(Me and some of the girls [and boy] of the Lower East Side Girls Club.)
I did a writing workshop the other day with some of the young women of the Lower East Side Girls Club. We met at the Bowery Poetry Club, just a few blocks away from where I used to live in my senior year of high school, back when Whole Foods was a vacant lot, and you could still buy heroin on the street. Lots of things about the neighborhood have changed – now there are luxury condos on the same blocks as tenements and projects, and you have to actually go upstairs to somebody’s apartment to buy your heroin. But things here haven’t changed for everybody, especially not for those in the tenements and projects.
The Lower East Side Girls Club, founded in 1996, supports the young women of the neighborhood through their particular challenges, with programs in literacy, the arts, technology, science, career development, and peace-making. (More info about their history and programs is here.) As a longtime fan of the Club (and of the homemade cupcakes they sell through their café at the Bowery Poetry Club), I was delighted to meet some of the girls (and two allied boys), and talk to them on the subject of Writing About Your Life.
So, blah blah blah, writing about your life. Why it’s important, how everybody should do it; exercises, examples, pontification. Whatever. The girls were awesome – they paid attention, they did the exercises without complaining, and they worked hard on the exercises, too. I liked them a lot, what I heard from them, though most of the class was me flapping my gums, telling them what to do and how to do it and what to do some more. Writing advice – you know me, I’m full of it. But you know, I think the most helpful thing I might have told them was how I fucked up.
One of the first questions, before the class even started, from one of the girls, perusing the back of a paperback copy of Girlbomb: “You slept with your friend’s boyfriend?”
“Yes,” I said. “And I’m not proud of it, but it happened, so I put it in there.”
She looked at me and nodded, all right. She'd been skeptical of me, an on-the-record boyfriend stealer, but I admitted I was wrong, and thus I was forgiven.
Later on in the class, I admitted to even worse things: Cheating on my first love. Being a smelly drug addict. Acting like a psycho co-dependent and trying to adopt a kid with Munchausen’s Syndrome. (I covered both books in the class). Each time, I talked about the stupid or hurtful things I did, and how I wish I hadn’t done them. And I felt like they appreciated someone saying, “I did something wrong, and I regret the harm I caused myself and others.”
No regrets – that’s the tough guy mantra. It made me who I am, so I don’t regret anything. Really? Because I regret a lot. I regret smoking PCP, boy howdy; when I’m forty years old and I can’t remember what the hell I walked into the bathroom for? I regret that a bunch. I regret cheating on Sebastian. I regret a lot of the sex I had between the ages of fourteen and twenty. I’d take it back, if I could. And how about this: I regret the hurt I caused people by writing Girlbomb. I wouldn’t unwrite it, but I am aware that I hurt people, and I feel remorse that I didn’t manage to write about them in a way that didn’t cause them pain.
I was wrong. The least I can do is admit it. The most I can do is to endeavor not to do it again; to strive to fuck up in a completely new way next time.
(Semi-related: Someone was telling me about a fridge magnet they saw: You regret the things you didn't do more than you regret the things you did. I think this is bullshit -- I regret both equally. [This, by the way, is often suggested to me as an argument why I should have kids, which I don't want. Like kids somehow inoculate you from regret.])
The more I teach, the more I wonder what can and can't be taught, what can and can't be learned by any other method besides experience. I want younger people to learn from my mistakes, but how can they? All they can learn from me is that I made them, and they will make theirs too.
Sometimes this seems like enough.