Peter McGraw is joined by guest co-host Christina Campbell to talk to Emma John, the author of Self-Contained: Scenes from a Single Life. They discuss Emma’s new memoir and explore her comfort of being single and her discomfort talking about being single.
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I’m joined by guest co-host, Christina Campbell and we talked to Emma John, the author of Self-Contained: Scenes from a Single Life. It’s a fun conversation in which we explore Emma’s comfort being single and her discomfort talking about being single. In particular, we address how she deals with well-meaning but annoying people who feel comfortable asking about her singlehood. As always, please rate and review the show and be sure to sign up at PeterMcGraw.org for the Solo Newsletter. It comes out once every two weeks. I will not be spamming you. I hope you enjoy the episode. Let’s get started.
Our guest is Emma John. Emma is an award-winning Author, Journalist and Podcast Presenter. Her book, Wayfaring Stranger: A Musical Journey in the American South was named one of Newsweek’s Travel Books of the Decade. Her debut, Following On: A Memoir of Teenage Obsession and Terrible Cricket was named Wisdom Book of the Year and was the first woman to win a sports journalism award in the UK. She’s also known for her writing on music, theater, film, books and travel. We are here to talk about her book, Self-Contained: Scenes from a Single Life.
Thanks very much.
I’m thrilled to have you here. We have a special return guest co-host, Christina Diane Campbell. Christina cofounded the singles advocacy blog, Onely.org, with Lisa Arnold. Christina has written about marital status discrimination for Atlantic.com and PsychologyToday.com. Her extended essay, Sarah His Wife, about mental health, misogyny and colonial America won the Michigan Writers Cooperative Press Chapbook Contest. She lives in Northern Virginia with her infrared sauna and two semi-geriatric cats. She is a frequent contributor to Solo as a guest or guest co-host. Welcome back, Christina.
Thanks for having me back.
Let’s kick this off, Emma. Why did you write this book? How did you get here without taking the entire show answering that question?
I don’t think I’ve even asked myself that question yet. I certainly know that I didn’t mean to write about myself in the book originally. I probably couldn’t have anything worse or less likely to get me going as a writer than writing about being single. It’s not that I’ve ever been embarrassed about being single but I think I’ve been embarrassed about talking about it, which I think are two different things. I wanted to write another book. I enjoy writing books. My day job has been as a journalist for all of my career. I do a lot of writing about other people.
It so happens that my previous two books, even though they were about things other than myself, they became quite personal. They were about two of my great big obsessions. I’m obsessed with cricket, which is a wonderful sport. If you haven’t watched cricket, watch cricket. I’ve been obsessed with that. I fell in love with it when I was a teenager. I wanted to write about cricket because that is where I’ve spent a lot of my life following and writing about as a journalist.
I went off to North Carolina for eighteen months and I learned how to play bluegrass fiddle. I was a classically trained violinist. I fell in love with bluegrass with the same heart-thudding crash as I had was with cricket but this happened much later in life. I was like, “I want to write about this.” It was a book about bluegrass and about discovering this new wealth. The more I wrote, the more of me came into my writing essentially. I had reached this point where I found my voice as a writer. I was a columnist as well in the Guardian Newspaper. There was more and more of me coming out the more I wrote. I had been thinking about my own singleness in a way that I hadn’t before because I’d had a big birthday. I’d been turning 40 this 2021.
My sister was having a second kid and she’s a younger sister. I was starting to feel the difference. For a lot of my life, I’ve been a very outward-looking, gregarious person. I’ve had this wonderful journalism career where I meet lots of different people. Being single has never been something that I got anxious about because I assumed it was a temporary state and I wasn’t afraid that I might be different in some way. It didn’t define me perhaps in the same way that I felt like being a journalist to find me.
That was a big part of my identity or even big a violin player or whatever it was. Any of these things that I thought of being me. Being single didn’t come up on that scale but I was turning 40. My sister was having her second child. I knew that I wasn’t going to have children now and that didn’t mean that I didn’t want a partner, perhaps. I basically started thinking, “What if it doesn’t happen?” It was the first time I’d grappled with that idea for myself. I’ve allowed myself to think that way.
I’m about to turn 40, have no boyfriend and can’t be sure of one any time soon. I haven’t been on a date in three years. I’m tired of Tinder and bored of Bumble. I’ve been rejected by eHarmony, who last time I logged on told me, “It couldn’t find me a single match.”
I don’t know if that’s something to boast about or not. I suspect not.
As you go on, as you live a more remarkable life, sometimes it becomes harder to find that perfect match, which is what eHarmony allegedly is trying to do for you.
Emma, the whole book for me was very validating. What struck me, though, was there were a couple of incidences where, as a single person, you’re very aware of your single status in the context of how you displayed some of your emotions. There were a couple of instances in the book but I’ll give you one example, your younger sister’s wedding. You’ve mentioned your younger sister a couple of times already. You’re at the wedding and you’re noticing a lot of people are coming up to you and like, “You look great, etc.” You thought they were being a little bit too supportive and you were looking at their support in the framework of, “Are they seeing me as an older unmarried sister?”
