Author Julie Lythcott-Haims on what it means to be an adult

Author Julie Lythcott-Haims on what it means to be an adult

In Author Conversations, Beyond the Cover by Cara Meredith

Author Julie Lythcott-Haims on what it means to be an adult

As a reader, it’s not every day I find myself absorbed in a book that somehow captures the needs of both my past and present selves. Such was the case with Julie Lythcott-Haims’ most recent release, Your Turn. Not only did I wish I could have nabbed a copy of the hybrid-memoir book 20 years ago, but I also find myself grateful to read, absorb, and dwell on its wisdom now.

Along those lines, join me for an exclusive interview with the author:

Scribd: Julie, tell us a little bit about your most recent release and how it came to be. 

Julie Lythcott-Haims: The short answer is that my first book How to Raise an Adult had done quite well, so my publisher asked me to write a sequel, and we signed that contract in 2016. The long answer is I failed to write the book for the next three years because I felt I lacked any formal authority in this subject area. I finally found my way into the subject and into being its author by recognizing that authority is knowledge, and knowledge can come from experience, of which I’ve had plenty. I also knew that a book on living your best life had to include myriad experiences and perspectives, and I fought a hard-won battle to include the stories of other humans in every chapter. The end result is a genre mashup of memoir, self-help, and biography. Part of the authority I claimed for myself in deciding I could indeed write this thing was the choice to validate and empower other voices from our richly diverse human community.

Scribd: Your Turn holds significant meaning in a number of different ways. Will you talk about the significance of modeling vulnerability when it comes to hybrid-memoir writing?

JLH: Memoir gives readers the ultimate safe harbor: the knowledge that they are not alone. So, I believe we should only publish a memoir to be of service to others. (Navel-gazing is fine, but that’s what journals are for.) I know if I’m going to be of service to my readers, I need to connect my story to theirs. I know a deep human connection is possible when we open ourselves up (through vulnerability), and when we take other’s stories in (through active listening, which I demonstrate in the biographies).

Scribd: You talk about life’s beautiful f-words: faltering, failing, flailing, floundering, and fumbling. As a culture, we fail to talk about failure, just as we neglect to see that “these seemingly disastrous experiences are not only a normal part of life but are actually our greatest teachers in disguise.” Has this been true for you, and what do you hope to pass on to readers? 

JLH: By outward measures, my life has been a success, and I’m grateful for the privileges, opportunities, and luck that have come my way. Yet I’ve made plenty of mistakes, and I have some big regrets. I can’t change what I did. All I can do is learn from those things and work hard to do things better or differently next time. I think a person who can’t admit they are flawed isn’t trustworthy. I put some of my shit out there so my readers feel they can trust me. I chose examples from the workplace where my failures came back to me in the form of feedback (the sixth “f-word”). Feedback can make you wince but usually there’s stuff in there you really need to pay attention to in order to advance your goals. In putting a few of my cringe-worthy experiences with feedback in the book, I’m showing readers even someone who seems successful by traditional measures has had some disastrous experiences and has learned from them. I’m saying: It’s OK. I’ve been there, too.

Scribd: Readers are also invited to be good and embody good character, so you offer 16 principles that are, essentially, a “distillation of the non-religious aspects of the New Testament.” Where did some of these principles originate, and is there one “commandment” you tend to offer more than anything else? 

JLH: This was one of the most challenging topics to write because humans have been telling humans how to be good humans since humans have had language. I found my way in by reflecting back on my 53 years of interacting with humans. I distilled my memories into a set of principles I believe draw us to a person rather than repel us. I don’t have a favorite of the 16. But I like the image that comes to mind when I think about: “have patience and grace.” I picture a person whose energy makes me feel safe.

Scribd: Your Turn resonates with readers of all ages, even though it was written for those in the 18–34 age group. Tell us, how have your words led readers of various ages, backgrounds, and cultures into deeper connection with the world around them? 

