52 new things in 52 weeks by Lauren Keenan

Lauren Keenan

January 6, 2021

Life can be scary; this is a universal truth. It was even scarier in 2020, which was really only a moment ago. When we heard about Lauren Keenan's book 'The 52 Week Project', a few words came to mind...bravery, gumption, guts! In her book Lauren describes what it's like when the script of your life seems to be over and how you can choose to throw that script away, edit it, add to it, and rewrite it completely, if you're only willing to try something new. It's a new year (thank god) and what better way to kick it off than this interview about new activities, new flavours, and new perspectives!

One of the main themes in your book is this idea of following a script in life; can you tell me more about the beginning of your life script and how it brought you to write this book?

Ko Taranaki tōku maunga, nō Ngāti Te Whiti o Te Ātiawa ki Taranaki au.

My script before the start of the book has four chapters, some of which will be familiar. I acknowledge that they are fairly privileged chapters. I quote Keiran Setiya in the opening of The 52 Week Project, who says he recognises that there is a certain privilege inherent in having a midlife crisis. This remains true. But, nonetheless, this script was mine and the only one I have. It also led me to a place of universal experiences – loneliness, a bad relationship with technology, too much booze, a crisis of confidence.

So what did these four chapters contain?

The first chapter is about a girl growing up in rural Manawatu, sleeping under a world map. She  dreams about an exciting future full of travel, even though she’s one of the only people she knows who has never left New Zealand. She’s been voted the third ugliest girl at school, and thinks it’s true. She tells herself she doesn’t mind, and thinks about world travel instead. Her parents are encouraging and positive. In all of her chapters, she knows how lucky she is to have them.

The second chapter is about stepping out of the nest: a student exchange to Italy that was more traumatic than enriching; university in Dunedin; a working holiday in wintry Wisconsin; many many hours working in menial jobs to save money to see the world.

The third chapter was great fun – meeting a bloke through a friend of a friend, saving up for what felt like an epoch, getting hitched. Then: moving to London for the classic OE, and spending months backpacking around the world.

The fourth chapter was especially special, moving back to New Zealand to have two amazing children, and finally feeling ready to sit still for a while. Watching them grow with delight, while simultaneously watching her own identity shift with a certain horror.

It was a lovely script, it really was. I had an amazing 20s full of travel and adventures, and genuinely enjoyed being at home with my kids. The problem I had was getting to my late 30s and realising that the script had run out of words, and I still had so much life ahead of me. And thus I found myself in a cesspit of despair, desperately looking for a ladder out. And that takes me to the beginning of the book – feeling lonely, feeling unhappy, and looking for a new chapter. Doing 52 new things in 52 weeks helped me write a fifth chapter that I actually wanted to live.

I’ve always used writing as way of processing my thoughts and keeping my mind busy. When I was at university, I spent two summers putting plants in pots for 40 hours a week. Plotting a novella was how I stopped myself from going into a toxic rumination loop. When the kids were born and I did the same again, turning to writing as a way to stop mentally prodding all my neurosis with sticks and getting over-invested in imaginary dramas. This time, though, I approached it with more structure, turning my hurts and observations into a series of short stories that have since been published by Huia. When I started my 52 new things in 52 weeks, I didn’t have a book in mind. Rather, I simply wrote as a way to tell my story. When you’re lonely or unhappy, writing can make you feel more grounded. If a tree falls in a forest and no-one hears it, does it make a sound? Maybe. Maybe not. If the tree then writes a memoir about the fall, then the poor solitary tree can at least look back later and feel heard. Even if no-one reads it, the fact it was written at all feels like a sound.

Lauren with her partner, kiddos and niece jumping mid-air, looking very charming

Trying a new thing every week sounded so daunting at first to me but you really had a lot of new things that were easily achievable like wearing red lipstick in public and eating a vodka infused donut - out of all the new things you've tried; what new things have you kept and why?

There are a few of the things I’ve kept doing. I’ve since bought a (cheap) mountain bike, and just love it – I find it hard to believe that mountain biking wasn’t a regular part of my life until recently. I’m far from being a lycra-clad adrenaline junky (and still very slow in manner of broken down bus), but it’s such a fun, mindful thing to do every now and again, especially as in Wellington I literally live at the base of a mountain biking park. Another one is cross-stitch. When I first tried cross-stitch I thought it was boring and pointless (like, who even wants a cross-stitch of a camel?)  I like it now though as it’s a really good thing to do to get me away from screens and to still my mind. Especially when big events are happening in the world and I feel myself being seduced by endless doom-scrolling.

