Memoir as Addiction

I recently read and wrote about Michelle Tea’s fine new collection of essays, Against Memoir, for the literary website The Millions. As I wrote in my review, I am a longtime fan (it might be more accurate, even, to say devotee) of Tea’s work, and she once gave me a professional boost by inviting me to read from my book White Elephants at her wonderful RADAR reading series in San Francisco, an experience I count as a highlight of my writing life. Still, I look at all the books I review thoroughly and write about them truthfully, and I can honestly say this is a collection that is worth your time. Read more of my thoughts about the book here, if you like:

Though she has published about as many books of fiction as she has memoir, Michelle Tea is probably best known for writing about her own life. This is due in part to the fact that even some of her fictional characters—in particular, the writer character named Michelle who starred in 2016’s astonishing dystopian novel-memoir hybrid, Black Wave—can be understood as stand-ins for herself. But it’s also certainly the case that the rollicking, hilarious cult of personality that is, in some ways, the engine of Tea’s books has become inseparable from the real person. If an artist is someone who creates their own life, then Tea has done this, then made that life into a further creation by chronicling every aspect of it and casting herself, her friends, and her lovers as larger-than-life, practically heroic figures.

There is something uniquely fascinating about the results of this. Reading Tea’s work, you get the sense that she is painting a large and beautiful but terrifying mural on the wall—all pinks and purples, fairytale turrets and monsters—and when the thing inevitably becomes enchanted, she will walk into it and decide to live there instead. As she writes in this new collection of essays, though, that might not be the healthiest impulse.

Continued at The Millions

Book pile

Hi! I’ve just read a few books from the pile beside my chair. Wanna hear about them?

Smile, by Roddy Doyle

This one was a doozy. All of Doyle’s novels are doozies, and I love them. I love him.  I didn’t want to love this one the way I did as I was reading it, though, because I knew it was about childhood sexual abuse, and even though it is so, so easy to be pulled in by the ease and naturalness of his storytelling, the whole brief thing (it’s only 200 pages long, and has the taut shape of a novella) is tight with the tension of something huge and bad lurking, a shipwreck under a black ocean that we know is there but can’t see.

It’s not possible to talk about many details of this story without ruining its impact for someone who hasn’t read it, but I can tell you that if you love Doyle’s writing, as I do, for its economy of language and vivid dialogue—as bright and honest as a conversation you catch going past you on the street—then you will not be unsatisfied by this book. It’s also true that most of his stories, not just this one, deal with the heartbreak of—what should I call it? Fatalism? (In his review of Smile for the Washington Post, Ron Charles called it “crumpled hope.”) It’s a characteristic of a lot of Irish fiction, actually. Have you read Doyle’s Barrytown books, The Snapper, The Van, and The Commitments? I read them years ago and later reread them, and was surprised by how sad they were, when what I’d remembered was their good humor and charm. That stuff is in there too, though. And the thing that’s really killer about Doyle’s writing is the way he has of making everything that happens to his characters feel … inevitable. That’s a better word than fatalism. In Smile he deals with those kinds of ideas—those kinds of lives—once again, but in a way that is new and frankly horrifying.

I read an interview with Doyle yesterday, about a week after I’d finished the book. (Though, apparently, it hadn’t finished with me.) He told his interviewer, the writer Catherine Dunne, that he wrote the novel the way he did to shock readers, particularly Irish readers who may have thought they’d already heard it all regarding the Catholic Church and sex abuse. Shock. The word is so overused, it’s tempting to dismiss his comment as insignificant, but a few hours after I read the interview the penny dropped for me and I felt, with embarrassment, that I understood the novel completely for the first time since I’d finished it. The truth is that the ending is open to interpretation and more than a little confusing, which is why I was left hanging for a good few days. Sorting it all out may not be the point, though—I think I see that now. It’s the attempt to sort it out that informs a true understanding of this novel, the going over of details and memories that don’t line up, the sickly sense that some information is missing and that you know what happened but don’t know at the same time. Those are effects of shock, aren’t they: that fug of confusion, the delayed reaction. It’s often the effect of abuse, too. I think it’s possible that Doyle has done something extraordinary with this novel, something I haven’t quite experienced before in my lifetime of reading. He’s given us a painful story that hurts worse later than it does in the moment of reading it, because it’s our memories of the character’s life that get wrecked upon reflection. In a real way, the loss is ours, and the story functions like real grief in our minds. We experience the horror of having to remember again and again, as if for the first time, that something terrible has happened.

