Schoolin’ Life: Meg Lemke

In today’s edition of Schoolin’ Life, we get to know editor and writer Meg Lemke.

Meg Lemke

Give us a quick bio: who are you, what are you into, and how do you spend your days?

I’m an editor and a writer, about in that order. I run/edit MUTHA Magazine, which was founded by Michelle Tea. MUTHA publishes diverse parenting stories, essays, interviews and “some of the finest comics about modern motherhood” (Nat. Brut). My essays and interviews have been published at places like Paris Review [here’s the most recent], Seleni, MUTHA, other places. Also, I chair the comics and graphic novel programming at the Brooklyn Book Festival. Before my daughter was born, I was a career book editor (at Teachers College Press at Columbia, Seven Stories Press, and Houghton Mifflin). Now “how I spend my days” is part freelance and part playground. I live in Park Slope, Brooklyn.   

When you were in your 20s…

What expectations did you have for yourself over the coming decade?

I turned twenty in 1999 – partying that New Year’s listening to Prince, natch, dancing drunk off of the cheapest of red wine with my closest friend in my parents’ basement. I was nostalgic even then, realizing what a strange period of change we were entering. My twenties were the first decade of the new millennium. I started it in college, going into my senior year, and wanted to travel, to write and create, to find love. I expected to continue in academia, that’s what I envisioned—to be a professor. But that isn’t what happened—I went into publishing instead, where I have had the privilege to read and edit the manuscripts of many a Ph.D without having defended one myself.  

In what ways did society shape your expectations of yourself?

To say the least, I was intensely self-conscious in that decade. I have always felt pressure, from all around me in society, to present as doing a good job and to try to stay pretty doing it. (And not talk so much/too loud, at which I particularly fail). Society transmitted into me the expectation that physical beauty for women could trump other accomplishments, that beauty was value—and it would not be possible for me to ever quite make the grade. But yet—even if it would never count quite as much as it would to be, say, thin–it remained my duty to be a good student, a good worker, a good helper, to be of “merit.” While I had felt shamed by classmates in high school about how often I raised my hand—going into college, I fought against this expectation that women should not “act smart.” I kept asking questions.

In my early twenties, maybe in rebellion to all of this, I’d wear overalls with purple leopard-print velvet skirts, did the thrift shop and flannel thing, influenced by a grunge and riot grrrl aesthetic. This was also because it was fashionable, since I grew up in Seattle in the ’90s. And, I dove into sex-positive literature and movements, which were burgeoning also in the waning grunge years of the Northwest. I read feminist thinkers, queer writers. I cannot claim I ever shook my body consciousness, but I did become more thoughtful, mindful, conscious of that consciousness.

As I went first into assistant-level publishing jobs and further in my career into my later twenties, I was also yoked by the expectation—implicit and often explicit—that I should not ask/expect to get paid well for the kind of work I wanted to pursue. That one, especially a girl-person, should joy in working long hours perpetually in literary gratitude rather than ask for a raise, ever. It never went well when I did, it always was a humiliating conversation where the bosses were very troubled that I was bringing it up. It is an industry teetering on the backs of many young (more often female-identified, at least in my time) interns and assistants. Though, that said, I did love my jobs; and I had many wonderful (often women) mentors.

What was your first job like?

I had many first jobs all at the same time. From when I was nine years old, until my mid-twenties, I babysat. Though, I can’t imagine hiring a nine-year-old now to babysit my own kid… But, I was an ALL-TIME BEST BABYSITTER. (When I read Raina Telgemeier’s revamped Babysitter’s Club graphic novels, I cried with nostalgia). I’ve had friends advise me not to let my own daughter babysit when she is older—as in, offer her only the opportunity of career advancing early work, instead reinforcing a primary caregiver role for women. But, for me, I loved it. Aside from the fact that I dig kids, I liked being in different people’s houses and visiting their lives, imagining their stories. Once I babysat in someone’s docked boat—not a yacht, but like a small boat tethered somewhere in the dark waters… (think of Charles Burns’ landscapes). I sat for actors and artists, who were fascinating and unsure about their new life as parents–who I think of wryly today. I’m in the same boat now.

I also pulled coffee all through college, at different shops in Seattle including the “red-headed stepdaughter” (as the owners called it) cart outpost of the hipster-y Bauhaus, which was located inside the University bookstore.  I think Bauhaus itself is gone now; that was a great coffeeshop…. I also became a bookstore clerk there for a while (yay book discounts); definitely I advise working in a bookstore if you want to work in publishing books.

When I was 21, I started work “for real” in publishing–as an intern at Elizabeth Wales’s literary agency, and a reader for the Seattle Review (edited by Colleen McElroy, a beautiful poet, teacher, and human). Later I managed to get hired by Elizabeth as her assistant. Then I moved to Boston and then New York… I took the internship because I wanted to be a writer, but then discovered my passion as an editor and advocate for authors.

What was your first apartment like?

I moved out of my parents’ home when I was 17, first into a dorm very briefly, then a couple months later broke out of there and into an apartment in the heart of Seattle’s University District. I had two roommates, and it was a funky space—salvaged furniture, we put up ratty art (and some porn) on the walls, laminated the table with photo postcards, made messes. We rehearsed theater and all wrote stories and plays, threw parties, and often had stray acquaintances sleeping on our couch/floor/beds. Hungover kids would wake up and I would give them tea and ask them about their love life. I had a reputation for asking personal questions of people I didn’t know well enough to ask, which I suspect that remains true. Mara Siciliano, who is a playwright, lived across the street, and Brandon Graham, the comic artist, basically lived with us—we certainly fed him most days. Whenever I see him now I have the impulse to microwave a burrito. I’ve kept many friends from that time and place, who showed up often on that dirty floor; Chris Burkhalter, who was a comics reviewer and is great writer, Olivia Gunn, a poet and dancer and now a professor at UW; Alissa Mortenson, who started a theater company and now is doing theater-influenced therapy…  

Did you experience any big life changes?