The best thing long term though was getting my colours done. I felt so ugly and awkward-looking for so long, and previously had no idea that the colours I was wearing (browns and blacks) contributed to that. We, women, are fed so much bollocks about our looks, often based on the premise that our bodies are something to be camouflaged rather than celebrated, and I’d really internalised those messages. Getting my colours done was the push I needed to stop hiding, especially as “my” colours aligned nicely with my favourite colour, bright pink. 

I have not yet tried to cross-stitch while both mountain biking and wearing bright pink, though. Maybe that can go on the list for 2021.

You deal with and talk of loneliness quite a bit in your book; this year has been particularly lonely for many with the pandemic affecting the world - what advice do you have or what was your biggest takeaway from your journey that you'd like to share?

Before my 52 new things in 52 weeks I was painfully lonely, so certainly understand how it can feel. One of the hardest things is giving it a name. As I say in the book, loneliness is the stealth ninja of feelings. It sneaks up on you and manifests itself as other afflictions: sadness; a vague sense of disconnect; being ranty and irritable. Because it’s the stealth ninja of feelings, the first obstacle is acknowledging loneliness for what it is and admitting to yourself: I am lonely. The second, and often the hardest part, is having the courage to tell those around you how you feel. Otherwise, they won’t know. No matter how lonely you may feel, there are people out there who love and care for you. Unfortunately, though, in times like these, it’s also likely they’re so focused on getting through 2020 with their own mental armour intact, they’re not paying any attention to your subtle cues. Especially if you’re only interacting online. That doesn’t mean they don’t love and care for you, it just means their heads are so filled with the minutiae of life that any ability they might have once had to second-guess your feelings has evaporated. Minutiae that they will probably abandon in a heartbeat if they knew how you were feeling.

It’s hard to reach out, it really is. Being vulnerable is scary. Feeling like a loser is also scary (which was what held me back for the longest time). At the beginning of The 52 Week Project I talk about the night of 27 Rejections of Doom, when I asked 27 people to hang out with me, and everyone said no. In retrospect I see that had I said ‘I’m lonely’ I’m sure someone would have said yes.

Lauren parasailing over Lake Rotorua, the sail is a big yellow smiley face

I think the way you describe feeling down and stuck is so spot on but obviously you've used this concept of 52 new things to transform your life in a way. What would you say to combat the idea that you have everything sorted and figured out? What’s your relationship with imposter syndrome like now?

Unfortunately, imposter syndrome is something that never completely goes away for those who suffer from it. But, you can learn to manage it so it’s not something that holds you back or haunts you, which I did to a certain extent after my year of new things. It’s still there, that voice I describe in the book as being a bitch-face bully. Now, though, it’s more in the form of a fleeting thought or something that tortures me as part of general midnight rumination. I mention in the book that if that voice belonged to anyone apart from myself, I’d take out a restraining order against them. That thought process has helped me considerably – if I wouldn’t let someone else talk to me like that, why am I doing it to myself?

I also think there are aspects of imposter syndrome that can be channeled for good, not evil. We all know those people with an over-inflated sense of their own abilities, who put themselves forward for roles they don’t have the capability or experience to do well. Sometimes we have a tendency to focus on their appointment and feel a certain envy in their confidence, which can be so easily confused for competence. Over time, though, it’s often not a strategy that works well for them. So much of success comes down to grit and having a good work ethic rather than innate talent, and feeling like you’re Awesome Mc Clever pants does sometimes lead to taking your foot off the accelerator in a way which does not work long term.  Success also requires listening to other people, hearing diverse perspectives, understanding what sits behind other people’s thought processes, and taking on constructive feedback. It seems to me that people with an over-inflated sense of their own abilities aren’t half as good at doing those things, meaning that when they do eventually hit their personal glass ceiling, it’s with an almighty crash.

That’s what I tell myself, anyway, when that voice rears its ugly head…

You mention you and your husband's shared love of movies is part of what brought you together. Could you see your own book becoming a movie? Who would you cast to play you?

I would love this! Especially watching the inevitable montage of new things to upbeat music. I do love a good montage.

I don’t have anyone in mind who could play me, but would want them to be normal looking and not too ‘shiny’. I wouldn’t want one of those movie tropes when a beautiful person wears dorky glasses then they come off as part of their transformation and – wow! – look what was underneath all along! I’d want it to be someone that looks like the sort of person you might bump into in the local dairy wearing their (imitation) Ugg boots, doing a last-minute dash for breakfast milk.

