I connect with on there, and then there are the 65,000 others wanting to give me advice or asking shockingly intrusive questions. When that cable guy essay came out, I had people showing up at the bar where I worked, while I was at work, to talk to me, or aggressively demand a hug. I still don’t know what to do with that. But I know right now the answer is: share less.
GM Now that you’ve become what you’ve always wanted to be—a writer—here’s a question you’ll be asked approximately twelve to fourteen times a day: what’s next?
LH I have no earthly idea. Maybe that’ll be my next book.