Black Wave, by Michelle Tea

I recently read this article in The Guardian about a study, released by the Living Planet Index toward the end of 2016, which reports that two-thirds of all wild animals on Earth will be gone by the year 2020. It sounded dire, which chimed with my mood, I must admit. I feel cheerful enough at the moment, actually, but it just seems end-timey out there, don’t you think? We’ve been post-everything for a while now, for starters, and although I am aware that people, whenever in time they find themselves, are always standing on the edge of history, that cliff seems extra steep right now. When I finally got off my ass and read Michelle Tea’s new novel, which came out last year from Feminist Press (what took me so long?), I was primed for it to be about the end of the world, as I’d read that it was. I was READY for the end of the world. BRING IT.

To my deep pleasure, the book is for-real about the apocalypse, and this end starts out ordinarily enough, with a ruined Earth—stinking oceans, dry patches of dirt where trees and plants once grew, undrinkable water—that people have gotten used to ignoring. (!) Then the whole thing ramps up and starts cycling faster, and it becomes clear that the human race only has about another year to go. Our scrappy protagonist, Michelle—drinking and drugging too hard, even after she wants to stop—ignores even this for as long as she can until finally she faces the truth and decides to wait out the end of everything in a used bookstore in L.A. Tea makes this part feel deliciously cozy, like a dreamy dust-mote-filled opium den, even as the streets outside get more violent and chaotic by the day. This book is about the end of the world, yes, and it is also about the way you have to kind of die in order to change.

I have loved Michelle Tea’s writing for a long time now. Her evocation of a certain “scene”—her own punky, dirty, resilient young queer community of 90s San Francisco—is one of the things to love the most about it (but if you thought it was the thing, you’d be forgetting how just plain good she is, how bright and surprising her use of language and metaphor). This loving wallowing around in that familiar world shapes the first part of the book, but about halfway through, after she’s told us a short novel’s worth of a very engaging story about a young woman’s life in decline, the book itself starts to disintegrate and “get meta,” in the words of a funny bookseller I talked to about the novel after I’d finished it. “I didn’t need it to get meta,” is what she said, and I took some offense at her glibness—this is MICHELLE TEA we’re talking about, lady—but it forced me to admit that I too had worried as I read it that the rest of the novel would keep referring to itself and shifting from one reality to another, and I didn’t want to lose my footing. I was glad when it righted itself and went back to being a good old-fashioned story. A science fiction story about the end of the world, no less, which made me appreciate why Tea had to tear the whole thing down and start again.

This is the most developed piece of Tea’s writing that I’ve read; like Roddy Doyle did with Smile, she did some things with form that I’ve never seen in her writing before. Black Wave is—in a really interesting way—a story about the way cities change over time, leaving us feeling like the lives we’ve lived in them are disappearing, too. More than that, it’s about addiction and survival, and beginnings as much as endings. It’s entertaining, incisive, and wonderfully hopeful. I think you should read it.

Learning to Drive, by Katha Pollitt

Everyone (every woman?) in the English-speaking world with half the interest has already read this book, it seems like, except for me. It came out ten years ago, and a well-thought-of film was made from the title essay starring Ben Kingsley and Patricia Clarkson. (I haven’t seen that either.) And to look at the many reviews quoted inside the book, everyone seems to love it and its author, from Barbara Ehrenreich to Bust. After reading this collection of her essays, I can understand why.

