Notes on Notes to Boys: A Conversation with Pamela Ribon

by Jen Doll

In Pamela Ribon’s recent, very funny, moving memoir, Notes to Boys: And Other Things I Shouldn’t Share in Public, the author looks back at her many teenaged letters to her crushes, examining them from her current-day vantage point. I really loved it (so much that I included it here), and as a lifelong journal keeper with my own history of cringeworthy meanderings, wanted to know more about what inspired Ribon to examine her younger self in this way — and what she learned about not only “Little Pam” but also Current Pam, and writing itself, through the course of creating the book. Luckily, she was kind enough to answer a few of my questions by email.

Why did you write this book? What was the inception of the idea for it?

I started sharing some of my teen notes to boys on my website years ago and it immediately created a bit of a cheering section for the young version of myself. People were relating to “Little Pam,” while simultaneously cringing in mortification for her. Then I read a few letters at book signings and got to see in person what these letters can do to a human face when someone hears them. It’s a beautiful thing. My editor and publisher were in attendance for one of these readings and immediately decided that Little Pam needed “her own book.”

What do you most hope people will take away from it?

I’m proud of Notes to Boys because Rare Bird Lit encouraged and allowed me to make this more than just a reprinting of those letters, and an exploration of all the things that go into what makes high school such a uniquely painful, awkward, and trying time. I wanted to be able to laugh about it without ignoring just how un-funny a lot of those experiences were. We all went through that time when the world was both too big and too small for us. You never think you’ll survive it, and you can’t imagine anybody else felt like you did. This book has been very freeing, very rewarding, and also extremely terrifying. I puked up a lot of my secrets.

Where did these entries COME from?

There are about ten journals, three notebooks, and one gigantic green three-ring binder stuffed beyond capacity with lined three-hole punch paper and dot-matrix print-outs. I keep them in a few boxes that also have my drama T-shirts, presents from old boyfriends, report cards, a couple of trophies and so many withered old rose petals it’s like I robbed a potpourri kiosk.

What about your young self remains the same today, in terms of what we see reflected in your notes to boys?

I’m still pretty trusting, and looking for the grand gesture in just about everything. I tend to over romanticize, and I still write way too many words when I’m trying to say something I care about. I’ve already written way too much and we’re only on the fourth question!

What do you wish you could tell your young self about boys and relationships (and, perhaps, about writing)?

One fight doesn’t mean everything is falling apart. On the flip side, three thousand fights doesn’t mean you still have to try to work it out because this is all there is.

Actually, that’s probably advice for my more grown-up self. Back then I might say: “Hey. Go outside. Try some sports, or something.”

How would you react to Little Pam if you met her today?

I would approach her gently, with a mixtape, and teach her about lattes. I would let her know that someday she will meet others just like her and if she hangs in there, life is going to be a lot like the one she dreams of. Then I would let her listen to Radiohead as a promise that I’m not lying.

What’s the benefit to a writer in going back and examining her own writing — even if it was stuff she never intended to publish?

I can see where I was teaching myself how I wanted to sound. I could tell when I was mimicking an author I admired, and when I was writing straight from the heart. It was embarrassing to see some things that felt like I’d written them yesterday. I write often for a young or teen audience these days, so it was a good for me to place myself back in my own head at that time — what I cared about the most and how I saw the world. I was really concerned with justice, with morals and truths. I know I thought I was supposed to change the world before I was eighteen. I was so desperately in search of an idol. You guys, to be honest, I just wanted to be Billie Jean from The Legend of Billie Jean. And listen, if you are reading this and can give me the greenlight, all I want to do is write the updated version of that movie. Will someone please let me do a remake of The Legend of Billie Jean?!

When did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

It wasn’t so much of a decision as it was something I’d always done. I moved a lot as a kid and my mom always had me tell myself stories to pass the time. My father was an aspiring writer, too, so I was often “playing writer” with my own typewriter when I was little. I wrote my first horror short story when I was eight. It’s still my mom’s favorite thing I’ve ever written. …She’s also a tough crowd, so…

Then one day after college I got paid in candy and barrettes when I wrote a freelance piece for (which would one day go on to launch and I knew this was how I wanted to make a living.

What’s the best thing about writing?

Little Pam, who sat in her room and so desperately wanted to be heard, now has a way to deliver heartfelt notes right to the hands of thousands of people. I don’t think I even knew I could dream that big.

The worst?

The worst part changes all the time. The first draft. The rewrites. The waiting. The pitching. It’s usually whatever part I’m currently at.

Funniest thing you experienced in the writing of this book?

We recently had a book reading where my mom had to leave during an awkward passage.

Which one?!

I had a bunch of friends read different pieces. My friend Andi was reading the “…for this does not give justice to the past two days…” letter. That’ll teach [my mom] for trying to read my diary, even if it is in public, decades later.

Previously: 15 Books by Women to Read Now (or Very Soon)

Jen Doll is a regular contributor to The Hairpin.