Kelly Williams Brown may just be the coolest grown up we know, even if she’s still trying to earn her stripes. Through her book and blog, Adulting, which is all about laying out the steps to becoming a grown up, she has done more than just put her voice out there—she’s been able to help others with everything from using bleach to being a generally good human. Well-spoken and witty to the core, she talked with Smart Girls Guide about writing, her grandmother’s Zen Buddhist book collection and her reaction to making the New York Times’ Bestseller List.
Adulting: How to Become a Grown-up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps lays out exactly what young adults need to know in a super easy-to-read, funny format. When did you realize that this kind of book was missing in stores and that you had to be the one to write it?
I don’t necessarily think that I had to be the one to write it. There’s nothing special about me that qualifies me to write this book. But when I was first out of school, I was working as a reporter and I had some older friends who were 5-10 years older. They really did such a good job of being gentle and sweet with me, but also being like, “Hey, so, you know most people have a couch, they don’t just pile up the clothes in like, a couch-shaped pile.” To have that in my life was such a relief for me and such a kind thing for them to do for me. By the time I began writing the book I’d also been working as a reporter for six years so I thought, “Okay, maybe I don’t have all the secrets of adulthood but if I can go into a story knowing nothing about this particular bill going through senate, and figure it out and then explain it to readers, then I can certainly do that same thing when it comes to say, counter wiping.”
It’s such a unique take on it. People don’t usually approach books like that. Usually, they’re just writing books, but there really can be that journalistic aspect to it and it’s really cool.
Totally! I never thought of writing fiction, I’d always been a nonfiction writer. I really admire people who have the sort of depth and expertise to spend ten years working on a comprehensive history of a nation-changing Mississippi River flood or something. That is a wonderful thing to do. Personally, I don’t really have that focus or that tenacity, but getting to write Adulting was amazing because literally everyone I talked to, whether it was someone who was in college or someone who was in their 90s, had some insight and some talent into how to be a grown up. So basically, for the year and a half that I was writing the book, I would just strike up a conversation with friends and strangers and say, “What would you want to tell your 18-year-old self? What would you want to tell your 22-year-old self?” And everyone had such great things to say.
That’s just such a good way to go about things. I feel like writing this book was just a lot of fun.
Yeah, it was! Okay, I should be clear: Researching the book was a lot of fun. Writing the book was not that fun because like a lot of writers, there’s a great quote, I forget who said it, but it says, “I don’t enjoy writing, I enjoy having written.” I think that’s one thing that I would say to people who do want to be writers: That just because you love writing and feel called to it, doesn’t mean you have to like it all the time.
I know what you mean. Sometimes I’m like, “I really don’t want to do this right now, but I really want to see [it] all finished and pretty.” So it’s a tradeoff.
I know! Especially when I’m writing something I care about, it pays off 100% and more. The actual writing [of] a book is tough. You become a little bit of a monster because you’re just totally withdrawn; it’s the only thing you’re thinking about. You’re not a great friend when you’re writing a book because you’re just sort of in your own little weird writers’ hole. But it’s delightful when you have written a book.
Adulting is also a blog. How does the content offered there differ from that of the book, if at all?
It really does. There is some overlap so they did say in my book contract, “You cannot just copy and paste your blog, that’s not gonna work!” I think the book is more of a reference type thing. I want it to be something that’s fun to read but then you can go back and be like, “Okay, what do I need in my pantry,” and, “Okay, I’ve got to negotiate for a raise at work.” I wanted it to be organized in a way that I can really go more in-depth on any given topic and kind of build on everything. When you’re writing for the Internet, you realize that people don’t have all the time in the world. Nobody is casually browsing through Tumblr and decides, “Oh, I want to sit down and read about financial responsibility for the next 30 minutes.” So when I’m writing for the blog, I really have to think about sort of catchy things. For whatever reason, the blog tends to be a little bit more about manners and relating to people then the book itself. The book has a part of that but it tends to be a lot more on the blog because that’s what I’ve found that my readership on the blog really enjoys and is meaningful to them. I have a lot of followers on Tumblr and because of that, I do try to be really sensitive to what is relevant for that audience right now.
Blogging is definitely something you have to make up as you go along and see how your readers are reacting.
