PHONE-A-FRIEND: CONVENTIONAL DESIRES WITH MICHELLE TEA
Published October 21, 2016.
Aminatou: Welcome to Call Your Girlfriend.
Ann: A podcast for long-distance besties everywhere.
Aminatou: I'm Aminatou Sow.
Ann: And I'm Ann Friedman.
Gina: And I'm CYG producer Gina Delvac. On this week's agenda Ann talks to Michelle Tea, a poet, author, and literary organizer about her time being and writing about being young, drunk Michelle, about getting sober, some bad women and wickedly funny men you should be reading, and exploring some of her more conventional desires like becoming a mom but in a way that still felt like being herself.
Ann: Hi Michelle.
Michelle: Hi Ann. [Laughs]
Ann: Welcome to Call Your Girlfriend.
Michelle: Thanks. Thanks.
Ann: I'm wondering if maybe you can just give for the uninitiated listener a little synopsis of what you do and why you do it.
Michelle: Sure, sure. Well, I'm a writer and I write because I was stricken with that particular mental illness that compels me to -- just mostly a memoir writer, and I always have been. I used to write primarily poetry but it was still about my own experience so that's mostly what I've written. I also do a lot of literary organizing, putting events together, putting tours together. I created a non-profit. I've run imprints on different presses. Right now I'm running an imprint called Amethyst Edition on Feminist Press, and I do that because when I started writing in the early '90s in San Francisco I didn't see enough platforms for the people whose work I really wanted to hear: queer people's work, people of color's work, mostly really queer people and female's work, because the primary kind of venues at that time in the '90s in San Francisco were all these open mics that were really exuberant and dynamic but they were just filled with men and a lot of them were assholes. They would pretend they were Bukowski. You know, it's like you had to be a particular kind of female to get up and do performances there. Like you had to be able to tell the audience to shut the fuck up and your own work had to be sort of aggressive.
And so there were only a few queers and females in that mix, so I started a thing called Sister Spit to give a stage for females. It totally blew up and kind of started me on my life of organizing literary events I guess.
Ann: Thinking about these dudes shouting about Bukowski makes me think Bukowski is the ultimate like "I hate your fans and so I don't like you" writer. [Laughs]
Michelle: Yeah, he's just such a misanthrope. He's just sort of like . . . yeah, totally. But these dudes would just be like "I'm drunk." You know? "I was just done wrong by a girl or I just had sex. I'm going to take my shirt off and talk about it." It was like the wild west.
Ann: Yeah, for sure.
Michelle: I mean I was young and drunk and liked getting into fights so I kind of was into it but I understood that it was an acquired taste.
Ann: It's funny, I feel like I know a lot about young, drunk Michelle because I read so much of your work.
Michelle: [Laughs] Because I've written so much about young, drunk Michelle? Yeah.
Ann: You have a new novel that's just out that is sort of about young, drunk Michelle too.
Ann: And I'm wondering if you're like -- I don't know, if you feel like you'll ever be done with that.
Michelle: You would imagine after so many books, like what other stories are there? I think I'm kind of done with my own story of that period of my life. It's really surprising. Like I've long been shocked at how much mileage I can get out of a relatively small period of life. Like I was in this lousy relationship that was my first real lesbian relationship so it was kind of formative, but I think the relationship was only like a year and I've gotten three books out of it, you know? Which is really crazy. But a lot happens, and I guess if you're paying attention to detail and pacing, you can get a novel out of three months I suppose.
Ann: Well also I mean, I don't know, there are periods of time -- I mean definitely in my own life -- where I'm like oh, yeah, that was only actually four months but I did so much growth.
Ann: And it was so important to who I am now.
Michelle: Yes, definitely. I just feel like -- I think you were probably what, in your 20s or something?
Ann: Yeah, yeah.
Michelle: Yeah, you just live really hard. Your mind is getting blown open by the world. You're doing things you've never done before and then processing it all. Yeah, I feel like I lived really hard in my 20s so I got a lot of mileage out of it for material. But I'm probably done now.
Ann: And I didn't even mean that in an "I'm done with it" way.
Ann: I was just curious about . . . I would be totally content. I was describing your work to someone who didn't know you recently and I was like well you know that whole like it's memoir but it's autobiographical and it's real and it's sort of invented? I think of it as a whole strain of feminist writing that is so important -- like so important to me. I was like Michelle is really important in that world. [Laughs]
Michelle: Oh, that's nice. That's really nice to hear.
Ann: But yeah, that's a thing where I think people review like one-off -- it's like that Sheila Heti book which I loved.
Ann: But, you know, I remember reading a lot of reviews of it that didn't acknowledge that actually this is sort of a genre that women created.
Michelle: Yeah! Of like life writing, right?