A couple of times through the book at your sister’s wedding and a couple of other times, you’re very aware of how people view you as a single person. Wondering if you should structure your emotions accordingly or if they are applying some narrative to you that doesn’t necessarily exist. That I found so relatable. I want to give another example because this was important to me, tearing up at a christening. You were at someone’s christening. I can’t remember who’s it was.
It was a friend’s child.
Emma, can you talk a little about the tearing up at the christening and what was going through your head because it was so interesting?
I have a condition, which is basically there is something about certain church services and baptisms are the main one that absolutely gets me and it is nothing to do with kids. It happens at weddings too but there’s something about the baptism service because it has to do with belonging and inviting this new little person into a family and that’s what all the languages are about. In this English liturgy, I think they say something like, “We welcome you into the Lord’s family. We are members together of the body of Christ” or something like that.
It’s to do with belonging, community and family. It always gets me. It’s like I have some physical reaction to it and my tear ducts open. I was at this friend’s child’s christening. I knew it was going to happen. I was desperately trying to blot away the tears before they either smudge my mascara, get noticed or ran down outside my glasses. As long as you get them before they get outside your glasses, nobody can see, you’re safe. You have to wedge your tissue up there but you have to do it very discreetly so nobody sees you’re holding a tissue.
This is my emergency response to when I cry at a church service. The reason I don’t want anybody to see me crying is that I know for a fact that they will think I’m crying because I don’t have children. They are going to see their one unmarried, childless friend, it’s the same reason I hate crying at weddings and yet I cannot help it because I’m so happy and it’s so emotional. I hate crying at weddings because I think I looked like the friend who didn’t get married, regretting her single state, feeling lonely and vulnerable and all of these things and who knows? I have never done deep therapy work on myself.
There may well be things going deep under the surface that I am refusing to engage with. It’s not my bag but I know in the moment, I know why I’m crying and it’s not the reason they think I’m crying. I think as well because I’ve always been a storyteller and somebody who loves reading. I have absorbed all of these narratives whether it’s through fiction, literature, TV and film. That’s how I know what people are thinking because, in the same way, it’s what I’ve been told to think. It’s what everybody has been told to think. If you’re unmarried, unpartnered, whatever, basically alone and single as a woman at a certain age, whatever that certain age may be.
It has changed over the generations but there is this pity and assumption that you must be a bit sad about that. There aren’t plenty of people who are sad about that. It’s not that there aren’t times in any single person’s life when they’re not sad about that. That becomes the one lens through which it’s seen and the one narrative people think they know to apply to your situation. I feel like I have spent a lot of time and energy trying to preemptively combat that narrative.
I feel like I have so many conversations with people where I’m almost proving that I have a happy life. I have to prove that my single life is cool, fun and way more interesting than theirs or whatever it is. That’s something I’ve dumped on thinkingly because I think that’s what society has brought us all up to do. That’s what we’re socially conditioned for.
Can I tell you a story about why these moments where you’re modulating your emotions resonated with me so much? I was giving a reading at the wedding. When I was giving the reading, I had a lot of stuff going on at that time in my life. I was emotional and excited that these two friends of mine were getting married. I was reading a poem. In the middle of the poem, I started to cry as I was reading the poem. I had a little bit of your condition going on there at that time. They were videotaping it so they got me starting to tear up and weep in the middle of this poem.
Afterward, people talked about, “It was so authentic and lovely. You got so emotional,” because I was so embarrassed. One person asked me why I had been crying. I was like, “I don’t know. I was emotional.” He said, “Maybe it’s because you’re sad that the groom is taken now.” It’s the first thing that jumped into this person’s head. I didn’t even know what to say. It was like what Emma was saying. I can’t remember if it was a he or she who said this but he had no other narrative in his head as to what might be making me emotional while I read the poem.
I hope that they didn’t say that in public or in front of other people.
There were other people around for sure. I had no history with this groom other than he was engaged to this friend of mine. There was absolutely no reason why that should be the reason I was crying but that was the first idea that popped into this person’s head when we were having a discussion about my crying during the reading. It’s very strange and yet not strange at all, as you know.
This is a topic that comes up often on the show, which is, as a single person whether it be single by chance or single by choice, I like this idea of people have this narrative, this story that’s reflected in, “Thank you, Jane Austen,” all the way up through televisions, movies, songs, music, especially. If you remove love and romance from the world, you will wipe out half the music at least. People have this thing. They place this on you. They have a value system which is married as good and single as less good.
You find yourself sometimes in a defensive position to use a sports metaphor for a moment. You have a question to decide, which is like, “Do I want to be defensive or go on the offense in this situation?” This is actually for both of you. How do you end up dealing with this stuff? I do think that most of the time it comes from a place of love, caring, empathy and sympathy. Occasionally, someone might be trying to cut you down because they’re a bad person but generally, I think it comes from a place of they’re trying to help the feeling. I’m curious, besides how you feel about it, how do you outwardly behave in those situations?
