In her late twenties, Amber Tamblyn experienced a crisis of character while trying to break out of the confines of the acting career she’d forged as a child in order to become the writer and director she dreamed of being as an adult. Following a frustrating period of disillusion, Tamblyn seized her destiny, entering into what she terms her Era of Ignition, the result of absorptive self-reflection that lead to resoundingly positive change.
Utilizing her fierce op-eds and contributions as one of the Time’s Up organization founders, Amber has emerged as a dedicated, outspoken advocate for women’s rights, taking on such electrifying issues as gender equality, misogyny, and the ever-evolving issues of consent, pay parity, and the erosion of individual rights within a troubling society. Part meditation and part reckoning, Era of Ignition is galvanizing, deeply personal, and long overdue.
Recently, Amber spoke with Read It Forward’s Abbe Wright, delving into the necessity of intersectional feminism and the joy of leaving poetry books on the subway for errant readers to discover.
READ IT FORWARD: Your latest book is Era of Ignition, and I would describe it as part memoir, part manifesto. How would you describe it for those who haven’t picked it up yet?
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AMBER TAMBLYN: I think that’s a really good one sentence read of it. The book examines my own personal existential crisis in my 20s, trying to bridge the divide between being an actress for hire and becoming something more than that, which I always knew I was capable of doing but didn’t really know how. Looking at that against the lens of the country we’re in that’s going through the same thing, having its own existential crisis. What comes after the fact? What happens for us, as a nation and as individuals, after those tumultuous times in our lives? That, to me, is what the title is, an era of ignition when you’re fired up, unstoppable, and feeling fueled in every possible way.
RIF: This book helped me regain some of that fire. You talk about how far we’ve come with the Time’s Up movement and #MeToo. But it feels, especially after Hillary Clinton lost to this man who outwardly bragged about assaulting women, that the world is still an incredibly unfriendly place to women. How do you combat fatigue? It feels like we have so far to go still, but your book really feels hopeful.
AT: I think there’s a lot of fatigue. I feel it myself, and I think it’s important to remember that we cannot be the arbiters of the change we want unless we take care, and take care of each other. It’s okay to rest and get off social media, be with our families, be with our cats, be with our vodka, whatever it is you need to be able to go continue to do the work. It’s important that we remember as exhausted as any of us are; women, non-binary people, anybody and whatever they’re experiencing, that everything that’s happening in our culture, and the pushback—the talks of witch hunts, backlashes, and women’s rights being rolled back. All of those things will continue to happen, and that the people who don’t want us to have the freedoms of our bodies or expressions or stories will always be there. This will become a war of attrition, we have to see it as a long haul and that our work is going to take generations.
In no civil rights movement in the world has something just changed overnight. I think Me Too and what came out of that—Time’s Up and all of the incredible work that women and men have done, is very important, but it’s a small piece of the puzzle in the larger picture. People are betting on us being exhausted, and they’re hoping that this is a fad and that it will end. We have to be patient and persevere as much as we possibly can.
RIF: One of the things I most appreciate about in Era of Ignition is the section on white feminism, and this gorgeous Audre Lorde quote, which says “what woman here is so enamored of her own oppression that she cannot see her heel print upon another woman’s face.” You helped me look introspectively at my own white feminism, and I appreciated you owning your blind spots and providing great advice about how white women can be intersectional in their feminism. Can you talk about that?
AT: So you talked about this idea that that chapter really helped you internalize what this means, to be allies to other women, not just to say you want it. I would say that introspection is very important, but so is being interpersonal. Not just asking yourself what am I doing, how am I benefitting or how am I being problematic, but to look at your connection with other people, most specifically women of color, minority women. That’s often where white women have the most hard time seeing.
