Writer/performer Michelle Tea will visit the Chester College campus on Wednesday, November 12 and Thursday, November 13. She'll give a reading at 6 p.m. Wednesday, and work with the advanced fiction students on Thursday evening. SO Good had the chance to talk to her before her arrival.
SO Good: What made you decide to start writing?
Michelle Tea: I didn't decide to write! I just have always written, ever since I was very young, and always with the same feelings of urgency and, if lucky, inspiration. I did decide to make writing my priority, when I moved to San Francisco in 1993 and wanted to find something meaningful to occupy my time with besides falling in love with girls. There was a wild open mic poetry scene exploding all over the city that made the notion of being a writer feel very accessible, like an identity that was deep and profound and exciting and that could be assumed by anyone as long as you had the inspiration to write, which I had in droves.
SG: What specific issues come with writing "gay literature" and how do you deal with
Tea: I don't believe any issues come with writing gay literature, and I don't sit down or set out to write gay literature. I just sit down and write what I'm inspired to write, and because I'm queer and have mainly written about my own life, the books wind up being queer. Now that I'm writing fiction I have to consciously ask myself what the character's sexuality is. I would rather they be queer but that doesn't mean that they are. But as far as issues go, you just have to follow the story and allow the story to reveal itself and rise to the occasion of what problems and challenges the story puts forth. But I don't consciously seek to tackle any issues, though I hope that my stories do. Writing is just too subconscious an activity to be so strategic.
SG: How do you deal with the issue of censorship? Do you feel you censor your work?
Tea: I haven't been censored really, aside from not being able to swear on the radio, which is the same for everyone. Once I wrote an article about my period for Curve magazine and they wouldn't let me include a part about how I flung a tampon at a guy who was bugging me, so I wouldn't let them run it because that felt very censorial and messed up. I gave it to Girlfriends magazine and they published it. I've had editors cut pieces from books but honestly I think it was a smart editorial choice. Sometimes I can try to be shocking or weird or gross just for the sake of it, and it doesn't always work. It's good to be able to take that sort of objective look at your work and be honest about when something is dragging down the story. I don't think I censor myself too bad. I will write anything but I don't always want to read it out loud on a mic because I get shy and don't want to deal with whatever the imagined social repercussions might be.
SG: What privacy issues arise from writing memoir?
Tea: All sorts of privacy issues arise from writing memoir — your privacy, other people's. My stance on it and my own comfort levels shift and change. Sometimes I don't give a fuck and then suddenly I feel very private. I don't care about revealing other people's experiences and then I have a swell of compassion for how they might feel. Through it all I just keep writing, being true to how I feel in the moment. Right now I'm not writing about my sister anymore because she's been a true champ and I think she's over it, though she would never ask me to stop. I'm also beginning to write about an ex who did not want me to write about him during the 8 years we were together, but now that we're broken up I feel like that can change. I just always try to be honest about the truth of the situation, have some humility and make myself look like a bigger dingdong than everyone else.
SG: Has writing about such personal experiences been difficult for you?
Tea: No, it has only been rewarding to write about personal stuff. I love it, it's absolutely what I feel most drawn to write about and most inspired by.
SG: How has growing up working-class affected your writing?
Tea: Growing up working class has totally affected my writing in every way possible. Since I write about my own experience I write about working class experience. I didn't go to college and that is the result of my family's class background and the coping mechanisms my mother had and passed down to me. So it determined my path as a writer, that I would not be a writer who studied writing or came into publishing via the academy. I would be an entirely different writer if my class background was different. Probably all writers would.
SG: How much do you revise your work?
Tea: I don't revise my work as much as I should, probably. When I sit down to work I comb through what I already have and edit, so it gets a lot of passes, though I'm never sure how many. You could revise a piece for your whole life, I like letting it go and allowing it to be the imperfect draft it is destined to be.
SG: What are you working on currently?
Tea: Right now I am working on a crazy weird novel about the end of the world that is based on the songs of David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust novel. I've also written myself into it as a character and so there are elements of memoir in it but it is heavily fictionalized because my character, Michelle Tea, is dealing with the end of the world, which is not happening. At least not in the way I'm writing it. I'm also working on magical young adult novel that involves empathy, salt, mean mermaids and talking pigeons. And I am writing Beth Ditto of the band Gossip's memoir with her. And awaiting the completion of the illustrations for a graphic novel, Carrier, about a girl who is a criminal runaway who becomes part pigeon and finds family among punk mutants squatting in a dystopic San Francisco-esque city of the future.
SG: How did you come up with the idea of Sister Spit?
Tea: Sister Spit the open mic was Sini Anderson's idea. She noticed that San Francisco, which was having such an open mic heyday in the 90s, needed a girl's only one cause they tended to be so full of loser dudes. I thought up the tour after having played drums for a band, Dirt Bike Gang, and gone on a Pacific Northwest tour. I loved touring but didn't love the music scene like I loved the literary scene. I wanted to have that amazing tour experience with writers, and so we organized the first one in 1997 and were blown away by how successful it was. I'm still blown away by it.
SG: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Tea: The only real advice for writers is, write. Write every day, put your writing before everything else, before relationships and jobs. Do it for free, do it because you love doing it and because you are lucky to be a writer and have a writer's mind and have an occupation to give meaning to your life. Be part of a literary community, be friends with other writers, and don't compete with them.