Jenny Lawson is a big booming voice on the web. Her online name -- the Bloggess -- demands attention (and, looked at through a certain lens, worship). Her tales are bawdy, irreverent, searingly honest, big and loud. Her following is outsized, too, with 2 to 3 million hits per month. She keeps her readers in stitches (who SAYS women can't be funny?), and she proves that blogging can be a force for good (just ask the thousands of needy families she's helped through her personal do-good, pay-it-forward campaigns ... there's also the traveling red dress, which we will get to in a moment).
In her new book, "Let's Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir," her voice is much the same. It's the story of her rather unconventional childhood, with a father who was a taxidermist and whose idea of fun was putting his hand inside a dead squirrel and making it into a puppet; and of her opposites-attract marriage to Victor, a rather straitlaced Republican, who sighs and rolls his eyes a lot but who clearly adores her. Hers is basically a Munsters-meets-Clampetts-meets-Dharma-and-Greg kind of a tale, with Lawson playing Marilyn and Ellie May and both Greg and Dharma.
So after reading chapters about getting her arm stuck up a cow's nether regions while attempting artificial insemination, and arguing with her husband about whether Jesus is a zombie, actually talking to the woman is a bit of a shock. Hers is a small voice, sweet and lovely. Almost shy.
And right there is the power and possibility of the Internet.
"Most bloggers are emotionally unstable and often awkward in social situations, which is why so many of us turned to blogging in the first place," she writes in her book. Her reasons for blogging, she says, and others' reasons for reading, are to share in ways that too many of us find too difficult to do in person.
Unlike many of the most popular mom bloggers, though, Lawson did not start out online. She began 11 years ago by writing an ink-on-paper manuscript for what became "Let's Pretend This Never Happened." It was, she says, "a love letter to my family," particularly her now 7-year-old daughter, Hailey. "I have a terrible memory," she explains, "and when I am a grandmother, this way I would have a reminder."
She was just a few chapters in when a writer at what was then her local paper, the Houston Chronicle, resigned from their parenting blog, saying, "I don't know that you can be a good mother and a good blogger, so I quit," Lawson remembers. "I called on a whim and said, 'Apparently I am a terrible mother, because I would love to take this.'" She still writes "Good Mom/Bad Mom" for the Chronicle, along with her personal site, The Bloggess, and a periodic selection of terrible parenting "wisdom" called "Ill Advised" for The Stir.
It's a safe bet that most of her readers come for the laugh-aloud humor that led Babble to name her the Funniest of its Top 100 Bloggers this year. Stories like the one about Beyonce the five-foot-tall metal chicken that she brought home from a trip to the outlet mall after she and Victor had a fight over buying towels and she got back at him by bringing home Beyonce instead. She placed it outside his home office window. (The chicken now has its own Facebook page, with 38,000 likes, topping Lawson's page by about 4,000.)
But while they may come for the laughs, readers stay for the raw and personal tales of Lawson's battles against depression, and rheumatoid arthritis, and, most recently, cutting and self-harm. And, in time, they become part of her crusade to change the world or, at least, one small part of it, which, like her online persona, has become far larger than its modest, unassuming beginnings.
Like the post she put up two winters years ago, saying she would give out $30 Amazon gift certificates to the first 20 people who left messages on her blog. Readers jumped in and volunteered to help. Within four days, more than 1,000 readers had sent out $42,000 in gift cards to make Christmas for children they had never met.
And like the Red Dress. She had always wanted a big red ball gown, she says, and about two years ago a friend made her a gift of one, then took her to a local graveyard and took artistic photos of the bright red against the pale headstones. Lawson wrote a post about how that dress represented "all the other capricious, ridiculous, overindulgent and silly things that we desperately want but never let ourselves have because they are simply 'not sensible.' Things like flying lessons, and ballet shoes, and breaking into spontaneous song, and building a train set, and crawling onto the roof just to see the stars better. Things like cartwheels and learning how to box and painting encouraging words on your body to remind yourself that you're worth it."
Readers responded to that with stories of their own, most famously a blogger who suffered from agoraphobia and who said that to be able to make it to BlogHer, the yearly gathering of women bloggers each summer, would be her version of the red dress. Lawson met her there, the original dress in hand. Since then, it (or its descendants) has been worn by women undergoing chemotherapy, celebrating their 40th birthday, buying their first house, having a sex change at age 60. The dress, too, has a Facebook page, and most recently was worn by Susan Niebur, who wrote the blog Toddler Planet, before her death from breast cancer in February.
"It's easy to bash the Internet as a tough brawling place," Lawson says. But "organic" do-good tales like these show that "really there's a soft, sweet center."
"I feel lucky to have found it," she says.
Readers could say the same about Lawson herself.
What's your red dress?
Jenny Lawson, aka The Bloggess, describes the physical representation of something less tangible, but just as fierce and bright, as a red ball gown:
all the... capricious, ridiculous, overindulgent and silly things that we desperately want but never let ourselves have because they are simply 'not sensible'. Things like flying lessons, and ballet shoes, and breaking into spontaneous song, and building a train set, and crawling onto the roof just to see the stars better. Things like cartwheels and learning how to box and painting encouraging words on your body to remind yourself that you're worth it.
Below are photos from The Traveling Red Dress's Facebook page. Click through and then tell us ... what do you wear, do or say that makes you feel worth it? Share your thoughts in the comments below. Then, vote for the ideas you love by clicking Favorite next to other comments you think are Red Dress Worthy. We'll be sending our red dress to whoever gets the most Favorites by the end of April.
Follow Lisa Belkin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/lisabelkin