There’s a real sense of I have been marginalized my whole life in my own way, in my own personal experience. How can you possibly say that I would hold another woman down? But the fact is, we do. It’s important that we not try to help other women by getting in the way of them being able to have their own stories and their own space to do the work that they want to do and have the voices that they want to have. Amplifying somebody, this idea of sisters in solidarity, means as white women we need to defer and get out of the way. Not just try to help, because even in that word is a problem. It would be like men saying let me help you. Let me help you get your voice. Let me help you find your way. I don’t need you to do that. I need you to get the fuck out of my way, sir.
RIF: Exactly. We can do it ourselves.
AT: I think white women could learn a little bit from that. Deferment is a powerful tool, as is watching out for defensiveness. This is something I know so well, because I’ve spent years of my life living in defensiveness. How could you possibly say that I was racist, that I held you back, that I silenced you? It’s so important to take a pause before we have that quick reaction.
RIF: The idea of shutting the door behind you once you’ve gotten somewhere, to protect and put up these walls, makes no sense. We’re way more powerful together, when the door is open and more can flood through.
AT: And the defensiveness is just a monologue in our head. That’s human, but monologues are not where the change happens. Dialogues are where the change happens. In order to have a dialogue, you have to listen.
RIF: You lay yourself incredibly bare in the book, and talk about your own abusive relationship, your assault, your husband’s missteps and learnings in the wake of the #MeToo movement, comments your dad made that were hurtful. We’ve just talked about owning up to your own blind spots. How scary is it to tell the truth in this way, or is it really liberating?
AT: It’s not liberating. It’s sickening. Especially having to talk about the abusive stuff that I went through when I was younger was very difficult, and kind of ironic. Because of the nature of what I talked about and how violent some of it was, I actually had to go through speaking to the legal department of Crown. They had to get corroboration for those stories with my friends. They only did it because, of course, they want to protect me, they want to protect themselves.
But it was really hard to have to ask those people to speak, ask them if they remembered, pull up an old message from that ex. It was difficult, and I say ironic, because the book talks a lot about women not being believed. Not that the legal team didn’t believe me at all, they were just protecting me.
RIF: You had to deliver proof, essentially.
AT: But I had to deliver proof, and I was like this is so fucking ironic for this book. Writing some of the stuff about my dad was difficult as well. But I know no other way except for addressing it truthfully. I think as I started to write it, I started to remember and was trying to make excuses not to write it. I would go write an op-ed. My friends would text me and be like that’s a great op-ed you wrote, but aren’t you working on a book? My writer friends really took me to task.
RIF: Like all of the Read it Forward readers, you love books, and so much that you actually adapted one of your favorite novels, Paint It Black by Janet Fitch, into a movie. How was the process of seeing these words come from the page into scenes that you directed?
AT: Getting to adapt a book and turn it into a feature film was one of the most liberating experiences of my entire life. If nothing else, it taught me that success or failure of art doesn’t matter. What matters is the vision and the personal power that you have, whereas before every acting experience I ever did was always about this better succeed or my life is ruined. This film better make it, this TV show better get picked up, or I’m going to be torn apart. Writing had always felt that way, because writing is 100% yours. Acting is 50% yours.
AT: You say someone else’s words, and then someone else directs it and someone else edits it. Then, maybe somebody buys it. You have no control. Whereas when you are writing or directing, it is pretty much entirely your vision. To me, that is something worth sacrificing everything for.
I also felt this sense of being infuriated, because now that you know what it’s like to be the one who controls the creative output, in the driver’s seat, and you think about all the times in which you were not chosen for a job, or you watched other directors just throw these opportunities away to create something really filled with vision. There was part of me that was like why haven’t I been here forever?
RIF: You can’t go back now.
AT: That’s insane, because I’m 34. When you’ve been working since you were 11, I basically feel like I’m Betty White, I’m such a veteran at this point. I could not have another book sold, another movie made, never get an acting job again, and I will never un-know what I know about myself, about my capability. That might make it more frustrating, but I’d rather have the knowledge and experience than to feel robbed and deprived of it.
RIF: A friend, who’s a white man, and I were talking about the Oscar nominees and saying that this year, 2019, there are no women in Best Director. He said that perhaps there should be a Best Female Director and a Best Male Director. I was infuriated, saying Hollywood should greenlight more projects directed by women so that the pool could be more equal. He asked, “do you feel this way about Best Actor and Best Actress?”