Michelle: Totally, like Maggie Nelson and Chris Kraus and Eileen Myles. Yeah, there's so many -- Lynne Tillman. There's so many awesome writers who have done that and I feel really influenced by them for sure and liberated to kind of unabashedly tell my story, whatever it is.
Ann: Yeah. And that was the other thing. I'm like Eileen Myles dedicated a book to her, okay? [Laughs]
Michelle: It's one of the best things that's ever happened to me in my life for sure.
Michelle: I was like wow, that's like huge.
Ann: It's awesome. So yeah, so I don't know, it's interesting. There's all kinds of unnamed genres that women and queer people have pioneered that just don't get recognized.
Ann: I mean maybe there are academics studying this, I don't know.
Michelle: There are, I'm sure, in gender studies and queer studies and experimental literature and stuff. But it's really true. It's like for all the maligning that women have gotten for writing memoir, it's like while the larger culture was busy arguing about whether or not it counts or is important women were actually totally innovating it and getting really weird with it. It's like Dodie Bellamy's writing is totally wonderful and raw and experimental and truthful. I love her writing so much. Yeah, there's just tons of people out there who are doing really weird and wonderful things.
Michelle: Renee Gladman.
Ann: You do so much work to cultivate this community and you are I know very important to a lot of up-and-coming writers I know as a mentor figure. I'm wondering if there's something that you read in the past year or something that you're reading right now that you're like this is the future?
Michelle: Oh my goodness, yeah, a lot. I mean it's really cool because I get work given to me because I'm doing these imprints and I get asked to blurb books too of course. I'm right now editing Tara Jepsen's book Like a Dog which is a book that she wrote one version of it many years ago and now is sort of doing this great mash-up of her current contemporary concerns mashed up with this book that has a lot of her more historic concerns. And it's so cool. It's about this skater girl and addiction but it's really just about the abject horror of having a female body and not understanding what to do with it or what it means. It's so good. It's called Like a Dog and it's coming out on Sister Spit Books on City Lights. And Ariel Gore has a book coming, a new memoir coming out that's really experimental and different than some of her more recent straight memoirs which are also genius.
Ann: For the folks at home who is Ariel Gore?
Michelle: Oh, Ariel Gore, she's so fantastic. She created Hit Mama, the really, really important kind of first-of-its-kind radical mom zine that then became more of a proper magazine and she sort of burst onto the scene with that when she was a young mom and ended up being on MTV debating horrible -- like Newt Gingrich or someone of his ilk on MTV about why single, young mothers aren't dirt bags and that they deserve support in our culture.
Michelle: And she's since then published so many books, like her most recent book is a really powerful memoir called The End of Eve that's about her mother and her relationship with her mother who's a really difficult person. It's a great book. So that, Brontez Purnell who is one of my favorite writers and you guys might know him . . . he's sort of like a renaissance punk. He's in this band -- he used to be the go-go dancer for Gravy Train and he's also a musician. He's in a band called the Younger Lovers. He's also actually a really incredible dancer and choreographer and that's what he's trained in. He has a group called the Brontez Purnell Dance Company and he has also written a film and acted. He's a writer. And he's written a lot of zines. His writing is really raw and almost humorously confrontational to the reader. Like he's writing about these really intense things like being HIV-positive or being really slutty or being homeless and he does it in this way where he's just putting it all out there with such humor and in a sort of bravado, like a winking -- I wouldn't say winking. Sort of a fuck you I guess more.
Michelle: And it's like he kind of dares you. It's like you either have to go along with him or shut the book basically. It's really awesome. But this book he has coming out that I'm doing with Amethyst Editions, it's called Since I Lay My Burden Down, and it's like so soulful. It's like that bravado of his other work that is really fun to read is sort of melted and you just get so much more heart, his tender heart and soul, with still his world-weary humor. I think it's going to be a really important book to a lot of people. I'm really probably most excited about that right now.
Ann: How do you figure out . . . you have these roles that are sort of -- it's like an editor, curator, thinking about cultivating other peoples' work role.
Ann: And then you obviously make so much on your own. Is that a literal thing where you're like today's the day I'm writing for me and tomorrow is the day I'm working on someone else's work?
Michelle: I mean deadlines help a lot. You know, I had a deadline last week so I just hustled my butt all last week and did writing and didn't even answer emails really which is a problem. But now this week since I finished that deadline I have a little bit more open space so I've been working on Tara's work which is a joy. I love editing books that are great books. It's like so much fun. You get to kind of interact -- it's almost like that feeling you might get if you read a book and you're like "Oh, I wish I wrote that." It's sort of like you get to scratch that itch a little bit because you're getting in there and interacting with the book in this cool way. I take it almost day-by-day, you know? Like today I have to create a presentation about my film influences for a college visit that I'm doing so I'll do that and I probably won't get to anything else and that's okay. And I just kind of cross my fingers and hope that everything gets done in a timely manner, and sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't. It's hard to be organized about it because it's sort of a mess. It's like the things I have going on at any one time, it's like I'm editing someone's book and I have my own email then I have book deadlines. I want to create a new book and I'm trying to write for TV. So there's like a lot going on.