My instinct is always to make myself the fool guy. It totally informs my writing as well. I remember the first book that I wrote, a friend of mine who was a very good columnist in the UK reading it ahead of time for me to give me a little bit of advice. She said, “Do you know what, Emma, sometimes you’ve got to not tell jokes against yourself. Sometimes you got to give yourself a break because you can’t always be the butt of your own jokes,” but that is something that is absolutely a massive part of my character. That’s genuinely the way that I think I’ve fended off anything that might make me feel insecure and defensive.
I’m not a confrontational person so I can’t do the offensive thing, which a good friend of mine Alex, does do. She’s good at it. She’s got answers to all those questions that she gets asked about, “Do you have another half?” She’ll be very quick to say, “I’m a completely whole person. Why do you feel you need another half?” I’m not that bold. I tend to shrug my shoulders and do the whole, “I still haven’t found anybody who can put up with me” kind of thing. It doesn’t mean absolutely no famous but I can’t help it. It’s instinct.
As women, aren’t we socialized to do that and not to push back? I feel like I am similar in that. I’m more likely to make it a joke about myself or take it than push back with something witty and quick. It’s partially because as women, we’re socialized not to rock that particular boat or not to rock a lot of boats but especially not the boat about marriage and children, not to get too much of an attitude about it. We’re often put on the defensive especially as women, we’re not allowed to be too much on the defensive. Hence, our tendency to make it into a little joke.
If I made a deal out of it and did have an attitude about it then I feel like I am becoming much more of the stereotype of the spinster that has been written about through history. I’ve been doing a lot of literary reading around spinsters. Henry James writes a lot about spinsters. Dickens has quite a few. A lot of these kinds of great 19th Century novelists. They’re either pitiable and have nothing going for them. That’s why they’re spinsters is a real shame. What can you do? They were never going to attract a guy. They’re a bit too weak, timid and whatever.
Those ones you can ignore because they’re not important. The other stereotype of the spinster in literature is the absolute cold and hard-nosed. She hates men for a start. There’s a whole Victorian thing about repressed sexuality going on there. She does not like men and wants to make other people unhappy along the way. A lot of my “let’s make light of it” is a desperate need to not live up to, “What you’re going to do about it and get in people’s faces?” I don’t want to be a Miss Murdstone from David Copperfield or whatever the equivalent is, the one from the Bostonians who does loads of good works but has no real soul.
I asked this question without an answer. Your own personal style should take precedent but I don’t even feel like at this point I have good advice. I don’t have a good prescription for people except to recognize and accept to say them with regard to their own internal dialogue. This is another group of people well-meaning generally placing their values on you, which I think are in many ways outdated, out of touch the assumptions that you would be happier, partnered, that your life would be better off. That’s what you want and haven’t been able to succeed is false for many people. At the very least, it’s much more complicated than that, even if it is something that you are seeking.
With me with this show, it’s about feeling comfortable and so okay that you can be self-deprecating. These are glancing blows. You’re like Neo in The Matrix dodging bullets. It’s easy to do and you don’t even think anything else about it in part because you’re on a higher plane understanding but you see The Matrix. You see the world for what it is. These are people who are computer programs executing what the world has told them to believe in value. You can handle it however you want because it almost doesn’t matter.
That’s interesting because I think that is very much how I felt in my 30s. I feel like I peaked in my 30s. I had a great time. I had spent most of my twenties feeling like “I’ve got to get on,” the way that you do when you’re young, “I’ve got to achieve, make my mark, get my foot on the ladder.” I was quite often anxious about work and pushed myself. I was very achievement-oriented. I don’t know whether this is biological, psychological, spiritual or a big old Miss Mashables 3 but in the early 30s, I quit worrying so much.
I know quite a few of my friends found the same thing, which is what makes me think that there’s something to do with biology in that. I stopped worrying quite so much. I was a lot happier with myself. I was like, “I’m sorted here now. This is all fine.” I think exactly what you described, Peter. It almost used to take me by surprise when people asked about my relationships, even good friends. It surprised me because my own thoughts were so not on that. It did happen a lot but every time it happened, I would be like, “Why are they asking me about that? What a strange thing to ask me about?” I’m traveling to all these interesting places or I’m moving into a new place.
I’ve won a sports journalism award. I published my second book. I get it. You’re missing the big, badass plot line in my life with this question.
There were relationships that I wanted to. I probably bored people senseless. I must have bored my good friends senseless. I got this job where I had this amazing boss. I love working with this boss. I thought we were making incredible content for our publication. We got a couple of new staff who were incredible. They were these young, bright bucks. They were geniuses but they didn’t even know it yet. I would have happily bored the pants-off people talking about these three people that I worked with.
I want to tell people about them, big them up, say what we were working on at the moment and why I was excited about it. It’s the same thing as being somebody wanting to talk about their partner all the time because that’s who they spend most of their time with, whatever it is or because that’s the relationship that matters to them. I had those relationships. I was not afraid to talk about them. Talking about the whole narrative thing, I did sometimes catch myself thinking, does everyone think I’m weird? I do worry about that especially if you have good friendships. If you’re heterosexual and you have good friendships with people of the opposite sex, I do as a naturally enthusiastic extroverted, gregarious person who loves to talk, I do worry that people put other inflections on what I’m talking about.
