On this episode of Unlocking Us
A conversation with two unforgettable creators: Debbie Millman and Roxane Gay. Debbie is a designer, author, educator, and the host of the award-winning podcast Design Matters; and Roxane is a writer, editor, cultural critic, and co-host of the podcast Hear to Slay. Roxane and Debbie are newlyweds, and we talk about their love story, creativity, and the power of a dinner party. Their words and art have been very influential in my life – talking to them about the ins-and-outs of ordinary life is, in itself, extraordinary.
Listen to the episode
Writing into the Wound: Understanding Trauma, Truth, and Language by Roxane Gay (Scribd Originals; available February 12) is an unforgettable, deeply personal look at how trauma has shaped her life and work—and the impact of trauma on all of us. Gay covers difficult subjects—from racism to sexuality to misogyny to politics to workplace issues, and more. Her bracing honesty, insightful opinions, and luminous prose are beloved by readers around the world. She unpacks this experience for the first time and provides readers with valuable lessons for processing and writing about their own trauma.
Design Matters with Debbie Millman is one of the world’s very first podcasts and the first ever podcast about design and an inquiry into the broader world of creative culture. Broadcasting independently for 16 years, the show is about how incredibly creative people design the arc of their lives.
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay
Production by Cadence13
Brené Brown: Hi, everyone. I’m Brené Brown, and this is Unlocking Us.
BB: You know, some days I just think to myself, “Do you really get to do this for a living? Do you really get to talk to all these incredible teachers and creators, and learn from them and learn about them?” And the answer is, “Oh hell, yes, this is what I get to do and I am so grateful.” The best way to honor the fact that this is what I get to do is just be deeply grateful for it every day, and I am deeply grateful. And I am so excited about this conversation. Debbie Millman is a designer, author, educator, and the host of the award-winning podcast Design Matters, which is one of the first and longest-running podcasts in the world. I am talking with Debbie about her work, and I am talking with Roxane Gay. Roxane is a writer, editor, cultural critic, and co-host of the podcast Hear to Slay. Roxane and Debbie are married and we are talking about love. We’re talking about their love story, which involves everything from amazing rom-com moments to cringey first new love and waiting and not knowing when to push and when to ask.
BB: We’re talking about creativity and this kind of relentless need to make space and time to create and do what you love in your life, and how saying yes to things that you don’t want to do — but you’re afraid to say no to because you’re afraid people will either stop asking or that you’ll disappoint people — get in the way of a really wholehearted, purpose-driven life. We’re talking about the power of a dinner party. We’re talking about everything. Debbie and Roxane’s work has been really important in my life, and to get to know who they are as people, to know how they fell in love, to know who they are as a couple, to talk about the ins and outs of ordinary life is in itself extraordinary. I can’t wait for you to hear the conversation.
So, before we get started, let me give you some full information on Debbie and Roxane. So Debbie Millman is a designer, and she’s an author, educator, and host of the award-winning podcast Design Matters. Like I mentioned before, it’s one of the first and longest-running podcasts in the world, celebrating her 16th anniversary of this podcast. Can you imagine? She’s also co-founder and chair of the world’s first graduate program in branding at the School of Visual Arts.
BB: She is the Editorial Director of Print Magazine, and the author of six books on design and branding. Debbie’s worked on the design and strategy of over 200 of the world’s biggest brands, and she’s currently Chair of the Board of Directors for Law & Order: SVU actor and activist Mariska Hargitay’s Joyful Heart Foundation.
She is the Editorial Director of Print Magazine, and the author of six books on design and branding. Debbie’s worked on the design and strategy of over 200 of the world’s biggest brands, and she’s currently Chair of the Board of Directors for Law & Order: SVU actor and activist Mariska Hargitay’s Joyful Heart Foundation.
Roxane Gay is a writer, editor, cultural critic, and she co-hosts a podcast called Hear to Slay, which — if you have not listened to it — is incredible. Her writing appears in many publications, including Harper’s Bazaar, Virginia Quarterly Review, McSweeney’s, Town & Country, A Public Space and many others. She’s a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times where she also writes the Work Friend column. She is the author of many books, Bad Feminist, Difficult Women, Hunger, and — for Marvel — she wrote World of Wakanda. She edited Not That Bad: Dispatches From Rape Culture, The Selected Works of Audre Lorde, and The Best American Fiction 2018, and she has several projects that are coming out that we’re going to talk about. Here it is. I’m excited for you to hear my conversation. Enjoy.
BB: Let me just start by saying that this is the kind of moment where I go, “Holy shit, I get to do this as part of my job.”
BB: No. Yes, both of you, Debbie and Roxane. It’s going to be the most bizarre set of questions that you’ve probably ever heard because I started to try to find a professional arc and then I was like, “No, no, no, I have to know these things from these folks.” So, first big question. I want to know the love story.
DM: So I sort of fell in love with Roxane while I was reading Hunger, and it was mostly because I felt like she was writing my own story in so many ways. I felt that somehow she had gotten into my head without even knowing me and described my soul. [chuckle] But it was like love from a distance because I didn’t know her at all. But at the time, I thought, “Well, I think I’ll invite her to be on the podcast,” because I have a podcast and I interview amazing people on the podcast, and she is an amazing person. So I reached out to her through her website and she got back to me. I’d written this sort of long letter about why I wanted her to be on the podcast, and she wrote back and said, “Sure.” One word, “Sure.” Actually, no, there was more than one word. She wrote sure and then she wrote, “Please be in touch with my PR person at Harper Collins and they’ll hook you up.” And so she gave me the person’s email address and I forwarded that as evidence to her PR person, and said, “Roxane suggested that I reach out to you… ”
DM: And crickets. Heard nothing.
BB: Even with the willingness receipt? Damn.
DM: Yes, yes. And so I didn’t hear anything, and I didn’t want to be one of those people, and I never ever want to be one of those people that nudges, so I waited about three or four weeks and then I wrote again. “Just checking in if you got my email. I’d love to be able to interview Roxane about this magnificent book.” Didn’t hear back. So I did this about three times in about three months. And then the fourth time, I got a bounce back from the PR person that she was no longer there.
DM: At which point I took that whole history and forwarded it to Roxane and said, “Sorry to bother you but so and so is no longer at Harper Collins. Would you still be willing to schedule something directly with me?” At which point Roxane wrote that she was exhausted from her book tour, back in the olden times when we were allowed to go out and about…
BB: Oh yeah.
DM: That she was exhausted from her book tour, apologized, and said that she had to pass. I was crushed but these things happen. I had, at that point, decided in my life that I needed to be single for a while, and at that point, the idea of Roxane ever being interested in me was not even remotely on the radar for me. She was such a magnificent, huge personality, talent, human. It didn’t even occur to me my falling in love with her was really falling in love with her talent as opposed to Roxane the person, so it wasn’t even something that I considered. And then I saw that there was a brouhaha on Twitter [chuckle] Roxane had a brouhaha. Imagine that.
BB: I can’t even picture it. [chuckle]
DM: And I felt really badly about the way that people were speaking to her, and I wrote to her and said, “You know, this is just terrible.” It was about a review that she had written, I think in the New York Times, and she was getting some heat for it. And so I wrote to her and I said I don’t know why people are so cruel. I’m so sorry. I quoted something from Hunger that… Or maybe Bad Feminist, at that point, that really resonated with me, put a lot of care into this, but I didn’t hear back. So that was sort of that. And then a year goes by, I’m intentionally single, working out my own shit, and I did an event with a bunch of people, it was a spoken word event. I performed a piece that I had written, and the event was about a block away from my house. And so after the event, when we were, about 10 of us, we were all trying to decide, “Oh, let’s go out for a drink and celebrate,” I invited everybody back to my house and raided my wine cooler, and everybody stayed for hours and we all got drunk and we ate pizza. And somehow or another we started talking, one of the people there was Ashley Ford, Ashley C. Ford.
BB: Ahh, yes, love her. I’m talking to her tomorrow.
DM: We owe Ashley everything or I owe Ashley everything. Somehow she started talking about her mentor, Roxane, and she didn’t say Roxane Gay, but I knew she was talking about Roxane Gay. And so I said, “You’re talking about Roxane Gay,” and I just blurted out, “I have such a huge crush on her.” It just came out, there was no consciousness involved. It was just there, deep in the recesses of my heart and soul. And she looked at me and she said, “Oh, really?” And I said, “Do you think I have a shot?” And she’s like, “Well, there might be a window of opportunity here so… ”
BB: [chuckle] Sorry.
