I am so very excited to introduce all of you to Hayley Gene Penner! I was haunted by her memoir for days after I read it. I was thinking about it when I tried to sleep, in the shower, basically, every waking moment. Don’t take “haunted” to mean her memoir is sad or upsetting–while there are sad moments, there’s humor too–rather, I think, I was haunted by the possibility of not working on the book. There are some books that just hit me and make me feel like I need to work on them. That’s how I felt about Hayley’s. There’s a raw honesty to her writing that’s impossible not to admire, and she has an important message to share in this time of #MeToo and #TimesUp. I’m looking forward to helping her share it. In the meantime, however, learn a bit more about Hayley in her own words. –Jessica Alvarez
Tell us a bit about your writing process. Where do you write, and how often?
I am always writing.
When I am wandering around my apartment in Los Feliz, muttering to myself, I am writing.
When a phrase slaps me in the face as I am driving and I have to risk my life to voice-note it on the 101, I am writing.
When a dude whispers something sweet or ridiculous or surprising into my ear while running his hand up my leg on a couch, I am writing.
When I’m in a studio with a young artist and figuring out how to best capture what she or he is going through then blah it onto a microphone in song form, I am writing.
When I sit in silence on my bed with my eyes closed and stretch my brain by thinking only of the basement in my childhood home, pushing myself to revisit the color of the wallpaper, the couch, the giant boxy computer, the unfolded laundry and horrifying boiler room, I am writing.
And, yes of course, when I make myself pancakes and a latte then plop myself in a beam of light at my kitchen table and stare at my giant white board trying to figure out where to move chapter three because it just really isn’t working where it’s at, I am writing.
For me, writing is about listening. Writing is about throwing away your ego and humbly observing the world around you without judgment.
Do you have any writing rituals? (e.g. burning a candle if you’re having trouble getting started at the computer or writing longhand first if you’re feeling uninspired.)
Honestly, If I’m feeling totally uninspired I walk away from my computer. If I’m not feeling it, I go to the bathroom and look at myself in the mirror and say, “it’s not in the room right now, baby. Go for a hike.” In my experience, almost nothing good comes from force. And in a world of so many external forces and pressures, I refuse to do it to myself. I step away for a moment and remind myself of all the other beautiful things in life that make me feel good. I sweat and eat and laugh and have sex and trust that the words will return to me when they are good and ready.
What do you love about writing nonfiction?
So, I am a full time songwriter. I go in with different artists every day and help them figure out how to tell their stories.
It’s an interesting industry because there are so many incredible songwriters in L.A. Everyone is talented. Every writer at a certain level can come in and spit out a catchy song in an hour then go home. But spitting out a catchy melody almost never makes an artist care, like deeply care about the song. Maybe it’ll make the label or management happy, cause, like, money maybe, but the artist doesn’t care unless it’s personal.
My goal in a session is to have the artist want to text the finished product to a sibling and be like, “Finally wrote about Joe…Listen to the second verse, I sneakily worked in the name of his street…hahahahha.” And in being specific and personal about our stories, we encourage our audience to do the same. Like, when someone tells you about a heartbreak and you’re listening, cause you’re a good friend but you’re really preparing to say, “Oh man, that’s exactly like what happened with Zane and me” even though it totally isn’t like what happened with Zane and you.
If a story is true and real and honest, we connect with the emotion before the content and we mirror it with our own experiences. So, I love talking about my stuff.
Why did you choose the genre you’ve chosen?
Writing my sort of quarter-life memoir, People You Follow, totally changed my life. I sort of hired myself as my own analyst, climbed to the side of a cliff in Malibu and did a death defying deep dive into my entire history. I got on the floor and sifted through every decision and misstep and, in doing so, I got to know all of my baggage and patterns and instincts. And it is entirely true that noticing you have a problem is the first step to recovery. In seeing myself clearly for the first time, I have been able to move through my life making decisions with my brain rather than being at the mercy of my fears and insecurities.
What is the hardest part about writing a memoir?
The hard part is having the patience and compassion to lovingly call, “bullshit,” on yourself. To write about an experience, then step back, read it again and say, “No, Hayley. You were not upset because Cye broke up with you. You were upset because Cye breaking up with you made you believe you were unloveable.”
Do you get inspiration from any TV shows or movies? If so, which ones?
I am heavily inspired by film and TV. High Fidelity dramatically influenced me as a writer in a few very significant ways. First, I always read aloud as I am writing. Like, right now, I am sitting in my kitchen looking out onto Franklin Avenue and I am reading this in my full human woman voice into my empty home. When I write, I am a narrator and, yes, sometimes the voice in my head is John Cusack.
If money were no object, what would be your dream writing location?
A part of me wants to say, “A sun kissed cabin, tucked between giant oak trees on a snowy mountain top in Whistler” or, “A private villa in Bali, lounging on a patio with a bowl of fresh dragon fruit.” But honestly, while both of those places are incredibly beautiful, it’s too much pressure to put on writing. I went on a couple trips while writing my book and I always got more done at home in L.A. with five hours in the morning before having to run to a meeting or studio session. It actually works way better for me to not leave my life to write about it.