What does it take to become a successful writer with several books out, a popular website for mothers, a literary nonprofit that sponsors readings, and her own imprint at a successful independent press?
If the path of Michelle Tea offers any clues, consider dropping out of college, dealing with years and years of bad relationships, wrestling with substance abuse, and even living with a bunch of 20-year-olds deep into your 30s in a house so filthy that your fridge could legitimately pass for a fly incubator.
“How to Grow Up’’ doesn’t exactly work as a traditional memoir — its 15 chapters tend to leap about chronologically, for instance — but Tea is anything but traditional. It’s more of a punk rock, no-holds-barred, self-help cautionary tale written by someone who has lived and learned, and hit rock bottom only to develop a rewarding career on her own terms.
Born in 1971, Tea grew up in a blue-collar family in Chelsea, where she had a less than happy childhood. Her stepfather, whom she trusted, put holes in her bedroom wall to spy on her. She started drinking as a teenager, and that didn’t help her hold down a job for very long. She escaped to San Francisco and briefly to Los Angeles, and she spent many troubled years battling drug addiction and alcoholism.
It wasn’t until she sobered up in her early 30s that her life began changing for the better — “I’d felt so old before I’d quit drinking. The damage and drama that accompanies a downward spiral weighs on your body and mind like age. The longer I stayed sober, the younger I felt, as if emerging from a chrysalis.” It was certainly hard-earned. Tea applied for grants for the readings she had been organizing for free, met and fell in love with a woman who is not like the troubled people she used to date, and learned to eat healthy and take care of her body, among other adult accomplishments. But this transition didn’t happen overnight.
“When it’s hard for you to grow up — because you’re poor and can’t afford the trinkets and milestones of adulthood, or you’re gay and the mating rites of passage don’t seem to apply to you, or you are sensitive to the world’s injustices and decided long ago that if being a grown-up means being an asshole you’ll carry out your days in Neverland with the rest of the Lost Children, thank you very much — when adulthood seems somehow off-limits to you, growing up takes time.”
At times the prose is clunky and juvenile, such as: “Every day I end my hours of work with the perfect, lucky confluence of the two: food that will make me feel awesome shared with a person who makes me feel awesome. What is more awesome than that?” This isn’t a book to read for poetic resonance; in fact, the writing style almost doesn’t even matter. It’s a map of a woman’s attempt at leaving bad habits behind her.
In that spirit, the book succeeds at instilling a sense of genuine rebirth. Tea emerges as a tattooed phoenix rising out of the ashes, a complicated, all-too-human woman who deeply cares about social justice but also loves an expensive leather hoodie and moisturizer.
Tea is a risk-taker, something that got her in trouble in her 20s but bolstered her ambition in her 30s and 40s: “[T]his urge to identify the most outrageous, slightly dangerous possibility and hurl myself into it — both daring the Universe and trusting that it would somehow hold me safe — has always been inside me,” Tea writes.
Making healthy choices seems as if it should be obvious and simple, but growing up — particularly growing up as an artist — can be dangerous business. “How to Grow Up’’ is an impassioned and honest take on a difficult topic: life itself.Michele Filgate, a freelance writer in Brooklyn, N.Y., can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @readandbreathe.