DM: “Shoot your shot. Shoot your shot.” [chuckle] And so I did. I wrote to her and I said, “Our mutual friend, Ashley Ford, suggested that I write to you. I don’t know what your circumstances are at the moment but if you’re up for it, I’d love to take you out on a proper date.” That’s what I said — a proper date. In which case Roxane responded, “Sure.”
BB: Nothing, but it’s consistent.
Roxane Gay: I’m very verbose.
BB: I gotta pause you here. So, what are were you thinking, Roxane, when you see this email?
DM: Good question. [chuckle]
RG: Well, I was in a relationship at the time, and it was the kind where I could see other people. And I was definitely looking for something more than I had, something more full-time. And I just thought, “Who is this weirdo?” And…
DM: She still thinks that, but that’s okay. [laughter]
RG: It’s true. And I’m in New York a lot, so I thought what would it hurt to go out with this person and have a drink after an event, instead of just going back to my hotel room. So I was like, “Okay.” And I just kept responding to her emails monosyllabically because that’s the way I am.
DM: That’s the way you are.
BB: Roxane, had you received a heads up from Ashley before Debbie emailed? Curious.
RG: No. But when Debbie said Ashley had endorsed her that was good enough for me. Because I know that Ashley knew my situation and we were very close and I trust her judgment.
BB: Makes sense.
DM: Yeah, we really do owe Ashley everything. Because if Ashley hadn’t given me that permission that day, I would not have tried again, even to invite her to be on the podcast. But sort of this moment of wine and pizza and Ashley and love all sort of slamming together in the big bang of my universe… So Roxane did write more than sure. She said, “Next time you’re in New York, let’s have a drink” without any sense of when that was going to be. And I really was worried about pushing her too much, and so I didn’t know what to do in terms of timing and sort of pinning her down. And then on Twitter, because I avidly followed her Twitter, somebody wrote to her, “Oh, Roxane, when are you going to next be in Miami?” And Roxane very succinctly and Roxane-ly said, “You can check my website. My schedule’s on my website.” Very abrupt and matter of fact. And so I thought, “Oh, I can check her website. Her schedule’s on her website.” So I went to her website, saw… This was in June, saw that she was going to be in New York in October, and wrote her and said, “I see you’re going to be in New York in October. Why don’t we get together for a drink then?” And she wrote back, “Sure.”
BB: God, the patience on your part is massive. I mean, that is a dating dilemma where she says, “Sure, next time I’m in New York.” And then you’re thinking, “Do I go back and say, ‘Oh, when will that be, or is that too much, or do I have to investigate?'” That was really good. So don’t even tell me you waited until October.
DM: I did.
RG: She did.
BB: Holy shit.
RG: Debbie really played the long game here.
DM: I did.
BB: Okay, so then October comes and what happens?
RG: She really put me through my paces. October comes and she was doing an event at Symphony Space. The Best American Short Stories had come out, and she had edited it. She was hosting the event. I bought a ticket and we’ve organized it that we were going to go out for a drink afterward, and I thought, you know, the event starts at seven, she’s probably not going to have dinner before. Maybe we can have dinner afterward. And so I wrote her and said, “Rather than just a drink, would you want to have dinner?” And assuming that she was going to say yes, I went through lots of machinations to pick a place. I called in advance, I said, “Bringing in a VIP, so can we have a corner romantic spot?” And they were super nice about it, very excited that I was bringing Roxane, and then I didn’t hear back.
BB: I wish you all could see Roxane’s face on Zoom right now. She just gave us the oops, the oops look.
RG: Well, I get a lot of email. And when I’m on tour, email is not my priority. But I knew in my soul, I said I’m going to meet you, so I’m going to meet you. And so I didn’t feel the need for a lot of correspondence.
DM: So I made all of these arrangements and car service and all sorts of things, and then I didn’t hear back. And it’s the day of and I still haven’t heard back. And now I’m thinking, “She’s going to stand me up. Should I still go to Symphony Space? What should I do?” So I called Ashley, [chuckle] and Ashley, she ended up calling me back while I was in the event cause I did go, and I still have the message. I still save it.
BB: Oh my god.
DM: She was like, “No, Roxane’s wonderful. She would never stand you up. Go.” In the meantime, Roxane does respond and says, “Oh, I made us a dinner reservation.” That’s it.
DM: So she had done that. So then I called the restaurant, I’m like, “Oh, other plans. We’ll come back another time. I’m so sorry.” And we ended up going. I ended up sitting near the front row and tried to catch her eye, but she was rightly so preoccupied with Martha Plimpton and the other amazing people that were reading. And then afterward, I decided that I wanted to be the last person in line to ask her to sign my book. The line was around the corner so I knew it was going to be at least an hour. Literally, it went out of the venue and around the corner.
BB: Oh, I believe it.
DM: And so I waited in the venue and was just sitting there, sort of leafing through my book and thought it was near the end of the line and started to make my way to the end of the line, and then stragglers would come and I’m like, “Oh, you can go ahead of me.” And they’re like, “No, no.” And I’m like, “Oh no, we’re friends.”
RG: And I had not Googled her, so I didn’t know what she looked like. And every time a woman came up to the line, I just thought, “Hmm, maybe,” and, “Oh God, no,” and, “Hmm.”
RG: And then, when she finally came up at the end of the line and she introduced herself, I was like, “Yeah. She’s hot. This is great.”
DM: I had gotten my hair done that day. I was looking pretty rad. And so then we went out on this date. Roxane spilled a glass of water on me at the dinner table, which was really wonderful because I am the klutz and usually I’m the one that is falling and breaking things and spilling things. So I was relieved that she had gotten that out first.
RG: Yes, I did. It went very smooth.
BB: This is like not just a proper date. It’s like a proper rom-com right here like…
BB: So how was dinner? Was it easy conversation, was it hard, was it…
RG: It was. It was a good conversation. And I will say we talked about everything, trying to figure out just first date things, but because I hadn’t Googled her, I just asked everything. And at the time I was 44, and so there was no need to waste time with silly questions like is this a real thing. What are you looking for? Because if we’re not looking for the same thing, I don’t need to waste my time. And we were both interested in long-term prospects, but we’re being realistic about it. And so it was very fun. And then afterwards, we were standing on the street, and this was in Midtown. I don’t know what I was thinking, but there we were, and she asked me if she could kiss me. And I was so taken aback. I was like, “Wow.” And that was also really kinda sexy, and so I said, “Yes.” And we had our first kiss on 53rd Street.
BB: I’m so glad I asked this question.
DM: It’s kinda epic, right?
BB: Yeah, it’s totally epic. With the exception that you had not Googled her. This completely shifts my understanding of you. You were like, “I said I was going to be there, so I’ll be there, and I’ll evaluate when I’m there. And now I got to get busy with the other stuff I’m doing right now.”
RG: Pretty much. And also because I was in a relationship, I was not really looking. In my heart I was looking, but in reality, I wasn’t, because I don’t have the energy to date more than one person, I just can’t. And so I was just like, “I have a girlfriend. I’m good.” And then…
DM: But you were sort of on a pause, right?
RG: It was complicated. It was very complicated. And so by the time she came around, I was open to considering a different kind of relationship.
DM: And during the date, I had told her that I was going to be in LA the next week, I was speaking at Adobe Max in LA the next week. And so she’s like, “Oh, let’s get together.” So I was like, “Oh, I got date two on date one.” And after we kissed, she got in her car and went off, and I was on cloud nine. I was just spinning in the streets, and called my best friend DeeDee and was screaming that this had happened. She knew that I was going to be going on the date, and her husband was on the phone and we’re all screaming, and… It was just a magical moment floating on air, home to 24th Street.
RG: She walked all the way home to 24th Street.
BB: Fueled by nothing but a single kiss in Midtown.
DM: But then, right before our second date, the day before, so here I’m in LA, I’m all excited. I Arranged to get my hair done again cause I want to look good and don’t want to show her the real me yet [chuckle] physically and she canceled… She canceled the date.
BB: Oh my God, I just had that moment.
RG: Cancelled the date, Brené.
RG: In my defense, I had just moved into a new house, and I was having problems with the pipes, which — oh my god — and the toilets were literally exploding everywhere and I had just gotten dumped the day before by my long-term girlfriend because she wasn’t ready to make a commitment, and I had put my foot down after five years of waiting and it never was coming.