Ann: What are you writing for TV?
Michelle: Oh, I'm trying to write for TV. [Laughs] I have some things in development it's too early to really talk about but learning how to do that writing has been a lot of trial-and-error because my own natural impulse is to be really free-floating and tangential and this is definitely the three-act structure and certain things need to happen by certain pages. So it's a very different experience of writing.
Ann: I feel like I picked up on in Black Wave, your new novel -- I feel like I picked up on some of your anxieties about writing for TV.
Ann: Like fictionalized, like put through a different version of Michelle, but yeah.
Michelle: Yeah, I wrote about it in Black Wave because Black Wave is a kind of fictionalized account of a real time when I moved from San Francisco to Los Angeles in early 2000 and there was that thing of hitting town and being a writer and everyone being like "You should write a screenplay. You should write a screenplay," and me just feeling like "I guess I should write a screenplay," but really not knowing what I was doing. I remember one of the people who suggested that to me was actually a producer at a really great film house and was like "Send me something if you have anything." I think I kind of wrote an idea on a page and was like "What do you think of this?" He was like "Cool! Let me know when you have something." I was like okay, that's not what it means to have something.
Ann: That's not something. [Laughs]
Michelle: Yeah, I just felt so lost, like I didn't even understand what was being requested of me or anything so . . .
Ann: Right. And then you moved back to San Francisco and then you moved back here?
Michelle: Yeah. Then I moved back here again. But now I'm sober and less insane so I can actually be here and enjoy it and fall in love with it instead of just having moved here because I had to escape my crumbling life.
Michelle: But then ended up bringing it with me as is what happens.
Ann: I'm curious, did you read that essay -- I don't know, at this point a couple months ago by a woman . . .
Michelle: I think I know the one you're going to talk about.
Ann: The one about patriarchy and sobriety.
Michelle: Yes, and female self-care and everybody just being so exhausted and oppressed and kind of busting loose with this idea like "You can have a glass of wine!"
Ann: Yeah, and I was curious what you felt about that, like as someone who is sober and thinks about patriarchy.
Michelle: Yeah. No, I thought it was a really cool angle to look at it and I agree with it 100%. I think it's this . . . and when I drank I also gave it the sort of feminist sheen where I felt like I was doing things that men do as a writer and as a person in the world and just kind of thinking about the outlaw American writer canon which is like Jack Kerouac and Charles Bukowski and William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg and Hunter Thompson and all these men who did whatever the hell they wanted and they all experimented with chemicals and they all got wasted. Even though in reality if you look at the whole span of their life, and you look at that Jack Kerouac died in a trailer in Massachusetts of like cirrhosis of the liver . . .
Ann: Not glamorous.
Michelle: Not glamorous. He didn't really have a whole career of continuing to publish anything. It's not really a model. But in that sort of live fast, die young when you're young and want to take on the world alcohol really helps with that, you know?
Michelle: It helped me have the bravery to sort of stand up to men at bars, whether it's because they were being assholes or heckling. It was like a tool in a way to just help me get a lot of bravado that I didn't necessarily have, that I felt like I had to to fight for my space in this sort of literary world that was really mostly coopted by men.
Ann: When you look back are you like I could've gotten that bravado another way?
Michelle: It's a funny thing to think of like that because I really do feel like I come from a family of alcoholics, and it's like in my family and the way that I'm wired, it's so alcoholic. One of the really cool things about being in recovery is you get a deeper understanding of what it means to be an alcoholic, whereas before I just thought oh, okay, alcoholic, so I just have to stop drinking then everything's cool. And it's like actually there's this whole suite of other weird personality things that go along with being an alcoholic and then you still have those things. It's hard to think oh, could I have been brave without it? Because it's just more like I don't think there's a path for me that didn't include me becoming an alcoholic.
Michelle: I think it was just so wired into me either behaviorally or genetically or some combo of both.
Ann: And what are those other things? The things that are not just like drinking a lot but things that could've . . .
Michelle: Oh, god. I mean it's going to . . . if I explain it, it's going to just sound a lot like the human condition, and it is. It is just the human condition in a really basic way. But I think that for people who are alcoholics for whatever reason they have a harder time figuring out coping mechanisms or maybe they turn to alcoholism and it works as a coping mechanism so you never develop any other ones.
Ann: Other ones, yeah.
Michelle: But sort of just there's this idea that you just kind of don't really know how to live. You're very impulsive and very sort of id-driven and very like . . . I know for myself I always feel if a little of something is good then taking it all the way and amping it up times 25 is even better. And so I've done that. I drank like that, then I did that in other areas of my life too. And even possibly the way I run my career might be a little bit like that where I'm like if one project is great then 15 will be amazing, you know?
