Every story in Kate Doyle’s collection I Meant It Once offers breathtaking glimpses into the lives of twenty-somethings.
The Millions wrote of the book:
“Doyle’s debut story collection plumbs the inner lives of young women faced with the uncertainty, nostalgia, and romantic tribulations that are part and parcel of being alive in your twenties. This one is pitched for readers of Batuman, Moshfegh, and Lockwood—a holy trinity of sharp, searching female characters.”
My book I Meant It Once is a collection of short stories: about being a mess in your twenties, about the human weirdness of living with your own memories, and about the relationships in our lives that span many years—with siblings, partners, parents, and old friends. I wrote the book over the course of my own messy twenties (and still a little messy early thirties!) This is a soundtrack to those years, and to accompany I Meant It Once.
It’s Not All About You, Lawrence
In “That Is Shocking,” the first story in the book, the narrator retells the darkly funny story of a romantic humiliation, when a guy she was seeing ended things by gifting her a basket of heart-shaped scones. He’s too busy to keep seeing her, he says, and when she asks if he knows she’s busy too, he replies, kindly, infuriatingly: No, that’s how busy I’ve been—too busy to notice that you’re busy. If I could give this narrator a song to sum up what she should say next (but doesn’t), it’s this one: a sunny-day song, brassy and joyful, that doubles as an absolutely merciless telling-off. The lyrics are deliciously unsparing: You think you get it more than anyone else (blah blah blah) / But have you ever spent some time with yourself?
Dress Up In You, Belle & Sebastian
I first heard this gently angry track (and its gorgeous trumpet solo!) when I was eighteen. I loved it right away even though I wasn’t old enough to have really experienced what it’s about: falling out with a friend, still pining for that friendship years later, still trying to understand what went wrong, still getting angry just thinking about it. I love the potent and contradicting emotions at play: the narrator is at once withering about her old friend, an actress—You’re made of card / You couldn’t act your way out of a paper bag—and at the same time openly longs for her—I wish that you were here / We would have had a lot to talk about. These are themes that recur throughout I Meant It Once, where the narrators often fixate on relationships that are fading into the past: Helen’s best friend Catherine grows distant, Christine’s friend Daisy moves away.
All Too Well, Taylor Swift
Even before this song became extra-sensational with the release of the ten-minute version (and with the subsequent tweet from the inimitable Dionne Warwick, “If that young man has Taylor’s scarf he should return it”) I loved the lyric that gives the song its title: I was there, I remember it all too well. In I Meant It Once, characters snag on memories from the past; they revisit again and again old stories that bother them for reasons they can’t entirely explain. Unable to let things go, they comb through distracting memories, looking for some illuminating detail that might bring clarity. I wrote these stories in part to go against certain “rules” in fiction writing, rules that say plots must have resolution, transformation must occur, and a change is what makes a story worth telling. Instead, I Meant It Once is about stories we tell because they have no resolution—about telling what happened as a way to understand what hurts about it, why something has stayed with you. The past coexists with the present in I Meant It Once, and colors what’s happening years later: Time won’t fly, it’s like I’m paralyzed by it.
Divorce Song, Liz Phair
A few years ago on the podcast Song Exploder, Liz Phair spoke about the story behind this track from Exile in Guyville, her album of songs from a young woman’s point-of-view. She described her album a kind of experiment: “The young female voice carries the least authority in society. I wanted to see if you had a little-girl voice, which, I sort of did, what you could get away with saying. Would anyone listen, would they care?” I suppose my experiment is similar in I Meant It Once: most of the stories are narrated by young women. I’m interested in the formal similarities between short story collections and record albums: both are works of art composed of discrete parts, each part complete in itself but then arranged together within a larger whole, placed in an order so as to unfold a particular experience for the reader/listener. My book is made up of sixteen stories about young women: will anyone listen, will anyone care? It’s a demographic that, as a society, we’re quick to write off as “unserious.” When you said that I wasn’t worth talking to, I had to take your word on that.
Why Do I, Amy Rigby
This catchy song about doing inner battle with yourself first won my heart with cheeky lyrics like I look sweet but deep inside I’m awful/I’m colder than a frozen waffle. There’s a self-critical, palpably frustrated energy to Why Do I, as the narrator gently torments herself with questions about why she does the things she does. I’m tired of being tired of being / Why am I always disagreeing? / Why am I always giving in to my evil twin / I don’t know why. Throughout I Meant It Once, narrators wonder why they do the things they do: why they acted as they did in the past, why they let someone else get away with something, why they can’t let it go all these years later. Why do I pull wings off butterflies / look for things that hurt my eyes?
Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now, Starship
I love this song on its own, though it makes the I Meant It Once playlist mainly because I associate it with sibling stories—of which there are many in I Meant It Once—thanks to that scene in Skeleton Twins. Adult siblings played by Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig are fighting; he extends an olive branch by throwing on this track from their teenage years and beginning a flawless lip-sync routine. It’s clear he’s doing a bit they used to delight in together, but Wiig’s character coldly refuses to participate—at first. By the halfway point of this feel-good power ballad he’s worn her down though, and soon they’re best friends again, dancing around her living room. The whole things hilariously, devastatingly, exquisitely sums up sibling relationships: feuding one minute, thick as thieves the next, the best and worst parts of your past selves always right there with you.
Happy and Sad, Kacey Musgraves
To be honest my partner has been teasing me for years now because whenever this song comes on I’ll absently remark: “What a good album.” I love what an emotional song this is, and how the emotions both contradict each other and incite each other. The happier she gets, the sadder she is, and vice versa—and she’s keenly aware of those inner fluctuations, the joy and the dread. I Meant It Once is a lot about fear of change, coping with change, anticipating change, and this song sums that up so well: I’m the kinda person / who starts getting kinda nervous / when I’m having the time of my life.
30/90, from Tick Tick… Boom
Okay, and finally, allow me to detour into musical theater for a second. One winter a few years ago I used to love to put this song on in the car while I was running errands and sing it as loud as I possible could. Though written about turning thirty in the year 1990, there’s something about 30/90 that powerfully channels the more timeless anxiety of being in your twenties, moving inexorably toward your thirties, wondering what you’re doing with your life. I Meant It Once is partly about the desperate, dire feelings that come with this period of life: everything feels possible but every mistake feels like you’re ruining your life. The hyperbole of certain lyrics here get right to that youthfully overblown but deeply felt anxiety: Years are getting shorter / The lines on your face are getting longer/ Feels like you’re treading water / But the riptide’s getting stronger. Other lyrics are delightfully simple: They’re singing Happy Birthday / You just want to lay down and cry. One thing no one in I Meant It Once understands, until maybe the very end of the book, is how young they still are.
Kate Doyle’s short stories have been published in No Tokens, Electric Literature, Split Lip, Wigleaf, and other publications. Originally from New England, she is a former bookseller and a 2021 A Public Space Writing Fellow. She has lived in New York City, Amsterdam, and Ithaca, NY.