Pollitt is a feminist who admits to having human weaknesses where romantic love is concerned, which is only an unpopular stance with people who refuse to tell their inner teenager to get a grip, and she’s great company, astute and funny and also surprising in the way that very smart people will continue to surprise you with their opinions even once you feel you’ve gotten the hang of the way they think. Mostly, she says exactly what she’s thinking, and nine times out of ten it’s what you’re thinking too. Pollitt, who has written for The Nation since the 90s, is probably best known for her cultural criticism, but these are personal essays of the best kind—they’re about her life and ideas, but they encompass bigger ideas too, and are likely to spark an interest in you on any number of topics—the Rubaiyat, council Communism, Danish painting. Her use of metaphor is poetic; well, she’s a poet too. Here’s how she describes the Internet: “It was like something a medieval rabbi might conjure up out of the Kabbalah: a magical set of propositions that acted as a mirror of reality and perhaps even allowed you to control it and change it.”

“Learning to Drive” is the most famous piece in the book and is about the lifelong New Yorker’s attempt to learn to drive a car after her cruddy little philandering “boyfriend” dumps her for one of his other ladies. (It always sounds so weird to me when grown adults use the words boyfriend and girlfriend.) Her disdain for men, on display throughout the book, might make you smile with pleasure or it might make you cringe a little, and I don’t think those two reactions break down all that neatly between the sexes. I winced a few times myself and found I didn’t even want to finish the essay “After the Men Are Dead,” but there were plenty of other times that I really enjoyed her cogent put-downs of men of the stupid, bullying variety, as well as her ability to pin-point precisely the ways that women’s lives are diminished by their behavior. She describes these things so confidently, she’s like Zorro: zip zip zip!

Pollitt’s opinions are only very occasionally strident, in my view, though your take on that may vary depending on how much you agree with what she’s saying. I almost always agree, but talk about wincing: When I read that “even the thought of rap makes [her] heart surge with sorrow and fury” because it makes her think about “the end of melody, the end of tender and delicate feelings, the end of any sort of verbal cleverness that requires a vocabulary of more than 300 words,” let me tell you, my heart surged with sorrow and fury. Because … what? How can someone so sensitive to nuance, and so knowledgable about art, hold such a doofy opinion? Verbal cleverness and vocabulary: Ever heard of Del the Funky Homosapien, Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Aesop Rock, Outkast? How about Biggie Smalls? (I’m trying to be fair here and only mention people who were around back in 2007, when this book was published.) As for tender feelings, come ON. Killer Mike is so full of tender feeling and righteous rage he’s about to spark a revolution with his music. I don’t want to say that no older white person should write about hip-hop because that’s silly too, but maybe people should think twice before doing it. Or maybe I just need to think twice before I bother to read it.

Still, I only had to go a few pages further, in the same essay (“End Of”), and bam, Pollitt is making me cry on the train, talking about how the old things, and sometimes the really good things, slip away with the passage of time and there’s nothing you can do about it. “The truth is, by the time you find out what’s happening, it’s usually too late. … It’s like the turquoise frogs—by the time scientists figured out what was wrong with them, they were gone.” And all of her jabs at men aside, “Good-bye, Lenin” is an interesting and warm portrait of her father written shortly after he died. A lover of poetry, a card-carrying member of the Communist Party (his FBI file makes the Bureau look almost lovably inept), and a lawyer who remained devoted to not “selling out” for his entire life, he comes across as a sincerely lovely human being.

 

Eat a hot dog really fast

I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to the idea of divination. Actually, I’ve always given this idea a fair amount of thought, since I tend to see symbols everywhere, not just in books but in real life, and then I try to plumb them for some meaning I can use. Recently, though, I’ve started ASKING for symbols. I’ve been learning about the colorful characters of the tarot—The High Priestess! The Hermit! The Sun!—and I’ve taken to doing a simple one-card reading for myself every morning. It’s a nice practice, a piece of quiet, thoughtful time that twinkles with a bit of magic, somewhere between the wisdom of a therapy session and the sudden secret bolt of truth that hits you in the moment you make a wish on your birthday candles.

On Friday I read that the comics artist Lynda Barry, whose work I sincerely love, has started an advice column for The Paris Review. The second question, and answer, are frankly bizarre (though the answer is also generous and funny, as all of Barry’s writing is) but the first one is Lynda Barry at her latter-day best, if you ask me. Though the letter writer is seeking advice in dealing with boredom, Barry’s answer is really about writing; writing via tricking yourself into writing, by doing oddball experiments and fun stunts that aren’t writing first.