If I’ve got a new friend and I want to talk about them, somehow it’s like, “It’s okay if it’s a girl because they know that I’m heterosexual.” They’re not thinking about that but if I want to talk about a new colleague or friend or boss or whatever, who’s male. I have to put a limit on this. I have to be careful about how I talk about this. Talk about being defensive. Otherwise, I’m going to have to do a lot of putting out people’s assumptions, expectations and whatever it is that is going on in their heads. I’ve been aware of that for quite a while. You can’t be quite as free in how you talk about other relationships.
Do I remember correctly from the book that I think your mom was one of the people who may have spun some stories that you told about some of your male friends? I think I remember one particular moment in the book when you talk about Neil. She’s like, “This Neil, is he nice?”
It has changed a lot. She gets it now but yes.
It helps to publish a book about this.
My parents have since said, “We feel like we know you a lot better.” It turns out if you’re British and you don’t talk to your family about stuff, what you need to do is to write a memoir. That’s the way to communicate. She absolutely did do that. She mentioned the new guy’s name, “Who’s that? They sound interesting.” It’s out of pure hopefulness, love and wanting these things for you. It’s not that I didn’t want them for myself. As I think I said in the book, I got to the point where when I was talking about what I was doing with my life, I would mentally edit out the guys who had been there and I would make sure that when I was talking about something I did. I mentioned the girls’ names so that we didn’t have any of that confusion.
Can I ask both of you a question? Do you want to change how you feel in those situations? I can understand that that feeling a little bit of defensiveness and how do I manage this interaction? How do I smooth it and so on? I don’t have a prescription but I think the closest I can come to it is the idea of “you’re unaffected.” Is there a way to get to a point where this is like talking about the weather? You don’t care about the outcome of that particular exchange. I’m asking this for readers because these are people who are looking to you like folks who have very thoughtfully about your solo life.
I’ll let you go first, Christina. Have you got a thought on that?
I don’t think I personally am going to be able to get to a place where I’m neutral in those conversations. I think I’m in a place now where if the person words the micro-aggression in the appropriate way that I already have a canned response to it. If they say, “Why aren’t you married?” My canned response might be well, “I don’t know. Why are you married?” or, “Marriage would interfere with my plans for world domination.” I have a couple of canned responses to specifically worded questions.
I think when I deliver those, I can deliver them with a smile. You have to put the smile on to make it a joke so you don’t come across bitter like Emma was talking about. I think I can get to that point but I don’t think I will ever stop caring about it because it is such a systemic problem. I know the discrimination and the false narrative have such real impacts on people in the world if you look at the institutionalized discrimination against non-married people like Social Security laws, inheritance taxes and all of that stuff. I’m not going to be neutral about it.
I think what helps me to keep an even modulating smiling tone in those interactions is writing Onely. Onely is where I get out my irritation. By getting out the irritation and writing on Onely, I can have a more upbeat or less reactive manner when I’m talking to people who give me these microaggressions. They aren’t microaggressions. They’re micro invalidations that the people don’t mean to be throwing at me because, like we’ve been saying, almost everyone is well-intentioned.
It’s interesting what you said about getting out your irritation, anger or whatever. I’m not an angry person. I’ve always thought that about myself. What I think I’ve learned is I don’t deal with anger so I push it down somewhere and I don’t know what it becomes when I go to. I don’t feel proud saying this but the way that I can quite enjoy being a little bit haughty. If somebody annoyed me or I’m in a social situation and I do feel a little bit under threat because somebody is asking me about my marital status, maybe I don’t know them. I think, “What business is it of yours essentially? You’ve only met me.” That’s the thing I find most annoying is that it’s completely acceptable. Some people think it’s a useful form of small talk. It’s allowed to be right up there, right at the front of the getting-to-know-you conversation.
You’re equating it with talking about the weather. That’s the level that it can be. That’s a striking observation.
It’s one of the most personal things to me anyway, perhaps it comes out of a different place. Do you have a partner? You’re so used to talking about that person. It’s an easy thing to talk about. You can make fun of your partner. You can have fun. You can like be lighthearted. It’s an easy go-to situation to talk about. For a lot of single people, the opposite is true. You’ve literally put your finger on possibly their most sore spot. You met this person, you’ve seen the bruise in the middle of their forehead and you’ve got a poke the heck out of it.
That can make me feel quite angry because I think, “This isn’t okay.” I’m not tall too but I’m above average height. I do like drawing myself up a little bit and bringing out all my reserves of auteur and maybe not even responding to the question but bringing up some completely changing the conversation and bringing up some completely different thing that I think is fascinating. I quite like that feeling of putting the embarrassment back on them. I was saying this, I’m like, “This makes me sound like a terrible person,” but it’s an occasional little web that I enjoy to employ that slightly dramatic effect. I’m sorry to the people I’ve done it, too. It’s not good to make other people feel bad but it has helped me on occasion.