Ann: [Laughs] I relate to that.
Michelle: I mean yeah, there's obviously a lot of individuality also among people who have alcoholism. But for me, thinking that I know a lot more than I do, the sort of arrogance that is really . . . or that rules somehow don't apply to me, like the rules of nature or something. Like I'll just feel like I'm somehow . . . that doesn't apply to me, you know? Or somebody will explain like this has to happen this way and I'll be like they think it has to happen that way but I can do it a different way.
Ann: Which is sometimes a really good impulse.
Michelle: Sometimes it is.
Ann: That's what's so hard about this.
Michelle: Yeah. It's a double-edged sword, you know? It's like a lot of alcoholics are actually really brilliant, creative people who innovate and who are the life of the party and do have a spark of difference about them that is really wonderful. And I think the cool thing about getting sober is you learn these things about yourself and so you can learn to kind of see when it's a problem and when it's not.
Michelle: I trip out a lot because I do go to recovery meetings. There's this serenity prayer which is this non-denominational prayer. Well, I guess it does say God, but in recovery your god -- like my god is Stevie Nicks. Your god can be a uniform; your god can be a plant. It's fine. But it says -- it's like help me differentiate between things I can change and things I can't change. And I think for some . . . I'm always tripped out about how I really always need to take a step back and see what the situation I'm dealing with, which one it is.
Michelle: Because I just think I can change everything. And again this is a human condition, right? People have their willpower and they think they can barrel their way through things and a lot of times you can't do that. So a lot of times I'm like oh, wait, this is something that I actually can't control, and in that prayer you're praying for the intelligence to be able to differentiate between those things.
Ann: And it's hard too when you care about changing the world in these big ways, right?
Ann: Where you're like I want to change the fact that all these readings I'm going to are dominated by men.
Ann: That's a thing that on one hand you're like yeah, that is a thing you can change.
Ann: But on another hand it's like patriarchy is not a thing you Michelle personally can change.
Ann: So that can be so hard.
Michelle: It can be really, really hard and I am somebody who my relationship with social justice and activism has been really intense because I had a period when I was younger in my 20s where I had this almost mystical breakthrough where I really connected all kinds of oppressions from the most small, arguably not even an oppression like I killed a moth that was flying in my house to genocide. I saw it all lit up and rather than that being something that's very insulting to the concept of genocide, to be comparing it with a killing of a moth . . .
Michelle: I saw that it just all came from some sort of singular impulse in humanity and made it very, very difficult for me to do anything. It's just very hard because we're all impacting the world in what could be argued as a negative fashion every day on some level.
Michelle: I found my way out of that thankfully because it was a very fraught and unpleasant place to live but I did, when I got sober, I had to reckon with my concept of justice and see it as something that was actually . . . like I had a lot of resentment and oppressive relationships and I had to figure out what is justice to me? I just ended up feeling like it's not a real thing. It's something we strive for. It's an idealistic concept that we strive for and can access in moments but it's not necessarily a natural rule. And I think that's what is so heartbreaking and frustrating because we want justice to be a natural rule of this realm, and if you look around you just see that it's not.
Ann: Yeah. I just had a flashback when you said that too. I lived in D.C. for a while and I was an editor at a political magazine so I hung out at the time with a lot of dudes who were political dudes. I remember talking to this libertarian guy at a party once who . . .
Ann: Who basically was like "When does it end? When is justice served? When can you be fully satisfied that sexism is gone or racism is gone so we won't need affirmative action? What's the endpoint?"
Michelle: Oh, god.
Ann: I know.
Michelle: He was thinking about when can we get rid of this horribly oppressive affirmative action?
Ann: Exactly! Okay, whatever, I just gave you the context so you're not shocked that I'm at a party in D.C. talking to a libertarian.
Michelle: To a libertarian, right. Like I'm surprised it wasn't worse than that actually.
Ann: Exactly. But just this idea -- you know, in his world, and maybe in a lot of our worlds, justice is this fixed point that we're working -- we can get there.
Michelle: Right, yeah.
Ann: And what I said to him is we're just always making things better. That's the thing.
Michelle: Yeah. It's like a practice.
Ann: The point is -- I didn't say it as poetically. Yeah.
Michelle: It's almost like a Buddhist practice in that it's like . . . I had to almost heal my relationship with it, because I had a relationship to justice, the concept of justice, that was really hurting my life because I thought that I could sort of control things that I couldn't control, you know? Or making all these incredibly noble yet impossible sacrifices -- I was like I'm going to go live on the land somewhere and I'm only going to paint with berries. I really went there.
Michelle: Like at some point you have to be like well, maybe . . .
