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photo by Tim Sullivan
I do this questionnaire once a year. Here’s last year’s.
It is most famous for appearing at the end of each issue of Vanity Fair magazine and James Lipton always posed the questions to his guests on Inside the Actor’s Studio.
I started doing it when I was 18 years old. Each year I sit down to answer the questions and reflect on the answers I gave in previous years (which I never alter or change, no matter how embarassing they seem as I get older).
This is my 8th consecutive year.

1. What is your idea of perfect happiness?

2010: Laughing.

2011: Not waking up alone.

2012: Laughing until my guts hurt with Ian.

2013: The mornings when neither Ian and I have to get up for work, the sun is shining in our bedroom window and there’s the promise of coffee and a warm shower.

2014: Five more minutes in my warm, cozy bed when my pain is at a minimum and my imagination, at max.

2015: When my dog does her happy-butt dance and when I go to sip my coffee, it’s still warm.

2016: A day to myself, nice enough weather for a good walk, no pain, no nausea, plenty of coffee and a bookstore that opens before 10 a.m.

2017: The first hour I’m awake, before the sun comes up, when I’m pouring coffee and looking for Mars and Jupiter in the silent dawn.

2. What is your current state of mind?

2010: Nostalgic.

2011: Sleepy.

2012: Schemeing.

2013: Calm.

2014: A bit frazzled.

2015: Inexplicably sad.

2016: Exhausted.

2017: Tenuous.

3. What is your greatest fear?

2010: That I’m not the smartest person in the room.

2011: Not being able to pay my bills.

2012: Losing Ian.

2013: That I’m only 22 and I’ve already felt such a great deal of pain; how much can I handle?

2014: Dying before I get old.

2015: The inevitable heat-death of the universe. Actually, no. I’m not really afraid of anything anymore. Que sera sera.

2016: That my body will outlive my mind, that I’ll live long enough to experience the complete collapse of my nervous system as a result of this disease I apparently have.

2017: That the years I had where I was not ill were the only ones I’ll ever have, and that I wasted them.

4. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

2010: I give up on people too easily.

2011: I’m stubborn in ways that hurt me.

2012: I can’t relax.

2013: When I get angry, I say horrible things.

2014: Avarice — about my time, my energy, my books. . .

2015: I can’t for the life of me keep my car, or my house, clean. I’m literally a hopelessly filthy person and I don’t even notice it.

2016: I’ve spent so much of my life trying to find meaning in, or give meaning to, things that are devoid of it.

2017: Fear makes me impatient.

5. What is the trait you most deplore in others?

2010: Lateness.

2011: Laziness.

2012: A sense of entitlement.

2013: The same I deplore in myself: unwarranted verbal cruelty.

2014: Pettiness.

2015: I’d say lateness but I’m slowly realizing that on-time people are late to me.

2016: Ignorant arrogance.

2017: Sniveling.

6. What is your greatest extravagance?

2010: Books and coffee.

2011: Books and coffee. ☺


2013: Still books and coffee, probably always will be! ☺

2014: Books, coffee and sleep.

2015: Books, coffee and fanfiction.

2016: Books, coffee, fanfiction, and heating pads.

2017: Books, coffee, hope.

7. What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

2010: Patience. If you wait too long, you lose your grip.

2011: Chastity. Make your own assumptions.

2012: …still Chastity.

2013: Being excessively humble.

2014: Excessive temperance. Moderation should be in moderation!

2015: Patience, I think. I hate waiting.

2016: I’m not Catholic, and for the first time in the 7 years I’ve been answering these questions I actually looked up the — 7! Go figure — virtues. As of late, I’d have to say: fuck fortitude. Fuck persistence and diligence. Give up on stuff — free yourself. Half the shit you’re devoted to either doesn’t matter, or won’t matter, so once in a while give yourself the opportunity to be gratified. It’s not gluttonous to take a fucking break from your suffering once in a while.

2017: In these trying times I think we need to stop forgiving or showing mercy to people who are undeserving — including ourselves, at times.

8. What is it that you most dislike?

2010: Being condescended.

2011: Being too warm.

2012: White countertops.

2013: The dark months of the year.

2014: Cold coffee that’s gone stale.

2015: Rogue endometrial tissue.

2016: The profound sense of insignificance attached my life at the moment.

2017: Socks.

9. On what occasion do you lie?

2010: To avoid looking incompetent.

2011: To avoid confrontation.

2012: So that other people won’t be afraid.

2013: When I’m trying to stall.

2014: To keep other people happy, content, avoid their anger.

2015: To permit small children to keep their magic a little longer.

2016: To make haggard waitstaff, retail workers, and / or customer service people feel better — especially this time of year 🎅

2017: To keep people from worrying about me.