Barry, if you don’t know, has put out three big beautiful books about writing over the last 10 years—What It IsPicture This, and Syllabus: Notes From an Accidental Professor— that are almost mystical in the ways that they advise the reader on how to begin this often difficult task. Every page is covered completely by a painting or a collage, and in this swirling, heady atmosphere, Barry tells us how she finds her way into creating, even when she’s stuck. In response to that question about boredom, Barry recommended elaborate project that involves chucking your cell phone out of sight, belting down a couple of stiff drinks, and going for a long and epic walk, during which you will undertake to answer some question in your mind by making symbols of three things: (i) something you see above eye level, (ii) something you find discarded or forgotten on the ground, and (iii) a person.

My husband and I went away this weekend, for a wedding in the countryside of northeast Pennsylvania near the New York state border, and we had nothing to do but loaf the day after the event. I figured this expanse of quiet Sunday would be a good time for me to try Barry’s experiment. The only changes I made were to do it throughout the course of the day, rather than during one focused walk, and I didn’t get drunk first. The question I asked the universe-slash-myself was: How should I focus my time and attention this fall? Let’s see what the universe, aka me, came up with.

i. On Sunday morning Joe and I drove up the road from where we were staying to the nearest small town, which is where my friend who got married lives. I’ve tried to imagine this town many times because my friend is also my pen-pal, and I think about the place where she lives every time I write her address on an envelope. I’ve always pictured an autumnal sort of place because of how much my friend loves Halloween, and I wasn’t totally wrong. The town turned out to be a very pretty and sturdily functional place in the manner of many towns, small and large, in this part of the state, with painted brick Victorian-era storefronts and lots of old shade trees. We walked all the way up and back its long main street, and my eyes were drawn to the spires of several churches. The one I liked the most was nestled on the top of a hill a few streets back, a big stone and stained-glass Catholic jawn that was built during the first few years of the 19th century. We followed a narrow walkway and bridge to get closer to it and just look. I haven’t considered myself Catholic, or indeed Christian, since I was released from my parents’ house 20-ish years ago, but I must say, I’ve become more interested in spirituality in recent years. Or—if not spirituality exactly, then connectedness. That’s why I’m always looking for symbols; they remind me that nothing is disconnected from anything else, even if I don’t understand why. I’m okay with not knowing why.

ii. Lynda Barry’s guidelines were pretty obviously written for a city dweller like me, but I wasn’t in Philly yesterday; I was in this small town, where very few people throw crap on the ground, or else someone is quick to clean it up if they do. I didn’t find anything meaningful to me discarded on the sidewalk during our walk, but later in the day, Joe and I got permission from the owner of the hotel where we were staying to borrow one of the rowboats to take out on the small lake. As we picked our way along the lake’s sandy shoreline near the dock, I felt dreamy with the heat and my experiment, and I saw a face in the arrangement of a few stones and a piece of wood under the water. I see faces in things pretty often, usually when I’m very tired or about to get a migraine. Seeing a pattern in something random is called pareidolia; it is commonplace and not abnormal (and apparently it’s most common for people to see faces in particular), but I experience it as slightly disturbing and maybe meaningful when it happens to me. This time, I saw the face not because I was getting a headache (thank god) but because my mind was relaxed and open and searching. I read this lake-face to mean that I should try to be in this state more often.

iii. In the evening we went back into town in search of some dinner. Only a few restaurants were open past 4:00 or 5:00 on a Sunday, and one of them was a little bar that we chose because it looked comfortable. When we walked in, I thought of the Lobo from Roseanne because of the place’s laid-back, rural vibe and prominent pool table. We took a tall table next to the bar, and sitting at the bar by himself was an old man I couldn’t take my eyes off of. He was skinny and wiry, and was wearing a black button-down shirt tucked into dark, belted dungarees, both of which were oversized on him. The jeans could properly be described as hitched up. He had a huge hawk nose and stooped shoulders, was probably in his 60s but seemed somehow ancient, and had a full head of dark hair, neatly parted. He sat at one end of the bar, facing forward, not morose or hunched over but content and bright eyed over his mug of beer. I hope someone paints his portrait in oils before he dies.

