The Road So Far

Hey there. It’s been a while. A while since I’ve blogged (my last series of entries can be found on Medium) or written an essay (which I primarily did for Rookie magazine). An even longer while since I had a book out (but I’ve got one coming next year… the one I’ve wanted to write/have been writing in my head since I was seven years old.) So let me introduce or reintroduce myself and bring you up to speed in start-of-a-TV-season recap style. (And shout-out to anyone who gets the reference in the title of the post. We are kindred spirits or at least kindred fans.)

I’ve been a writer as long as I can remember. In elementary school, it was short stories that ranged from the goofy (Cows on Mars who had their own language) to the dramatic (a girl wasting away of SAD disease). There was also Star Trek: The Next Generation fan fiction. As my childhood best friend and I got older, some of it ahem got a bit raunchy. In junior high, I discovered Sylvia Plath and started writing very angsty poetry. In high school, I discovered Riot Grrrl, and started making zines, both with my friends and by myself. I wrote my way through struggles with depression and an abusive relationship.

All of this, but particularly the zines, were formative, but the funny thing is that I resisted the idea that I could actually be a writer or go to school for writing at first. I was lucky in that I had parents who were actually encouraging me to do that—not the type that I’ve seen in my many years of working in higher ed as an adult, who instead insist on being “practical,” doing something that will lead to “a career.” (Reality check for those people: your kid will likely have many “careers” and do many different things in their adult life.) Eventually, at twenty-one, I started at Columbia College Chicago in their Fiction Writing program. That was when my creativity exploded. I wrote an entire manuscript in a year—the book, that after some time away and several major revisions would become BALLADS OF SUBURBIA. I got my B.A. and my M.F.A at Columbia and met my first agent while I was there. In 2007, just a year after I graduated, we sold my first book, I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE, a mother-daughter story about the power of music—my ode to the female punk musicians who’d saved me.

I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE and BALLADS OF SUBURBIA came out in 2008 and 2009 respectively. This was during a really vibrant period in YA literature, but that was more for fantasy, vampire books, and dystopian stories. Contemporary stories weren’t that big, especially not the darker sorts that starred punk rock outcasts and dealt with mental health, addiction, and abuse. My books certainly found at least part of the audience that I intended—feminists, punks, readers that loved music and often found
themselves at the fringes, dealing with feeling dark and twisty inside like I had as a teen. These folks wrote me emails, tweeted me, wrote me notes and left them at the bar where I worked. That meant more than I can even put into words. It was the whole reason I’d gone back to school to write: to tell stories for those kids, the stories I’d wanted so desperately.

So, by the age of 30, I had two published books under my belt, but they hadn’t performed the way the publisher, my agent, and yes, even I’d hoped. They didn’t sell a ton of copies. They didn’t make any lists. They weren’t “successful” in the ways that any of us measured it. Over a decade later with a deeper understanding of capitalism under my belt, I feel differently about “success” now, but at the time, it was awful. By the end of 2010, my editor had told me she couldn’t buy anymore YA from me and then my agent and I parted ways. I was drowning in student loan debt, an underwater mortgage. My primary income was from bartending and I was living in the area where I’d grown up and I’d never intended to stay. I was depressed and miserable despite having recently married the love of my life. I felt like a complete failure. But then, while sitting around a fire, catching up with some of my best friends from high school—my old zine writing buddies—one of them of asked, “Have you guys heard of Tavi Gevinson? She’s a teenager from Oak Park who became famous in the fashion world for her blog when she was like 13. She just posted a call for writers for this new magazine she wants to launch online, a modern Sassy. It sounds like everything we dreamed of in high school. We should totally pitch her.” Oak Park was our hometown, and it was the setting of BALLADS, which I sent to Tavi along with my pitch.

Sitting in a coffee shop about a mile from the high school that Tavi was attending at the time and I’d graduated from, Tavi told me about her vision for a magazine that she was tentatively calling ROOKIE, a name that would stick. She invited me to write for it and to join an online group of the writers, editors, and illustrators that she’d brought together—a group that would grow, change, and diversify over ROOKIE’s seven-year run. At that coffee, we decided that I would write primarily personal essays for the section called, “Live Through This,” after the iconic Hole album that I’d listened to nonstop in high
school. Writing nonfiction was new to me, but a very welcome shift since I was struggling to write another novel, especially one that would sell. And as it turned out, Tavi and the editors at ROOKIE would give me a lot more creative space than I’d ever imagined. I wrote joyful odes to my favorite soap opera (One Life to Live, RIP). I made playlists of my favorite goth songs. I reviewed candy and ice cream. I posted creative prompts and got to share out the art and writing that our readers created. I collaborated with illustrators to turn my words into comics—my favorite one being about mental health and writer’s block. I wrote for ROOKIE for its entire run. I like to say that it was where I got my informal PhD in writing. It was the slumber party of cool, creative folks that I’d been seeking my whole life. It was a constant source of inspiration. It was a lifeline that kept me afloat. It was what led to my next book.

PIECES OF A GIRL is a zine-style, Young Adult memoir. When I was seven years old, I wrote in my Beezus and Ramona diary that when I grew up I wanted to write a book about “me and my life.” By the end of high school, even though I’d written some very personal zines, that idea seemed terrifying to me. That’s why my focus in college and in my twenties was on fiction. But ROOKIE reminded me that I did have stories I wanted to tell and it showed me that I had an audience for those stories. My editors there helped me find my voice in a whole new way and my collaborations with illustrators had me seeing my work in a new, more visual way—or maybe an old one, like I’d once tried to do in my zines, but with people who had way more artistic talent than me. After I moved from the Chicago area to Seattle (and I also would credit my friends through ROOKIE for giving me the strength to take that risk), I put together a proposal for a zine-style memoir that I was calling “Geek, Grunge, Goth, GRRRL” at the time. And astonishingly to me—someone who had been struggling to make a sale for about five years—after just a couple of weeks my agent sent me a singing gorilla telegram to let me know that we had an offer. Yes, you read that right. A singing gorilla telegram. It was beautiful.

That book has been under contract for quite a while, but it is finally scheduled to meet the world in Spring of 2024 and I couldn’t be more excited for it. My life and the world have changed in enormous ways since I first sold it. Some good (I had a baby, bought a house, really connected to my community in South Seattle). Some bad (Donald Trump was elected, there was a global pandemic, y’know, the whole dumpster file that is living with white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy, as bell hooks so aptly summarized it.) But this book, which is about mental health, #MeToo, teenage girl strength, and survival through making art—it’s meant for these times. I can’t wait to share it with you, to be in conversation about it, and… to write more. So stay tuned. Watch this space for announcements as well as rants, raves, and snippets of thought.