Yes.

I studied in Italy when I was twenty, and took a multi-month life-changing solo backpacking trip across Europe, crashing in hostels and having adventures and affairs. Then, I got my first job(s), as noted, and later I moved from the Pacific Northwest to the East Coast–Boston and then New York. I moved between jobs, got laid off once, got back in and found my niche(s) in the industry. I got married when I was 26, and when I was thirty I started trying to have a baby.

I gave birth at 31. That was a change like nothing else before in my life.

What did you learn through your romantic relationships?

Entering my twenties, I had had various tumultuous and serially monogamous attachments—one with a cast member of the local Rocky Horror Picture Show troupe, one (briefly) with a drug addict, some jerks and some sweethearts. Finding and losing lovers, desire and the overwhelming longing to be desirable, these were primary drivers in my choices and actions. I was swoony, lovesick.

Then, at 21, I started dating my best friend, who I had known for some years. He said he loved me, somewhat all of a sudden. We moved in together a few weeks later. We had our ten-year wedding anniversary this month.

Instead of searching for romance in my 20s, I had the luck/challenge to learn to love and be committed to one, complicated and particular and adored, person, over time. We have stuck through a lot together. We have made each other.

I first met my husband, before we were dating, when I was seventeen and he was seventeen, in the basement of a shopping mall, where I was making espresso under the escalator and he was helping to make the new internet economy upstairs in an office, both of us paid under the table (hello ‘90s Seattle).  One irony that has been apparent to me, since, is that I thought in my naïve youth that I would remain the cooler half—that I was artsy and he was math-y. But that decade became the real revenge of the nerds. (Certainly he now has more twitter followers than me, to my deep burning rage). He turned out to be a good risk. I take pride in his work and I know he takes pride in mine. How important that is—to find your partnership in love to be a ballast for your other identities, your work and ambitions. This requires allowing each other to change over time, to grow up together, which can be very difficult (imagine me biting my tongue here and sitting on typing fingers) but worth it.   

How did your relationships with your family change?

As I became an adult, they became less immediately responsible for me and therefore less worried about me constantly. Because in my family, to love means to worry. My mother might dispute this; I still give her lots to worry over. I moved across the country—so I see them only a few times a year. But we talk weekly at least, often daily. I fly home to Seattle enough that I have considered putting that I am bicoastal into my little online profile boxes, except that looks ridiculous – like the guys with “NY/LA/London/Bangkok” but you know that they live down the street 99% of the time.

Do you feel you changed emotionally?

Eh, maybe. I am an emotional type, which has sustained. I hope I have become less flighty (though sadly I think not much less anxious). I am better able to appreciate the various ways that love demonstrates itself, the value in stability as well as thrill.

I am bound up emotionally in my child, right now, in a way that makes it hard to take stock of myself separate from being a new-ish mother. I’m still in the thick of it, even though she’s somehow already four years old. Check back when she starts kindergarten; or middle school perhaps.  Ayun Halliday wrote some lines, as I recall them, in her memoir THE BIG RUMPUS, which I would like to find to actually quote, but in my memory she said how having a child can be the shocking intense reciprocated love sought in so many romantic movies/stories, but you also have to take care of them every minute of every day (or hire someone else to do it), so it is a lot to feel.  I am full to bursting.

What was your biggest disappointment and how did that affect you later?

So… this is an early one in my twenties; my later disappointments feel too fresh to describe with clarity. But, right at the start of that decade, I was still bummed about how I had wanted to go to college in New York. I had a much ballyhooed (by spoiled me and of course my sweet proud parents) national merit scholarship to NYU that we then turned down because the expense to make up the difference was too much for my family, who were doing fine financially but not willing to like triple-mortgage their house for me to go to the big(ger) city for a ridiculously priced school. This led me to complain frequently about my bright lights dreams going out. Instead, I was able to pay more affordable tuition and study with excellent writers at the University of Washington, including Charles D’Ambrosio, Charles Johnson, Heather McHugh; could afford travel and study abroad, worked while also got support from my family through school, and then later graduated with zero student loans. Then I moved to New York anyways. Some East Coast folks are very snobby about schools and pedigree, name-dropping that never stops (and anyone reading this of that persuasion might think, look we’re not talking about missing out on Yale here… get over it). I see now the benefits long-term of not going into debt for college, I wish that were even possible now.  And how schooling is what you make of it, taking advantage of the resources that are presented. Follow your teachers after class to talk—this goes for work-life mentors also, if you can do it in a not-too-annoying fashion.

Is there any one experience that you feel defined the decade? Or one historical moment that changed you?

Well, I turned 22 on September 12, 2001. It is obvious to state that 9/11 defined the decade in America, shifted national politics and our culture profoundly. From it was created the ubiquitous surveillance that feels rather normal now, but isn’t.   
Also: The Internet pretty much happened that decade. Social media was not really a thing yet when I turned twenty, though there were bulletin boards and chat rooms. As it became dominant, the connectedness and need to constantly broadcast, both in my work and in my friendships, became the other new normal. Though I’m still not on facebook personally, as I have little interest in rekindling grade-school connections.  I think I’m going to have to go on soon though, that’s another story, but FB is making it impossible to update the MUTHA site without me having a personal account; super frustrating as I don’t want to be forced on that network… (I like twitter though! You can find me there).

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