At first I felt awkward in the bar since we were from out of town and looked it, but the music playing in there was good, and after we ordered beers and I had a few sips I relaxed into being there. It only takes one drink for me to be convinced of the romance of the barroom all over again. I’m a huge cheeseball that way. “Sara” by Fleetwood Mac came on the jukebox and I crooned it to Joe. Then “Ashes to Ashes” came on and we both tapped our feet and sang along. At one point the old guy walked past us to his spot at the bar and settled back down, and Joe gestured toward him with his head and said, “He’s the one starting the music back up every time it gets quiet in here,” and I died. My favorite person at the bar liked Fleetwood Mac and David Bowie, too! Obviously he was the person I’d been looking for all day. But what should he symbolize to me? I guess the reason I lit up with delight when I saw him was because he was so completely himself, right? That’s the message I’ll let him give me, then, to be myself completely, and to remember how much fun it is to be yourself in a world that, for some reason, would like you to be something else instead. It’s the only way to live, really. At the very least, it’s a reliably good way to pass a pleasant Sunday evening at the bar.

p.s. If you’re looking for recommendations, I’ve been reading an excellent book about tarot by one of my all-time favorite writers, Michelle Tea, who just put this one out a few months ago. The book is called Modern Tarot and it’s thick, thorough, and easy to engage with.

p.p.s. The title of this post is another piece of advice I got from Lynda Barry, sort of. I saw her speak at the Free Library a few years ago, where she told a very funny story about getting her makeup done at a department store makeup counter, and how before she did this, she visited a street food truck and did what she always does when she’s nervous, which is “eat a hot dog really fast.” I laughed hard at this, and so did a man sitting near me, and his voice is what I remember when I think of that story. A stranger sounding happy.

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I saw these pretty painted symbols on my walk through town, too.

What Punk Means to Me (in 2,000 words or less)

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Photo credit: Joseph Carlough

A couple weeks ago I received a friendly email from a writer who was reporting an article about the Philadelphia Zine Fest. She was most interested in its history and wanted to talk to me, she said, because she’s been attending the event for years and always sees me and talks to me there. I had to smile at that. “Yep,” I wrote back to her, “I’m an old-timer for sure!”

I’ve been tabling at the zine fest for almost as long as it’s been in existence. Its first year was in 2003, and the only reason I didn’t go to that one was because I only heard about it after it was over. The following year, I was ready.

Sort of. But actually, I was scared. I’d been writing about books and art for a local newspaper for a couple of years by then, and I was proud of this job and enjoyed doing it, but was surprised to find that, on its own, it wasn’t enough to satisfy my need to express myself. (I’m not sure why that came as a surprise.) I was in my mid-20s then, and when I wasn’t writing for work, I was almost compulsively making these found poems. I can still remember how exhilarating it was to, well, find them. Once I started looking at text in this new way, I saw symbolic meanings and irony everywhere, almost like secret messages or fortunes–in an old Boy Scout Handbook, the owner’s manual for an oven, the titles of Lifetime movies. All I had to do was rearrange the text a little, or remove a small part of it, to display its double meaning for other readers to see.

I was more proud of these weird poem-stories than almost anything else I’d written to that point, and I wanted to share them, so I began compiling them into my first zine. I remember sitting on the floor of my bedroom and pulling apart a zine I already owned to try to understand the mechanics of laying it out. It was painstaking, but I eventually got it. There are lots of good books out there now that give instructions and tips on how to make a zine–I’ve even contributed to one of them!–but I didn’t know about any books then, and my hands-on method worked just fine.

When registration for the Zine Fest opened that next year I signed up for a table, and paid something like 5 bucks to rent the space for the afternoon. I had no idea what to expect, and was actually so nervous about sharing my book with these strangers that I took my mom with me, and she sat at the table for a few hours, keeping me company. I now recall that afternoon as one of the happiest events of my life. I knew that zine fairs existed as a means for people to sell their work, but I didn’t know that they would be so social, that people had formed an artistic and ideological community around zine making and liked going to the events to see their friends. That was the day I found that out, and joined them. I had conversation after conversation with some of the most interesting people I’d ever met, folks who were keen to listen to me talk about my poems and just as excited to tell me about their projects: zines, bands, paintings, shows. None of them batted an eye at my mother being there. Everyone was gentle and kind, eclectic and dynamic, and had interesting hair. No one thought I was weird or, if they did, they didn’t mind.

