R. Eric Thomas tells the kinds of stories we need. They connect us with the American experience writ large—the trends, the headlines, the important conversations—all filtered through his unique and hilarious perspective. Thomas joined us for a livestreamed conversation on 4/16 (watch the full event below) to discuss his new book Here For It: Or, How To Save Your Soul In America. But before the broadcast, he spoke with Town Hall’s Alexander Eby to discuss writing rituals, staying busy during quarantine, and ways to find humor in absurdity.
AE: News and pop culture happen so fast these days, you have so much to keep track of when writing for your column at ELLE.com. How do you decide which topics make it into your articles? What about on a personal level—how do you choose what to consume when there’s so much out there?
ET: I try to be really judicious with my news diet personally because, like you said, there’s a lot out there and most of it is not great. So typically, I track what’s happening online all-day for work and then purposefully try to separate from the news stream in the evening. Like everyone else I’m addicted to social media, so I’m not able to distance myself completely. But after work I’m much more likely to be tweeting about food or YouTube videos of Broadway stars than I am about a press conference or stimulus package. Then, before bed I find the most distressing article I can and I read that and then go to bed. I don’t mean to but it always ends up that way so I’m just claiming it as a practice.
AE: Your job must require you to basically live on social media. It must be exhausting to be exposed to fraught news stories and the Latest Terrible Thing every day! How do you find the humor in current events? What drives you to keep coming back?
ET: I look for the absurdity, of which there is plenty. I look for the things that make me excited, of which there is also quite a lot. It’s ultimately more enjoyable to write humorously about things that make us happy rather than things that make us angry or sad. So, I take the little things and blow them up, focusing on little strange details or asides that still capture the spirit of the news.
AE: If you had to pick one of the essays and stories from your book to tell people in order to give them a sense of what the book is about, which would you choose?
ET: All of the essays are different in terms of approach and subject, but I think the essay “There’s Never Any Trouble Here in Bubbleland” is a fun grab bag of all the ingredients I worked with in this book: humor and heart, applying ideas about identity and belonging to one’s lived experience, and pop culture references.
AE: Every writer’s process is different, and most tend to look a little strange from the outside. What’s one of your strangest routines or rituals to get yourself in the headspace for writing?
ET: My new thing lately is dusting my baseboards. This is sort of a quarantine habit, actually. I used to go buy a baked good when I was trying to get in a writing headspace—I will go to the ends of the earth for a blueberry muffin. But with that off the table for now, I have to resort to things I can do within my house. My baseboards are shining like the top of the Chrysler Building right now.
AE: What are your go-to strategies for chasing off boredom while in isolation? What’s the weirdest trend you’ve heard about (or participated in) while in quarantine?
ET: I’m actually pretty busy in quarantine, which I’m grateful for. I’ve got my day job and other events and projects that are keeping me tied up. But I’m really appreciating that the lack of access to a larger physical social life does afford more opportunity to watch TV and movies and read, so I’m doing a lot of that in the evenings. I thought about getting really into skincare, like purchasing a lot of products and emerging from my house absolutely gorgeous when this is over. I did the purchasing part but I haven’t really gotten around to the rest. There’s time though. Whenever this is done, I’m going to be a supermodel.
R. Eric Thomas joined us for a livestream on Thursday, 4/16—and you can watch the entire event below.