Ann: Menstrual blood and berries. [Laughs]
Michelle: Basically yes. Like at some point you're just like maybe my desires matter also.
Michelle: Maybe my happiness as I'm fighting for other people's freedom to be happy, maybe my own even counts, you know?
Michelle: So I think that's sometimes a big thing for females and any oppressed people, like people of color and queers to kind of look at also. And I think that's why self-care has risen as such a big, important thing in a lot of activists' lives and people who deal with oppression.
Ann: Right. It is a radical act to care for yourself and the world is not caring for you.
Michelle: Yeah, it's really important, you know? Then you can kind of go towards the kind of justice activism you want to do, like feeling whole and not spun out and crazed.
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Ann: So you've lived in L.A. for how long now? Like a year?
Michelle: Not even. I moved here in December so almost a year. Like ten months or something.
Ann: Almost a year. This is something I think a lot about as the people who listen to this podcast I think of as an extended community.
Ann: But obviously not a physical one. And a lot of my personal community is really dispersed.
Ann: I have a great local community in L.A. but, you know . . . and so I don't know, sometimes I have a question. It doesn't have to be either/or obviously, but the merits of a big, dispersed community that supports you wherever you are . . .
Michelle: I love that.
Ann: Versus a very concentrated, local . . .
Michelle: Well, I don't know. I guess I don't want them to be versus.
Ann: They're not.
Michelle: And sometimes I do feel very greedy and selfish and want all my favorite people to all move . . .
Ann: In one place? Yeah.
Michelle: Yeah, I want them in one place so I can see them all the time, even though I don't even when I'm hear. You know what I mean?
Michelle: Like some of my best friends live here and I've barely hung out with them since December because everyone is so busy. But I love that. I am somebody who's always traveled with my writing and I love going to different places and getting to reconnect with people. It helps you feel at home everywhere you go in a sense, you know? It's like I don't live in New York but I feel at home when I'm there because I know who my community is there.
Michelle: Same thing with Portland, I know who my people are in Portland. So I guess I wouldn't want to lose that completely. Certainly not . . .
Ann: It's like a community in every port. [Laughs]
Michelle: Yeah, it's really special. And it's cool that the Internet lets you really nurture that. I feel like Sister Spit started kind of before the Internet, something about the way that queer people sort of move around a lot. And I had moved around a lot so I was able to kind of reconnect with different people in different places but now . . .
Ann: We should note, P.S., that Sister Spit is like a traveling . . . yeah, because -- yeah.
Michelle: Oh yeah, let me explain that very quickly. Sister Spit, I started it as an open mic with the artist Sini Anderson in the early 90s and after going on a sort of doomed tour with my punk band I realized I didn't want to be in this band anymore but I want to keep touring. Can writers tour? And the answer is they can. So Sister Spit began as a month-long . . . at the time it was all-girl because that's what felt really important, and through the years and still towards today it's become all-gender, just like a queer feminist tour.
Ann: Friend-of-the-podcast Virgie Tovar . . .
Michelle: Oh god, yeah.
Ann: Is a big part of making that happen.
Michelle: Yes. With all my work doing literary organizing and doing events I created a non-profit called RADAR Productions in San Francisco and that was my job for a long time when I lived there but then I had to let it go when I moved out here. And Virgie is the managing director and she's taken on an even bigger role alongside the new E.D., Juliana Delgado Lopera, who is a really awesome writer. They are like a power force and they're keeping Sister Spit on the road.
Ann: I want to talk about this thing, it's not really a question, but I was listening recently to Maggie Nelson and Wayne Koestenbaum's conversation at the New York Public Library -- Podcast Direct, the New York Public Library podcast. It's so good.
Michelle: Oh, cool.
Ann: It's just a broadcast of the conversations that happen at library events.
Michelle: That is awesome.
Ann: And they're always the most interesting people. But anyway, so it was these two writers and artists that I admire greatly in conversation.
Ann: He asked her some question about the childbirth scene in The Argonauts which I hope everyone who listens to this podcast has read The Argonauts.
Michelle: Oh, you must read The Argonauts. It's such a beautiful, smart, important book. You'll be smarter after you read it.
Ann: So important. And it was interesting because when I finished that book I was thinking about how if you had described to me this is what it's a book about, it's a book about family and identity as a woman and a queer person and about childbirth and about accepting traditional roles but maybe changing them, I would be like that is super interesting but it doesn't feel like there's a headline of this is what's new. It feels like these are just ongoing. And she told this anecdote where she was at a writer's retreat and there were only a few books in the cabin or whatever. So there was like a Best American Essays book that contained an essay by Phillip Lopate I want to say about his wife's childbirth. And I don't know -- she said something to the effect of she was contemplating writing this scene or was working on it or something about her own first person and realized that even though it seems like the kind of thing that would've been written about, first-person accounts of what it's like to give birth, she was like I could only name maybe one other in literature.
