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Saturday 20 January 2018
My Year of Queer Reading: Michelle Tea’s How to Grow Up

Filed under Books + queers

Abandoned halfway through. This book is Not For Me. I think I failed to take its title literally enough: this is a how-to book for folks between their quarter- and mid-life crises. If All Advice Is Autobiographical, this book is a memoir, but one directed at a You I couldn’t quite step into:

Breakups make me feel old and haggard, all used up. Getting a new hairdo or a shot of Botox lifts me out of dumps. Even a mani-pedi and an eyebrow wax remind me to take care of myself—an outward manifestation of all the inner self-care breakups require of you, and a continuation of the declaration of self-love that you made when you dumped that fool. Oh, wait—the fool dumped you? As we say in 12-step, rejection is God’s protection! The Universe is looking out for you by taking away someone who was bringing you down. Give thanks by getting a facial.

What makes this Not For Me has little to do with gender (I like mani-pedis and restorative skincare treatments). It’s got a little more, perhaps, to do with age, but mostly it has to do with my looking for wisdom these days beyond 12-step bromides and This Worked For Me So It’ll Totally Work For You advice. But here’s where I’m trying to take this post: I can recall a time when I would’ve finished this book and set it aside a satisfied customer. Tea’s book’s being Not For Me is all about me, not her book.

Reading it brought me back to my first term teaching at USF. I had a student who wrote flash essays in this Tea-ish/How-To vein, specifically about how the reader might go about self-treating their depression without needing drugs or therapy. Self-care tips. Streetwise, This Worked For Me anecdotes. Assumptions that the reader’s life/background/belief system were in line with the author’s.

I was a shrewd, ungenerous reader of this work, aiming in my feedback to bring it all around to what I knew as Classic, Universal Essay Form: lengthen and enrich the structures, deploy more psychic distance between the narrator- and character-selves, etc. I wrote honest marginalia about how the You being spoken to was not me and was presuming things about me I couldn’t agree with.

The student protested: maybe I was reading it wrong, or unfamiliar with the style.

I counter-protested: how else can I help you but by reading this as I am, and gearing my feedback/revisions toward The General Reader?

Reading Tea, I saw at last an example of how I was wrong. If pushed in that classroom to describe The General Reader, I imagine I’d describe a man with a background and reading history closely aligned to my own. It is clear on every page of Tea’s book that whatever her notion of The General Reader might be, it’s not a 40-year-old professor who stays mostly at home and distrusts even the slightest interest in fashion and material objects.

The General Reader doesn’t exist. Not universally. It’s something I always try to keep in mind in the classroom: how is this work asking to be read? What do I know of the writing process (not The Essay Form) that can help this student see their work more deeply and develop it to the end.

I don’t know what I would do if handed Tea’s book in a workshop, but I know I wouldn’t do or say anything without listening to her first about what the work is, to her, and where she wants to go with it.

2018-01-20  ::  dave

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