At Corporeal Writing we’re all about opening the platform, continuously working on new ways to expand participation and experience, and breaking open what writing means.
We’ve created this new series of visiting writer workshops with some pretty phenomenal mammals. We are delighted to have humans in our community interview the writers who will be leading these collaborative workshops at Corporeal Writing Center.
In this fifth installation we present author, and all around creative birther, Michelle Tea is interviewed by Corporeal comrade, writer and therapist, Becca Bell-Gurwitz.
Becca: Hi Michelle, I am thrilled to get the chance to speak with you briefly about your body of work and writing process! You are such an icon in the queer lexicon and what I love about Corporeal parallels to what I love about your writing in that you don’t shy away from messiness. As I've read your work, I've been struck by your genuine approach to writing the intersection of political and personal from a queer body while also allowing for contradictions. In this way your writing feels like a living document, constantly growing and building on itself as you grow and as you both pay homage to and defy the forms that came before. Is feeling like a misfit different from being a part of misfit cultures? How do you relate to the role of the misfit in queer culture?
Michelle: Thank you for the sweet words! I don’t know that misfit culture is such an organized thing. I think there are people in lots of cultures that feel like a misfit for various reasons, and any community can feel alienating, even one comprised of alienated people! I do appreciate the experiences of people whose queerness caused them to feel like a misfit both in the larger world and within LGBTQ cultures. I feel like that sort of outsider identity can be fed by a queer identity but is actually more of the base identity, if that makes sense. Like the deepest self-understanding is that of an outsider (even though the outsider/insider dichotomy fluctuates for all people based on privilege, etc. Just because you feel like an outsider does not necessarily mean you are an outsider, at least not all the time!) and all other identities sort of sprout from that.
Becca: In your work you often recall early punk and queer culture, art films and music that were on the periphery then and now are considered vintage by Gen Z. In your most recent work, Against Memoir, you observe that as this current generation comes of age, the use of language has increasingly developed as a function of policing queerness and other marginalized identities. How do you see this culture shaping you and what is it like to revisit these forms at a time when you see the spaces you are writing about changing? What do you feel is the role and responsibility of language in queer culture as it exists today?
Michelle: I feel so mixed about the emphasis on language. As a writer I want freedom, I want full access to the language. The idea of anyone policing anyone for anything is so distasteful to me on a core level. And I also understand that language is our only way to communicate who we are to one another, and to seek respect. I guess I feel very comfortable and excited about additions to our language that broaden and grow our knowledge of each other and that breaks down limitations, and I’m more sketchy about being told I can’t say words such as ‘crazy’ or ‘faggot’. I understand that those words have been used to hurt people but we will never clear the language of insults and I actually don’t think we should. Sometimes you want to insult someone. I also love the word crazy, love how it has a history of being used to mean ‘cool’ in retro countercultures, I personally identify with the word whilst in the throes of various manias and breakdowns, I just think it is a good descriptor. That said, I’ve been taking the challenge of replacing it simply to push myself to broaden my vocabulary, which is cool. As for Faggot, I believe there is a culture of gay men who want to be called gay men and object to Faggot, but the Faggots who ID as Faggots will always have my heart in such a big way. I came of queer age in the 90s when the reclaiming pejorative movement was in effect and it just is punk to me.
Becca: Your most recent work seems to pose the question of what memoir means to a larger world that thrives on silencing the stories of misfits and vilifies the act of voicing those stories as inherently selfish. What do you mean by your titular phrase “against memoir” and where do you see memoir moving, both for you in terms of what you’d like to write in the future, and for the greater scheme of how writing the self fits into the collective body of storytelling?
Michelle: Against Memoir is the title of an essay in the book wherein I question my compulsion to write memoir, naming it a compulsion, exploring its links to addiction and investigating where I have used the form in less than honorable ways and also the ways it has hurt people. I liked the title, thought it was cheeky. In the end I am certainly not against memoir – I don’t even think I’m ambivalent, I think it’s an important genre and that a lot of the criticism against it is misogynist, and that the silencing of memoir would serve patriarchy and the status quo. I see a strange moment right now linking the work of memoir writers with the work of online influencers, which is deeply wrong to me as memoir writers are ostensibly, ideally aiming for truth and influencers are generally aiming for persona. Not that writers don’t cultivate personas, and aren’t pressured by the publishing industry to have larger online presences. But the core work of each is almost diametrically opposed. I am so not sure what I want to write in the future! I am flailing between a lot of ideas, unable to really land on one – screenplays based on essays, a faggoty YA novel, a mystical memoir, a sober memoir, a memoir about the dead men in my life, a mom memoir, a novel inspired by my experience in polyamory. I don’t know!
Becca: If you have time to answer one more question, I’d like to know as both a fan of yours and a person who can’t seem to get into a routine of a daily writing practice, how your physical writing space and practice has evolved over the years? Could you set the scene for us?
Michelle: When I first began writing I was an active alcoholic, and my alcoholism was part of my writing practice. Alcohol was still working for me, and I would write in bars, keeping myself lost in the work with pint after pint and lots of cigarettes. I always liked to get out of my house to write because I didn’t have a space to work in my home, a big Victorian shared with a transient cast of young queers. Eventually drugs and alcohol stopped working, for my writing as well as all other parts of my life. I kept trying to essentially write Valencia over and over again, and it never worked and I was stuck because you stop growing when alcoholism takes off. I stopped growing as a writer. When I got sober I had the same fears all alcoholic creative people have, that the alcohol was somehow the magic, not me. It’s such a sad thing to think! But the creative process is so subconscious and mysterious it hardly feels like it comes from you, it makes sense to attribute to outside things. I was re-reading Eileen Myles’ book Not Me and did some math and realized she wrote that book after quitting alcohol and it filled me with such joy and relief to realize all my favorite work by my favorite writer had been written sober. Truly, what alcohol did, when it worked, was keep me in the work. Sober, I get distracted, I want to get up, walk away, get a snack, I get bored easier, unfocused, I lack the delusions of grandeur alcohol can bestow, the ones that tell you your writing is fucking genius and so you stick with it, high on your brilliance. But this challenge to sit with the work when you feel bored or uncomfortable is really the biggest challenge for all writers, and it is foolish to think there is a magic potion that will spare you from the process forever!
Michelle Tea’s collaborative workshop, Conjuring Story is November 9th & 10th at Corporeal Writing Center. As part of the Portland Book Festival offsite events, Michelle will also be reading on Saturday, November 9th at Corporeal Center.
Get your seat in Michelle’s workshop here.
Michelle Tea is the author of numerous literary works across genre, including the cult classic memoir Valencia, the illustrated Rent Girl, the how-to Modern Tarot and the kids' book Astro Baby. Her essay collection, Against Memoir: Complaints, Confessions and Criticisms, was honored with the 2019 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Memoir. She is the creator of the Sister Spit international performance tours, the Bay Area literary organization RADAR Productions, the online parenting zine Mutha and the global sensation Drag Queen Story Hour. She curated the Sister Spit Books series for City Light Publishers and currently curates both the Amethyst Editions and Drag Queen Story Hour Books for The Feminist Press.
Becca Bell-Gurwitz is a therapist and writer, most recently published in the anthology Strange Attractors: Lives Changed by Chance (UMass press) from which she read at the 2019 AWP conference. She has also had short stories both fiction and non, in publications such as The Citron Review, The Dead Beats, and Thrice Magazine. She writes stories with a surrealist slant, prose that reads like poetry and poetry that reads more like fiction. Currently she is working on a “longer piece” masquerading as a novel about invasions—of land and of queer bodies. Becca’s bangs are slowly turning silver.