Michelle: Yeah, they're incredibly scarce.
Ann: And I keep thinking about it. [Laughs]
Ann: I just keep thinking about what do we take for granted as an experience that we think has been well-trod, or material that we think has been turned over and turned over, but when you really think about it who has told this from this perspective?
Michelle: Yeah, yeah. And the story of giving birth is such a gross, dirty, transformative, exhilarating, painful, spiritual -- it's everything. It's like this crazy body implosion. And so you're like what better material? You know, what better an experience to use as a source of writing? But yeah, there isn't anything. It's like I think about Cookie Mueller's short story The Birth of Max Mueller. That's the story that has stuck with me that I read long before I ever thought I wanted to have a kid or anything. And Ariel Gore, actually, her story in Atlas of the Human Heart, her memoir about giving birth in an Italian hospital as a sort of single, runaway teenager is really, really powerful. But yeah, I mean the potential to describe that scene, it just seems like it's really . . . I mean I've written about my birth and it's like I do want to . . .
Ann: Well this is why I wanted to ask you about this. Yeah, exactly.
Michelle: Oh. [Laughs]
Ann: I'm glad you got there without me even asking a question.
Michelle: I wrote a little about it when I was trying to get pregnant and through my pregnancy. I was blogging for XO Jane, this column called Getting Pregnant with Michelle Tea.
Ann: I loved it. I was such a devoted reader.
Michelle: Oh, thank you. It really meant a lot to me to get to do that, to find that I had this incredible, unexpected cheerleading section out in the world who was rooting for me to get pregnant. It was actually really touching. It's like the only time I would ever read comments was from those. Once I actually got really pregnant and was in my third trimester I kind of just fell off because I was so exhausted and then I just kind of stopped writing. I didn't realize people . . . it's so weird. You don't realize that people are really reading -- I mean all the evidence is there that people are reading it, but for some reason there's a weird disconnect and I didn't realize that people were worried that, I don't know, the baby died or something.
Ann: It hadn't gone well or something.
Michelle: Yeah, you know? And then I was like oh, I'd better fill it in. So I wrote a little bit about it and I wrote a little about it also for Harpers. But yeah, it was a really phenomenal experience. And I didn't have a natural childbirth. I had a C-section because my baby was breach. But still, the lead-up to it and the energy around it and expectation, and to go from having no baby to a live baby in the room and to kind of . . . you're giving birth to this baby and losing all this blood and I'm in this weird space between birth and death. It just was this really extreme situation which I feel like is always good to write about.
Ann: Yeah. Do you feel . . . it's interesting because even -- I mean obviously we both read The Argonauts and think it's important.
Ann: You know, and I think a lot of your work thematically is really similar to that book. You touch on a lot of the same stuff, you know?
Michelle: Yeah, totally. Yeah.
Ann: And I'm wondering if you ever have that feeling -- I get this about writers I really admire who do things that are kind of close to what I do -- if you're like "Oh, well Maggie did it and I can't or I don't even want to try." I have that feeling sometimes.
Michelle: Right. Right. I think it's good to resist those feelings because your story is still your story. You know, your bank of reference points. Like me and Maggie are still interested in really similar things for sure but the ways we express those interests are really different.
Ann: Oh, totally.
Michelle: We have really different styles. Our reference points just of who we've been in our lives and where we've been and what we know are different, so inevitably we'll come to slightly different conclusions or even just use different metaphors which will shape the story differently.
Michelle: And you know, it's really funny. This makes me think of when Fleabag came out really recently and I was watching it and I'm working on . . . I'm trying to develop a TV project that has some similarities. It was a little shocking, the similarities between Fleabag and my project, you know? And I felt this moment of despair and I was like oh, right . . .
Ann: Yeah, that's the feeling I'm talking about.
Michelle: Yeah, totally. But you're like oh, wait, dudes can rehash their stories.
Michelle: Again and again and again. We have -- for centuries men have been more or less modernizing and telling the same exact story. And we finally have a smattering of women who are sort of like body and vulnerable and, you know, damaged and compulsive . . .
Ann: Gross and broken.
Michelle: Gross and broken and wonderful and funny.
Ann: Yeah, yeah.
Michelle: And I'm just like well I guess there's no room for me, when instead it should be there's more room, look.
Ann: There's more room for you. Yeah.
Michelle: I think that it's been so long in coming for us that there's this . . . I think we're all holding our breath a little bit to be like is this going to be the last one? Is the door going to shut? Is this a trend or is this really change? Is the culture really changing? Really welcoming real women's experiences in a real, lasting way? Or is this just sort of like a flavor of the month thing? Like I'm just going to believe that it's real and lasting change because it's for and by women.