JLH: Younger readers have said, “Thank you for saying there’s no “right path.” “How did you know what I was going through?” and “Now that I’ve finished the book, it’s like these topics just keep coming up everywhere around me.” From this, I glean that the book is validating their instincts and making them feel seen, and now that their eyes are more open to these topics, they come up everywhere. Older readers are saying, “I needed this book 20 years ago.” I think they’re facing their regrets. But they’re also hearing (and I hope heeding) the plea of their dreams.

Scribd: You embody representation, giving space on the page in an effort to highlight dozens of other voices. Will you talk more about your decision to strategically highlight humans from nearly every intersection in life?

JLH: I’m a Black, biracial, bisexual, queer, butch, cis-woman, and I’m tired of books that let whiteness, straightness, and other “mainstream” identities lurk unnamed and therefore implied as the “norm” on the page. I’m tired of books that purport to be about a life experience we all go through, yet offer examples drawn from white middle-class life. I’m tired of reading books “for women” that exclude women like me. And don’t get me started on authors, whether of fiction or nonfiction, who only refer to race when the person is non-white. I’m here to dismantle those presumptions that one set of folks are the norm to which the rest of us are the “other.” My narrative presumes all kinds of folks might read this book, and I want each reader to see something in my pages that reminds them of themselves.

I guess what I’m saying is that all lives do matter and that in order for all lives to matter we writers, editors, and publishers need to do a much better job of putting those who are traditionally marginalized onto the center of the page. (Yes, there are straight, white, middle-class people in the book, too!)

Scribd: You also extol the reader to practice self-awareness and take seriously the need to care for oneself. What message do you want to pass on to readers?

JLH: If life is a bicycle ride, then your body and mind are your two wheels carrying you forward. You won’t get where you want to go unless you’re attending to both of them. Everyone is dealing with something. Whatever your situation is — a diagnosis, a difference, a divergence, a challenge, a disability, a disease, a way of being or feeling that is, as of yet, unnamed and no one seems to quite get — it’s all valid, and you will do best when you can honor and support yourself in the fullness of the identities you carry.

Scribd: Julie, you’re a memoirist: as you’ve said before, it’s pointless to try and write a memoir without a willingness to access the deeper truths. What deeper truths did you access as you journeyed through writing this book?

JLH: I came to terms with some trauma I experienced in my 20s that I’d never quite knitted together. It all came to me as I was writing the chapter “How to Cope (When the Shit Hits the Fan).” I thought I knew the shit I’d been through, but as I began to create a timeline of the events and circumstances I was coping with in those years, some memories that had been sitting quietly in my psyche raised their hand and said, “Pick me, too.” I also realized the irony of writing about self-care while having been afraid to go to the doctor for ages. I decided that if I was to be worthy of my readers’ trust, I had to heed my own advice. I’m glad I did so.

Scribd: Your Turn ends with an exhortation to keep going, especially as the world emerges from a global pandemic and civil and racial unrest. How might you encourage readers who feel stuck and don’t know where to start? 

JLH: Create a brainstorming space in which you can invite the thoughts hiding deep within you to bubble up and be heard. You might go for a run or a long walk in nature. You might take a long, quiet shower and just let the water pound your head. You might curl up with your journal. You might meditate. Regardless of where you are, when you’re there, ask yourself questions such as: “What do I want this life to include? “What would I be doing if it was just up to me?” “What’s keeping me stuck?” “What am I afraid of?” “Whose approval do I seek?” “What’s in my way? “I can’t because…?”

You’re trying to give your inner voice space to tell you what matters to you. This is a brainstorm, so there are no wrong answers. Respond lovingly to the information that comes. Acknowledge it back to yourself. Work with a therapist or life coach to unpack things further and plan some next steps. And, of course, I highly recommend reading Your Turn.

The bottom line

Like Julie said, there are no wrong answers — not to life, nor to next steps in life. Regardless, whatever your age, Your Turn is a book that meets the reader where they are, in a thousand different ways.

Read Your Turn now on Scribd!


About the Author: Cara Meredith

Cara is a writer, speaker, and conversationalist. A former high school English teacher and non-profit outreach director, she’s also the author of The Color of Life, a spiritual memoir about her journey as a white woman into issues of race and justice. Originally from the Pacific Northwest, she now lives with her family in Oakland, California.