In April 2011, while working as a columnist at the Statesman Journal in Salem, Kelly Williams Brown came up with the kernel of a book idea: a beginner’s guide to adulthood, from writing a condolence card to buying a used car. This month, Grand Central Publishing will release Adulting: How to Become a Grown-Up in 468 Easy(ish) Steps. Her companion blog has already racked up more than 100,000 dedicated followers. A TV adaptation is in the works with J. J. Abrams’s famed production company, Bad Robot. And along the way, she even conquered her fear of bleach.
I think from the outside, my life looks pretty successful. I have a job, I have a cat that I’ve kept alive for seven years—but I’m prone to these feelings that I’m not really a grown-up. There are these things that other people know and they just do, but I don’t know them or do them, and it makes me feel like a failure. What I realized is that everybody kind of feels that way.
When I was in Mississippi at the Hattiesburg American, I had three older friends in the newsroom, and they kind of took me under their wing. One day, one of them took me aside, and was so, so kind, and said, “You know Kelly, you always look really beautiful at work, and this is a beautiful dress. But it is a little bit of a cocktail dress.” And so that was the day I learned, just because you look great in a dress does not mean it’s a work dress.
Being an adult is being really decent to people, including yourself. It’s correctly discerning the things that need to happen, and then doing them.
I’m a really anxious person. I tend to see doom and gloom and worst possibilities in everything. I attribute that to a lot of things: to having been a hard-news reporter and often surrounded by chaos; and to having the formative experience of going through Hurricane Katrina; and also just being kind of a neurotic girl.
Bleach is terrifying. I had never used it until I started the “cleaning” chapter of the book ... and then I was kind of amazed. And I went a little bleach-crazy. I had pictured it as a menacing cloud that would just get into everything, and I’d breathe it in and die. But no, it’s really useful—you just have to dilute it. That’s it.
When I met with Bad Robot in la, J. J. Abrams was saying that one of his favorite sitcoms of all time was The Mary Tyler Moore Show. He just loved its humor and its optimism—and then he said that he sort of has the same feelings about this [book]. And then my head exploded.
I feel lucky to have had a book idea that directly stokes the fears of the New York Times–reading, concerned-about-millennials audience. And it just happens to be this time when comedic voice, especially of females in their 20s, is kind of a zeitgeisty deal. But I think that no matter what, growing up is a challenge. The passage of time is not easy for humans. That’s just how evolution works. I think that people grow up when they want to or when they have to.
THe audience for this book is really me—when I was 22. It’s for people for whom, up until now, the progression of life has been obvious ... and then you get to the end of that line, and all of a sudden everything opens up and you just don’t know. And also you probably have a disgusting, filthy fridge.
I’ve only ever been a millennial. I’ve only ever had the experience of right now. It would make me really happy if people who were of a different generation read the book and felt like they got some useful perspective. But I also hope that it’s something that maybe someone in their 30s or 40s or 50s could read with that little cringe of recognition, remembering what it was like.
My professional goal is that I want to write things that are funny and I want to write things that are useful. And hopefully at the same time.