AT: Oh my God. Give me this guy’s phone number.
RIF: I was incensed, but I couldn’t articulate the argument, and it was just easier to say, you’re wrong. Bye.
AT: Obviously, this is not about the Academy Awards, and I am an Academy voter. This is not about some vapid award show. This is about a much larger systemic problem. The fact that women were shut out of the top categories, and the ones in which they were nominated, like Adapted Screenplay or Original Screenplay, it was one woman for each, and a co-written credit with a man.
AT: So much of it has to do with the way women’s narratives are not valued. They are very literally, not metaphorically, not seen as important or marketable. So many men who are in positions of power have not been forced to have any other viewpoint other than protecting what already exists, which is the amplification of the stories of men. They accumulate works of art based on what they believe is valuable, but men really have never had to think about what is valuable to other people in any specific ways. I’m not saying all men in positions of power. There are a lot of really great companies and people that get there’s a real market for our voices.
But until women are allowed to make mediocre art, and that art gets nominated, we won’t succeed. Right now, women have to create visions that have to be so perfect and hit the exact tone and come out at the right time and be lucky enough to have the right person in place to buy it, distribute it, promote it correctly. Until women can have their work nominated, and that work be mediocre in the same way men have mediocre work nominated all the time—
RIF: And win all the time.
AT: This is all opinion-based, but it also is statistically if you look at the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, at this study that came out of the last hundred films that came out in the last year—something like four percent were directed by women. There’s not the opportunities to know, not the opportunities for those women to be included, but even the ones that are already there, that have made exceptional films, are not being nominated. It spreads all the way across.
RIF: Totally. It’s so not Hollywood.
AT: Everyone right now is telling Beto O’Rourke he should run for president. A man who lost, that’s his reward. Why aren’t they saying that about Stacey Abrams en masse?
What I hear is that she shouldn’t run, that that’s probably a bad idea. She should wait a little longer, run again for a statewide election, which is really crazy to me, but that’s a simple example of two politicians who rose to very quick stardom. One who arguably did win and wasn’t able to actually hold the seat because of gerrymandering and illegal activity in the state of Georgia. But you look at how we treat two different types of people who ran. One gets rewarded this way and fails up, and the other is told to wait to have more experience.
RIF: Which mirrors how women and men tackle the workplace, that women are always asking, do I have every fact? Do I know every answer to every potential question? A guy will walk into a boardroom and say, I got this. No worries.
AT: There’s a quote in my book where I paraphrase something Hillary Clinton had written about giving people promotions when she was a partner at her law firm. When she would give men promotions, they would always say thank you so much for this opportunity, I won’t let you down.
When she would give women promotions they would say thank you so much for this opportunity, are you sure? This questioning of our own intelligence, of what we have to offer, is so ingrained in women. It’s also ingrained to see other women that way, which is the Susan Collins effect where women in positions of power don’t value other women in positions of power. But I think that’s changing now. I really do. It’s small, but I do feel that it’s changing.
RIF: There’s a through line of hopefulness. So, Amber, what’s on your bedside table that you can’t wait to start reading?
AT: My bedside table is a pile of books, they’re all poetry for the most part. I read so much poetry, also because I review poetry by women for Bust Magazine. Currently, I’m reading Heavy by Kiese Laymon, and I’m excited to read Morgan Parker’s Magical Negro, also Franny Choi’s Soft Science. Those are two phenomenal poetry books.
RIF: Poetry is so great, especially for the subway because you can like read two and then hop off.
AT: I get so many advance copies that I’ve become attuned with when I’m enjoying a book, and when I think it’s not for me. So, I’ll often leave them on a subway car, which is not a crappy thing. Somebody else could find that, and it could change their life.
RIF: If I ever find a slim book of poetry on the Q train, I’ll think ‘Amber was here.’
AT: It’s likely me.