DM: And one great date with me.
RG: And so…
DM: Really funny.
RG: I was kind of in my feelings, and then as I was sitting while the plumber was plumbing, I thought, “Oh my god! Same old, same old. I might as well be miserable over a good dinner,” and so I wrote her back because we had not yet exchanged phone numbers, and I told her, “Let’s have dinner after all.”
DM: And so we went and had dinner the second date, which was great.
RG: It was. It was really great. And then before she left LA, it was like 8:00 or 9:00 o’clock at night. I had an event, and I emailed her, “Do you want come over for barbecue?” I don’t know.
DM: A booty call.
BB: Is that a thing?
DM: It was a total booty call.
BB: Is that the way you young people do it? Is it now it’s… Now it’s a barbecue.
RG: I was going to actually give her a barbecue and she was on a plane because she had changed her ticket to leave early.
DM: Yeah, one of my events ended up getting canceled. Roxane has an event. She didn’t invite me to go. We didn’t have any other plans to meet in LA, and I thought, “Oh, I can go home tonight early, and be at home an extra night,” which was a gift. And so I made all sorts of machinations. I’m actually on the plane and she writes me about barbecue. So then the next day, I wrote her and then we started chatting. We didn’t have each other’s phone numbers at that point, and I wasn’t going to ask Roxane for her phone number. I just felt like when Roxane is ready to give me her phone number, she’s going to give me the digits, that’s when it’ll happen and I’m not going to ask, and…
BB: God, y’all are killing me.
DM: So it was like three weeks later, [chuckle] she said, “Oh, here’s my phone number, in case you need it” [chuckle]
BB: So then the texting and the talking commenced?
DM: Well, at that point, Roxane was like, “Why don’t we… “ You made this first move, which was great, cause I don’t know that I would have… I’m too shy for that. She’s like, “Maybe we should spend a weekend together,” and I had really organized my life as a single person and had events booked and trips planned and…
RG: Her social calendar before COVID is ridiculous. She is out every single night. “Oh, I’m going to go for drinks with so and so,” like some ridiculously famous designer. “Oh, we’re going out to dinner, whatever.” “Oh, I’m going to the opera.” [chuckle]
BB: So you’re booked. You’re booked.
DM: I was very booked.
RG: She was very booked. And to her credit, she did not change her schedule. She was just like, “This is my life. I’ve made commitments to my friends and myself, so I’m not going to change these appointments. And so she was looking at her paper calendar…
RG: Which is still her calendar, and she pointed out a weekend and I was like, Oh no, I’m in Italy or whatever, and we were going back and forth, and she was like, Oh, I’m in Portugal. Ridiculous.
RG: And finally, she noticed that I was going to be in Boston, in… November?
RG: So she said, “I land in New York from Portugal and I have to do a party or something, but I’ll fly to Boston the next day.” And so she did fly to Boston and we had our first weekend together.
DM: In Boston.
RG: And it was really great.
DM: We’ve been together ever since.
BB: Yeah, have you been together ever since?
RG: We have.
BB: Okay, that weekend. I’m going to get really personal here… Did you say I love you?
RG: No. God, no.
DM: No, no, no. I did a drunk “I love you” in December.
BB: So you spent the week together in Boston in November, but you started dating, then kind of more seriously, and “I love you” in December?
BB: A drunk “I love you”?
DM: Yeah, I was having a party. [laughter] I was having a party.
RG: Every year she has a Christmas party…
DM: For my students.
RG: For her students, and she invites like 50 or 60 people. And I was like, “Where do you live in New York? That you can accommodate that many people?” And now I know. And she was in the bathroom on the second floor…
DM: Hiding from my guests.
RG: Hiding from the party.
DM: And I drunk texted her, like I think… No, did I call you? I think I called you. Yeah, I called you.
RG: You called me.
DM: Yeah, I was like, “I think I love you. I love you.”
BB: Did you say, “Sure”?
RG: No, I’m not that terrible.
DM: She said, “Are you sure?”
RG: No. I said “I love you” back.
DM: And then she did the most romantic thing ever, Brené. Ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever in the world.
RG: This is true.
DM: So a few weeks after that, I had planned for a long time to go on a National Geographic expedition, and this was something that was a year and a half in the planning, and it was the biggest thing I had ever decided to do in my life. I was going on a month-long National Geographic expedition, essentially all over the world, and I wasn’t going to change it. First of all, it was the cost of a house, basically. I had saved up for it and I had planned it. It was like the biggest thing I’d ever done.
DM: And the entire expedition was leaving from Florida, I was flying from New York to Florida, and then from Florida there’s a National Geographic plane that you’d board and everybody then together flies to Peru. That’s where the trip began. So, I fly to Orlando and I am met by the National Geographic tour guide, and I had luggage that was checked obviously. It’s a month-long trip. And I’m standing at the baggage claim, and all of a sudden I hear, “Deborah.” Now, Roxane is only person on the planet that calls me Deborah. Everybody else calls me Debbie. And I turned around and she had flown to Orlando to say goodbye to me in person.
RG: I did.
RG: I took a red-eye.
DM: It wasn’t just a red-eye. You had to take two flights since there’s no direct flight from LA to Orlando.
RG: I did. I had to go from LAX to Chicago, Chicago to Orlando. And my flight arrived about two hours before hers. And she had been texting me all along and she was not in a great mood and she was really tired.
DM: And nervous.
RG: And nervous about this huge trip. And we were going to be apart for four weeks, and we were not living together but we saw each other regularly because I live in LA. So I just stood by a pole near her baggage claim. And when she walked by… And she walks like a New Yorker, all in black, walking 100 miles an hour, I was just like, I’m not trying to chase her. I’m just going to say her name and she heard.
BB: God, did she just want to start crying?
RG: And she was shocked.
DM: Yes, I did.
RG: Yes, she did.
DM: I did. I’m a crybaby. I cry all the time and yeah, I started weeping.
BB: Okay, this feels like love to me at this point.
RG: Oh yeah, it is. Debbie was, is a very unexpected surprise every day.
DM: There’s a big knowing look going on between Roxane and Brené and I at the moment. It’s like, I knew that you know that she knows that I know. We’re all like nodding here.
RG: When I thought about her going on this trip and it was December.
DM: It was on… January. I was away, yeah, I was away for all of January.
RG: It was just like, huh, maybe I should make a big romantic gesture. Because I’ve always wanted someone to make a romantic gesture to me, and it never came. And so I just decided, fuck it. And I was nervous because I didn’t want it to seem like too much or too stalkery but it ended up being lovely. And so I went to dinner with her and all of the people who were going on this expedition, who were all like 100 years old.
BB: Who I was going to ask, I’m wondering.
RG: She was… We were the youngest people, by far, probably by 20 years.
DM: There were… There were…
RG: 20 years for her. And maybe 30 years for me. And I was just like…this will be fun.
DM: There were people that were older, but there were quite a few people that were my age or younger.
RG: Yeah. And they were all very… They seemed fine. And so, we hung out that night, and then in the morning she left, and I actually flew back home.
BB: That is the big romantic gesture that we all look for in our lives. I mean, you know why?
BB: It’s the gift of time. Two flights.
BB: It’s the gift of massive time and inconvenience. That’s an I-love-you gift.
DM: It is.
RG: And I just wanted her to know that I supported her because she had a lot of anxiety about taking this huge trip in the middle of the beginning of our relationship. And I wasn’t worried because I thought — we have the rest of our lives and I already knew I was going to propose. But she didn’t know. And I waited, a full year, but I just wanted her to know… Like you waited your whole life and she’s someone who has worked her ass off. She’s completely self-made. So for her to be in a place in her life, to do something like this, and me an English professor. I was like, Oh my god, I didn’t even know this existed. And I was just so impressed and so proud of her for being so independent. And we spoke every day. It was lovely. I loved like seeing the world through her eyes, and we travel together very well now. So, I was just a precursor of the adventures to come.
BB: Sometimes that big romantic bid for connection and love that you’re waiting for, sometimes I guess you have to be the person who does it.
RG: Yeah, you do.
DM: I have to say, and I’ve said this to Roxane, I never… except for high school maybe, chased anyone, ever. And the older I got, the more reticent I became about any kind of gestures. First like I came out when I was 50, so there was that whole nervousness as well about making first moves, but I often compared myself to a taxi cab. That I was a taxi cab off duty, picked up the next person that hailed me.
