Internet humorist, cultural commentator, and award-winning playwright R. Eric Thomas recently conquered another form: the essay collection. The relatable yet personal stories in Here For It — about growing up, belonging (or not), and embracing his identity — make readers laugh, cry, think, and feel seen. In this conversation with host Mary Laura Philpott for Nashville Public Television’s A Word on Words, Thomas talks about what makes him feel less alone in the world.
Mary Laura Philpott: Eric, thank you so much for joining us for a remote episode of A Word on Words. Where are you joining us from?
R. Eric Thomas: I’m in Baltimore, Maryland, where I live. I’ve been a captive in my apartment for what seems like 30 years.
Philpott: [laughing] At least 30 years. Time means nothing anymore. Speaking of which: I’m going to throw chronology out the window and start at the back of your book, Here For It. One of my favorite essays comes at the end, and it’s actually the epilogue, in which you script a conversation among the versions of yourself at various ages. You at 19, you at 41, you at 65. Is that something you imagine a lot — the conversation among yourselves?
Thomas: I do. Yeah. I always used to imagine that and still do. Honestly, I was thinking about it this morning. I want an older version of myself to come back in time and just tell me how it turns out. I think we probably all would love that right now — to have someone who comes back from the future and is like, “Oh, it’s fine.” It’s a great way of shaving off the anxiety of the present. I think about that all the time, what I would say to myself as a younger person. Sometimes the answers are very wise and clear, and sometimes I’m like, oh, I don’t know what I would tell myself, you know? It’d be like, “Good luck.”
Philpott: If someone could show you with a crystal ball what your life would look like at any of those future ages — 50 or 70 or whatever — would you really want to see it?
Thomas: I mean, isn’t that the paradox of time travel? Right? Like the question of fate in general: if you know the answer, does it negate the journey? Does it change the way the journey is going to go? Here’s the thing though, we all know that the future holds really good things and also really bad things. And so somebody from the future is going to tell me all those things that I don’t want to happen are going to happen because that’s the way life goes. So I don’t think I would, to be honest. Things have turned out okay.
I think back to that person when I was 20 years old, sitting on his dorm bed, miserable, wishing that me from right now would come back in time and tell him how things are going to be. I’d come back with pretty good news, but I’d also be like, “By the way, you do have to stay in your apartment for the rest of your life.”
Philpott: Your life is going to be great, but it’s going to unfold in a small space.
Thomas: Exactly. The pros and the cons. Who can take them?
Philpott: What would you of five years ago think if right-now-you went back and described your life, the world right now?
Thomas: Just literally unbelievable. I would be like, “You are, uh, you are…is this an immersive theater production you’re doing? Are you an actor? This does not seem to be true.” Because most of the seeds of what’s going on in my life now, weren’t even… well, I guess the seeds were planted, but they weren’t showing roots or sprouts five years ago. I didn’t have the job I have now. I wasn’t working at Elle.com. I wasn’t thinking about writing a book. I didn’t live in Baltimore. I think five years ago I wasn’t even married. I was in a different industry, in a different phase of life. I’d never heard of Zoom! If I told myself, “So, you’re going to get on Zoom every day, stare at your own face, and talk to people around the world,” I think myself of five years ago would be like, “Get out of the apartment. Get out of here.”
Philpott: Let’s talk about some of those selves, the Erics we meet in this book. Give us a snapshot description of Eric as a child.
Thomas: I was a really exuberant but also very shy child. I had the sort of nascent theater-kid energy, but also I was very obedient and very hesitant, socially. I was a good boy and I was an unrepentant snitch. So I was like, if there are bad things happening, I will find out, and I will report it. So, you know, I think I was probably fun to be around, but that’s up for debate.
Philpott: What about Eric in college?
Thomas: Oh, Eric in college. What a sad little creature. Discovering so many things about the world, coming out to himself, working through different ideas about racial identity… I think the exuberance of childhood sort of got tamped down by larger anxieties about adulthood and humanness in the world. But the thing about Eric in college is that he was discovering that he maybe had a sense of humor, and my sense of humor has really saved me in a lot of instances. And so, while there’s definitely more anxiety and less snitching — maybe those two are related, maybe I should snitch more? — I definitely became somebody who was able to combat anxiety with humor.
