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From Internet sensation Anna Akana comes a candid and poignant collection of essays about love, loss, and chasing adulthood.
In 2007, Anna Akana lost her teen sister, Kristina, to suicide. In the months that followed, she realized that the one thing helping her process her grief and begin to heal was comedy. So she began making YouTube videos as a form of creative expression and as a way to connect with others. Ten years later, Anna has more than a million subscribers who watch her smart, honest vlogs on her YouTube channel. Her most popular videos, including “How to Put On Your Face” and “Why Girls Should Ask Guys Out,” are comical and provocative, but they all share a deeper message: Your worth is determined by you and you alone. You must learn to love yourself.
In So Much I Want to Tell You, Anna opens up about her own struggles with poor self-esteem and reveals both the highs and lows of coming-of-age. She offers fresh, funny, hard-won advice for young women on everything from self-care to money to sex, and she is refreshingly straightforward about the realities of dating, female friendship, and the hustle required to make your dreams come true. This is Anna’s story, but, as she says, it belongs just as much to Kristina and to every other girl who must learn that growing up can be hard to do. Witty and real, Anna breaks things down in a way only a big sister can.
Advance praise for So Much I Want to Tell You
“This book is filled with the kind of honesty, vulnerability, and determination that makes Anna such a captivating person. One warning: You’ll want to hug her a lot while reading this.”—Natalie Tran, actress and comedian
“As a woman working in entertainment, Anna Akana is accustomed to feeling vulnerable. Which means that she’s used to being brave. This book is a tribute to the duality of bravery and fear as told through Anna’s experiences to date.”—Hannah Hart, New York Times bestselling author of Buffering: Unshared Tales of a Life Fully Loaded
“Frank advice on how to live a productive, happy life . . . written in tribute to a ‘fearless, talented, and bold’ sister.”—Kirkus Reviews
Under the Cover
An excerpt from So Much I Want to Tell You
Find Your Voice
Most successful people will tell you to follow your dreams. I’d say fall into them, because I fell into mine.
After my sister died, I spent two years abusing drugs and alcohol and engaging in all that escapist won’t-deal-with-my-feelings harmful stuff. LSD, MDMA, all the acronyms. But one day as I sat stoned in my room watching TV, a Comedy Central special came on. Margaret Cho was doing a routine I’d never seen before. And for the first time in a very long time, I laughed. But even better, I forgot. I forgot myself. I forgot my pain. I forgot that Kris was dead.
Seeing that show sparked something inside of me. After a couple years of feeling dead inside, I experienced joy, hope, excitement. I became obsessed with the idea of standing on a stage and making people laugh. Seeing Margaret, an Asian woman, perform stand-up gave me the confidence that I could do it too. So I took out a notebook and began to write. I wrote down every funny thing that’d ever happened to me, every funny thing I could remember saying, stories from my childhood and teenage years, thoughts and musings and random observations. I compiled a set list and performed it in front of my old DSLR camera over and over and over and over again. When I told a co-worker what I’d been doing, he said he knew a bar owner who ran a stand-up show. He asked if I wanted to get up onstage.
Uh, hell yes.
My first stand-up set was eight minutes long. Looking back, I’m always amazed. Who the hell decides to give a first-timer an eight-minute set? That’s insane. Maybe if I’d realized then, I would have been more nervous. But I wasn’t nervous; I was excited. All my friends came. My mom and dad and brother, Will, came too. Make no mistake: my jokes were terrible. They were stereotypical and cheap. I compared my first time seeing an erection to a human witnessing Godzilla. I fully acted this out with no shame or self-consciousness. But, hey, that’s to be expected when you are first starting out. All that mattered was how I felt telling those terrible jokes. I liked being up onstage, and I wanted my writing to get better. And I loved loved loved the adrenaline rush that surged through me when I got a laugh.
After that night, I was hooked. I started commuting to Los Angeles from Temecula at night to do shows. It was a three-hundred-mile round-trip, but I’d practice my set in the car, sign up for the open-mic lottery at venues like the Comedy Store or the Improv, and wait to see if I got picked to go up. I did a lot of weird shows back then: shows in front of troops in their rec rooms on base, shows in coffee shops, shows in loud bars, even burlesque shows. I performed wherever I could, whether it was at an open mic, a bringer show (where you’re required to bring your own paying audience in order to get onstage), or a show that someone had scraped together in the corner of a restaurant. If the show was at a bar or a club, I’d have to wait outside until it was time for my set because I was only nineteen. I’d wait until it was my turn to perform, and then a waitress or a busser or whoever would come out and escort me to the stage, let me do my set, and then kick me out.
My father and I even camped out on the sidewalk in front of the Hollywood Improv so I could audition for Last Comic Standing. We brought a giant pink princess tent because we thought it was hilarious. We stayed overnight, talking to the other comedians in line as I tried to choose which jokes I should tell. I didn’t make it, of course. I was still so green. I remember the look of disdain on Natasha Leggero’s face when she told me that I should keep working on it. I’m sure I gave her a completely oblivious look of hope and eagerness and Yasss, Queen, I will.
But just as I started to really find my footing, just as my jokes began to take shape, just when the lights became easier to look beyond . . . I started to hate doing stand-up.