10. What do you dislike most about your appearance?

2010: My profile.

2011: Everything.

2012: My nose.

2013: My profile is still pretty. . .unsettling.

2014: I still dislike how I look in profile. I guess I’ll never be happy with it.

2015: I don’t recognize the person I am; my physicality has changed so dramatically that I’m still figuring it out.

2016: I’m never going to like how I look, and I’ve accepted that. Because, apparently, liking how you look when you’re female is “brave”, and I’m brave for a thousand other more interesting reasons than talking about every stupid little thing that I dislike about my face.

2017: I’m currently so gaunt I can’t stand to look at myself, but I can’t ignore it completely because my bones are so painfully exposed that I’m bruising.

11. What is the quality you most like in a man?

2010: Drive. Motivation.

2011: Ian’s Ian-ness.

2012: Kindness.

2013: Loyalty.

2014: Independence, maturity.

2015: Preferably someone who appreciates their solitude.

2016: I appreciate when men don’t treat me like a woman, and just treat me like a human. Feels weird to have to specify that.

2017: After this year, I gotta say: it’d be nice to know a man of quality.

12. What is the quality you most like in a woman?

2010: A good sense of humor!

2011: Wisdom.

2012: Athleticism.

2013: Maternal.

2014: Straight-forwardness, no talking behind other women’s backs.

2015: Vulgarity. I’m starting to appreciate it in myself, too.

2016: God, I love bitches.

2017: I am perpetually drawn to women who are gentle with me.

13. Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

2010: I think it’s easier for others to say. I know there are many phrases I repeat ad nauseum.

2011: Shit I saw on the internet.

2012: “True facts.”

2013: When I’m at work: “Thanks for your patience!”

2014: “Womp” — I say it to absolve social situations of their awkwardness.

2015: Currently, “I’m working on a book. . .”

2016: I don’t know. Tell me, readers, where do I get lazy?

2017: When the copyeditor was going through my manuscript she flagged all the times I used the word “just” as a qualifier and GOD DAMN, it was BAD. I’ve never been so conscious of how incessantly I excuse myself for simply existing.

14. What or Who is the greatest love of your life?

2010: Coffee. Really, I’m an esteemed coffee drinker.

2011: Ian, but sometimes I cheat on him with coffee. Coffee’s my old flame these days.

2012: Aside from still being in love with Ian, I’ve had a lifelong love affair with literature that I’m trying to recapture.

2013: Other than Ian, of course. . .I’d have to say coffee and books.

2014: Saying this is a single woman: myself, or at least, I’m trying to love myself that much.

2015: Hillary. We’ve been best friends for 20 years. That’s better than any marriage could ever hope to be.

2016: I’m afraid to love anything that much because my life feels so threatened, and potentially so very limited.

2017: I’d like to think I still have that ahead of me to look forward to.

15. When and Where were you the happiest?

2010: The early days of my adolescence, among friends.

2011: I’m not sure I’ve truly been happy yet.

2012: The year I spent at Sarah Lawrence.

2013: I think right now. ☺

2014: The year I was at Sarah Lawrence, for sure. Before I got sick.

2015: I still do think that first year at Sarah Lawrence. I’ve yet to be that happy and in some ways, I doubt I’ll ever be that happy again. Mostly because I’ll never be that person again.

2016: That first year at college, for sure. It’s true, I’ve never been that happy again — but part of that might be growing up, and certainly a lot of it is to do with feeling physically miserable most days. The only time I felt purely happy, in spite of the physical misery, was when my nephew was born (four years ago this weekend). Mostly because, as mentioned above, I love Hillary. She’s my best friend. And knowing that was the happiest day of her life made it special for me, too.

2017: To the same point above, I’d really like to think I haven’t experienced it yet. That it’s something yet to come that I can live with the promise of one day experiencing. (Hopefully soon?)

16. Which talent would you most like to have?

2010: I wish I could cook !

2011: Guess what? Now I can cook. Now I have to learn proper chemistry.

2012: I wish I played a sport.

2013: Mental math! Or even math on paper. . .with a calculator!

2014: I’d love to be a fundamentally tidy person — I wish I could “keep house” as they say.

2015: Well, tidiness still but I also really wish I could whistle.

2016: I wish I was crafty — I think having creative hobbies that don’t have to do with anything I do for a living would be useful. I don’t paint, I don’t scrapbook, I don’t knit. . .but I wish I was interested or had a knack for something like that. Or at least the money to try.

2017: I wish I was one of those people who could put stuff together without needing to consult the directions. As opposed to being someone who takes a stab without looking at the directions, fucks it all up, *and then* looks at the directions.

17. What do you consider your greatest achievement?

2010: Getting in to Sarah Lawrence. Making it through the first year with stellar grades.

