Elna Baker is a prankster. That’s really her first love, but recently, she’s been focusing her energy on being a writer and storyteller for The Moth, Elle and This American Life. In her solo show, The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, she explores the before and after life of being a Mormon in New York City. I caught up with her in Russia where she shared what it’s like to write for the page and the stage, why she looks at her show as a math problem and why writing a memoir is more than something to do on a rainy day. RG: What’s The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance about?
EB: It’s a compilation of all the stories that I’ve done before on the radio, The Moth and that are in the book. It begins when I’m a Mormon in New York, and the later part deals with me seeking a break. It’s about losing that identity and finding it again. I spent a lot of my career as a practicing Mormon and virgin. I took a break at the height of that because it wasn’t truthful to what I wanted anymore. I thought it was what I was supposed to do. It was a very challenging time, and there were panic moments when you realize you thought you knew yourself, but you don’t and then you have to figure it out. It happens over and over again, which is both exciting and totally terrifying.
RG: How have you transformed your identity
EB: A lot of the piece is about being Mormon – what that was and what that means. The turning point of the story is not being Mormon and learning what that is and what that means. Trying coffee, alcohol, sexual exploration and drugs. Well, ok, not drugs. Not yet at least. [laughs] Two years ago I took the first step to changing, but it was very gradual. I still feel like I’m a Mormon. It’s always a part of my identity.
RG: What made you decide to make that change?
EB: I was in New York City for ten years. At the seven year point, I was dating a Mormon, and he wanted to get married. I had always been taught that’s what I wanted in life – to get married. I moved to Utah for him, and we almost got married. It was getting close to what I thought would make me happy that showed me I wasn’t happy. He saw that I would never change and become the things he wanted me to become – cooperative and obedient. That’s when he broke up with me. I remember driving up to the mountains, and I was trying to figure out this decision. Either I was going to marry him, have kids and live here or I had no idea what was next. That idea of the unknown felt like being alive and the marriage/kids thing didn’t. When I got back to New York, it took another year for me to take a break, but it was in that year where I spent every moment questioning it.
RG: How did you come to write the book?
EB: I did The Moth for Elle magazine, and one of the editors came into Nobu where I was working at the time. She said, “Yours was the favorite story of the night. Where are you sitting?” Sometimes people forget that you actually have to do other jobs to support yourself, so I told her I worked there. On her way out, she said, “Thanks for saying hi.” I pitched her an idea, and she said, “Email me. We’d love to work with you.” I wrote a feature, and it was through that feature that there was interest in a book.
I didn’t want to write in any of the genres. I tried to write a teen fiction book, but that didn’t work. I realized that in order to tell the stories I knew how to tell that I needed to finetune them. I got an agent, went up to Yaddo [the writer’s colony] and spent the next two years writing the book.
RG: What was it like to write the book?
EB: When I got the opportunity to write my memoir, it was a chore to type it and then it wasn’t. There was all this discovery – so much that added to this situation. Writing a memoir gave me a bird’s eye view of myself. Things were revealed to me that are richer and surprising in a way that makes it a deeper experience.
RG: What was it like the first time you saw the book in print?
EB: When I was working on the book, I used to go into the Strand, and I’d panic. When they sent the font and layout, it became real. Up until then, it just looked like a word doc of me rambling. But when they clean it up and put it in the font and put two pages on one page, I thought, “Oh, my goodness. I wrote a book. I never thought I would.”
I was in an antique shop once, and I found a book called “Let’s Make a Book.” I framed it because it has helpful tips in there like “making a book can be fun and easy” and it’s “something to do on a rainy day.” [laughs] It’s totally not the experience of writing.
RG: Is there a difference in memoir writing for the page and the stage?
EB: When I did it for the stage, I did it the hard way. I did it in my head. I did it so many times. I learned it visually. I had the general shape or flow of the story. It’s like a math problem on a chalkboard. You’re piecing things together without paper. I did it with shorthand piecing it all together on stage. I did an hour and a half and never wrote it down. I just bullet pointed it and remembered it.
When I transitioned to writing the book, I needed to get confidence to believe I was a writer. When I was on stage, I was writing. I just wasn’t writing it down. I had to learn how to trust good storytelling – that what I was doing on stage was enough and not get bogged down with the detail. But then I wondered, why did people laugh at something? I may have shrugged. It was the gestures. So if I was confused [in the book], I need to indicate confusion without facial and hand gestures. Initially, I was overcompensating. ‘I met him at the top of the stairs,’ but I got lost in the stairs and that part wasn’t important. On stage the whole story is what happens at the top of the stairs. I don’t need to get flowery with the language. The action takes place at the top of the stairs.
