Monday, September 18, 2017

My First Time: Jason Tougaw

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. Today’s guest is Jason Tougaw, author of The One You Get, now out from Dzanc Books. In The One You Get, Jason marries neuroscience and family lore to tell his story of growing up gay in 1970s Southern California, raised by hippies who had “dropped out” in the late sixties and couldn’t seem to find their way back in. With shades of Oliver Sacks and Susannah Cahalan, this honest and unexpected true story recasts the memoir to answer some of life’s big questions: “Where did I come from,” “How did I become me,” and “What happens when the family dog accidentally overdoses on acid?” Jason is a professor of literature at City University of New York. He is also the author of two nonfiction books, Strange Cases: The Medical Case History and the British Novel and Touching Brains: Literary Experiments in 21st-Century Neuromania. He blogs about the relationship between art and science at

My First Time

I had sex young, in seventh grade, on the older side of twelve, with my best friend since first grade. I wouldn’t call this childish experimentation. I’d call it experimental sex—adolescent sex on the way to the adult kind. We started out masturbating on opposite sides of the room and graduated to anything we could figure out.

Sometimes people respond to my adolescent sex life with something like moral panic. This must have damaged you. This must have been traumatic. It wasn’t. It didn’t. I could go on about the fact that children are sexual creatures, but instead, I want to take the occasion to be very literal about my first time, about how having sex—gay sex—so young shaped me as a writer.

For a couple of tween years, it hijacked my internal narrative. Maybe this means I’m gay? No, I won’t be. I’ll stop doing it. After next time. I’ll find a girlfriend (I did, several). I’m going to hell. What am I gonna do? This was a kind of writing. I was doing it in my head, the way I start my writing projects now. I was imagining possible realities, scenarios, futures, stories I could tell myself and the world to overcome the shame I felt—shame imposed by the extremely homophobic world I lived in, especially my middle school, where I was routinely taunted, shoved, and sometimes punched.

Then I got a little notebook. I didn’t write this stuff down directly. It was too scary. But I took phrases and images from the nonstop assault of my internal narration and turned them into lyrics I imagined for my favorite bands. I wrote tirades about bullies and popular kids.

The thing is, the writing interrupted the narrative. Slowed it down. The narrator was a source—the source. But it was also a tormentor. I caught a break by snatching bits of dialogue and translating them into marks on pages. When I did this, I changed them. Transformed them. They weren’t recognizable as the detritus of internal dialogue. They became something else. Something I controlled.

A few other fine strokes in this portrait of the sexual adolescent as a writer. My friend and I were doing something taboo. Our parents and our friends would have been horrified. We had a secret. In her novel My Name Is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout describes a novelist mentor whose writing was good—but not as good as it might be, because she was holding something back. The narrator suggests writing that resonates exposes secrets and taboos says and does things decorum asks us to ignore. My adolescent sex was an apprenticeship in the art of exposing difficult secrets.

My friend (who remains a beloved intimate to this day) and I were experimenting with each other’s bodies, with how they felt, what they could do. It was all pretty clinical. It was one more kind of exploration, like the time we spent tracking the behavior of ant colonies or playing Dungeons and Dragons. We were exploring the inarticulate. We didn’t have a theory of ant colonies, and we didn’t have a theory of being naked together. But we did talk our way through it. We used words, tentatively, to say what we thought we wanted to do, or to comment on how it felt. We were playing with the dynamic between the inarticulate and the articulate, what’s conscious and what’s hidden from consciousness. In my experience, that’s what writing is all about.

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