An Interview With Jen Doll -The Toast

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url-1Jen Doll, who you have almost certainly read and enjoyed in your online wanderings, has given the world of wedding attendees a charming and appropriate gift in the form of Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest. So we talked about it!

Hi Jen! I read your book on the plane, and I always love your writing but, you know, it’s about going to weddings, so I was pleasantly surprised by the fact it powered me happily home and was utterly engrossing. This is definitely more a book about insecurities and self-doubt and friendship and alcohol than “going to weddings,” how did it all come to be?

You know, it’s funny. I never set out to write a book about “going to weddings” in any kind of conventional rom-com-y sense, with the inevitable wedding at the end in which the never-a-bride-always-a-bridesmaid “heroine” finally walks down her own aisle with the surprising-yet-obvious man of her dreams and is FINALLY happy. Because I don’t think that’s real, no offense to the role Katherine Heigl plays in 27 Dresses. (Well, maybe offense to that role; I find it tired and less than empowering.) What is real are the anxieties with which we approach our own relationships and our personal quests for love and success and happiness, and the way our desires can seem so inflated, or so repressed, or so just fraught in these big moments in life in which we watch other people profess their love to one another. I wanted to look at how we go to weddings over and over as we get older, experiencing them in different ways pertaining to our stage in life and how we feel at that time. I wanted to look at how weddings reflect our feelings back to us, how our feelings change in the course of going to weddings, and how sometimes we don’t even know if we want to get married ourselves — how that influences the feelings we have. What does it mean to examine one’s own life through the lens of weddings attended, who a person is at each of them? What does that say about our individual evolutions, and about societal progress and expectations for women and men, in and out of relationships, as a whole?

Perhaps a cursory glance at the pretty pink cover, or dismissive thoughts about the topic of weddings, give the impression that the book is frothy and silly to some (I don’t think it is, but of course, I’m the one who wrote it.) There are other people who seem to think the book they got was not what they expected because it’s NOT frothy enough. Note: To my great pleasure there are cigarette butts, including one dipped in frosting, on the back cover; that’s SUBVERSIVE and I love it, and I think that design element is pretty indicative of some of the book’s darker moments. Personally, I think it’s funny (others may disagree) but I also think it’s sad, hopeful, romantic, wistful, musing, and full of regrets, because I do wish I’d done things differently at some of these weddings. As hard as parts of it were to get down on paper, this was the book I wanted to write, about how complicated our feelings frequently are with regard to weddings, and how we bring ourselves and our own stories to each event — that can’t be denied, we are who we are, even if we’re still figuring it out, especially when we’re going to weddings.

bestweddingpicHow did it come to be, shorter answer: Well, I went to a lot of weddings, and I had a lot of thoughts about them, and kept thinking, and I thought other people might have similar thoughts and experiences, and maybe writing this book would allow us to honestly talk about all that.

Speaking of alcohol, something I really loved about your book was your honesty about drinking too much. I think there are a lot of women (I mean, men too, but who cares about men, ever) who are on that borderline between being alcoholics and being people who routinely drink too much at social occasions and then wake up being glared at by their friends.

Drinking is a huge part of our culture, particularly at weddings. And binge-drinking, because I wouldn’t call it alcoholism — in the parts of my life not depicted in this book, I was mostly a functioning, working, not-puking-or-throwing-my-shoes-down-the-street kind of person who did, sometimes, drink too much, at weddings and not at weddings— is REALLY common at weddings. And to some extent, it’s fun! There’s a balance to try to maintain, obviously. I went too far sometimes, didn’t know how to stop, whether it was because I came to the wedding with a lot of pent-up emotion I hadn’t addressed and tried to calm my feelings with booze (never works!), or maybe I just did too many tequila shots and turned into a crazy person. I’ve learned that it’s important to do a feelings-check before a wedding. Just acknowledging what you’re dealing with emotionally before you go can be helpful. You can’t change it, but you can be aware, and that’s good for your health, and maybe the health of those around you.