Ann: I'm not sick of these stories.
Michelle: I'm not sick of them. I could watch 18 different variations of Fleabag, you know? I thought that was such a great show. As women we're always having to fight for such a sliver of the pie that I think it can be disheartening if we see somebody else doing something that we want to do and we're like "But that was going to be my shtick," or whatever.
Ann: Right. I was going to carve out that space. Yeah.
Michelle: Yeah. It's like we can share all these spaces. You know, I started this website called Mutha Magazine. I'm really not as involved with it anymore. It's being run by this woman Meg Lemke who's really amazing.
Ann: It's so good.
Michelle: It's a great site, right?
Michelle: And there's a lot of thematic repetition but everyone's story is really different. We would never be like "Sorry, we don't want any more birth stories." It's like everyone's birth story is so interesting. It's a site of primarily first-person accounts of parenthood by the kind of people and about the kind of experiences -- or told with a set of eyes that just isn't . . . you can't find it that much in the mainstream. That's why I started it.
Michelle: To get some sort of more real-life parenting stories to prep me for my own pending parenthood. [Laughs]
Ann: Yeah. So you started it as a pending parent?
Michelle: Yeah, I wasn't even a parent.
Ann: Oh, wow.
Michelle: But I was always looking for information. A lot of the information I was looking for was actually nut and bolts physical information because I was trying to get pregnant. I was going through fertility treatments. And the websites that I had to go to to get this information was so hideous. They just were filled with . . .
Michelle: And it's like I don't want to slag a bunch of women, but I just didn't really have . . . the only thing we had in common was we both were trying to get pregnant.
Michelle: Even our attitudes to pregnancy, to children, none of them -- I couldn't relate. Oh, this world had their own emoji. It's like a whole emoji world. It's the TTC community trying to conceive.
Ann: What are the emoji of the TTC community?
Michelle: The emoji of the TTC community, it's like when there's a miscarriage it's like a happy face with wings.
Ann: Oh, wow.
Michelle: Yeah, it's like a lot of happy faces with wings as people list how many . . . because miscarriages are actually really common.
Ann: Of course, yeah, so common.
Michelle: Yeah, and especially when you're going through IVF they're really common I think. So there's that. There's baby dust, little sprinkle. Storks.
Ann: Baby dust is like this is good luck vibes for you?
Michelle: Yeah, good luck vibes, yeah, baby dust.
Michelle: Yeah, it was like this whole world.
Ann: But that felt alienating to you?
Michelle: I mean it was intriguing because it's so like whoa, this exists. I didn't even know about it. But then it wasn't like I wanted to get my own set of miscarried baby emojis to post and join the conversation. [Laughs]
Ann: You were like I need a slightly more punk baby miscarriage emoji. Sorry, this is awful.
Michelle: Yeah, I know, it's getting terrible. But whatever. Somebody created a miscarried baby emoji. It's not our fault. We're just talking about it.
Ann: This is reality. This is the world we live in.
Michelle: Exactly. So I was like -- I actually imagined Mutha initially as a place that could be a clearing house of information that wasn't nuts and bolts, so people "like me" whatever that is who wanted info about getting pregnant and what happens when you go down this sort of assisted reproductive technology route as well as other routes don't have to feel like oh, I'm suddenly wading into this weird, infantilized, very Christian expectant mother realm.
Michelle: But as it happened it just didn't turn into that. It turned into a clearing house of personal stories which is great.
Ann: I'm so fascinated by it. I mean I think I don't have a ton of interest in the actual issues that a lot of these writers are tackling on the site but I think the question of perspective, of like oh, this is a thing that I've read a million essays about before but it was just not from this type of person . . .
Michelle: It makes all the difference.
Ann: That's why I'm a reader even though I'm not a mother or aspiring mother.
Michelle: Yeah. Well a lot of these writers just have a good, funny, tough, irreverent voice.
Michelle: And you kind of want to read whatever they're writing about, and they're writing about motherhood, and that's cool. And I feel like they could write about other things too and I would and do read them.
Ann: I think I'm also just interested in general in when you look at the things that women are traditionally expected to want like motherhood or long-term romantic partnerships or whatever it might be, like body stuff that women are expected to want, I am so interested in people who are "Yeah, I want that thing but I want it in this new way." You know?
Michelle: Yeah, yeah. Or like I want this thing and I'm going to integrate it into my life and I'm not going to instead sort of reconfigure who I am and the life I've built in order to have this.
Michelle: Not at all. When I set out to get pregnant I didn't even have a partner and I was just like I'm going to strap this baby to me and bring it to poetry readings or bring it on Sister Spit.
Michelle: Like I didn't really know what I was going to . . . I mean I'm not doing that actually. But I really set out from the get-go with the idea that like -- just being really adamant that I don't need to change who I am or change my life in order to bring a baby into it.