I honestly didn’t get it. I had loved stand-up when I started. But then that feeling began to wane, and soon anxiety crept in. I became irrationally afraid of the stage and the audience, despite the fact that I was no longer bombing the way I had when I first started out. I wasn’t necessarily great, but I definitely wasn’t terrible. I was fine. Forgettable, maybe, but cute and weird. I always got at least a few laughs. So why all the crazy anxiety and dread? Why now?
If I had a show, I would obsess over how terrible it would go, and more often than not, I would cancel it altogether so that I could finally eat and sleep and breathe. I had only been doing stand-up for a year or so at this point, and I had no idea whether what I was experiencing was normal or not.
Now, thankfully, I know that it is. Some comedians will give it up, come back, give it up, come back. It’s a hard craft. Even now, though I do stand-up, I don’t feel like I am a stand-up comic. Stand-up is a lifestyle. The greats are, I believe, born to do it. I don’t feel like I could ever claim that. That’s something else.
My anxiety got so bad that I stopped working on my stand-up altogether. I thought about it nonstop, but I refused to get up onstage. I’d go to open-mic shows, write my name down, then quickly cross it off the list and watch the show instead. Sometimes I’d write my name down, then halfway through the open mic I would leave and drive the 150 miles back home.
I tried telling myself that it would take time. I just needed more practice. But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I was having stomach problems, and my hair was coming out in chunks. Not even my hypnotherapist’s positive affirmations could get me back onstage. (Yes, I had a hypnotherapist. It’s so weird to actually write that sentence. He gave me free sessions because he dealt specifically with survivors of suicide.)
Looking back now, I can see that my anxiety stemmed from my desire to sabotage myself, to punish myself. My stage presence was getting better, my jokes were becoming more polished, and I was building a community of people who soon became friends. But I couldn’t help but find a way to undermine myself. A part of my brain would whisper to me: “You don’t deserve this. It’s not fair that you’re happy while Kristina’s ashes sit in your parents’ living room.” I wasn’t yet able to talk about Kristina’s death or my pain. I wasn’t able to find any light in all that darkness and it paralyzed me completely.
But that’s when I found a wonderful savior, a solution for my stage fright: the Internet. Specifically, YouTube.
My brother, Will, had introduced me to YouTube years ago. He’d make these weird videos, or he and Kristina would prank me with hidden cameras and he’d upload it to his Willzorh channel. He’d shown me Ryan Higa and cat fail videos and lonelygirl15. I never really thought much about it. YouTube just seemed like a random place where you could find random stuff. I’d never thought of it as a place where you could put random stuff.
But in 2011, by the time I was ready to run away from the happiness that stand-up had brought me, YouTube had become way more of a thing. Ryan Higa now had millions of viewers. In fact, there were plenty of people with millions of views and subscribers. There were people who were making money from their views and subscribers. There were Web series like The Guild, which made Felicia Day the queen long before being geeky was cool. There were people who’d been discovered on YouTube, like Justin Bieber, people who were now famous.
Yes, I thought. Yes, this is for me! Stand-up is all about lights, people, a microphone. Nightclubs and bars and drinks after the midnight show. But YouTube? YouTube’s got homebody written all over it: staying inside by yourself, not having to deal with anyone, editing and cringing at your face onscreen until you’re somewhat happy with the result. Never having to leave your house. Using your cat as a background element. Uploading your finished product to the Internet and never dealing with the reality of a live audience.
The fact that I could now perform without a live audience set me on fire. I had so many ideas! I decided to hold myself to a schedule: no matter what, I would make at least one video every week.
When I first started, videos came easily. There were so many things I wanted to talk about: How I’d always believed that when I turned sixteen I’d have a superpower, and how adulthood felt like a sham. How I wanted to kill the inner Internet troll inside of my head that was my worst enemy. My conflicted feelings about being a homebody. I reenacted fantasies I had when I was younger, like wanting to be a spy and practicing witchcraft in middle school.
Making these videos was fun. I loved playing around with the most basic visual effects, buying props and doing set design, creating makeshift costumes out of what I had lying around the house. I’d spend a day writing a bunch of scripts, then film for the next day or two, and conclude the week with editing and any visual effect work. I was a one-woman show. I came to love the seemingly endless freedom that YouTube provided.
Once I blew through the more superficial topics, though, I was forced to write more personal, deeper stories. I started talking about my social anxiety, my struggle with organized religion, and stories about random encounters in my life. That run-in with the guy on the elevator who wouldn’t move, the awkward confrontation with someone who hit my parked car and walked away. Anytime I experienced something relatively interesting or morally conflicting, I made a video about it. YouTube became my diary, and making videos became a form of catharsis. I would go to therapy to discuss my latest struggle, and then I’d go home and make a video to reinforce whatever advice my therapist offered that resonated with me. It became a way for me to document various chapters in my life, get closure on certain issues, and hold myself accountable.
Anna Akana is an actress, comedian, and filmmaker most known for her online weekly show with 1.6 million subscribers. She’s been in the feature films Ant-Man and Hello, My Name Is Doris, and can be seen on Comedy Central’s Corporate. She lives in Los Angeles.