DM: That was in a relationship with that person until they got out, because I was having a lot of bad luck and was never comfortable enough in my own skin to decide that I wanted something and I was worthy of that. But there were so many clues or bread crumbs in Roxane’s work that led me to believe that she was the person for me, and that we were going to be the most compatible couple on the planet, just by the sheer virtue of reading her words. And something kind of came over me, and prior to that, I’d always been super nervous about everything and impatient. And in this case, I really was like, just let Roxane discover me on her own terms. And if she feels the way I think she might, given how much I know about what she loves and wants, this might happen. This could happen.
RG: And then it did.
BB: So you proposed, Roxane?
RG: I did. She had said that she wants a proposal and that she’s old fashioned. And I was like, please, but okay. And she’s very original. So I had custom rings made and I was going to propose to her on her birthday when she came to LA to visit. And it was October 28th, and I went to pick her up at the airport, and I thought, well, let me not steal the sunshine of her birthday. And so, we went down to Manhattan Beach and the sun was setting, and we were talking about love contracts, because there was this piece in the New York Times. So I just said, hey, what kinds of things would you include in your love contract? And so we started talking about that, and then I whipped out the ring and asked her if she’d marry me, as the sun set.
RG: On the boardwalk.
RG: Yeah. It was great.
BB: Oh my God. I have goosebumps from head to toe and I feel like I’m going to cry.
RG: She said yes and I was nervous because she said she was never going to get married again.
DM: Even though I wanted the big proposal, if it was going to happen. But yeah.
BB: I get the tension. I get the polarity.
DM: Thank you.
RG: I believe people when they say how they feel about things and so I was prepared for her to say no and it was going to be fine but I’ve never been married before. I had never been married before. I’m married now.
DM: And I had, Brené. I’ve been married to two men. I’ve been married, once in my 20s, once in my 30s. Then I was very proud of myself for making it through my 40s with never getting married and by then I decided I didn’t need to be married again, that that wasn’t something that was going to matter. I just was looking for love in my life, but the idea of getting married, I was way past the age of being able to have children, and so I just didn’t feel… You know what it is? I had felt like such a failure at having two marriages that didn’t work out and feeling like such an oddball and damaged and to get over that feeling, which took a long time. I was afraid to take off my wedding rings for a while because I that would be a signal that I was once again damaged goods. And having then gone through that whole process of unraveling what that was about and sort of reclaiming myself in such an important way, it no longer mattered to me. It wasn’t even that I was anti-marriage. It was just like it’s not on my radar anymore. And so it didn’t feel like something that made sense for me having gone through that process and coming out the other side and feeling absolutely okay, as is, not married, that I just felt like, why go backwards? And then Roxane showed up, so then everything changed.
RG: Yeah. And we even talked about having kids and she was like “well if you want.” She was like open to everything.
BB: Love does that right?
DM: Yeah. Oh, and Roxane was totally anti-dog. She was totally anti-pet. So on our first date…
RG: I don’t like animals.
DM: And I kinda knew that, and I’m a major, major animal person, I just love pets, and at one point had two cats and two dogs…
BB: Ooh, lord.
DM: All of my pets ended up over the years passing away to a point where my final pet, Scruffy, he passed away about six months before Roxane and I met, and I waited six months to get any new pets. I was just breathing so deeply. And then ended up getting two cats a week before we started dating.
RG: So we have two cats and for her birthday this year, or 2020, I gave her a puppy.
BB: Oh Lord, y’all have really been moved by love over there.
DM: Yeah. Yeah.
RG: And I do not like animals.
DM: But she looooves our dog.
RG: He’s super cute, to be fair.
DM: Look at her face!
RG: And he’s very smart.
BB: So what I’m hearing Roxane is…
DM: She thinks he’s the smart…
BB: You like a smart pet if you’re going to have one.
RG: Yes, absolutely. And he also is not interested in food, he likes paper, trash, disgusting stuff on the street, little pools of water after it rains and cars have driven through it that’s a gourmet meal for him. It’s funny.
DM: [0:36:48.3] The thing that Roxane didn’t understand that I tried to really communicate to her was the unconditional love that pets provide no matter what mood you’re in. They don’t complain, they don’t give you…
RG: No, they complain.
DM: Well… Not… No.
RG: Please. The cats… Okay.
DM: Oh, the cats. Maybe.
BB: I’ll get a lot of shit from this but cats by design are complainers. They always look some level of discontent.
RG: Though we have one cat that’s a dog cat he’s basically a puppy and then the other cat is the asshole.
BB: I mean, if you don’t have at least cat that’s an asshole, you don’t really have cats. I don’t really believe you.
RG: You’re right.
DM: It’s true. It’s true.
BB: It’s so funny, I don’t… I’m not a pet person either and then love, Steve, Ellen and Charlie, my two kids — it just meant so much for them to have this dog and now I’m like “I love you and I hate that that I love you but I do love you.”
RG: That’s me. Not a day goes by where I’m just like “you’re a cute little fucker. Oh, I hate it.” And he’s just always there.
BB: I know!
RG: And his tail’s wagging, and he’s looking at you and he wants attention and I’m like do you know that I’m on deadline? And he’s like, “I don’t care at all.”
DM: Oh, but he’s madly in love with her while she’s working on her lap and then lays on her shirt.
BB: Oh God.
DM: Yeah. And he loves… I will say he loves both of us.
RG: He just loves us differently, which is fine. And it’s great.
BB: I’m so glad I asked this story cause I could cobble together what I could cobble together through social and other things but I knew to hear y’all tell it, there would be no comparison and it’s so joyful to observe. One of you just mentioned this word but I write a lot about midlife and I always say it’s not a crisis, it’s an unraveling. And I always described midlife as when the universe comes down and grabs you by the shoulders and says “Hey I’m not fucking around, you know, you’re halfway to dead now so you’ve got to let go of what people think. You got to find real love, this is it”
DM: Yeah, if not now, when? I think about that every day.
BB: Yeah, if not now, when? And I often think we should call midlife midlove, because it’s like one of those times, it’s like a developmental milestone, that we don’t talk about for adults. It’s like you’ve either got to unclench the butt cheeks and stop performing and proving for people… Uh oh, I’m telling you right now that Roxane just gave Debbie a serious look.
RG: I did.
BB: Tell me why.
RG: Because I want Debbie to get to that point. She’s a woman of a certain age, and she’s incredibly accomplished and I love her ambition but like she has nothing left to prove.
DM: She has done it all.
RG: And I wish she would understand that she is the marquee talent and that she doesn’t have to be excessively grateful when people want her to participate in their projects I’m like, “You’re fucking Debbie Millman.” My god.
DM: This is why I’m still in therapy.
BB: Yeah. It’s why we’re all still in therapy.
DM: Exactly, yeah. So yeah, I’m still searching for self-actualization and I don’t know that searching is the word. I would say I’m still working towards…
RG: Yeah, you’re not searching. You know where it is and what you want.
BB: That’s interesting. Not searching cause you know where it is.
RG: Yeah, I mean, she works tirelessly. I wish people understood how much she works. And I’m a workaholic, so for me to be like, “You need to slow down.”
BB: That’s saying something?
RG: You know someone is going 25/8, but she just wants to contribute to the world and make it a better place. And I’ve rarely seen someone who had a great corporate career, then turn around and give all of their time to truly worthy causes, and that’s what she does, and I think it’s really impressive.
DM: Well, thank you. Thank you.
RG: You’re welcome.
BB: And you can see it on the face of your students, too.
DM: Will you witness that? So yes, thank you, thank you.
BB: And I have to tell you too, when I did your podcast, how many people reached out and said, “I can’t believe Debbie Millman’s going to talk to you.” And then I got kinda scared…
DM: Oh please, Brené!
BB: No, no, I’m serious. I got kinda scared. I was like, “Oh man, I should listen to a bunch of these interviews, because maybe she’s tough or maybe it’s a tricky thing.” But it wasn’t. It was loving and kind and a real conversation, it was just….You’re held in very high esteem by people I hold in high esteem.
DM: Thank you, that means a lot to me. Thank you. It does.
BB: Okay, question for you both. This is like my team that helped prep… We read books together, we read things together, and then we kind of have a conversation before I do podcasts. I’m obsessed with this idea, and it’s probably from the Instagram stories of your cooking, Roxane. Several of us make up that a Roxane Gay/Debbie Millman dinner party would probably be like heaven on earth.