Had I not been seven wines in at some of these events, I probably wouldn’t have had some of the fights (or truly shameful moments) of my wedding-going history, and I might not have lost certain friends. I certainly would have had fewer regrets. I’m admitting my mistakes in this book; I know there are times I drank too much and was an asshole, and I think probably most people can relate, especially faced with their own wedding-going histories. I wish I hadn’t, but I did, and all I can do is be honest about it and try not to do it at the next wedding (and apologize, which I have done in many cases.) All we can do is try to be better.

But I also will keep drinking at weddings, because it’s fun to drink at weddings. Not to get wasted and shitty, but because wine is lovely, and lovely wine at a lovely wedding is the loveliest.

photo (56)Obviously, many of the weddings in question are pretty identifiable, did you have any awkward conversations with brides about the fact their nuptials were about to be commemorated for posterity?

Ah, yes. There was a point deep into the writing of this book, after I sold it, when I sort of realized: Uh oh. This is real stuff, these are real people, and some of them might be kind of mad at me for this. I didn’t want to hurt anyone; I still don’t, and I have a lot of worries and have had sleepless nights about this. But this is the case with any memoir. Unless you are writing about being a person who has never ever encountered any other person (and could sell that idea to someone without human interaction), you’re going to have real-life people in your book, and they may have feelings about that, to which they are entitled. We interact with each other and the world, and these interactions are often fodder for stories, and for writing. (People have, for the record, written far more damning things about others than you’ll find in my book, I think.) But to not write a book because you’re worried it might hurt people’s feelings seems a mistake. I had to include the bad moments along with the pretty, postcard-perfect moments, because weddings are not just one thing; they involve all the feelings.

That said, I tried to be respectful to everyone I wrote about, whether they were exes or former friends or not. I did change names and certain identifying characteristics, and I talked to most of the brides and grooms and gave them a chance to read their chapters early on (or at least gave them a heads-up about the book). Most of them were really excited to have their days documented in this way, or at least, that’s what they told me!

Also, these are not stories that no one knew. People who were there, and the marrying couples themselves, know what happened. It’s not like I’m spilling any beans. Finally, I’m writing from my own opinion, not issuing decrees or word-from-on-high judgments. This was how I felt, what I remembered experiencing and seeing; there are two sides (or more) to everything, and this is just mine.

Speaking of, SO much of this book is about female friendship, in general, and how weddings create these moments of emotional intensity that have the ability to send those relationships in various directions, and I’d love to talk more about that!

I have thought a lot about how important it is to overall wedding-health to recognize the friendships at these events in a way that supports and engages everyone (to be honest with your friends, in a kind way, because if you suppress the truth it generally tends to pop out at the worst moment possible.) But this friendship/romantic relationship conundrum that often comes to a head with weddings is so real. My close female friendships have been very important to me over the years, and most of them have lasted a lot longer than my relationships with the men I’ve dated, men who I may have thought, in at least one circumstance, that I could possibly marry. But engagement and getting married inevitably does a bit of a strange thing to these friendships. Suddenly, the trusted, sustaining companion, the best friend, is replaced with another, and because it’s a spouse, that relationship is deemed paramount; we’re no longer supposed to talk about it the way we used to. Maybe our friends have entrusted us with secrets and complaints and questionable information about the spouse-to-be (maybe we’re just a little bit concerned because we’re not sure they’re an ideal pair, or worried that they are just getting married because that’s what people are expected to do, or we think she or he could do better, or whatever), but with the engagement we are supposed to forget about all that and just be happy for our friend. This is hard! Change is hard, especially when the first of your close friends start to walk down the aisle, and you don’t know if you’ll be left alone on your own, or what this means for your friendship. And it’s also complicated when you’re not sure what you want for yourself.

I think pretty much everyone has a friend with whom a friendship has grown strained because of a friend’s relationship, and when those relationships become marriages they can sometimes result in lost friendships. I wanted to write about my own sense of loss with regard to this, because I wish it had turned out differently.

But it’s not all sadness with regard to friendship at weddings. Being a part of someone’s moment can be wonderful and expanding. Weddings as we know them wouldn’t exist without the wedding guests; wedding guests play a really important part in the nuptial ecosystem! I loved exploring and thinking about how many friendships — across stages of life and timezones and ways in which people meet and grow together — you see woven into a tapestry at these events.