Michelle: So as it happens some of that was nave. [Laughs] Because some of that, you do have to accommodate the baby, and sometimes you're just like I could bring a baby on tour with me or I could have peace in my life, you know?
Michelle: You just kind of make calls like that. But you certainly could bring a baby on tour with you. People definitely do that. And you certainly don't have to change your essential spirit and who you are in the world that you've created for yourself.
Ann: But I think that's something that I am not used to hearing, right? Like if you only hear the same story about what is motherhood . . .
Michelle: Yeah. It's like you have to settle down and have a baby. There's some sort of release your grip on the larger world and your place in it and kind of drift off . . .
Ann: Go inward.
Michelle: Yeah, drift off into this kind of isolated space with you and your baby.
Michelle: It's interesting. It's like some of that does happen almost by necessity because it is -- especially when the baby is very little, you're so exhausted and it's like this constant daily work to keep the baby alive.
Michelle: But that's a temporary thing, you know? And even within that you still have your sick sense of humor and you still hopefully haven't totally retreated from your community. When Atticus was first born it was a funny moment because it was also a time when everyone except a few people that I was close to had left San Francisco so it was an extra isolating moment. But I also just really knew it was temporary and I also have had such an extremely social life that there was something nice. I was like god, this is like a quieter way to be right now.
Ann: I'm doing this right now.
Michelle: Yeah, I'm doing this right now. There's a lot of fear. I just talked to a friend of mine who's kind of stepping up towards having a baby with her partner and they were on the verge of doing it then they just got really scared about how everything would change. And I think that it can be hard to piece out like what are your sort of weirdly unintentionally brainwashed ideas in your head that you're carrying that you think your life has to change?
Michelle: Because the culture kind of insists on it, versus what are sure, some changes that need to happen but they're really not that bad and they're temporary and there's a lot more wiggle room than you would imagine.
Ann: Yeah, and that's kind of what I was getting at with why I love all the narratives in Mutha Magazine.
Ann: Or things that really remind you that everything changes but not maybe all the things you're worried about. [Laughs]
Michelle: Yeah, you know? There's some things that we really don't want something to change and it doesn't need to change. It's like you have agency here still. You haven't lost all your autonomy. You just have to share your time with the demands of this new little creature. But yeah, I love Mutha -- I mean anything that shows you that there are lots of different ways to live I think is so important, especially for women since we've historically had such conscribed roles.
Ann: Yeah, and I see it in myself too where I'm like any life change that involves stepping closer to the sort of normalized view of what a woman is and what a woman should want, I am so freaked out.
Ann: That's the most processing I ever have to do. I mean if it's about quitting something or doing something weird and daring, it's like that is maybe hard for other reasons but not psychologically difficult. [Laughs]
Michelle: Right, totally. Totally. It's like when you're like oh, I have a desire that is pulling me towards what's expected of me . . .
Ann: I have a conventional desire. [Laughs]
Michelle: Yeah, exactly. I have a conventional desire. Oh my god, I feel like so much of my past ten years has been slowly making peace with various conventional desire that I have.
Ann: Yeah. And do you feel at peace with your conventional desires?
Michelle: I really do. I really do. I mean I think there is and always will be something a bit extreme about my personality and I think even in the way . . . I think I almost did this extreme embracing of my conventional desires where I was just kind of like well, it actually feels weirdly rebellious to want these things because . . .
Ann: Want marriage and a kid or whatever?
Michelle: Yeah, you know? And I'm just like oh, I'm just going to embrace it with the same sort of fuck you that I embraced other things that were less conventional that I did have to fight for. It's like well, I'm still feeling like I have to fight for this even if it's in my own little niche of the world or my own psyche so I'm just going to go all the way with it.
Ann: Right. It's still a difficult fight if you're like I want a thing where all of these forces in society are setup to make me practice it a certain way and I want to practice it differently.
Ann: That seems like a huge challenge.
Michelle: It is a huge challenge. It's a real mind fuck and people really have to figure . . . women really have to figure our ways through it. You know, if you grow up really broke you have to figure your way through wanting money sometimes. I mean some people, that's not the way they processed it, but for me I had to make peace with oh, I guess I do want money after all instead of just being like fuck money. No one should have it. Everyone should be poor. You know?
Michelle: Maybe everyone could be rich. That's interesting. I'd have better clothes if that were the case. So start thinking about that instead.
Gina: You can find us so many places on the Internet, on our website callyourgirlfriend.com, you can download this podcast anywhere you listen to your favorite shows, or on iTunes where please always leave us a review if you love us. You can tweet at us at @callyrgf or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Same handle for Facebook and Instagram. We're @callyrgf. You can even leave us a short and sweet voicemail at 714-681-2943. That's 714-681-CYGF. This podcast is produced by me, Gina Delvac.