RG: Accurate. It’s funny you should say that.
BB: Do you host them?
RG: No. However, we are working on a project called Dinner Party.
DM: It’s like you’re a soothsayer. Wow.
RG: Yep. Hand to God. And it’s going to be probably in audio format. We originally pitched it as a TV show, but then another opportunity came up where we invite, I think, four interesting people and us, and we have a dinner party and we record it.
BB: I have to say, I’m like… Yes, oh yes, hell yes. Okay, so have you ever hosted a dinner party as a couple?
RG: Actually, we did. We had a dinner party with Grace Bonney and…
DM: Her wife, Julia.
RG: Julia Turshen.
BB: Of course.
And Ashley Ford, and Ashley’s husband Kelly. And Julia cooked for us. She’s a chef and a cookbook author. And they came to our house in New York, and it was a really lovely evening. And just as we were really ramping up to celebrate things and have dinner parties, cause we have a new dining table. After probably five years, her brownstone is done. “Done.” [laughter]
BB: Air quotes.
RG: And so we were ready to really entertain and then COVID happened.
DM: Yeah, we actually had planned a giant wedding. Roxane wanted the fantasy. Her dad wanted to walk her down the aisle. Gloria Steinem had agreed to marry us, which was a fantasy for both of us…
BB: Jesus, this is exactly what I’m talking about!
DM: Yeah. And then boom, COVID. We hired a wedding planner. It was, like, major.
RG: Every day I think about all of the money we have lost.
DM: But we had had this big wedding planned, and we’re super excited about it. I’m on the board of Performance Space New York, which is an experimental performance venue and incubator and just extraordinary, extraordinary place, and we were going to get married there. And then COVID hit, so we ended up going to…
RG: We were fighting… Not fighting, having active discussions about the number of people, and Debbie was just like, “It’s going to have to be 400,” and I’m like…
DM: And that’s, like, the minimum.
RG: And that’s the low number for her, but I was finally like, “If it’s what she wants, it’s fine, we can do this.” So we were going to get married on 10/10/20, which is perfect. And then we rescheduled for 10/11/21, but it’s not looking likely, given the vaccine rollout. There’s no safe way to get 400 people in a room. Frankly, there’s no safe way to get 50 people in a room, so we eloped.
DM: We went to instantwedding.com.
DM: Instant wedding LA… InstantmarriageLA.com, if you’re looking.
BB: If you’re looking.
RG: And then we went to an office building in Encino with her cousin and…
DM: And DeeDee. And DeeDee invites just the same people I called on our first date.
RG: Her best friend, DeeDee. And we FaceTimed our both birth families, and we got married under this plastic chuppah and… It was fun.
DM: Masked and… cause at that time, people were still wearing gloves.
RG: Oh yeah, we were wearing masks, cause it was after COVID…
BB: Y’all could even make that look cool.
DM: It was great though. It really was. It was kind of perfect.
RG: Yeah, and then I cooked.
RG: And two other friends came over, and so we were sitting in little couple pods around my backyard, well, our backyard here in LA, and…
DM: DeeDee and Moses were sitting in the back of the backyard.
RG: Yeah, because DeeDee was particularly paranoid.
BB: What did you cook?
RG: I made steak, barbecued steak. I think a macaroni salad, a pasta salad, and something elaborate, that was weirdly elaborate and time-consuming.
DM: We made a wonderful cake.
RG: And it was a three-layer strawberry shortcake.
BB: I was going to ask you this question because I always think of baking and cooking, like I think of algebra and geometry, people like one of them. You seem to bake and cook, Roxane.
RG: Yes, I love both.
BB: You do. For different reasons or same reason?
RG: What I love about baking is the precision.
RG: There’s a set of instructions and you follow them and something delicious appears. And I’m getting to the point where I can develop my own recipes, which is exciting, and with cooking… Again, I’m a recipe cook. I’m not going to look at five ingredients and be like “Hmm, I’m going to make the fanciest thing you’ve ever heard of.” No. But I love really elaborate recipes where I have to get 19 ingredients and then I have to patiently put it all together. It’s very relaxing, because my professional life is actually really stressful, in a good way. But the thing about being a writer who finds a readership is that you have less and less time to actually write because there are so many other things people would like you to do, and most of those things, quite frankly, pay better than writing.
BB: That’s right.
RG: And so it’s always trying to find that balance between touring and other speaking engagements and writing and consulting, and all of the pro bono work and the mentoring, and so I don’t have enough hours in my day. But when I cook, I have to put my phone away. I can’t read emails. I can’t worry about whatever. And I get to do something for my family that’s useful.
DM: And it’s delicious.
BB: And I have to go through your stories lightning fast sometimes because I’m like, “Oh my God, I can’t even look, I know where this batter is going, and I know what it’s going to look like when it’s done.
BB: Like, the batter pictures are the hardest for me cause you put in some really good-looking batter pictures.
RG: I am really good at making a cake. I will say.
BB: I can tell. I’m like “Just, through a magic pothole, send me one of the blender whisks, like just send me a little something.”
DM: It’s really funny, our family really is very expectant now…
DM: Of cakes. My sister-in-law’s birthday was on Saturday and we had sent my niece, whose birthday was a few weeks before. Roxane made her a cake, she turned 10, and she also is a little baker herself, and so somehow she had gotten into her head that we were going to send another cake for my sister-in-law, her mom, for her birthday. And so on Sunday, she texted us and it’s like, “Did you guys send a cake?” And we’re like… [laughter] Oh, we didn’t know…
BB: We were supposed to send a cake. [laughter]So like everybody in the family now is… And now we’re having another sister-in-law…
RG: Yeah in fact, I have to bake a cake. Oh my God.
RG: Today, tomorrow…
RG: For my sister-in-law, my other sister-in-law. Because it’s her birthday on February sixth.
DM: Yeah, so the whole family knows. My whole family has become very entitled to Roxane’s cakes.
RG: And my family is like, “No thanks.”
DM: Yeah, that’s true.
BB: Oh my God. I feel a little entitled. I feel like if you’re going to show me the pictures on social media…
RG: That’s fair.
BB: You know, like, deliver.
BB: I’m so glad you brought this up, Roxane, because I have this quote. It’s a really long quote, but I’m just going to read the last line of it. “Art is not meant to be created in stolen moments only.” I need y’all to solve that for me, if you could, because two great minds that I’m talking to right now. I feel like if I’m not creating and writing, and for me, I’m a researcher doing research, a part of me dies a little bit every day, but there’s so much other necessary bullshit of the commerce of research and writing and publishing. Please tell me that neither one of you feel like you’re doing art in stolen moments. That you’ve said, fuck it to everybody, and you just create whenever and however you want.
RG: I wish that were the case. No, I can’t say no or I struggle with saying No. So I say yes to everything, and part of it, most of it, is this fear that the opportunities are going to disappear. If this is my last chance, I have to say yes. And most of the opportunities at this point are legitimately thrilling. And, so then I think I also really want to do this, even though time is finite. So I struggle, And I also have a staff now, so I have to make sure that I can pay for their health insurance.
RG: And things like that. Like I have a lot of responsibilities. I have familial responsibilities.
RG: It feels like a lot is on my shoulders, and so I have to prioritize making sure I can keep everything afloat, especially now when most of my income has disappeared. And so it’s challenging and so creative work happens after 11:00 o’clock at night.
DM: Yeah, Roxane is a night owl. We’re both night owls, but she’s an even nightier night owl than I am. She works until about four in the morning. I usually give up and go to bed around 1:00. But, I mean, this is the theme that we’re both talking about and struggling with every day. How much do we feel like we’re obligated to do versus how much do we do just for the pure joy of creating and making and I’m really seriously thinking about, “How do I set up what’s likely to be the last 30 years of my life?”
BB: Yeah. Yeah!
DM: You know, if I’m lucky. I have 30 more years, probably 25 of them of which will be like music, hopefully. And so how do I want to spend that time? How do I want to spend this last chapter and what is the most meaningful way to live, and how? And that’s something I think about every day. I talk about with my therapist in every session, and I’ve yet to really define what that means. But one thing that I talk about a lot, and Roxane’s heard me say this, in one of my interviews last year I interviewed David Lee Roth, former lead singer, Van Halen. And I asked him what it felt like back in the 80s to be like the most popular dude on the planet.