VegasWeddingInstagram/FB, etc! Once, your wedding attendance was likely to be confined to posed pictures by a professional. What is this doing to us all? Are people behaving better, or just buying more expensive concealer?

I have been to several weddings since finishing the book, which, notably, does not include any #hashtagweddings. The whole social-media-ing of weddings really seems to have exploded in the last year or so. I do think with weddings there is an overlying sense of respect, at least in what I’ve seen, in the photos people post; they try to do what the couple would like them to do, and not post exposes of bad wedding behavior. Or maybe it’s that by the time everyone is sloppy drunk, they’re too inebriated to pick up an iPhone. Hey, maybe this is the built-in safety valve!

But, no, people aren’t behaving better at weddings. So long as they are events with a huge amount of emotional tension and possibility, and open bars, I don’t think we ever will. On the plus side, bad behavior at weddings makes for some good stories.

Your stance on destination weddings. 

In my mid-twenties, a destination wedding was the dream. An invite to one meant I would be required, essentially, to spend money (if I chose to attend) on some amazing trip to a place I might never go otherwise, and a bunch of my friends would be there, too, and we would all lounge about by pools and scenic vistas sipping fruity, boozy concoctions and doesn’t that sound just fabulous? But especially as I got older (and maybe started to want to choose my own vacation spots a little more, and maybe got a bit better about watching my money), the destination did feel like a lot more of a commitment, and there was some relief when people were just like, “Come to our wedding in Brooklyn!” It’s nice to be able to go back to your own apartment at the end of the day, or to take a cab to your destination. It’s nice to feel like the wedding fits into your life, as opposed to taking you out of your life.

However, if really good friends were getting married in Fiji, or Hawaii, or St. Lucia, and wanted me to be there, I would probably book that trip immediately. There is something very special about all gathering together in a new place, outside of your everyday lives, to celebrate, especially if that place is beautiful and relaxing. I write in my book that destination weddings are a bit like camp. You don’t really get to go to camp as an adult, but you do get to go to weddings.

For the record, I also think that if a couple asks that you travel to a faraway place that’s going to cost a ton of money and require giving up vacation days and a lot of hours on a plane, etc., they should probably sort of consider that your gift to them.

Want to make an estimate on what you’ve spent going to friends’ weddings over the last two decades? 

Oh, man. This is hard to estimate, because they definitely have varied. In the case of, say, the wedding I went to in Jamaica, I stayed on for days, of my own volition, to make it a nice vacation. I mean, that’s the thing — I wanted to go to these weddings, and in the beginning I never really thought about what they were costing, because it didn’t feel like an option for me not to be there. I would have racked up credit card debt (not necessarily wisely, but that’s how I felt) to celebrate with my friends in these moments. Later on, I did pass on a wedding in India because it was going to be very expensive and I’d just started a new job… it wasn’t the right time, and fortunately I got to celebrate with the couple when they married at city hall.

But let’s say that for each wedding I gave a $100 or so gift, stayed in hotel for at least one night, costing, um, $250, bought a dress (not that I had to necessarily, but who doesn’t want a new dress for a wedding?) for $200, traveled for, um, an average of, let’s say $250 (some weddings have been local and cost a lot less; others much more …), that’s $800 each. And I’ve been to nearly 30. With that completely unscientific, generalized calculation, I’ve spent $24,000. I’ve probably actually spent more, because some have involved various flights to different cities in the lead-up to the big event, and several dresses and gifts, and more nights in a hotel, and so on. Sure, I could have been saving that for my retirement. But I am still glad I went to most, if not all, of those weddings. I mean … I did get a book out of it, I suppose. No, but really. I had a nice time.

Have you been banned from all future weddings?

Not yet. I keep getting invited, at least, so far. People seem to talk about weddings a lot in my presence. Oh, and my brother and his fiancee have asked me to officiate at their ceremony, which I’m really thrilled about (and honored, and a little bit scared I’m going to cry!)

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