2011: Living twenty years.

2012: Having the same best friend for sixteen years. ☺

2013: My relationship with Ian. I need to appreciate it more, sometimes it’s easy to take for granted.

2014: Having the same best friend for almost twenty years.

2015: Well, speaking at Stanford and getting a literary agent ain’t too shabby at the vernal age of twenty-four.

2016: I guess having the book but also maybe not dying despite my body’s best efforts to kill me? Which are ongoing and seem disproportionately aggressive, given my age?

2017: I have to assume that any hits on me have not been successful.

18. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

2010: I’d be a little less scared.

2011: I’d stop caring about my weight.

2012: I’d have more compassion for myself.

2013: I’d love to have more energy!

2014: I’d be a little more care-free.

2015: I would have loved my first love more.

2016: I’m just so tired. I just don’t want to be in so much pain.

2017: I suspect a little optimism might do me good.

19. If you were to die and come back as a person or thing, what do you think it would be?

2010: I’d want to be a chimpanzee.

2011: I’d like to be a very happy, very loyal, very athletic dog.

2012: Something that likes to burrow, so maybe a gopher?

2013: A coffee maker. I’d happily sniff myself all day.

2014: I think I’d like to have another go at being a person — but a bro next time.

2015: If I could choose, I’d still like to be a man on the next go-round, but if I didn’t have a choice I’m sure I’m destined to be some kind of toothy woodland creature.

2016: In my next life I’d like to be a ballerina, but die before I’m 35. Go out while I’m still shining.

2017: This time around has been quite enough, thank you.

20. What is your most treasured possession?

2010: I have a box of things that I treasure and take from place to place.

2011: Still have the box, still hauling it around.

2012: SAME BOX! A few new additions to it.

2013: Still that same box — it’s my heritage.

2014: That same box — still in my closet.

2015: Same fucking box.

2016: I was afraid no one would believe me for saying “that box”, so I took a picture:

2017: Will I ever acquire something that means more to me than a cardboard box brimming with a mishmash of innocent sentiment?

21. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

2010: Humiliation of any kind.

2011: If Ian died.

2012: If Ian died & I was nowhere near my friends or family.

2013: If Ian died, I was nowhere near family and friends AND there was no coffee.

2014: None of things I previously listed, oddly enough. I lost the man, lost some people and have been without coffee. So, I guess I have to define a new all-time-low.

2015: I just can’t stop thinking about the fact that Donald Trump is running for President and people might actually vote for him.

2016: I just can’t stop thinking about the fact that Donald Trump ran for president and people actually voted for him and now he’s president.

2017: When you still believe there’s a reason to carry on, and you want to, but you’re so weary that you just can’t.

22. What is your most marked characteristic?

2010: My Julia Roberts teeth.

2011: My acerbic wit.

2012: Teeth or eyes I’d say.

2013: Physically? Eyes or teeth. Personality? Sense of humor.

2014: My teeth and probably my sense of humor.

2015: Teeth and, now anyway, my spectacles.

2016: My teeth or my eyes, depending on how many feet away you’re standing.

2017: My eyes and my penchant for cackling alone in the dark continue to convince people I’m a witch.

23. What do you most value in your friends?

2010: A remarkable sense of humor. Good hugs.

2011: Easy going personalities, like to sit down.

2012: Good listeners.

2013: Being good at staying in touch and understanding how much I SUCK at it.

2014: The ability to laugh at the same stupid shit that makes me laugh.

2015: Understanding that when it seems like I’m putting work ahead of everything, including them, it’s not because I don’t love them, it’s because I am locked in an unhealthy obsession with achievement that I haven’t figured out how to escape yet.

2016: The older I get the more joy I find in watching my friends grow into cool people, with cool lives and interests, not all of which involve me in any way. Like watching baby birds fly away from the nest.

2017: Fun on long car rides.

24. Who are your favorite writers?

2010: John Irving, Ann Lamott, Dickens.

2011: Joyce Carol Oates, Mary Karr, Oliver Sacks.

2012: Marya Hornbacher, Mary Karr, Anne Sexton.

2013: Mary Roach, E.O. Wilson.

2014. Anne Sexton, Mary Roach, Mary Karr, Joyce Carol Oates.

2015: Anne Sexton, Mary Karr, D.H. Lawrence, Chris Bohjalian.

2016: Anne Sexton, Annie Dillard, Virginia Woolf, Barbara Pym, Meg Barclay, Evan S. Connell.

2017: All of the above, but this year I found myself quite taken by A.M. Homes, Siri Hustvedt, Marianne Wiggins, and Andy Weir.

25. Who is your favorite hero of fiction?

2010: Dana Scully. I still identify with her. My only childhood idol that I can truly say that of.