They’re not reading this but I’m glad that you’re registering your apology in public. I want to pivot here. I thank you both for indulging me as I’m still puzzling over this. As someone who wants to support singles, I don’t feel like I have great answers for this except to acknowledge and validate that it’s a real phenomenon and your feelings are normal in those situations. You had mentioned friends earlier, Emma, and friends are a big part of your book.
I want to talk about Marissa. I have a saying is solos should have a team. They should have a group of people abroad, varied group of people, personal professional to help support them in their soloness and friends are an incredibly important part of that team. I did a whole series on making remarkable friends and Marissa qualifies as a remarkable friend. I also did an episode on being single and cool. Marissa seems to be a very cool single person.
She is very cool. There are times when I’m like, “What is she doing with me? Why are we friends?”
Tell us a little bit about her because people haven’t yet read the book. How have you met Marissa? What makes her so cool? What makes her such a great teammate?
To be honest, to me, the way we met is one of the coolest things about her. I was looking for a flatmate. I had a two-bedroom apartment, as I believe it is said, on the other side of the pond, I couldn’t afford to live there on my own. My last roommate had moved out so I was looking for someone new. I’d advertised and got a few responses. People were wanting to come around and look at the room. I had this response from this woman Marissa. I said, “Do you want to come and look at the room?” She said, “No, I don’t think so. I think maybe we should meet because there’s no point in me looking at the room unless we get on.”
That was the opposite of what everybody else has said, “This woman has got Moxie. I like it.” We agreed to meet up for a drink. The moment she arrived, it was not like meeting a stranger. Maybe it’s finding your soulmate or whatever it was but it was the most natural thing. She came in and she talked to me as if we’d been friends forever. She made me feel unbelievably comfortable. We found that we had quite a few little things in common. She came from a different country. She came from New Zealand. She worked in the health service. I work in the media. We were very different in lots of regards.
We’d had different upbringings but we had things that we liked in common. We found it easy to talk to each other. We’d got to the end of this chat, which we have since described as the greatest first date of all time. We realized she wasn’t going to come and stay in the flat. It wasn’t going to work. The room wasn’t big enough for all her stuff. Logistically, it was never going to work. She was like, “We get on so well. We should meet up again.”
I was having a party in my garden and I said, “I’m having this party.” She’s like, “Yeah. I’ll come to that.” It was like the coolest thing. I was a total stranger to it. She was coming to a party but she was going to know absolutely nobody including the person who invited her because she’d only met that person once before. She showed up anyway. She got to know my friends and we’ve been inseparable ever since. That was several years ago.
She has been one of my greatest supporters. She has now married herself. There is no greater supporter of a single person than somebody who has also been long-term single themselves because they don’t forget. That’s special. I’ve got a couple of friends like that who have both experienced what I’ve experienced. We’re talking about a period of not having a partner. I think those people when they do find their lobster or whatever it is don’t leave you behind. They don’t forget you because they’ve been there with you and they know what it’s like.
Before Christina gets to her question because I know she has one about Adam, another friend, you mentioned find your lobster. For people who don’t know that reference, there’s an indie film with Colin Farrell called The Lobster in which single people are sent to this resort. They’re imprisoned in a resort until they find their partner. If they don’t, they’re hunted and turned into the animal of their choice. It’s a very dark, bizarre movie that extends the narrative that we’ve been talking about to absurd heights. I’m sorry for the aggression but Christina, please.
I wanted to back up and talk about some of the female friendships that Emma was talking about in the context of creating a supportive network. There were a couple of scenes in the book that I related to because in one scene you’re like, “I’m going to paint this room. Why not?” It becomes a whole thing because there are so many little steps involved that you don’t think of in the beginning. As a single homeowner myself, I know those home improvement projects can get overwhelming so quickly.
One of your friends, when she found out that you had gotten overwhelmed by what you thought was going to be a simple paint job, she stepped in and she was like, “Here we go. This is what we need to do. This is how we’re going to do it.” I thought that it was a great example of how a friend support network can step into the role that a spouse might sometimes play. I don’t know if that friend was Marissa or if it was someone else.
That was Marissa. She’s done that so many times. If I’m ever sick, she’s the first person to say, “I’ll be there this afternoon. What do you need? I’ll bring you painkillers or cold medicine.” One thing that is so easy to forget for single people is that you don’t have that other person who’s got their eye on you and is checking in daily or whatever it is. I say in the book that I don’t often feel lonely. Weirdly, I don’t. I seek out companies so much that it’s very rare for me to feel lonely but my fear of loneliness is always caught up in those thoughts of, “What if,” and the what-if generally has to do with, “What if I get sick or what happens when I get old?”
Can you talk about that? What happens if I get stuck in the attic?
This is no surprise to my parents and family, who think of me as the clumsiest person in the world. They’ve always said about me, “She’s so smart in some ways but she has no common sense.” This is generally how I am perceived within my nuclear family. This proves their point in some ways that I have attic space. It does not have one of those self-contained ladders or anything like that. I don’t even have a ladder that reaches high enough to properly get me in there.