Absolutely, and I love that because I do have a really large readership, a lot of times I’ll put something out there and people will react to it and they’ll correct me on things and fill me in on things that I didn’t know. That relationship is a really special one and it feels really valuable. You know, even when, okay, it’s no fun to be wrong and have someone call you out and be like, “No, you were 100% incorrect on this.” I mean, that is not the greatest experience but on the other hand, it’s the only experience that allows you to learn more and become more passionate, become more aware of other people, and I really like blogging because of the relationships that you make with your readers.
I’m not a blogger, but a lot of my friends are, so I’m very involved in that world. It’s always interesting to see how people relate to each other.
And you can also really build relationships with other bloggers, too. It’s such a satisfying world, to be able to write and to put it out there and to hear what people think about it, to hear that it’s uplifting someone.
You don’t just write, you also work for a boutique marketing agency. This can obviously take up a lot of time—how do you prioritize?
That’s such a great question, one that I ask myself a lot. I think if you asked me if I like to have a bunch of projects going on, I’d be like, “No, it’s terrible, I never know what to do first!” But that being said, apparently I keep making choices where I have like, 18 projects going on at once, which would make me suspect that part of me does like having too much to do. I have ADD, and it’s definitely a part of my life. I was diagnosed when I was five and it’s always been something that I’ve struggled with. So for me, number one, it’s trying to be really invested in whatever I’m doing at that moment. My grandmother, whom I really loved and was really close to, died recently, but she was a Zen Buddhist and I inherited all her Zen books. One of them had the best thing in it, which has really helped me: The only thing that will get me through all the things that I need to do is to do what I have to do at that moment. I figure out what I need to do and then I try to do that with a minimum of useless self-talk and letting my mind travel.
It can be so hard, though, when your thoughts consume you and you really just need to focus on your actions.
Absolutely, like I hate cleaning my house. There is nothing I hate more than cleaning up—I am a really messy person and so if I just look at my house in despair because it’s messy, I’m not going to clean anything. For me, if I can even just get into a state of mind where I’m thinking about what I’m doing and I’m thinking, “Okay, this box is downstairs, it needs to go upstairs, I’m carrying the box upstairs, now I’m putting the box where it needs to go, now what else…” You know? Breaking things down to the simplest, simplest steps.
You already have a pretty full plate, but are there any new projects we can be expecting from you?
I am always doings lots of projects, but something I’m really excited about that I’m just finishing up is a long-form piece about rodeo queens, which was initially published in a shorter form in Cosmopolitan, but now I’m really going into the long-form piece. I do have another idea for a book, but I’m working on it to see if it’s going to work out or not before I tell people about it.
On that topic, we hear all the time that people are either writing or have written a book. How does one make his or herself stick out when everyone’s looking to publish something and be the next big thing?
I think the thing that has brought me a lot of success as a writer is that, particularly coming from a newspaper background, I would always think about my writing not in terms of “Why do I want to say this,” but, “Why is this important for someone else to read?” I always keep my reader in mind. I actually had a sign up on my computer while I was writing a book that said, “Stop: Is this smart, funny, useful and true?” I really want my writing to be something where after you read it, you’re like, “Oh, that was really helpful. I’m glad that I spent this time with this.” I try to only include myself when it will be useful or funny and I think that’s one thing that sort of differentiates me a little bit.
Your personal brand is all about being super quirky and keeping it real. Is your brand something that was built naturally or was it more deliberate?
Even though I’ve been doing it for five years, [personal branding] still makes my skin crawl because it’s really gross, right? To me, the thing about a personal brand is that you can’t make it up. My personal brand can’t be that I’m Martha Stewart because the first person who comes over to my house and looks at my shower will realize that I’m not Martha Stewart. You can’t just straight-up lie. For me, a personal brand is deciding how much of a percentage of yourself you’re willing to present to the public and how much is for you. I’m willing to share failures with my readers, I’m willing to share embarrassing things that have happened, but I’m not willing to talk about my relationship with my partner. I’m not willing to talk about family stuff or personal mental health issues I may be experiencing because to me, lots of people choose to write about them and I think that’s absolutely wonderful when people do, but for me, that’s something I need to keep to myself. I think a successful personal brand is looking at a section of who you are and deciding what part of that you want to keep private and more importantly, what part you’re willing to be public with.
