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ELNA BAKER is a Mormon stand-up comedian and writer. She has performed in many of New York City’s hottest venues, including Caroline’s and the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theatre, as well as on NPR’s This American Life, and received grants for her work from Yaddo and Breadloaf. Baker lives in New York City.
You always wanted to be a writer growing up—did you ever imagine that your first book would be a memoir, and in particular a memoir about your experiences as a Mormon and your struggle with your weight? You mention at the end of the book that you found the time to write at Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, but what gave you the impetus to write this book? Was it your breakup with Hayes, or with Matt, or at the behest of your friends on the storytelling/comedy scene?
Not in a million years did I imagine I’d write a memoir. As a kid I definitely dreamed of being a writer, but unlike acting, the medium seemed inaccessible. Only there was this other thing that I did naturally: I told stories. During and after college, my mentor, Elizabeth Swados, pushed me to start telling these stories on stage. I would bullet point the material for each show, but I never sat down and actually wrote anything out. My first writing opportunity came through ELLE magazine. After performing in a spoken-word Moth event for ELLE I got the opportunity to write a feature about how I was getting plastic surgery. This article sparked interest from publishers in both teen and Christian fiction—only that’s not what I wanted to do, I always envisioned writing a more mainstream book. So instead, I went to Yaddo and started writing the stories that’s always come so naturally—the result was the first 80 pages of my book.
After a string of jobs loosely related to acting, you’re no longer pursuing acting, but writing. This change in your ambition(s) isn’t really covered in the memoir—how do you feel about changing careers? Describe, too, your writing for fashion magazines and your writing for the comedy stage—does it satisfy? Do you see it as a step towards something else?
Professionally, I don’t know what I am (all I know is that I’m having an identity crisis as I try answering this). I love to write, I love comedy and I still love acting. At first I worried that writing was going to distract me from acting. Instead I feel like it has taught me to how to be a better actor. For example: in acting school they talked a lot about understanding the intentions of the characters we were portraying. I didn’t get this concept until I was working on my book and I got to see how much my own intentions drove my life. It was a weird experience. I felt like I was seeing myself from above, as though I were God watching a character make choices and mistakes—unable to intervene or change the past. This was an enlightening experience on many levels. Now when I perform (whether it’s my own comedy or whether I’m playing a character) I approach the role from the writer’s perspective and I try to uncover the intention behind each decision the character makes.
You also create comics, which deal with many of the same subjects as your memoir. How does this part of your creative life fit with the storytelling and comedy and work as a published author? What does it allow you to do that the other art forms do not?
I’m not an exceptional artist or anything (in fact, you’ll notice the character I draw only faces out—this is not an artistic choice, I just can’t draw profile!) but for me comics provide a way of saying things visually that I cannot otherwise express. When I feel blocked I like to draw. It helps me find the basic truth I’m looking for and the best part is that for whatever reason I don’t take myself as seriously when I draw. This allows me to really open up and get goofy. I also love how comics can instantly communicate an idea—what would otherwise take three chapters can be nailed in one image if you get the drawing right. On that note, maybe I should take a drawing class? Knowing how to draw profile may very well expand my entire world.
What are you focusing on right now? What will we see from you in the very near future?
Right now I’m developing a television show that I hope to write and perform in. The show picks up where the book left off. I don’t want to give anything away, but after I finished writing the book I decided to take a break from being Mormon, like how the Amish have Rumspringa—but my own made up version since the only “break” allowed when you’re a Mormon is the KitKat kind. My current writing reflects this period of my life and whether it ends up being a TV series or whether I write another book—this is what I hope to explore creatively.
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