Philpott: Yeah, let’s talk about humor as a saving mechanism. How does that work for you?
Thomas: Well, I think the punchline for me, the comedic surprise for me, of any joke or funny scenario that I’m trying to put together is going to be hope. The way I think about comedy in general is that it’s the physical manifestation of the sort of release that we’re all looking for in life in general. We start off in stasis, like: I’m not laughing right now, my body is not producing any of the reactions that laughter provokes. But it can burble up out of nowhere and involve our whole body or brain or voice, our breath and our muscles, and explode out into the world. It’s a release. It’s good to laugh.
Also, it’s important to remind ourselves that we can tell stories, even small little stories or jokes with happy endings and joyous endings and exuberant farcical endings. Some of my favorite jokes and funny stories involve situations that went very badly and weren’t funny at the time. I know you know this, obviously, but you can find the humor in it and that sort of redeems the narrative and changes it.
Phipott: Yeah. That’s the beauty of retrospect and time. So much of what you write about is reveling in the joy of feeling seen or understood. And I’m thinking about not only in this book, where you chronicle your path to self discovery, but also when you write online, when you write about old movies or you tweet about a celebrity doing something relatable. Why do you think it’s such an exhilarating experience to see something of yourself in someone else?
Thomas: It reminds us that we’re not alone. You know, writing is a really solitary pursuit. And so I think it’s prepared me for being a person in general. And I think that we’re taught as people that we shouldn’t feel alone and we shouldn’t feel isolated. And so then, when we do — even temporarily — we think that we’re doing human wrong. And I don’t think that’s true. You can be in a crowded room and feel as isolated as somebody who is alone in their apartment.
Being able to look at other stories, being able to look out at narratives, whether the demographics are similar to ours or the narratives are completely different from ours, and see similarity, we feel the echo of the rhythm, of our lives, that matches our own.
You know, it’s sort of like when you sing in a choir and there’s harmony around you and you think, “Oh, we are walking different paths. We are singing different notes, but we are still creating the same tune.” And I think that’s a really important thing to remember every day, you know? We wake up thinking, oh, I’m alone, and we are searching for a reminder somewhere in the day, whether it’s an old movie or news article or a take on a news article that reminds us that we are not actually as alone as we think we are.
Philpott: It’s essential to survival, especially now when so many of us are literally, physically alone, or the opposite of that — trapped with other people and we’ve forgotten what it feels like to be alone.
Philpott: As a reader, do you remember certain books having a significant impact on you growing up, ones that made you feel seen?
Thomas: Oh, absolutely. I used to go to the library with my parents every week and they would let me borrow as many books as I wanted. So I would borrow the maximum number, which was forty, and they would take these forty children’s books home. I remember Donald Crews, a writer of color who wrote children’s books. One of his books is called Parade. And I remember reading Parade over and over and over again, and it just… it’s a book about a parade, you know? I loved it so much that I sent the cover to the cover designer for Here For It, and I was like, “Something about confetti on the ground and people walking? What can we do?” And she came up with this beautiful cover.
It was affirming for me to see people of color in children’s books, which Donald Crews did and Ezra Jack Keats did as well. He has a book called The Snowy Day, which features a black protagonist. And that was very important, to see a little black kid. As I got older, I got exposed to the work of Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes. Their Eyes Were Watching God was hugely, hugely influential to me. And my mother used to always quote the Langston Hughes poem: “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” And that was an important lesson on how life can work out.
And then as I got older, I got very into David Rakoff and David Sedaris and being able to see the world through their sharp wit was delightful and revelatory for me.
Philpott: Their wit makes me feel less alone in the world, too. Someone sent me a survey the other day about what brings me joy, and I said one of the things that brings me joy on a daily basis is anytime I see evidence that there’s someone else in the world with kind of a weird sense of humor, who gets excited about bizarre things. That makes me go, “Oh, there’s more of me out there. There are other people who see the world this way and laugh.”
Okay, so readers know you as an essayist or a memoirist now, thanks to your book. And of course we know your humor writing from the internet, but not everyone has had a chance to experience your plays. Can you tell us about your work as a playwright and how what you write for the stage is similar to or different from what you write elsewhere?