Lauren attending a Womad festival on her own, posing in front of the river and big colourful letters: WOMAD

Your story and your voice throughout the book are both very honest, inspiring and relatable. Who do you find that you relate to? Who inspires you, and why?

I’ve always really respected Marian Keyes - both her writing and how honest she’s been about her own struggles with her mental health. What John Kirwan has done for mental health causes also cannot be underestimated and is equally as powerful. Closer to home, Holly Walker’s The Whole Intimate Mess was probably the book that inspired me the most as it made me feel much braver about telling my own story. The more people talk honestly and openly about things that aren’t perfect in their own lives, the better we will all be at having the sorts of uncomfortable and honest conversations that we all benefit from. I’ve related to all of their stories in different ways, and drawn inspiration from their ability to be vulnerable.

In the book you tackle societal pressure on women and the notion that we're all in these societal and patriarchal categories of the hot girl, the classy girl, or the ugly friend..etc. - how has your journey and writing this book helped you challenge that further?

One challenge I encountered during my journey was the sheer difficulty involved in changing from one ‘category’ to another. We like to pretend that these categories don’t exist, and most of us agree on a rational level that they are hurtful, misogynistic and restrictive. Not everyone sees these categories either, or pretend not to. Most people also grow out of them to a certain extent. One thing I’ve learned in recent years is that age is a leveler, as are life experiences.

And yet. We are always a certain person in a room, and when you change who you are in a room, some people feel threatened by that. Often this is for reasons you will never understand. During my year of new things I changed who I was in a room because I had the clear realisation that who I’d been didn’t work for me, especially being the person that let themselves be the butt of other people’s jokes. Some people in my life didn’t like that. One of my oldest friends said to me that they didn’t know what was wrong with me, I used to be funny, and when did I stop being able to take a joke? But it wasn’t a matter of being funny or not. It was simply that I wasn’t letting them make fun of me anymore.

It can give you a certain vertigo when society starts treating you differently. Many women experience this when they first have children, and go from feeling present to invisible. People of both genders encounter this vertigo when they get older and their looks alter and shift. During my year of new things I went from being someone ashamed of how I looked to feeling comfortable in my own skin. Not because my looks changed, but because I had more tools at my disposal and a different attitude. This did change how I was treated, both for good and for bad. On one hand, society is kinder to me now I have better boundaries and hold my head up higher than I did before. On the other hand, it sometimes feels as if I present as being stronger and more resilient than I actually am, which means being thrown grenades that people assume I can take. I realise in retrospect that when I hated how I looked, I also presented with a fragility that made a certain type of person want to mentor and look after me – something I didn’t realise I had until it was gone.  As much as I hate to say it, when I was dowdier and always wore glasses, I think that people also assumed I was cleverer than they think now.

During 2020, I’ve stopped putting a lot of effort into how I look – I wear very little makeup, I spend very little time in clothes that aren’t active wear, and rarely ‘dress up’. I don’t mind, though. I’m comfortable. And – it’s nothing like before the year of new things. It feels different now because while I may not be looking my best, I know how to when I put my mind to it. And that’s enough.

Lauren looking just a tad scared, moments before zip-lining

For anyone that's struggling to get out of their own head and into new adventures; what would your advice be to them to help them get started?

Start small. There are so many things you can do, the trick is to not to build them up in your head as being something that requires an alignment of the universe and a zillion dollars. The new things that are the most rewarding aren’t always the ones that are Insta-perfect.  Everything I did can be done in New Zealand, and most of them were in my hometown. It’s amazing what new things you can find to do when you put your mind to it.

Most of all, though, new things are the gift that keep on giving. You look forward to them, plan them, do them. Then, even if you don’t like the experience, you’ve learned something about yourself, and never regret it. You will – for the rest of your life – be someone that did that thing. And that’s pretty cool.

I want to do some more things in 2021 and would love others to join me – I’ve decided to start with one a month. Top of my list is make a sweet pie, learn a song on the ukelele and learn to run 5km without stopping for a sneaky walk. I’d love to hear ideas from other people as well.  Let’s do them together.

The 52 Week Project by Lauren Keenan, published by Allen & Unwin NZ, RRP $32.99  For more on Lauren follow her on Twitter at @Lauren_M_Keenan or see laurenkeenanwriter.com 

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