Your work with Adulting gives off a very “we’re in this together and learning at the same time” vibe. Why do you think people are so responsive to this?
I think the cultural discussion about young people, and to be fair this has always been the discussion, is about how millennials are lazy, entitled, narcissists. There’s not a lot of sympathy for the fact that when you grow up, it can be tough to figure out how you want your life to be, the kind of person you want to be, and what friendships are good and what friendships are bad. That stuff is eternally difficult, so I think having someone who were like my older friends were for me resonates with a lot of people because I think people are almost always doing our best. We have different amounts of struggles and different amounts of difficulties in that but a voice that says, “No, you can do it, it’s going to be okay,” is something we all love to hear.
That’s what we try to do at [Spire & Co]! We want to have this sisterly kind of vibe that’s saying, “We don’t know everything, but we can help you out. Here’s what you need to know and here’s why it’s important for you.”
Right, and when I was researching the book, let’s say I wanted to talk to someone about how to get into a healthy pattern of exercise—I’m not going to talk to the person who runs ultra marathons every other weekend, I’m going to talk to the person who themselves just last year thought, “Oh, I want to get in shape,” and now they are. If you have $100 to spend on decorating an apartment, Homes and Gardens Magazine is probably not going to have a lot for you because it’s nothing but $16,000 couches. Other people who have decorated an apartment with $100 are probably going to be of service to you. I try to make sure that the advice I give is on a level where it is accessible to where even if you don’t have a lot of experience with it, afterwards you think, “Okay, I can do that.”
Your kind of work demands a constant flow of creativity. Is it hard to keep this up? Do you ever have “creativity blocks”?
Here’s where I give the ADD credit. Honestly, I really don’t run out of ideas. More often, it’s that I don’t want to work. One thing that’s helpful for me is that my boyfriend/partner, David, is hysterically funny, so I can always bounce jokes off him and collaborate with him. Something I got used to doing when I was in newspaper, but really works for a variety of things: If you’re kind of at a loss and don’t know what to do, sit down with someone you trust and admire and say, “Here’s what I’m trying to do and here’s what I’m trying to say.” A lot of times, you hear in the words that you say, things that you wouldn’t have thought of yourself.
I really love that, because often this idea of talking through things with people is something that we do un-strategically, but imagine if we were more conscious about it!
It’s really important! When you’re writing a newspaper story, the lead should always be the most important thing. You should open with the most important, need-to-know things. Sometimes, in the newsroom, when you’re stuck on a lead, you go over to someone and ask if you can talk to them for a second. Then you think about if you were describing this to your friend, what’s the first thing you would say. Usually, that’s what your lead should be because ultimately, writing is just talking written down. Permanent talking, if you will. Often, the things that we say to each other will be really, really helpful in terms of getting it to paper and getting those ideas out.
Where do you imagine your writing taking you in the next 5-10 years?
That’s a really good question. The truth is that I don’t really know. I know I should know, but generally speaking, I’m not one of those people. I try to remain really open to opportunities that come my way. My friend Ruth once told me a Proverb: “When doors are open in front of you, walk through walk.” By being sort of agnostic to what I’m doing next and what I want to do, that makes me a lot more available to take advantage of cool things when they come my way. I have a couple of smaller things that I think would be personally satisfying to accomplish. I’d love to write a Shouts & Murmurs piece for the New Yorker, which is their humor piece, and I’d love to someday get something in the New York Times. Other than that, I just want to write stuff that’s smart and funny and useful and true.
Just for fun, how did you react when you found out your book made it on the New York Times Bestsellers list?
I was so uncool. I was at work, got the email and I screamed. I immediately told my coworkers. It was a dream come true and something I never imagined would happen. I didn’t even want to just text it to my boyfriend or my mom and dad, I wanted to call them and tell them. It was incredible—I was deeply uncool about it. I was ready to go out and get it tattooed on my forehead to make sure that it would be a part of every conversation.
I feel like when people make the list, they act so nonchalant about it. I just want to be like, “Are you not freaking out? Because I feel like I’m freaking out for you.”
I totally freaked out, especially because the book came out a year and a half ago. Usually, books sell really, really well for a month and then there’s a drop off. For mine, it just keeps going and it’s awesome. I’m really happy people still want to read it and they pick it up and think, “Oh, this will be good!”