Ashley Cardiff — incisive, often hilarious voice from The Gloss — released a book this month called Night Terrors: Sex, Dating, Puberty and Other Alarming Things. As you might guess from the title, the 27-year-old Williamsburger’s essay collection recounts her experiences with sexual development and peripheral subjects like pick-up artists, pubic hair and masturbation. The stories span her time from a precocious yungun’ in California to a disillusioned editorial assistant in New York City.
In other words, Cardiff has written a memoir. But, don’t worry, she gets it: a lot of young writers have churned out memoirs in recent years, and a lot of people have been eager to hate on them. In fact, she was one of them. So were people like Giles Harvey, who, in March, wrote a New Yorker piece, “Cry Me a River: The Rise of the Failure Memoir,” that explored the relationship between the uptick in memoirs and the decline of the novel.
We sat down with Cardiff at Shayz Lounge in Greenpoint – scene of a distasteful interaction had with an e-cigarette-smoking pickup artist in Night Terrors – to sort it all out.
I’ve been surprised by the extent to which people see themselves in whatever you do. For me, the project was always like, “Oh, fuck, I have to write this book, and I’m gonna come up with a bunch of stories that I think are worth telling, or worth writing an essay about.” I very much did not set out with an agenda, and it’s strange to me that people are quick to identify an agenda where there is none.
I’m kind of concerned that the agenda that people see is jokes that maybe fell flat. That’s another thing that’s been haunting me: having to explain yourself by identifying jokes that maybe didn’t go over is really frustrating. You automatically feel like you’re revealing yourself to not be very funny.
Memoir is troubling because, often times, people approach first person essays with a seriousness that I don’t really understand. And then, the subject of sex and dating grafted onto memoir, I think many people approach with even more seriousness. I think that a lot of people do struggle with laughing at serious subjects.
I grew up in a household that just had a baseline very dark sense of humor. You laughed at things that made you uncomfortable and you laughed at the things that you thought were scary. If you want to be uncharitable about it you can call it a defense mechanism, but I think I’m just very quick to try to present serious things in a very humorous light. I don’t know why I do that.
I’ve had friends full-on say to me, “Whoa, it’s really brave that you would say that stuff.” And I am floored because I think that the problem is either that they don’t know when I’m joking or my understanding of privacy and what’s personal is very different from what other people see as those things.
Telling a story about a guy who was shitty to me when I was 16 is not really private to me because I wasn’t really acting autonomously. I endured a situation that was kind of set in front of me. I don’t see that as something that I should be embarrassed to talk about, because it was something that I had no control over. I mean, certainly if I didn’t try to instill any insight into the way I’m writing…
I used to really dislike confessional writing. I used to really not understand the appeal of it at all. I think our site [The Gloss] was one of the of Cat Marnell. Granted, she said some shit that was flat-out irresponsible in her position. Like, talking about using Plan B as birth control. But her writing about her drug abuse and being a mess, I think I’m much less willing to have a problem with that, because I think writing about unpopular choices you make is much more daring and vulnerable than writing about silly shit that happened to you as a teenager. Of course, there was a lot more to that whole situation — whether or not she was being exploited, the median age of xoJane’s readership, if it was performance anyway, etc.
There’s nothing in there that’s me trying to justify myself in the moment. It’s all stuff that I’m trying to reckon with from long ago. I made a lot of shitty choices but, like, I made them at 16, I made them at 19, and I made them at 21. I have enough distance that I can hopefully be funny about it and have some insight into it. I don’t think that my life was very weird or even particularly interesting. But I think insight into human behavior is always worthwhile.
I thought so! But, I think writing a memoir kind of taught me the value of what the genre is. That’s quite selfish because I’m basically saying that I had to do it before I saw its worth. But that’s just the fact of the matter. So, I started reading other essays and trying to figure out why someone would want to write about themselves. And then I was like, well, the project of writing memoir is not necessarily different from the project of writing fiction.
That’s hopefully what fiction gets you. I think that, before, I assumed memoir was inherently navel gazing, and then it kind of occurred to me over the past couple of weeks that, like, so is fiction! And that a lot of the fiction that I wrote growing up was just thinly veiled memoir, and that a lot of the biases that I had about fiction versus non-fiction were kind of mindless ones, ones that I never criticized or questioned. I just sort of thought there was this arid, high church of fiction over here where people create art and produce expression in its purest sense, and then I thought there was the flophouse of first person essay writing over there.
I thought that was like what people who took selfies and put them on the Internet did. But, I’m realizing that fiction writers can be just as vain as anyone, and that nonfiction writers can be just as concerned with human behavior outside themselves as fiction writers.