Michelle Tea


I get asked sometimes to defend the way I write. To explain how it's um writing I guess. Because I'm not making stuff up so why do I think that anyone wants to hear about my crappy life. Well then don't read it, punk! It's all I can think about, my own life and your life too. I mean, what's everybody doing? I really want to know.

What if fiction writers had to answer dumb questions like that. Like, What makes you think we believe this crap? How the hell do you know what that geisha was thinking, white boy? Or, What are you afraid of? Are you trying to hide something? Who are you, where can I find you skulking about in these pages?

Oh I don't want to divide and conquer the writers. I like fiction, I just read Jesus Saves by Darcey Steinke and it nearly put me in a coma. My stomach hurt so bad I had to put it down, rest it on the dash of a van that was rumbling through woodsy mountain landscape, manly land, hunting land, in a state famous for serial killers, and in the pages of this made-up story a little girl is tied up captured and doomed and I know it's true, I mean, these things happen. I read Jenn Banbury, Like A Hole in the Head, and it made me want to fuck up on some spectacular way, as opposed to my normal, low-key fuck ups. Those stories were really good.

But I just think it is so exciting that life can be so meaningful, that you can smear it on a page and it's really important. It's as much of a story as any fiction, but it's a document too. It happened, so it's history. I'm reading The Unsinkable Bambi Lake, it's before me on the table right now beside a rack of blueberry muffins and a pile of bills that can't seem to pay themselves. When I read Bambi's book I get to hear all about how cool my city, San Francisco, was in the 70s. All the stuff I missed, victorians stuffed with glamorous and dramatic G.A. queens, glitter and dustbunnies in the corner, Bambi backstage in Berlin giving Bowie shit for selling out way before that Dancing in the Streets fiasco. Dangerous boys and hustlers, getting on estrogen, really just living a life, her own. This question about 'memoirs', I think: are they asking about form or structure, or really, am I being asked if my life, if Bambi's life and Eileen Myles' life, and Cookie Mueller's life, are they asking if our lives matter? I think they are.

I'm lucky because I get to be friends with some of my favorite writers. I sat with Eileen Myles at a coffee shop on Valencia and she told me that Charles Bukowski gave her permission to write. He just claimed it, his terrain. The horseraces and the bars, the night, the lamp that lit up his lousy hotel. Why not him. A poet. Why not Eileen. I read her book, Chelsea Girls, and it all clicked. “Bread and Water,” what is she doing in that story but being poor. Scrounging for money, tallying debts to friends, having her period, drinking and not drinking. It's a genius story and the whole book is full of them, electric. I was zapped. Why not me. My poverty and the girls that don't love me and how drunk I got the other night. How I was a prostitute. It seems to be literature when guys write about it, its practically become a genre, men writing about their transcendental trips to the cathouse, their orgasms and revelations. Or men writing about women's lives in general. Straight people writing about queers and white people writing about every other race on the planet. The writing that I love, it's the Other telling the part that got left out, the truth. Not only a writer and a historian, but a spy. There's this awful copy shop near my house, I go there all the time because I'm too lazy to walk up to Kinko's. The guys at this place are such jerks. I had a bunch of my books and he said, Are Those Your Books? Yeah. You wrote them? Yeah. He makes this suspicious little scrunched-up face. Are You Sure? he asks. He means it. Looking at my dirty fucked up hair and tattoos scrawled up my arms and whatever else he saw. You Just Don't Look Like You Would Be A Writer. Yeah well keep an eye out for yourself in my next novel, asshole.

I'm at work and I get a phone call and it's this girl. It's 2:30 in the afternoon and she just woke up. I can hear birds chirping in the background like she's in some fabulous jungle and I imagine light slanting through fat glossy leaves and her all rumpled from sleep in a slippery slip that sticks to her bones. Do You Have A Bird, I asked. I Do. What Kind? A Cockatiel. I wonder what its name is but don't ask because I want to keep it wild the way she is. She got arrested by the cops for tagging Freedom Is Dying in a phone booth, they hauled her off to jail. I feel this teeny obsession with her forming, and it feels a lot like needing to write. A sort of zinging that grips you from the inside. There's a place for her in my life right now and so I need to write her down. The other night we were both high in that club that's so red, a deep low red that made everything red, my dress and torn fishnets, her shiny legs she kept twisting around, unfurling like a mermaid. The red beer label curling on the bottle that she begged off the bartender for free. I want to tell you all about her fantastic strangeness, the sexy awkward way she walks like she's going to wipe out, how she's paranoid, the excellent purity she sort of radiates out from her eyes all black and smudgy, her dirty hair. I could tell you about her jagged poems and drawings and the tattoos on her fingers and the sad Johnny Thunders song on her answering machine. I could tell you her whole story as I know it, and I want to, but it's not mine to tell.

And then she calls me the next day kind of wiggy, says I Got Tripped Out Thinking I Was Going To End Up In One Of Your Stories. All the time someone gets mad at me or else I worry they will. Where does my life stop, where does it slide into someone else's story and then it's their job to tell it. My ex-girlfriend is going to kill me when she finds out I wrote about that time she flipped out and was banging her head against my bedroom wall and I had to kick her out and she told me to fuck off. I mean, that's personal. And can I mention that thing about her parents? It seems so crucial to understanding who she is as a character. But she's not a character, she's a person. And she had this affect on me. Can I talk about it? When I went to Ali's house and she was cutting her arms and there was blood on her yellow sheets and there was the razor, kind of crusty on her dresser. I said Ali, I Feel Like That's Part Of The Story, Can I Write That? She said, Tell The Truth, Michelle. But then, Ali's a writer too.

Sometimes, maybe even right now, I don't want to write. It seems so boring. There are so many rules and I made them all myself: not here in the house, in a cafe or a bar. You have to take a walk, and think about it while your walking, try to go back there, feel all hurt or fucked up and kind of lost, feel really in love, you were just with the person, you smell like her, remember how you ate a burrito afterwards, what it felt like to crave the steak. You have to drink something while you write, either coffee or beer, or sangria. If you're getting a late start and the sun is down already then it should be a bar. You don't want the place closing up around you when you're just hitting your stride, you're going to stay up late immersed in all this life. Also you have to smoke continuously, so pick a place that will let you do that. Maybe you should get on a Greyhound and go somewhere else a place with romantic terrain where you can be with your cigarettes. I think, maybe I should just be in a band. Play some drums. Maybe I should take pictures, that's as true as any story I've got to tell. But it's so expensive. Once I didn't have any money, and I hardly knew anybody and I was so scared I'd have to live out on the street. And I thought, it's ok I can still write. Paper and pens are easy, they're cheap or easily stolen, you could probably get people to give them to you. And if something really bad like that ever happened, and whenever something does happen that really sucks, it's hard, I think well ok I'll write about it. It's so consoling and so redeeming. When I have a friend who doesn't write and I see her having a hard time, like she's lonely or on too many drugs or something fucked has happened I think oh I wish she could write it. Write it all out. She could be an enormous angel. Probably she is anyway, but then she could see it all lit up on the page, swimming there, shining back up at her, good lighting for the movie that is her life. She could write the soundtrack. She could bask in herself, it's the greatest. Writing is the greatest, and writing the truth in particular. Your little slice of it. You've got that, and you've got your body, and I think that's it.


Issue One
Table of Contents