Content warning: this story deals with sensitive subjects, including mental illness and suicide
When Kelly Williams Brown shows up in my Zoom window, I'm pretty sure her enormous earrings spell "CUCK." “It's ‘FUCK,’ actually," she corrects me, turning to the side so I can fully take in the "F." So it is.
Williams Brown, who lives in Salem, rose to prominence in the early 2010s the way many writers did back then: with a blog. Hers was called Adulting. Perhaps you've heard of it. The blog became a bestselling book—2013's Adulting: How to Become a Grown-Up in 438 Easy(ish) Steps—and the word became an unexpected cultural touchpoint.
She knows. She addresses as much right off the bat in her new book, Easy Crafts for the Insane, which hit shelves on July 6. "I will take a moment to apologize for introducing the word adulting to the world, which annoyed me even as it came out of my mouth the first time," she writes in the introduction. "I don't apologize for the book itself, which I maintain is quite good."
Funny, self-aware, and self-possessed: that's the MO in Easy Crafts, which details the worst two years of Williams Brown's life with the bright, conversational tone of someone who would wear enormous "FUCK" earrings to a Zoom interview. Taking formal inspiration from Nora Ephron's Heartburn—a slice of autofiction interspersed with recipes—Easy Crafts for the Insane supplements the account of Williams Brown's "pretty terrible 700 days" with instructions for DIY crafts that she completed during her downward spiral.
"I will say, verbal tutorials of crafts, on the page, illustrated by my not-great illustrations, are not the easiest way to learn a craft," Williams Brown admits. "YouTube will be a lot more helpful than I will be." The crafts, she concedes, are not the point. But, like the recipes in Heartburn, they do say something.
"I've always been a crafter," she says. "I think there's an important discussion to be had about why we call women's art 'crafts,' and it's a good thing to unpack—I don't unpack it in my book, I hope someone will unpack it soon. But, as I say in the book, when I can't really accomplish anything, crafting sets my mind at ease, because it's doing a tiny little thing right that you know you can do right. It's just folding the paper exactly that way, and you know how to do it, because your hands have done it 10,000 times since you were eight."
Crafting, for Williams Brown, was an anchor in a time she badly needed anchoring. The book opens with a brief account of her brief marriage, whose dissolution is the first domino that sets her (and us) on an increasingly tough path. In brief: She gets divorced. Donald Trump is elected the 46th president of the United States. Her father gets diagnosed with cancer. She breaks an arm, and ankle, and dislocates a shoulder. Intensely important friendships crumble. She starts a new medication. She attempts suicide, and winds up in inpatient psychiatric care. All the while, she folds and cuts and glues and repeats.
The mood, despite the increasing gravity of the subject material, is rarely grave. Williams Brown makes a lot of jokes, and fills the book’s margins with doodles: a squiggly Linda Belcher from Bob's Burgers, anthropomorphic bones, a sketch of her dog. She is generous and optimistic even when she gets serious. The buoyancy, she’s fully aware, might put some people off.
“I think a perfectly reasonable person could look at this book and be like, ‘She’s not taking it seriously enough.’ I’m sure my mother has had that exact thought,” Williams Brown says. “I think it’s a fair critique. I certainly don’t want to make light of mental illness in general.” But her story, she says, is hers, and lightness “is a way of telling the story the way I want to hear it, and in a way that allows me to continue being in the world.”
Take the word “insane,” right there in the title, and loaded with potential stigma. “I sort of love the idea of being a wealthy, frail Victorian woman who takes to bed with exhaustion and then has multiple martinis delivered to her throughout the day,” Williams Brown says. “You can be like, ‘Mental health is a front-and-center part of my struggle each and every day,’ but it’s so much more fun to be like, ‘I was insane, Theodore, help me!’ I tend to take the worst things and figure out what's funny about them. [I tried] to balance my desire to tell a story that will hopefully reach people with the fact that I don't want to make something that's destructive to people's serenity.”
Part of what makes it all work is that Williams Brown laser focuses on her own experience—she makes something like the 2016 election feel intensely personal without teetering into either glibness or solipsism—and pumps the brakes when she needs to, as during the portion of the book that deals with her suicide attempt. That sense of being on display was new to her: before Adulting, an advice book, she was a reporter; after it, she wrote an etiquette book called Gracious. She’s made her living from writing, but almost never writing about herself.
It wasn't easy. “It’s really horrible to write something like this,” she says frankly. “Having done quite a bit of work to not be the person in the book anymore … it was really hard to constantly time travel back to the worst day.” She read very little memoir while she wrote, but found a compass in shows like Phoebe Waller Bridge’s Fleabag and Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You: intensely personal works that tackle almost-intolerable subjects like assault and grief with humor, clear eyes, and a bracing lack of sentiment.
After a lot of "painful, painful stumbling" (and some grueling edits), she managed to figure out what she was trying to say: "Life is fairly difficult. More for some people than others, but it's not particularly easy for any of us. And something that I realized in my 30s is that that's when a lot of people experience loss in a serious way for the first time. So I wanted to say that you can go through some really terrible things, and all you have to do is keep trudging through the shit."
Toward the end of our interview, Williams Brown reaches for an overflowing bowl of paper stars on her coffee table. "This is maybe a tenth of all the stars I've made," she says, running a hand through them. "I've given them away by the handful over the years... Nowadays, I don’t craft as much. And when I do find myself crafting a lot, that’s usually a sign for me to check in and see what’s going on with me,” she says. “It might just be that I’m doing crafts with friends or whatever, but if I’m getting compulsive about something, it’s a good idea to be like, ‘So. What are you doing this to avoid?’”
Williams Brown will be at Salem's Willamette Heritage Center on July 25 for a 4 p.m. in-person book launch event.