2011: Probably still Scully, actually. I think I’ll always sort of feel she’s part of who I am.

2012: I can’t believe I’m saying this but in ways, it’s still Scully and it probably always will be.

2013: Yup; still Scully.

2014: Scully! Eternally, seriously, what a role model.

2015: Scullaaaay. X-Files revival happening this year, man. My loyalty has paid off and then some. Scully’s the type of woman I hoped to become. I’ve failed my younger self in that regard, but I admire the dream.

2016: SCULLY. Before 2016 is over I’m gonna write a deserving thinkpiece. She’s been part of me since I was eight years old, and with the revival this year it’s so strange to see this whole other generation of young women internalizing her. For so many years it felt like something totally unique to my coming of age (and all the people on the old forums of the ’90s that I never met, haha). I’m not mad about it, I’m just envious that these young women have these illustrious online communities now, not just to celebrate Scully but to celebrate themselves. Say what you want about Tumblr, but back in the day when I was a baby X-Phile, I would have given a competitively priced organ for that community.

2017: Well. Still Scully, and I’m a little emotional looking back at this because as many of you know, Gillian Anderson was in fact that first person to blurb my book so. . .I don’t know, kids. Life can be pretty weird and wonderful if you are.

26. Which historical figure do you most identify with?

2010: Jane Goodall ☺

2011: Jackie O.

2012: I still feel connected to Jackie O. I find I relate to any woman who wanted more.

2013: All women scientists!

2014. I still feel a connection to Jackie Kennedy — I have yet to shake that. I think I also connect to the early women of science who fought to have their perspectives and ideas heard.

2015: Barbara Pym.

2016: Oddly enough my connection to Jackie Kennedy came up again recently, and in case I do get to write about her I will hold off on elaborating. I will say that the quote of hers I often remind myself of, especially as of late, is this: “If you produce one book you’ll have done something wonderful in your life.”

2017: Sometimes I worry that I’m destined to join the leagues of women who history remembers because they grieved their incredible losses in life in a way that was somewhat accessible (insofar as it was public) and with a sort of cool stoicism that people accept because it puts them at ease — whereas the real displays of grief that are visceral give a lot of people in Western culture a sort of “oh how pathetic,” secondhand embarrassment. It makes me want to just let go and lose my shit in the street one of these days.

27. Who are your heroes in real life?

2010: Basically any woman who stands up for herself.

2011: Everyone I’ve known in this big life, really.

2012: The little girls on the playground who make the boys let them play kickball too.

2013: Anyone who has sacrificed something of themselves for love.

2014: Hillary — watching her become a mother has been an incredible gift to me and I admire her so much.

2015: I would have an easier time listing people I don’t find heroic.

2016: I stopped idolizing real people a long time ago. Humans are only heroes in moments, not lifetimes.

2017: I’ve come to realize that the world’s real heroes are the ones who work thanklessly to make sure the rest of us have predictable creature comforts. This last year I have been truly appreciative of the simple gift of there being toilet paper in an empty public bathroom.

28. What are your favorite names?

2010: Noah, Riley, Thea, Civry, Brenna.

2011: William Philip, Samantha May. Still like Noah & Thea. ☺

2012: Gavin Miles, Nola, Noelia, Natalie.

2013: Loa, Gavin, William, Lennon.

2014: Ettie, Noah, Jessamine, Remember (“Mem”)

2015: Elsie, Ethlyn, Jo, Noah, Henry, Rhodanthe, Clea, Roz.

2016: Calla, Rhodanthe, Noah, Jo, Cassie, Loa, Esper, Finley, Thea, William, Maisie, Linus, Harriet, Oscar, Joss, Auden.

2017: Rose-Leigh, David Henry.

29. What is your greatest regret?

2010: Not letting go when I should have.

2011: I haven’t taken enough stupid risks.

2012: I didn’t have enough fun as a teenager. I worried too much.

2013: I have said some horrible things in anger.

2014: I haven’t been having a very fun life.

2015: I’ve run away from more things than I’ve run toward.

2016: I wish I’d eaten more interesting, delicious food while I had the chance.

2017: I’ve given a lot of myself to people who were indifferent about me, and not enough to the people who aren’t.

30. How would you like to die?

2010: Doing something nice.

2011: While people are laughing at a joke I told.

2012: Quickly & quietly.

2013: After the last page of a very satisfying book.

2014: Gently, in my warm bed.

2015: Ready.

2016: Certain I did the best I could.

2017: With a little warning. . .but not too much.

Abby Norman is a science writer and editor based in New England. Her first book ASK ME ABOUT MY UTERUS: A QUEST TO MAKE DOCTORS BELIEVE IN WOMEN’S PAIN will be released March 6, 2018.