DM: You know, what did that feel like?
DM: You know, he had everything, sex, drugs, rock and roll, money, everything. And he said, “You have to be really careful when you get to the tippy tippy top of the mountain, because you’re usually alone. It’s always cold and there’s only one direction.”
DM: And I thought about that every day since. And I don’t want to peak until the day before I die. I don’t want to be on the top of that…
DM: Tippy top of that mountain until the day before I die. And so how do I ensure that I can self-actualize? How can I make sure that I do get to the peak. But I also want to live a life that’s full of meaning every day. So, that’s all I think about really.
RG: And what’s interesting to me is that I feel like she’s already at the peak. The other day actually, we’re looking at buying a house together and being able to design it from the ground up or move into a place that wasn’t originally all mine or all hers. We’ve merged households and we’ve done a pretty good job about it, but we would love to have a space that’s ours.
RG: And I was just like, Why are you still working? What is this about? You can retire, not well, retire is not the right word, she’s way too young, but she can just make art all the time and step away from teaching and running a program and so on. So it’s been interesting watching her work through this and try to figure out what do I want to do with the rest of my life.
DM: And how do we live or I’m going to say, I, how do I live? Not being afraid in the future.
BB: I promise you, I think about it every day. Every day I think about. What am I saying yes to? Why am I saying yes? Am I running away from something or towards something I want to do and how much of it is scarcity, like what if they stop asking? I understood doing that when I was in my 40s and bright, shiny things started happening, but I always thought when I got to my 50s I… And I do more of just what I want now, I will tell you for sure, but like you Roxane, I mean we lost… And we have a staff of 28 or 30 people. We lost 80% of our income in 48 hours when COVID hit.
BB: Because I speak everywhere…
RG: Right. Same.
BB: And I wondered if you arrive at a place at some point where the art is not done in stolen moments. I hope I can get there, and maybe it’s just the journey to that place, that that is the journey, that every year I do a little bit more art in real art time. I don’t know, what do you think?
RG: I’m working toward that because I’m a writer first.
RG: And part of what I’ve started to do is take some of these opportunities and give them a list of names. Go talk to these people, and then I write them and say, “This is how much money they offered me,” because I don’t want them to be dicked around.
RG: And I want to do more of that and also just literally build into my calendar — writing time. Like I owe it to myself. This is what I love to do. I don’t have to do everything people want me to do, and people want me to do a lot, and a lot of it is just the entitlement people have to my time, because like, a lot of people I care about the world. It’s just a lot sometimes. It’s just a lot. And so I’m just learning with therapy, twice a week.
RG: How to say no and how to sit in the discomfort of disappointing people because I hate disappointing people. And especially lately, I just find myself doing things that I don’t want to do. And it’s not about compensation cause a lot of them are pro bono. And I don’t mind doing that, but it’s stuff I don’t want to do that I’m not well-versed in, but people just think they can slap any old black person up there and it’ll be fine. And I hope in the next few years, especially as I work on some new kinds of creative projects, to be able to do more of the creating and less of the hamster in the wheel of sustaining visibility.
DM: Well, I also think it’s, Who do we disappoint? Do we disappoint others? Do we disappoint ourselves? And somehow it always seems easier to disappoint ourselves.
BB: Yes. Okay, I have to ask this question cause I was so curious, and this is interesting, cause you all to have been married for most of COVID or you got married in COVID.
DM: In June.
BB: Before Covid, do you all have a couple strategy for getting out of a situation, like a social situation. Do you have a code word or a look where you’re like…
RG: Oh yeah.
BB: Oh you do?
RG: Yeah, at one point we had a password.
RG: And I can’t remember what the password is.
RG: Strawberry. Yes. She brings up or if I bring up strawberries, we know that an exit strategy is needed.
RG: And also, we’re very good at the Get me the hell out of here look…
BB: The look.
RG: Or especially when we’re in public settings, pre-COVID, this sort of very weird person is talking to me, please come rescue me. And that is just a look, and she’s phenomenal at reading my looks, and she swoops right in, jumps right between me and the person, and she’s tiny, but she takes up a lot of space and it’s just awesome.
DM: Yeah, we’re really good at that.
BB: Tiny but mighty on the swoop.
BB: Yeah, we have the same thing. Debbie, are you an extrovert or an introvert or an ambivert?
DM: I am sort of both. I definitely am comfortable on stage and I’m comfortable talking and definitely comfortable sharing my opinion, but I am very much a person that needs alone time to recharge, like serious alone time. So it’s a little bit of both.
RG: I’m an introvert, but what’s been interesting about COVID is that Debbie is thriving. She is loving all of the alone time and I know it’s because her New York schedule was unsustainable. It was just relentless. And she was talking about that she needed a change, and then COVID happened, which is nothing anyone would want, but it did force the change. And frankly, it forced a change for me as well because my schedule is equally relentless, but she is enjoying it still, like I’m good with not seeing people, and I’m fine with it, but I would like to go out to a show.
RG: I would like to go to a restaurant and we were done with restaurants cause we were just restaurant-ed out, but now I’m ready to re-enter the world, go to a museum, get a haircut, and I think… Just the other day, she was like, “I’m ready to socialize again,” but I thought she was going to crack after a week, and she was just happy as a clam, only in the safety of our home.
BB: Right. No. I get it. Yeah.
RG: It’s really hard when things are pretty okay and the world is falling apart.
DM: Yeah, it’s been hard not seeing my family. I had, growing up, a very turbulent family environment and a lot of insecurity and lack of safety and a lot of neglect. So as I’ve gotten older, I’ve sort of re-made the relationships with the people in my family that I want have relationships with, and now I’m very close with my brothers. And so it’s been hard not seeing them. And with my friendships, we do FaceTime, we do text, so that is not something that I feel insecure about. But with the kids — I have nieces and nephews —that connection is not as easily sustained by a FaceTime call, you do need to put that time in.
RG: And yet.
DM: Yeah. I mean I do. We do…
RG: She FaceTimes with the kids for almost like an hour at a time, and the kids are wonderful, but they’ll do kid things.
DM: Right and I just witness it but that’s fine, cause that’s what we need to do. I just watch them.
RG: And she loves it. She’ll just watch them being kids arguing with each other and sort of, what are you doing? Oh, I’m going to get this thing. And they’ll take us on the little journey through the house, and she’s like, so pleased and just so charmed, and I find it sweet, but she finds it like compelling.
DM: It’s true. I’m witnessing their journeys and their…
BB: Their everyday life. Yeah.
DM: Yeah. And that “TV and stuff” is what I think you need with children. With friendships, it’s easier, you have this foundation and this intellectual camaraderie. With kids, it’s completely different.
BB: It is the every day.
RG: You’ve done a great job though.
DM: Yeah, I was doing art lessons with them for a while until they just were fighting the entire time.
RG: Oh yeah. And when we taught them how to make a comic.
DM: Yeah, we did some…
RG: We did a little school over the summer with them. It was cute.
BB: I love that.
DM: But now, it’s really just… We have this time now every week where we FaceTime, and it’s just a matter of essentially witnessing them argue.
BB: But that’s, you know, in real life with my kids that’s what they do.
DM: That’s what they do.
RG: It is. And when we go back to New York, we go back and forth every two to or three months. And so in New York, we do get to go see her brothers and the kids and that’s great because in-person is indeed more satisfying than FaceTime. And we actually have had some good times, especially with the kids, because they’re just so energetic and the adults are all, we’re like, the world is ending. And the kids, they’re like, I want a balloon.
BB: It’s perspective, right? It’s nice.
RG: It’s nice. It is.
DM: Brené, can I ask you a question?
DM: I’m really intrigued by something that you said about making art. What art are you thinking of making?
BB: I file writing and researching and coding, I file that under Art making. I just consider myself a maker, like I’m a maker. And so something bad happens inside me if I’m pulled away from that for too long, and the emotion that I have to watch and have had to since the beginning, my whole life was this is my therapy work is resentment. I can get very resentful very quickly, if I’m separated from the time I need to do what fills me up, which is my work. It’s hard.
I want to get to our rapid fire, and we’re going to do both of you all one at a time. Before we do this, I want to stop and highlight two things that are going on for you all, we’ll start with Debbie. 16th anniversary of your podcast, Design Matters.
DM: Yes. It’s surreal.
BB: I have such profound respect for the tenacity and commitment that you have shown in this podcasting space. This is not an easy job and it’s so sublime what you’ve done.