Thomas: Yeah. I think of myself primarily as a playwright, which is fascinating because most people know me from other things primarily. I really love the stage. I love dramatic writing. Dramatic writing for me is about relationships, and I like writing plays about people who are struggling to reach each other, be it through friendship, through love, through familial relationships. I really love farce, especially high farce like Noises Off. And I also sort of like love farce, something that’s just people at odds with each other, missing each other constantly. Even when I’m writing something that is a little bit more dramatic, I’m very, very interested in finding the humorous rhythms of it. I’m very interested in plays that tell really, really good stories. I think every story is ultimately a mystery.
And I like just having a good time at the theater. I miss that deeply. I cannot wait for the return of theater. I think in the interim it’s also really interesting to think about, well, what is theater when you’re not in the theater? You know? Like, is this theater? Is the fact that we are two people who are pretending to have eye contact, but really staring into a little camera, is that theater? Maybe it could be.
Philpott: Instagram as live theater.
Thomas: I mean there’s that, yeah.
Philpott: Some of the topics that you tackle head on in your writing are race, religion, sexuality, money, and how easy it is to be categorized as “other” if you’re too much or not enough of any of those things. How often do you feel that otherness that you’ve written about now or has your concept of otherness changed?
Thomas: I have to admit, I do feel it. I think I feel it just as much now as I did before. One of the things that has become clear to me is that it is something that is baked into the fabric of the country and maybe the world. We rely on caste systems. We rely on a kind of competitiveness to define who we are.
People have said beautiful things about this book, and people have bought this book, and I can put “bestselling author” in my bio, and that does change certain things for me. Absolutely. But it’s very easy to come across many scenarios where I still feel like I don’t belong — be it a social scenario or just trying to figure out how to make it in a nation where the ground beneath us is shifting. It’s very easy to feel othered.
I think what I do with those feelings of otherness is different now. I go to a great therapist, that’s number one. But also I know that otherness is a construct, that I am in the center of my own story. I’m not other to me. If we’re all walking around at the center of our own stories and nobody really is other, then nobody’s the primary character of America. Or the world.
Philpott: Speaking of America, the subtitle of this book is not just, “How to Save Your Soul,” it’s, “How to Save Your Soul in America.” Why?
Thomas: I was looking for a subtitle that was bigger than its britches, you know? Bigger than what the book could accomplish. But also I was very interested, very specifically, in talking about the intersection of our patriotic identity with all the other identities that make up the “melting pot” of America and throwing all of that sociology onto something that is bigger, spirituality. I was interested in trying to figure out what happens when you match up the way you feel about the universe and about yourself and about life with the person and people that you’re told you are by society. I wish there was a guide book for how you could save your soul in America. But I think also the answer that I come upon is that you do it little by little, you do it by communicating with your past self. You do it by telling your story. And you do it by showing up to a parade — whether it’s an actual parade or whether it’s just finding joy in your own living room and throwing some virtual confetti. I feel like that’s the way that I’ve saved some portion of my soul in today’s America.
Philpott: I love the way your writing rejects easy dichotomies, like high-brow versus low-brow. or pop culture versus cerebral art. You blend the sentimental with the analytical and I think that so accurately reflects the actual world we live in, where these things all coexist in our heads. Whenever I read your writing, I feel like, “He must be having fun.” Is writing fun for you?
Thomas: Oh yeah. I love it. It’s also miserable. I mean, you know. Anybody who loves writing hates writing. There are times where I’m writing a column, or portions of a book, where I’ll write something and I just make myself laugh, and my husband loves that. There are things I write where I think that’s subjectively funny, I’m not going to laugh out loud. And then there are things where I’m like, oh my goodness, I love this. I mean, a lot of times I’m just writing for me and I’m hoping that other people think what I’m writing is funny as well. But I do love writing. I sort of love revising. I love being done, but the thing about being done, I’m discovering — I didn’t know this — is that what you write a whole book and then people read it and they like it and they’re like, “More!” And then I’m like, oh no, I’ve got to write another book.
Philpott: It’s so unfair that you can’t just point at the first book and go, “Now you write the next one.”
Philpott: [laughing] “Go forth!”
Thomas: Right. It’s like having children and grandchildren. My books should have a book. I can spoil its book.
Philpott: Eric, thank you so much for joining us for this special episode.
Thomas: Thank you for having me. It was really, really a pleasure.
This interview has been edited slightly for length and clarity.