Quite often, I have to put this ladder underneath and then hoist myself up from the top of the ladder into the attic space. I can’t remember what I was doing up there but I know that when I went to come back down, essentially, I kicked over the ladder. There was now a big old distance between my little perch up in the attic and the floor below me. Luckily, the bed was near enough. I stayed up there for a long time.
This is not a good reason to get married to get stuck in an attic. I want to go on record. Please continue.
That is true. I stayed up there for what felt like an eternity. It did. I was genuinely thinking, “What am I going to do? I’m going to get dehydrated,” or whatever. I was probably only up there for twenty minutes. It felt like a long time figuring out my options. I have always known that I’m not a survivor person. I was never going to stay up there, find mice and eat them raw to keep myself alive or whatever. That was never going to happen to me.
I was like, “I’m bored already, bored now, need to get down.” I worked out that basically either I could drop to the floor and probably break some bone or other. In the end, I held myself at an angle to try and aim for my bed because that would have been a soft landing. I caught enough of the bed on the way down that I broke my foot. I did learn a valuable lesson about not going up to the attic when you don’t have anything in there.
Let’s talk about platonic friends. You have guy friends. It seems like you’re good at having guy friends. You talk about how you have a knack. It’s supported in part by your interests. You like music and sports. You’re a sports writer. You have some overlap in topics and especially ones that are a little gendered in that sense. I’m a big believer. As a solo, you want lots of different types of friends for different types of activities. You have your brunch friend and hiking friends and those friends might not be the same people. You might have a travel friend. I have a cafe friend who I sit and write with for hours on end and we never run out of things to talk about and so on. Can you talk a little bit about the development of these guy friends and then you had an unfortunate story about one of them?
It’s always been a surprise to me that I became good at making friends with guys because I grew up and was educated in a completely single-sex environment. I went to all girl’s schools up until the age of eighteen. I have a mom and dad and a sister. The noisiest three people in that family are the women. My dad has always been the quiet one. He was there trying to avoid the chaos. I had no experience of male friendship through my childhood. I think the fact that I’d got obsessed with sports as I did in my teenage years and I had this slight rubber ball quality to my personality.
I was so determined not to be afraid of things. That seemed to me an important characteristic. I don’t know who taught me that whether that was my mom or my dad or a combination of both but it seemed important to me. I ignored a lot of social conventions especially ones for teenage women, late teenage women, young twenty-something women. There’s such an impulse to like, “You’re supposed to be making yourself attractive to your preferred gender. You’re supposed to be making yourself attractive to them.”
I did not go down that route. It’s not to say I didn’t like dressing up nice. I didn’t like the idea that I might attract somebody. I wanted to engage them. I wanted to talk to them and make them feel like I had earned my place alongside them. I think that was a big part of the way that I approached it. It’s doing the opposite of trying to attract them because I didn’t want them to think that was what I wanted. I wanted to be able to meet them on their friendship level. I saw the way that the guys got to do things together.
Their hangouts always seem so much more social than the girls. I found that strange. It was intolerable to me the idea that when I was at college or even when I first moved to London in my twenties, the girls’ hangouts would be these times when you got together and you talked about guys whereas the guys were going go-karting, playing golf, Frisbee or watch a movie and get pizza. I was like, “Why are their hangouts so much better than the girls’ ones?” I gravitated towards them and their hangout.
It became a rolling thing that gave me the confidence to feel like I was being my authentic self around them. They did come to a point where when with rare self-reflection, I did wonder, “Is there something about what I’m doing that is self-perpetuating? Is there something about the way that I’m approaching guys and male friendship?” That means that I almost discount myself from a romantic relationship with them.
It’s called The Friend Zone. There’s a term for it.
Was I self-zoning myself? Was I putting myself in the friend zone? Preemptively, every time I met a guy because I was like, “I’m going to be your buddy.” Basically, this happened with one guy. We have gone well as friends. It was an easy friendship. I was like, “I knew that I had become someone special to him,” because other people told me. They were like, “You’re not only his only female friend. You’re his only friend. You are his closest friend.” Over the course of a certain amount of time, I feel like there is a chemistry and attraction there and this is nice.
It’s gentle but it’s definitely there. It’s palpable and growing. Eventually, I got to the stage where I thought, “I am a grown-ass woman. I can send a text message. I’m not afraid of rejection and embarrassment. I can do this.” I felt very grown-up and I texted him to tell him, “Is there something here? I’d be interested.” I got rejected because otherwise, I probably would have a different ending to my story but it’s okay. It made for a good chapter of a book. I do like stories where I come out being the kind of, “This happened.” It was a bit embarrassing but I will deal with it by laughing at it.
To me, I think it was Adam. He was the one who came out looking not super-duper, not super great out of that story. You look like a grown-ass woman. You did what you needed to do and he came off as maybe not the most emotionally available person in your life.
The only thing that was upsetting about the story was that it did destroy the friendship. I would love to be the person who was able to say, “Everybody, go and tell the other person how you feel because it doesn’t matter. You can still have friendships afterward or whatever.” That was not the case. I thought that would be the case in my very naive, optimistic way. That was the end. He’s obviously a bit too embarrassed to keep the friendship up. I don’t want to make a sweeping statement about whether that’s what happens but I suspect it probably is. I suspect that it is very hard to get past and open that coloration of interest from somebody who’s been a friend of yours for a long time.