DM: Thank you, Brené. Thank you.
BB: Do you still love it?
DM: Yes, I do. I absolutely love it. And it’s, in many ways, the greatest unexpected professional gift that I’ve ever had. I started it quite by accident, 16 years ago as a Hail Mary to reconnect with making things, cause at that point, I had given up almost all of the creative endeavors I had to build a business. And I’m glad I did that in a lot of ways because it helped me set up the rest of my life. It was the first time that… Back then in my career, the first time I had ever been successful at anything, and so I just devoted all of my time to it. Eight, nine years later, I felt like I was… That my creative soul had died, and when I got this opportunity to do this internet radio show, I thought, “Oh, I can make something. This is a way of making something again.” And that’s the only reason I started it.
DM: Over the years, it’s developed and changed. It started out as a show of designers talking about design, very inside baseball, interesting to maybe a very small handful of other designers. And over the years, as I’ve grown, what I have come to realize that the thing that fascinates me most is how creative people are creative. How do you build a creative life? How do you overcome obstacles to be creative? How do you express yourself with the sort of most authenticity and artistry? And so that is something I’m mostly fascinated with. I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of trying to uncover what it means to be a creative person from another person’s perspective.
BB: God, you are the gold standard when it comes to… You’re the gold standard when it comes to peeling the layers in those conversations about that process.
DM: Thank you. It’s something that I’ve learned. It’s not anything that I was born with. I keep my early episodes up for people to realize that it took time for me to get good at something I think I’m good now. I always am learning more, but the idea that I get to talk to people about the most magical thing that I think exists — making something out of nothing. That to me is a holy grail. And to understand that from another person’s perspective is, as far as I’m concerned, there’s really nothing more holy than that.
BB: I have to say that you are a masterful steward of that grail.
DM: Thank you.
BB: You are a steward of those conversations, so thank you for that. I mean, it’s…
DM: My honor.
BB: Happy anniversary.
DM: Thank you, thank you. Yeah. [laughter]
BB: Roxane, you have a new work that’s coming out, a short story, February 12th on Scribd — Writing into the Wound: Understanding trauma, truth, and language.
DM: Yes. How’s that for a title?
BB: Yeah, I mean let me say it again, because it’s… I have to say Writing into the Wound, Understanding trauma, truth, and language. I have such a problem with your work. And it’s only you and one other really weird unconnected writer that I have this problem with. I gulp your work. I need to consume it faster than I can read it. Have you ever had that experience? And you have to go back…
RG: Oh, yeah.
BB: You have to go back and take a line again. This was like a fire hose of this short story. I think it’s still too early for me to talk about it. Like tell me about the short story.
RG: It’s a chapter of my forthcoming book.
RG: And an essay that sort of stands alone. About writing trauma, because I recently taught a class, a writing workshop — I’m Writing Trauma. And it really got me to thinking about, “How do we do this?” And I don’t know that I answered the question in the essay, but there was a lot for me to think through. So I was thinking through teaching this class at Yale, which I attended as an undergrad and sort of ran away from just before my junior year, and to be invited back as a professor was really overwhelming. And so I am exploring that and this class and the experience of having Hunger in the world, and a lot of the trauma of publishing that book, and then the collective trauma we’re all dealing with under… Well, after Donald Trump’s presidency.
RG: And the state of the world. So it’s really a long meditation on how do we talk about trauma.
BB: It captures so beautifully is really I honestly say this. You, in a very singular way, can do it.
RG: Yeah, thank you.
BB: Yeah, I’m a shame researcher. And I have watched people read my work or listen to something I say, and then stand at an open mic night or write something, and I just kept going back to this line and this… I call it a short story, we’ll call it an essay. Is that better, an essay?
RG: Yeah. Either one is fine. [laughter]
BB: When you’re talking about Hunger, writing trauma, which we all know, there’s a lot of evidence-based theory around how writing trauma really helps heal trauma. But you make the distinction that writing trauma and publishing trauma are two different things altogether.
RG: Oh, for sure. I was not prepared for what it was going to be like to write a book like Hunger, which was challenging. And then have to deal with people engaging with that book. And readers, for the most part, have been wonderful, and the readers that haven’t been wonderful have their own issues, and it’s fine. But to see journalists not know how to talk about fatness, not know how to treat me with dignity. That was something I didn’t expect to the extent that it happened.
BB: Yeah, and I would say the stories that you tell in the essay felt, for me, re-traumatizing and abusive.
RG: They weren’t great, especially because it was such a big moment.
RG: And the amount of attention the book got early on was awesome like as a writer, that’s the dream to go on The Daily Show, which was the one wonderful experience. Trevor Noah is exactly as amazing as he seems. For some of the other experiences? Oh man, it was rough. It was really rough.
DM: You know, Brené, as a witness to Roxane’s life, I see a lot of what she’s thrown for people. And it is bewildering, baffling that people sort of treat her the way that they do, the way they speak to her, the way that they insult her. And it’s really terrifying to think that people feel the need to attack others for whoever that other is, and I’ve never seen anything like it. And it breaks my heart every day to witness this. It’s not fair.
BB: No, it’s not. And then to navigate the polarity of the tension of that experience and the fact that I don’t know a single person in my life that didn’t read Hunger and said… That changed me.
RG: Yeah, you know it was one of those books that resonated with a larger range of people than I could have imagined. I thought, “Oh, fat people might see something useful here or they’ll hate it,” but all kinds of people in all kinds of bodies have talked to me about what the book has done for them. And that’s the thing, you have these great highs and then someone asks you a terrible question or talks about you in a terrible way. And they should know better because, again, it’s not the people who engage with the book and the cruelty, it’s the professional cruelty. Like, you should be better. And well, it is what it is.
DM: Yeah. I mean, it’s interesting to…
BB: You should be better.
RG: Yeah. They should be better. And I’m excited to be including this chapter in my new book. My publisher hasn’t seen it yet. I’m sure they’re going to have some thoughts, but you know, I’m at a place in my career where if you want to not interview me, because I’m willing to stand up for myself and say I deserve better? That’s fine. I’ll interview myself. My wife will interview me.
BB: I will interview you.
RG: It’s okay. Oh thank you.
BB: Yeah, and I just have to say that when this short story is coming out, and you can link to it from our episode page, it comes out again, what’s the date? The drop date for the essay is February 12?
RG: February 12.
BB: On Scribd
RG: On Scribd.
BB: And we’ll link to it. We’ll also link to Debbie’s podcast. Y’all ready for rapid fire?
RG: Hell yeah.
BB: Okay, who wants to go first?
BB: Yes, we’re just going to go Round Robin, I’m going to ask a question, Debbie you answer it and then Roxane, you answer the same question. Fill in the blank. Vulnerability is?
BB: Two, you’re called to be really courageous, but you’re afraid. You can feel the fear in your throat. What’s the very first thing you do?
DM: Move, walk into it.
RG: Run from it.
BB: Okay. What, Debbie, is something that people often get wrong about you?
DM: How… Shy and insecure I am.
BB: Roxane, what do people often get wrong about you?
RG: People often think I’m not kind because I stand up for myself on Twitter, and I can be prickly on Twitter because I deal with a lot of bullshit on Twitter, but I’m actually really nice. So, that’s the thing people get wrong about me the most.
DM: Super nice. Very nice, soft and delicious.
BB: Okay. Debbie, last TV show you binged and loved?
DM: What is woman.
RG: Designated Survivor.
DM: No. We didn’t love that. The one that we loved…
RG: I May Destroy You
DM: I May Destroy You. Incredible. The most incredible show.
BB: An amazing show.
DM: Show of the year. We loved it.
BB: What about you, Roxane? Y’all can’t give me a married couple answer.
RG: Oh no. The Queen. I’m in the middle of it but I’ve been binging it,. Debbie doesn’t watch period pieces.
BB: Oh, got it.
RG: So I have to watch it alone.
DM: But also we loved P-Valley.
RG: Oh yeah. P-Valley was amazing.
RG: On Starz.
RG: That was a married couple show.
BB: One of your very favorite movies?
DM: As Good as It Gets.
RG: Pretty Woman.
BB: Okay, a concert, Debbie, that you’ll never forget.
DM: My very first concert — my father took me to see Olivia Newton-John and Saratoga.
DM: I was 12 or 13.
BB: Perfect. Okay, Roxane.