For several years after that, zines were the biggest and most important part of my writing life, as well as my social life. I’ve made dozens of the things at this point, and although my output has slowed up a bit, I’m still into it. Participating in zines has led me to join The Soapbox, the independent publishing center started by a couple of friends of mine. Through that organization I’ve been able to participate in readings, art shows, and workshops, and their kind support has helped me to feel like a real part of the Philadelphia art scene. In the last several years my zines have been in a number of gallery and museum shows around the U.S. and in other countries, too. They’re archived in public, university, and grassroots libraries. I’ve taught workshops on how to make zines to little kids at the free library, to older students on college campuses, and to adults at arts festivals of different kinds. A few years ago I participated in an artist talk at MoMA’s PS1 on the topic of zines, and I was so nervous about doing it that I nearly cried. One year a reporter from TIME freaking magazine called to interview me about zines, which is just ridiculous, but it was so exciting. I’ve published two books now, and both of them started out as serial zines I’d been writing for some time, one about yard sales and the other about linguistics. After the first one came out my publisher introduced me to Michelle Tea, who is one of my all-time favorite writers and a person I deeply admire. She invited me to read in an installment of her monthly series in San Francisco, which you bet I did, and I’m pretty sure I cried about that, too. I lived in a converted shed for two weeks in Nova Scotia, where I was the zine writer in residence at a community art center. I was supposed to spend that time writing an issue of my zine, White Elephants, but I frittered most of it away reading comics, going for walks, and swimming in the ocean. Zines are the reason I know a lot of the people I now call good friends, including about 25 pen-pals and my husband Joe.

And throughout all of this, there was the Philly Zine Fest. I never missed a year except for once when I had the flu. Walking into the smelly, sweaty Rotunda–the building in West Philly where the event is always held–has come to feel something like coming home. Still, there were a few years where I wondered if I still belonged there, or if I cared enough. Sometimes the event was sparsely attended, and other times it was packed with people who were attracted by a spike in the trendiness of zines, and it didn’t feel like my crowd. I’ve watched the scene change more than once, and I haven’t always liked the direction it seemed to be going in. Some of the new transplants to a city I consider “mine” have really rubbed me the wrong way. I felt my age catch up to me at a certain point too, and worried I wasn’t making books that were relevant or interesting to people (especially the younger ones) anymore.

But something really beautiful happened this year. The room was packed all day long, and you could feel people’s excitement in the air. A dj from WKDU played good music, but it wasn’t too loud to talk. I spent hours hugging and gabbing with people I’ve known for years, as well as ones I met just that day. I sold almost everything I’d brought with me, and got some reading material from other tablers that I’m looking forward to studying more closely. I talked to two librarians about the zine library that Joe and I have set up in our living room, which we’ve been working on turning into a quasi-public performance space. A woman found me to tell me that she’s included some of my zines in a two-year traveling art exhibit called the Artmobile, which will travel to grade schools and high schools around Bucks County, Pennsylvania beginning on September 19th. She said she thought I’d like to know that my work will be a part of it, and I do. I do like to know it. Someone else told me she wants to commission me to make her an embroidered wall hanging, which is My New Thing.

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Most of all, I felt like I’d been a part of things long enough to have really earned my place in the community. I’ve weathered the changes and I’m still here. An unusual thing happened too: An old friend I haven’t seen or talked to since we were in college together–in the freakin’ 90s, guys–stopped by my table and we had a great conversation, as if 20 years hadn’t passed. But of course they have, and I’m happy to report that I feel good about the way I’ve spent at least a little of that time. I mean, I’m at least 50 percent asshole, just like the rest of you, but it is so incredibly sweet to be able to look back on a portion of your life and feel both proud of what you’ve done and thankful for what you’ve been given. So thanks, Philly Zine Fest. I’ll see you next year.