There’s the Gretzky thing. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. As someone, Emma, who’s good at making friends, there’ll be another Adam. You have no regrets. You have a positive response to it. Hearing you tell the story, the emotions around it feel a lot different than I was reading into it in the book. It’s great that you did it. It’s unfortunate that he didn’t handle it well but you should trust your instincts until you realize your instincts are bad. It’s what I often say to people.
I want to pivot for the last topic about work-related things. It sounds like you have a very healthy relationship with your work in the sense of an optimal distance. I couldn’t expect an organization, however, well-meaning to have my individual interests at heart. You’ve worked very broadly. You seemed good at a lot of things. I get the sense and you can correct me if I’m wrong that your singleness plays a role in this. That is because you’re single, it allows you to get good at a lot of things. You like the work that you do but it doesn’t identify you.
You’re not single because you’re obsessed with work in any way. Could you talk a little bit about your experience as a single person working? Am I right that you’re good at what you, in part because you are able to focus time, energy, effort, resources into whatever it is that you turn your attention to when you don’t have to worry about a partner holding you back saying, “When are you getting home?”
Saying, “Is that the right job for you to take?” We need a bit more security and solid income while we’re building our extension or whatever it is. I have been able to be footloose certainly in years. That was a big change in my own attitude. You mentioned the organizational thing. I very much was looking for validation from the company that I worked for. I was in such a great team at one stage. I was flying. I was like, “This is one of the greatest jobs.” I definitely did work way too late.
I was working until midnight sometimes. I was putting my absolute soul and all into it. Things change. Teams change. You don’t get to work with those people forever. What I realized after that team broke up and I was put in a different role and with different people was, “It’s not the organization that makes me happy.” It’s not this particular job or role that makes me happy because that hadn’t changed. It was the people around me that changed. Having lost what was an important set of relationships did make me realize, “I do find identity in my relationships potentially more than I find it in one particular task or in this particular organization.”
I kept it for a while. I was still looking to find my belonging in that work and in that workplace. It wasn’t there. It was like, “A company of 1,000 people doesn’t love me.” That is not what it exists for. It’s already so long that you can have unrequited love but for a company or an organization, until you go, “This is not healthy.” This is what I discovered about myself, if what you love are the people and the relationships with the people, you’d have to go seek that out. You have to find ways to work and earn your living where you’re with people and doing things that you enjoy.
I’ve always been somebody who has sudden passions of sudden and overwhelming enthusiasms. That is my makeup. That’s how I made it. That’s why I fell in love with cricket and bluegrass. Every year, I would have a different thing that I was into swing dancing, golf, whatever it was. She would be like, “I’m not going to invest too heavily on whatever it is you’re into because it’s probably not going to be the same thing next year.” I think an old-fashioned view of work, even an old-fashioned view of identity, would look at that and say, “That’s flightiness.” I can hear my grandma saying that.
Pick something and commit. I think what I discovered was my interest in lots of different things, my ability to get enthusiastic about lots of different things, which is a strength in itself. I can make something of that. I did and have made a career out of that. The voices in my head that will like, “Work is not supposed to be fun. Work is supposed to be solid and committed.” That’s what I’ve been grown up to believe and socially conditioned to believe.
My married friends do say this, “There is a nimbleness to my life.” That means that it’s very well suited to self-employment, freelance and travel writing, for example, where it sometimes is a case of, “Do you want to go to such and such a place next week? We need to send somebody on this trip next week. Are you free?” That would be hard to square with family commitments because how do you keep saying to your partner or your children, “Mommy is going to Miami on a cruise for work next week but she still loves you.”
I like this metaphor of a family is like an SUV but a single person is like a motorcycle. Weave in and out of traffic, that sense of it all. I think that’s great. This guy said, “Specialization is for insects,” and I always liked that idea. We live one life. Why not try to do it all if that’s what you’d like to do?
Emma, are you a Gemini?
I’m a Libra.
I was wondering because I’m a Gemini and I always thought that was my problem where I cannot focus. I always say I’m interested in everything except cooking because when you were talking about the “flightiness” I was like, “That’s me.” Everything is fun and interesting except cooking.
I want to ask a final question to both of you. Emma, you published, Self-Contained, this memoir about your single life. It’s wonderful and authentic. We cover some but not all of the topics in there. Christina, you have the Onely blog where you’re essentially advocating for single people. Obviously, I have this show, so we are different than the average single person in the following way. We have in some way communicated with the world about being solo.
Is there a cost to doing that in the following way? As you meet someone, you go on a date and they find out that you have published this blog, you’ve published this memoir or you have this show. Does it change their perceptions? Does it change the narrative? Do you find yourself yet again on the defensive? They make assumptions that you’re not interested in a relationship, you can’t do it or they don’t value it. What has this done to you? What will it do to you as a single person moving forward?
