We're excited to welcome author and former indie-rock drummer Freda Love Smith to The Porch on Sept. 30, 2024 as a visiting writer. Her new book is I Quit Everything: How One Woman's Addiction to Quitting Helped Her Confront Bad Habits and Embrace Midlife. Of the book, Megan Stielstra writes, "I've said it a thousand times. So have you: I’m going to take care of myself. Smith actually does it, with clarity, humor, and deep interrogation into the societal complexities and personal histories of alcohol, weed, caffeine, food, and social media—the things that save us and, at the same time, drain us dry. I Quit Everything doesn’t ask us to quit; it asks us to pay attention, to listen to our bodies, to find what serves us and hold on like the holy goddamn grail. I loved it.”
Smith is a lecturer in the School of Communication at Northwestern University. She is the co-founder of the bands The Mysteries of Life and The Blake Babies, who were regulars on MTV and critically applauded in The Village Voice, Rolling Stone, and Spin. Her songs have been licensed widely, from the 2003 Disney film Freaky Friday to American Airlines in-flight entertainment programs. She has a monthly column in Paste and her short stories have appeared in journals such as The North American Review, Smokelong, Bound Off, and Riptide. She lives in Evanston, IL, with her partner, Jake Smith, and two sons.
Smith was born in Nashville, as it turns out, and her bandmate in The Blake Babies, John P. Strohm, lives here (and, incidentally, is a Porch board member emeritus). Smith will teach "I, Guinea Pig: Putting the "Experiment" in Experimental Writing" for us on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2 - 4 p.m., and appear in conversation and performance with Strohm at 8 p.m. at Eastside Bowl; tickets available here. In advance of her visit to Nashville, Smith was kind enough to answer a few questions for us about the new book and the class she'll be teaching for us. —Susannah Felts
SF: I loved Red Velvet Underground and am delighted you’ll be joining us on your tour for the new book! Can you tell us a bit about how this new project got off the ground? In hindsight are you surprised that your second book is in the “personal experiment” vein as well?
FLS: Thank you! I’m very excited to come to Nashville. I was born there and it’s a special place to me.
Almost everything about this new book came as a surprise. I was working on a piece of fiction, a nonfiction novel about a member of the Symbionese Liberation Army, when the idea for IQE struck me and pulled me away from that project (temporarily). I never imagined I’d write another memoir, much less one documenting a personal experiment, but I Quit Everything very much insisted upon being written!
I’m a believer [in therapeutic writing]. I’ve written my way through low points and intense stretches. I wrote my way through the pandemic, which resulted in this new book.
SF: One might say I Quit Everything neatly fits into a space between self-care and therapeutic writing—but with strong narrative and critical scaffolding. I wonder how you feel about the idea that we can improve ourselves through our writing practice?
FLS: I’m a believer. I’ve written my way through low points and intense stretches. I wrote my way through the pandemic, which resulted in this new book. I led a workshop earlier this year on Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, and one of the core practices of her course is “Morning Pages," three pages of longhand, first thing in the morning. It doesn’t necessarily sound like a revelatory thing to do, but boy is it. Part of the magic comes from simply showing up. This can lead to surprising changes, a process of becoming more awake and aware, all of which can only serve to improve us as writers and humans.
SF: What surprised you most about the process of writing I Quit Everything? In what ways was the experience different from writing and publishing your first book?
FLS: IQE started off as simple journal entries, documenting my quitting experiment, but it surprised me by pushing me in multiple directions: to movies, songs, and books, to sociology and anthropology, to far-flung points on my timeline. I went along for the ride! I had a similar journey with my first book, which began simply as a document of a year of cooking lessons with my son. I ultimately blew up that timeline and let the book get wilder. Apparently this is just how I work! I’m an exploratory essayist and not good at curbing that.
SF: I recently read Diana Helmuth’s The Witching Year, which falls in the “personal experiment” category, and loved it, too. She mentions The Year of Living Biblically as a comp for her project. Can you tell us about a “personal experiment” book that provided some mentorship for you in terms of its structure, storytelling, or other characteristics?
FLS: Ooh I definitely need to read The Witching Year; ordering that from my local bookstore this week! I have been an avid reader of these kinds of “personal experiment” books ever since I first encountered Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, by Julie Powell. Powell sold me on this approach to memoir. I started out as a food writer, and I loved the raw, fresh way she wrote about food, the way she entwined her cooking experiment with multiple aspects of her life, from livelihood to relationships to the transition to adulthood. And I loved how it was inspiring without being the slightest bit preachy or prescriptive. The subject and tone are definitely different, but her book very much informed my approach to Red Velvet Underground.
IQE started off as simple journal entries, documenting my quitting experiment, but it surprised me by pushing me in multiple directions: to movies, songs, and books, to sociology and anthropology, to far-flung points on my timeline. I went along for the ride!
SF: We all know the publishing marketplace is tough to break into. Do you think books like I Quit Everything are particularly positioned to catch an agent or editor’s eye? Can you share a tip for writing a proposal for such a project? What can make or break such a book?
FLS: Personal experiment memoirs remain very appealing to agents and publishers. Readers love stories of transformation, love to be taken along for an interesting ride, especially if the terrain is unique and idiosyncratic. My best tip is to lean into what makes *you* singularly situated to tell this story. Develop an idea that is highly specific. At the same time, you must connect it to something bigger, more universal and approachable. We will talk about this in the workshop!
SF: Give us a sneak peek into the class you’re teaching for us: “Putting the “Experiment” in Experimental Memoir.” What can writers expect to take away from this session?
FLS: I’m so excited to teach this. We will spend some time looking at examples of this kind of writing and will talk about narrative structure and the importance of thematic resonance—your story is about an experiment, but it is always about something more, too. Writers can expect to come away with ideas for essays or books, armed with the tools they need to move forward and write!
SF: Do you have another experimental memoir in you?
FLS: My first instinct is to say no, but honestly I don’t know—I follow the muses!