Lena Dunham is the creator of Girls and also kinda one of the guys. We dig her weird world. Reading her new book, Not That Kind of Girl, is like being a friend of hers. Some people have funny stories that happened to them. Lena Dunham is just funny. Not you-had-to-be-there funny. More like, we’ve-all-been-there funny. One of her most priceless descriptions is of a fling, who “kissed me like it was a boring job given to him by his parole officer.”
Salman Rushdie once said of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones series, it’s “A brilliant comic creation. Even men will laugh.” (Really.) That sums up Dunham herself. Why? Not because she understands things better than anyone else, but because she has found a comfort zone in her discomfort. Here are some things I learned about life and women from Not That Kind of Girl:
1. Why it’s okay to ask for directions. Sometimes I get lost and I’d rather waste my data plan than communicate with someone nearby. In a way, that’s rude to the locals. In the intro Dunham writes, “If I could take what I’ve learned and make one menial job easier for you, or prevent you from having the kind of sex where you feel you must keep your sneakers on in case you want to run away during the act, then every misstep of mine was worthwhile.”
2. How to pick a gynecologist. In the book we meet Randy, Dunham’s OB/GYN. Randy used to play for the Mets. “He still has the can-do determination of a pitcher on an underdog team and, to my mind, that is exactly the kind of man you want delivering your babies or rooting around in your vagina.” That sums up my favorite moments with Dunham: I don’t get it, but now I get it.
3. Sometimes caring means not caring. “I seriously don’t care if you shoplift,” is Number 16 on her list of, “18 Unlikely Things I’ve Said Flirtatiously.”
4. You learn what you learn, then you move on. And you learn more. “I’m already predicting my future shame at thinking I had anything to offer you,” she writes. Is it a little ridiculous to think that a person in their twenties could offer how-to advice? Kind of. But wouldn’t you like to hear what a successful writer/director has learned and from where? Definitely.
5. Being needy and needing help are a matter of confidence. In relationships too. As a man, for some reason I feel like a needy little orphan whenever I have to plug in my phone at an airport or, god forbid, use rolly luggage. This is an attitude, and people can smell it a mile away. Because it’s a crisis of confidence. Then my editor at Esquire told me, “If you must wheel, do it with some what-are-you-looking-at style.” Dunham’s version: “Confidence lets you pull anything off, even Tevas with socks.”
6. The woman you’re talking to today is a different person than the one you met the day before. No one quite annoys me quite like people who are still doing something I no longer do. It’s like they weren’t listening while I struggled through whatever part of life. This is dumb. “I can never be who I was,” writes Dunham. “I can simply watch her with sympathy, understanding and some measure of awe. There she goes, backpack on, headed for the subway or the airport. She did her best with her eyeliner. She learned a new word she wants to try out on you. She is ambling along. She is looking for it.” It’s a matter of self-forgiveness.
7. How to make her nude selfies better. I like a saucy picture text as much as the next fella. But here’s something hotter to think about: “Getting naked feels better some days that others,” she writes. “But I do it because my boss tells me to. And my boss is me. When you’re naked, it’s nice to be in control.” Wow.
8. It’s hard to separate people from their work, but you must. Also, it’s a bit worse for women. Some of the time it seems the criticism surrounding the author is like people screaming at a gale force wind called Lena Dunham. This is really just because for a certain subset of young, quasi-affluent sophisticates (people who either have HBO or their parents’ HBO Go account), everything Dunham does becomes a discussion point. There is no male equivalent, because men don’t get that kind of treatment. We don’t go around screaming about why John Oliver is just rubbing it in our face that his research team is better than most on TV news. We want to high-five him, if anything.
9. I hate to say this, but sometimes women really are “literally dying.” A story is a singular thing. It’s not security footage. It’s not a police report. Part of Dunham’s success is making that move so personal: “I’m an unreliable narrator. My sister claims every memory we ‘share’ has been fabricated by me to impress a crowd.” Also, we don’t roll our eyes when Marc Maron gets offstage and says, “I was dying up there!”
10. Forget where you have to go and where you want to end up. This is really just a giant metaphor for relationships. Dunham refers often to her “mission.” And a mission isn’t something you accomplish overnight or in a week or on a very special episode. You make mistakes. You learn. You do it again and make great mistakes.
Usually when men try to learn about women, they’re hoping for an instruction manual, a how-to for troubleshooting. This book is neither. It’s way more helpful. Because really, you make life — how you measure success in relationships and elsewhere — up as you go.
As Dunham demonstrates, the most successful young people don’t singleminded goals with narrow results. At a young age, Dunham decided to be a director and maybe one day a producer, by creating her own work until she got attention. If she set narrow goals (“Act on Broadway,” “win Best Actress”), then every day would be a little bit of failure.
Along the way, she stopped for directions. She ended up somewhere else and kept going. That’s what makes life an adventure. And adventure is not a place you can point to on a map.