Michelle Tea has come a long way since her days as a poor young writer, penning drug-fueled memoirs and novels like Valencia and Rent Girl about her colorful life as a sex worker and queer artist in the ’90s-era Mission District. Now, she lives in a cozy house in the Outer Sunset, not so far geographically from the gritty streets where her DIY literary career ignited. But at 43, sober, newly married to her partner Dashiell and a mother to a three-month old boy named Atticus, Tea has grown up—on her own terms.
“Those things work and feel relevant for a period of time, but not forever,” Tea tells me about her marked transformation. “Which is great because then you get to live this whole other way.”
Tea, who appears Jan. 27 at Books Inc. in the Castro, writes about stumbling into healthy, responsible, and self-aware adulthood in How to Grow Up, her new memoir. In essays peppered with honesty and wit, Tea doles out life lessons on love, money, sex, aging, DIY careers, poverty, writing, spirituality, making babies, fashion, and moving from maggot-infested punk houses into her very own clean, well-lit apartment on her 40th birthday.
The transition from working-class wild child, who co-founded the hard-living feminist spoken-word troupe Sister Spit and snorted meth at endless parties, into a spiritual and sober adult may surprise those who’ve followed Tea from her early days. But it didn’t happen overnight. Things shifted slowly, once Tea extracted herself from a toxic eight-year relationship and committed to radical self-care.
“You can get away with not nurturing yourself when you’re in your twenties and existing on pure adrenaline, and everything’s a little bit new, but that shit gets old,” Tea says. “If you don’t take care of yourself, things will fall apart. Whether that’s your physical health, or your emotional health, there’s a time limit on things not being sustainable.”
Tea wasn’t sure how her already-established fan base would take to the new memoir. In early talks with her agent, Tea actually tossed around the idea of writing a straight self-help book, or possibly something that focused exclusively on money, a topic she says she’s “obsessed” with. Eventually, she settled into a chatty, super-honest memoir mode, similar to her popular “Getting Pregnant with Michelle Tea” column at XOJane.
“There’s a sort of aspirational vibe to the book, and I didn’t honestly know if the people who enjoy my writing would appreciate that,” Tea says. She also worried that the stories about a happy, confident, and fashion-obsessed Michelle might come across as “braggy” or “arrogant.”
“They don’t necessarily come to my work to read about how I want to get Botox,” she adds with a laugh, referencing the book’s essay “I’m So Vain,” where, at 39, she becomes convinced that her forehead wrinkles make her look like Johnny Cash.
“I can imagine a woman, who, through aging, comes to resemble Johnny Cash in a way that is very handsome and attractive,” Tea writes. “She is the kind of woman I would have dated, not the kind of woman I would want to be. A very forbidden thought occurred to me: Maybe I’ll get some Botox.” And, indeed, she does. Once, and never again.
The birth of her son Atticus last October has definitely slowed down Tea’s relentless work schedule, although she continues to organize literary events for RADAR Productions, the non-profit literary arts organization she started in 2003 with a mission to support queer, feminist, and working-class writers.
“But I could very happily just hang out with Atticus all day, spinning a mobile over his head, and not book another literary event for the next five years,” Tea says.
This, of course, is coming from the woman who actually has three books being published this year. The follow-up to her YA novel Mermaid in Chelsea Creek comes out on McSweeney’s Young Adult imprint this summer. And then there’s Black Waves, due in the fall from Tea’s Sister Spit City Lights imprint, a “magical sci-fi book and a hybrid fiction-memoir about the world coming to an end.” Tea may not be writing much in 2015, but she’ll definitely still be out of the nursery and in the world, with a scaled-down schedule of readings and events in the Bay Area, Portland and the east coast.
The events will be bittersweet, considering that the arts scene in San Francisco has changed dramatically since Tea first hightailed it out of her working-class hometown of Chelsea, Mass. two decades ago.
“The landscape I inhabited is just gone,” she says.
“I’ve had to adjust to having hardly any friends because they can’t afford to live here anymore,” says Tea. “But the quality of life they were having here, as artists, as creative people and non-profit workers, wasn’t good. The biggest thing that’s come up for me over the last year, as I hunker down to raising a family, is that all the people I really want around me, or the majority of them, are gone.”
It’s a reality that’s reflected in shrinking audiences at her acclaimed RADAR productions reading series at the San Francisco Public Library. But, ever resilient, Tea says she’s okay with a life that’s grown somehow “smaller.” Though she’s always had a large community, she says her life now is cozy and idyllic, with an “amazing relationship” and a baby that arrived after a two-year fertility struggle.
“Sometimes I feel like I did things backwards,” she adds. “You hear the stories about people who have a mid-life crisis and they kind of blow up their lives so they can do some wacky thing. But I did everything crazy until the middle of my life and then settled down. Now, I’m pretty happy.”