It is something that has passed through my thought but because the book wasn’t out until May 2021. It was something I put off thinking about. I did a radio interview over here and the radio presenter did say to me, “What are you going to do when you do find a partner?”
Do you feel committed? Do you have to stay single forever now, Emma?
Yeah. Isn’t this what you write about? We’ve talked about the fact that I love loads of different subjects. I was like, “That is not a problem. I will find something else to be into and what to write about.” As somebody who writes for a national newspaper and who has a very small, niche following as a cricket writer and wrote quite a personal book about cricket, I have been on dates with people who have discovered during the course of the date that they know me as a writer. That has always been weird. There’s something a little bit gratifying about it. You think, “People do read my work and that’s quite nice,” but it is weird at the point because you’ve written about yourself that you realize that you were on a date with somebody who knows way more about you than you know about them. I think that will only get worse after this book is out.
When you asked that question, I immediately started thinking about it. I was in a domestic partnership for five years while I was writing Onely. I’ve written Onely for several years but for a number of those years, it overlapped with this domestic partnership. When my partner moved in, he made some comment like, “How are you going to reconcile being with me and writing about being single on this blog?” I was like, “They’re not mutually exclusive. I can still be an advocate for single people even if I’m coupled.” He didn’t get it. It should have been one of the first red flags. I think it’s so easy for a coupled people to be singles advocates.
We don’t necessarily talk about that enough or teach coupled people how to be “allies” to single people. I think we should have more of a dialogue about that. If Emma becomes coupled down the road or I become coupled again later, we still understand that we’re able to keep writing about what it’s like to be single or examine the differences in our lives between when we were single and now we’re not, what has changed or privileges do we have now that we’re no longer single?
It’s an open question. I’ve had to come up in a conversation on dating apps before and the response is, “Why are you on a dating app?” To me, that question says everything about how that person is not a good match for me. A dating app is about riding the relationship escalator. You’re not supposed to be pleased with your single life. This is a solution to a major problem. To me, dating apps are about dating with open possibilities. In that way, I know versus someone who goes, “That sounds great. You might’ve picked up a reader.” There’s a surprisingly different set of responses that you can get.
One of the things about my book coming out has been, I was so nervous and I even said this to one of my male friends who’s a cricket writing colleague. I was talking to him during the genesis of the book during lockdown while I was writing it. I was writing about him in the book but I said, “Will you still be my friend when this book comes out? I felt very nervous about exposing this very personal thing about myself to the world. I worried about how it would be judged.” More than strangers, I worried that my friends would be embarrassed for me.
They would be embarrassed that I had written about being single and that there would be this miasma of unspoken cringe around it. I’ve got to say the response has been incredible. The support they’ve given me, both publicly and privately, has taken me aback and made me think, “I’ve learned something important in this process,” which is that I don’t need to think that all my friends are always pitching for a star. There is definitely some element of me putting constructions on things that are not there.
It’s no fault of your own because that narrative does exist so strongly.
I’ll close with this. I had the same reluctance to launch Solo. It’s that reluctance that is us internalizing the narrative that we talked about at the start of this conversation. If it was a show about being married or a memoir about your married life, you would never hesitate or have these thoughts yet we have this for our singlehood. The issue is this is no one cares about the married one. The world needs a conversation about being solo. I know this and I’m sure it’s coming if it hasn’t already started.
I regularly now get emails from people who spontaneously reach out and say, “Thank you so much. I was hoping to find a conversation like this.” What I say to them is, “You should join our Slack channel. We have a solo community that talks about this stuff in private and you can sign up for it. Here’s my PSA at PeterMcgraw.org/solo.”
That’s what keeps me coming back. It causes some headaches here and there. In the beginning, it felt a little fraught but now it’s a source of pride and in part because it is helping people who feel like they’re out on an island. The Christina Campbells and the Emma Johns of the world aren’t talking about this yet. I’m glad that you wrote this book. Christine, I’m always thrilled to have you participate in the show. I’m thankful for Onely. I want to say thank you to both of you for a wonderful conversation.
Thank you. It’s been great.
Thank you too as well.
- Self-Contained: Scenes from a Single Life
- Wayfaring Stranger: A Musical Journey in the American South
- Following On: A Memoir of Teenage Obsession and Terrible Cricket
- Guardian Newspaper
- The Lobster – YouTube Trailer
About Emma John
Emma John is an award-winning author, journalist and podcast presenter. Her book, Wayfaring Stranger: A Musical Journey in the American South, was recently named one of Newsweek’s Travel Books of the Decade; her debut, Following On: A Memoir of Teenage Obsession and Terrible Cricket, was named Wisden Book of the Year. Emma was the first woman to win a Sports Journalism Award in the UK. She is also known for her writing on music, theatre, film, books and travel.
About Christina Diane Campbell
Christina Diane Campbell co-founded the singles’ advocacy blog Onely.org. She has written about marital status discrimination for Atlantic.com and Psychology Today.com. Her extended essay And Sarah His Wife, about mental health, misogyny, and colonial America, won the Michigan Writers Cooperative Press Chapbook Contest. Christina lives in Northern Virginia with her infrared sauna and two semi-geriatric cats.
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