RG: Beyoncé. Formation tour, front row.
BB: Oh, lord.
RG: It happened.
BB: Damn. Okay, Debbie — favorite meal?
DM: Fried chicken.
RG: Oh steak.
BB: What’s your cut?
BB: Mine too.
DM: Bone in.
BB: Bone in.
DM: Bone in roast.
RG: Medium rare with a Caesar salad.
BB: Damn are you sure you’re not from Texas? Okay, Debbie.
RG: I’m from Nebraska.
BB: Oh yeah, yeah you have a cow or two. Okay. What’s on your nightstand, Debbie?
DM: Tissues, a glass of lemonade usually, earplugs, eye mask, mouth guard, Breathe Right.
RG: Super sexy.
BB: Sounds super familiar. I don’t know how sexy it is, but man, it’s painfully familiar.
DM: Socks in case my feet get cold.
BB: I love it. Roxane tell us about your sexy nightstand.
RG: My sexy nightstand has a charging pad and books.
BB: Books, books like a leaning tower of Pisa kind of situation? Like too many books?
RG: No, it’s about eight books.
BB: Oh that’s a lot. Okay.
DM: Now mine has a charger also, but I use it as a coaster for my lemonade.
RG: Yes. I bought her a wireless charger and I was so excited cause she just has to set her phone on it and charge. And she uses it as a coaster. She has never used it as a charger.
DM: Because I have a little pocket on my phone for my credit cards and it doesn’t work unless that’s not on it. So I don’t want to take it off cause I did that once and then I couldn’t get it back.
BB: Multi-use. I see, okay, Debbie, a snapshot of an ordinary moment in your life that gives you joy?
DM: Sitting on the sofa with Roxane, watching the news, looking at Max laying on her, playing with a piece of paper or one of his bones that he likes to eat while he’s on her.
RG: Oh yeah. It’s really ordinary, but I tend to go to bed a little later than Debbie, and so when I get in bed and she’s got like all her [1:19:44.6] gear on? It’s really cute and I’ve never seen such a small person take up so much of the bed. And every time I see it, it just makes me laugh. I’m just like, I’m the big one. I’m six three. Where would you like me to be on this king-sized bed? And she’s like just totally knocked out, her little eye mask on. It’s just hilarious.
DM: Sorry, it’s true.
BB: Okay, one thing that you’re really grateful for right now, Debbie.
DM: This woman sitting next to me. I am grateful. I am still in awe that we are together, every day. It’s a gift every day. It’s a surprise. Every day we belly laugh together.
DM: I am grateful. I am so grateful.
BB: Beautiful. Roxane?
RG: I am grateful definitely for Debbie and the unexpected joy of a full-time fully engaged partner, and the way she… Like, my parents basically moved here with us so we could share a bubble. And she’s been so gracious about it and so kind to my parents. And you know it goes both ways, but to see someone understand Haitian family dynamics and the sort of over-closeness and to just be super chill about it. I’m just so grateful for it.
DM: Well, her parents are actually really awesome and they’re really funny people, and it’s nice to get a sense of what a real family is. I never really had that. We sit down to dinner every night, I just never had that, so being part of a family, like a traditional real family is…
BB: It’s beautiful.
DM: Sort of mind blowing.
RG: Yeah, it’s great. They just went back to the East Coast, cause my mom had to see her doctors. She has cancer. She’s okay-ish. And we were like.
DM: Our friends are gone.
RG: We’re being like, “When are you coming back?”
DM: Yeah. Max is scared, he misses them. He’s like looking at the door and waiting for them to come back.
BB: There’s nothing better than seeing someone you love, love your people.
RG: Yes, it’s been… Haitian parents are a lot, and not everyone can deal with it, but Debbie, one of the many virtues of where she is in her life? She has nothing to prove to anyone and she’s very sure of herself. I mean, she has her insecurities since…
DM: Only with my opinions.
RG: She has no problem standing, not up to but standing toe to toe to with my mom and respectfully and having great conversations, and it’s just awesome.
BB: It’s just… It’s beautiful to me, and I bet that really endears her to your parents.
RG: Oh, they love her. They have loved her since day one because she’s literally the first person I’ve been with that they know that they met, that they respect, that they don’t have to worry about her taking advantage of me because she has her own success, and they also just like her. They have stayed at her house with her. And I was here in LA.
BB: I love that.
DM: It’s great. And then I get lots of good, juicy information about your childhood.
BB: That’s the only time to get the good tea right there.
DM: Yeah. Exactly, exactly. I have my motives.
BB: Okay yeah. Both gave us five songs she can’t live without… I’m going to go Debbie first. “Landslide” by Stevie Nicks. “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” by Radiohead. “Two Grey Rooms” by Joni Mitchell. “Love” by Kendrick Lamar and “Holiday” by Madonna. In one sentence, what does this mini mixtape say about you?
DM: It shows that I got some really good musical taste, that I have range, and that I have a soft heart.
BB: That’s true. Okay, Roxane. Now, as a Dr. Roxane Gay English professor, do not give me a complex sentence with 14 semicolons. I know you’re capable of doing it, but in one sentence…
RG: Oh I won’t.
BB: In one sentence. “This Woman’s Work” by Kate Bush and a cover by Maxwell. “Salt Shaker” by the Ying Yang Twins. “Little Plastic Castles” by Ani DiFranco. “Nothing Even Matters” by Lauren Hill and “Sound & Color” by Alabama Shakes. One sentence — what does this mini mixtape say about you?
RG: I’m an incurable romantic.
DM: That’s why she is who she is, Brené, right there. There you have it.
DM: There it is. Alright, thank y’all so much for your time.
RG: You’re welcome.
DM: Oh, Brené.
BB: It was a beautiful conversation, and it feels so generous of y’all to let us see you and get to know you because we admire your work, both of you, but to get to see and know you is just a real honor. A real treat.
RG: Well, thank you for having us. This was great.
DM: Thank you, Brené. I… You know how I feel about you, so thank you. Thank you.
BB: Just beautiful.
BB: Oh, I loved this conversation. I mean, come on, who gets to talk to people like this about what they love, how they love each other. Dinner parties, which you can just count on me, I’m going to be bartending and waiting tables. I can guarantee I’m going to force my way into at least a dinner party, hosted by Roxane and Debbie. Such a fun job that I wouldn’t have without y’all. So thank you. If you want to follow Debbie on social media, she’s @DebbieMillman, D-E-B-B-I-E M-I-L-L-M-A-N on Twitter and Instagram. Her website is, www.debbiemillman.com. Roxane is ‘rgay’ on Twitter. And on Instagram, she’s @roxanegay74 and Roxane’s got one X. Her website is www.roxanegay.com.
Just a reminder that every episode of Unlocking Us has an episode page on brenebrown.com. They’re easy to find, you can check them all out. You can listen to the episodes from the pages, and you can find all the links and notes from our episodes there.
BB: We also have a content section where you can get resources, downloads, and guides. Transcripts come about five days after the podcasts are released and you can find them on the same page. You can also sign up for our newsletter. We are officially and wholly on Spotify, and so this is the only place you can join me and the Unlocking Us community. You can find it at the Brené Brown hub on Spotify with all the episodes, my picks of some favorite episodes, playlist, everything in one spot. This week on the Dare to Lead podcast, I talked with Aiko Bethea. It’s part of a two-part conversation with Aiko on inclusivity at work, about transformational change, why transformational change is always relational and never transactional. This is the realest, most practical masterclass on coaching and how to teach and think. It’s an incredible conversation. Aiko is a friend, she’s a colleague and she’s also an absolute expert on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.
BB: And I love it because we get to build on the foundations of our first conversation where intentionally we were going to talk about an article that took my breath away that she wrote on Medium, but we never got to it, because she was too busy teaching me other things. So this is the two parter. I can’t wait for you to listen to it. It is how we take what we want to do, what we believe in our hearts, and make it actionable, make ourselves accountable. It’s a master class. Dare to Lead, also exclusively on Spotify.
Alright, thank you so much, I mean, just what a pleasure to talk to these teachers and these amazing people. And what a gift to have you as part of this community. Stay awkward, brave, and kind. And I’ll see you all next week right here on Spotify.
Unlocking Us is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown, and produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, and by Weird Lucy Productions and by Cadence 13. The sound design is by Kristen Acevedo, and music is by Carrie Rodriguez and Gina Chavez.[music]
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