I think it’s important for me to practice on stage before I write. I get a great sense of understanding. You know when they’re into it and when they’re not. You know what works and what doesn’t. It works the same on the page. You also get to go into your own head and be a lot more personal. On stage you think, “Am I getting too personal?” I don’t want to be that girl. Don’t want to be…what’s it called?
EB: Yeah, sometimes it comes across that way on stage. There’s nice anonymity to writing a book – you’re in the room, but you’re not actually there. By putting it out there, you don’t mean to change things. If you write about what you thought about loving someone when you were in love with them, you let them know things they don’t know. You change the game in ways that can be detrimental. I remember editing the final pages of my book, and I was panicked. I thought, “I don’t know if we’re meant to do this. To put ourselves out there to criticize, be this honest.” It’s by being that honest though that I know how to connect to that feeling that you are part of something that others can relate to. The human experience. The more specific I am, the more universal it ends up being. If I sugarcoat it or if I’m vague, it fails. But if I just tell the story with absolute detail, with truth, if I make myself look bad, it’s the most scary, and it motivates me to do this type of work. I’ll learn a lesson. The only way to learn is to communicate the steps of how you learned it.
RG: We seem to both be late bloomers. Your first kiss was at 22, and mine was at 16. In what other ways do you think we’re alike?
EB: When you were talking about pretending to be a fortune teller at the dinner table with your family, that’s my childhood. I was always doing weird things to make my family laugh. I connected to laughter as a way of approval. A lot of comedians feel deprived and need to find a way to satisfy that. I look at how fun it is to make people laugh, how fun it is to be a catalyst, and I really experience the process and the joy of making someone laugh. I also think, like you, I try to be positive in the face of “that didn’t go the way I thought it would go.” You see things like “this is worth being positive about when everything around you has gone to shit.” When you are a very hopeful person, you really expect things to go well.
RG: What has been the biggest difference between playing characters to playing yourself?
EB: Playing characters explores different facets of my personality. Weird people used to come out of me. It wasn’t like I was using them to say what I wanted to say. I was always telling stories to friends and repeating them. That’s how I made friends. When I was bullied or teased, I told funny stories to win them over. I had no awareness that it would be a career or my career. You do the things you’re talented at – you write, sing, dance, do characters and then you spend a lot of time doing one or two things.
I feel like I live and breathe stories, and I continue to be truthful. I explore how to be a person. How from these experiences did I learn how to behave and how do I keep figuring that out? And not standing still too long. I feel very lucky to be working at a time when there is so much passion for storytelling. I feel like I’m at the avant garde of it. People everywhere are getting excited about it as an artform. Everyone has their own story. It’s accessible in its own way because it’s so individual.
RG: You mentioned being bullied. My show deals with bullying as well. Were you bullied because you were heavy or was it something else?
EB: It was mostly because I was heavy. I went through it in college – not by people I knew. It was by people who felt the need to bully someone, people on the street. It was just the way they looked at me. It was a big part of my childhood – not the experience of it – nothing too terrible – but it was fear that it could or would happen. I was always afraid of being teased, so I ended up not totally being myself around anyone but my family.
RG: Are there any new stories that First Person Arts audiences will be privy to that aren’t in the book?
EB: Yes, the newer stuff that deals with taking a break from being Mormon. There are two pieces that are not in the book. They tell what happens next.
RG: Your show is titled, The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, so what are you going to be for Halloween this year?
EB: A 60’s blue martian. Well, an alien, but in a 60’s costume. I’m going to Arizona to do a piece on alien abduction, so I’m going to paint myself blue and be a sexy girl alien.
More about Robin: Robin Gelfenbien is a writer, storyteller and comedian. Her solo show, “My Salvation Has a First Name: A Wienermobile Journey” premiered at the 2008 New York International Fringe Festival where Time Out New York gave it “four stars” and New York Magazine hailed it as “the highlight of the Fringe.” She’s been a joke writer for Rosie O’Donnell, been featured in Marie Clare magazine, and her original comedy songs have been played on Sirius Satellite Radio. www.robingelfenbien.com,www.wienermobileshow.com