Why Hannah and I Could Be the Same Person

One writer explores her special kinship with Girls’ voice of a generation.

Photo courtesy of HBO.
Photo courtesy of HBO.

I first became aware of Lena Dunham about four years ago when I watched and became smitten with Tiny Furniture, an indie film she wrote, directed and starred in. The CliffsNotes version: Recent college grad Aura returns home to cushy Tribeca loft with no job, no direction, no boyfriend; experimental sex, evolving relationships, and (gradual) emotional growth ensue. In other words, it’s basically a prequel to Ms. Dunham’s HBO creation Girls, which revolves around the lives of a quirky quartet of friends as they traverse the bumpy terrain of their mid-twenties.

Watching the premiere of Girls, I was happy to see Aura again. Even though she’s several years older and has changed her name to Hannah Horvath, there’s no mistaking her. Now an aspiring writer drinking lots of hipster coffee and living in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, she’s still angst-y, smart, self-involved and plenty entitled. And, of course, played by Dunham, who has made no secret of the fact that she shares similarities with both characters.

So here we are…three seasons of Girls have passed and season four is currently filming. I have seen all 32 half-hour episodes, most of them multiple times. My feelings about the show are essentially my feelings about Hannah, since there’s no denying that it’s her world and everyone else—boyfriend Adam and friends-slash-frenemies Marnie, Jessa and Shoshanna—is merely acting, judging, drugging and speed-talking in it.

As for those said feelings? I love her. I hate her. I can’t quit her.

The thing is, while I am old enough to be Hannah’s (very young) mother, I often see myself in her, sometimes quite literally as we do kind of look alike. But my true kinship with this idiosyncratic Girl comes via our shared writerly struggles, triumphs and desire to create a whole bunch of wonderful stories (see Episode 25 below).

Season three is flush with these writer-relatable scenarios. I can’t tell you how many times while Sunday-night watching, I snorted with recognition and then exchanged rounds of mad texts with writer friends also experiencing déjà vu. See what I’m talking about here as I recount a few of these aha! moments.

Episode 25: “Only Child”

Hannah’s eBook editor dies suddenly and after a display of very poor selfish funeral behavior, she finds out her “book is dead,” too. And, oh yeah, the publisher owns the non-transferable rights for three years. Seriously bummed, Hannah vents to Adam’s unstable sister Caroline that her “whole life is in that book, everything that has ever happened to her” is in that book. Caroline’s it’s-no-biggie response: “You just have to write a whole new bunch of wonderful stories.” I nearly choke on a gulp of Diet Coke as Hannah does the same with her beer, after which she continues to freak the f**k out.

Gail’s read: And who can blame her? Whether it’s a personal essay, screenplay or eBook, we creative writers put every ounce of ourselves into our prose. Once a project is completed, we can finally enjoy a fleeting but hard-won sense of accomplishment. Thus, it’s excruciating to learn something won’t go to press, hit the web or be read by anyone ever. There is some good news, however, Hannah: You can cross this writer’s rite of passage off your list. I have … several times.

Episode 26: “Free Snacks”

A glib Hannah lets Ray know she will no longer be slinging lattes at Café Grumpy. You see, she got a “not-bullshit gig” writing for GQ magazine’s new Field Guide For the Urban Man. Ray immediately recognizes this as a sponsored section (Neiman Marcus). “They make the article look real so they trick you into reading it but then you find out it’s a paid advertisement—which is both morally and creatively bankrupt.” Cover blown, a shamed Hannah retorts, “Do you think I think this is the best use of my literary voice and myriad talents?”

Gail’s read: No, no I don’t. Nor do I think my gajillion hours writing about modern khakis, perfect white shirts and desk-to-dinner dresses for a well-known behemoth retailer is the best use of my myriad talents. But just like rest of the world, we writer girls gotta pay the bills somehow.

Episode 26: “Free Snacks” (Part 2)

At first, Hannah’s GQ life is idyllic. There’s the hefty paycheck, endless bags of complimentary Sun Chips and praise from all directions. But before long, she’s forced to confront her fear of selling out. “Like, no offense,” Hannah says to her co-workers, “I am a ‘writer writer’ not, like, a corporate-advertising-working-for-the man kinda writer.” When Hannah realizes her comrades were once wide-eyed, talented “writer writers” too, she wilts. First, a quick pit stop to shove her head under the restroom faucet then, hair still dripping, a beeline to editor Janice’s office to declare it isn’t in her plan to wake up in 10 years to find herself a “former writer” working in advertising. The boss-lady’s response? Sayonara. In the time it takes Hannah to walk to her cubicle and back to Janice’s desk, her pride’s gone, mind changed: “I thought about it and decided to stay.”

Gail’s read: These scenes resonate with me like no others in the entire series. As Hannah tries to reconcile her true artistic self with her rent-paying adult responsibilities, I flash to my own daily struggles. I can’t shake the fear that I’ve become the dreaded hack, especially when graphic designers tell me I can’t use certain punctuation (you know who you are, colons) and I hear marketing managers referring to me as “the copywriter.” I am not a copywriter, I scream inside—I’m a real writer, and I am going to write a book of wonderful stories. After all, like Hannah’s co-worker Joe says: “You could still be a writer and do this job. You just have to maintain your focus and write every night after work and on weekends. Simple.


Photo courtesy of HBO.

Episode 31: “I Saw You”

Hannah gets a follow-up interview with the brilliant and hilarious Patti LuPone. Sounds great but for the fact that the GQ article is sponsored by a bone-density drug, something about which LuPone doesn’t care—or take. Fed up, Hannah decides the time has come to exit the “sweatshop factory for puns” and engages in a master class on how to get oneself fired during a staff meeting about Lululemon for men. She wonders aloud, “What the f**k are we doing here? This is all bullshit, isn’t it? Guys, we’re supposed to be writers, and what’s going on at this table is the biggest squander-ization of talent I have ever seen in my life.” But it’s not until she utters the gem “maybe this is, like, a cooler for dead souls,” that Janice goes all Donald Trump on her: “Hannah, you’re fired.” And so she is, and so she qualifies for unemployment.

Gail’s read:

This penultimate episode of season three didn’t have me going aha! as much as it had me fantasizing about switching places with Ms. Horvath. Oh, how I would relish sitting at the next mind-numbing meeting and giving an unfiltered, no-holds-barred rant about how I expect more from life, and how, like Hannah, “I want every day to be exciting and scary and a rollercoaster of creative experiences as if I’m making a new life for myself in France.” I’m no self-sabotage queen, but I am seriously considering putting my foot down about the punctuation ban. What are they gonna do? Fire me?

P.S. The last episode (“Two Plane Rides”) was filled with a fantastic surprise—Hannah got accepted into the prestigious Iowa Writer’s Workshop (and we didn’t even know she had applied). What it means for her relationships with Adam, her friends and Brooklyn we won’t know until next season. But one thing we do know for sure is that Hannah is definitely a “writer writer.” And I’m inspired.

Gail Goldberg is a San Francisco-based fashion and lifestyle writer—she’s always on the hunt for a good story and a great pair of shoes.