Michelle Tea has always been a fearless and honest writer with manifold talents — from gritty memoirs like The Chelsea Whistle to young adult books like Rose of No Man’s Land, her work has been characterized by its freedom and daring. It’s also characterized by its commitment to showing the reality of women’s lives in many forms, illuminating what the queer community in San Francisco is like for a young, passionate person.
In her new work, a book of linked essays, How to Grow Up: A Memoir, Tea shares her rumblings towards adulthood. She begins by discussing just what it’s like to have an apartment with 20-something roommates when you’re 37, fresh off a breakup, and in recovery. It’s gross, as she puts it: “everyone was trying to see how long [the ashtray] could go until it tumbled, like a disgusting house of cards.” Yet, despite this penury, she still chases extraordinary opportunities, like in “Fashion Victim,” where she follows her friend and a band (probably The Gossip) to Paris Fashion Week. They live like luxurious, decadent kings, in stark opposition to her American life — the dichotomy between the two gives the essay focus.
In further essays, with names like “I’m So Vain,” “The Baddest Buddhist,” and “I Have a Trust Fund From God — And So Do You!” Tea delves into the truth’s about a writer’s life: namely, the way that a writer, even a critically acclaimed one, is not simply in a garret dreaming. It’s more about life on the knife’s edge of poverty, and how Tea’s hardscrabble childhood in Chelsea, Massachusetts, shaped her relationship with money. The most fascinating stuff in the book discusses “scarcity issues,” as Tea puts it, and getting over them. It’s the sort of thing that we don’t discuss nearly enough, as the hubbub over the recent Salon piece on writers and money illustrates.
However, there are limits to Tea’s approach in this book. The stories are fascinating, but the essays feel weighed down by the voice. Tea has switched gritty immediacy for a a tone that veers between cheeky self-help and a haul video, which leads to patches of clunky writing: “And I don’t, in my heart of hearts, want to strew negativity and ugly feelings throughout the land.” Yet even as the book flounders between Tea’s fascinating life and the mundanity of you-go-girl self-help, it retains an intimacy and immediacy that I appreciated.
If you’re looking for a book that will tell you how to grow up, literally — how to overcome addiction and how to end up in a brand new vision of happy domesticity after a punk rock life — Tea’s book is not that guide. Sure, it’s her story, but it’s not quite a universal one, and whether it reverberates beyond her interesting life is a question.
Yet if Tea’s writing has beguiled you in the past, if you’ve found her immediacy and honesty to be what you need in your life, then there’s a lot to love in How to Grow Up, too. There’s something nice about seeing a writer grow up in front of you and figure out some things about life. The resulting work is the kind of thing that any dreamy aspiring writer could stand to look at in their 20s, before the reality of a writer’s life hits like a truck.