If You Knew Then What I Know Now
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The middle American coming-of-age has found new life in Ryan Van Meter's coming-out, made as strange as it is familiar by acknowledging the role played by gender and sexuality. In fourteen linked essays, If You Knew Then What I Know Now reinvents the memoir with all-encompassing empathy--for bully and bullied alike. A father pitches baseballs at his hapless son and a grandmother watches with silent forbearance as the same slim, quiet boy sets the table dressed in a blue satin dress. Another essay explores origins of the word faggot and its etymological connection to flaming queen. This deft collection maps the unremarkable landscapes of childhood with compassion and precision, allowing awkwardness its own beauty. This is essay as an argument for the intimate--not the sensational--and an embrace of all the skinned knees in our stumble toward adulthood.
Ryan Van Meter grew up in Missouri and studied English at the University of Missouri-Columbia. After graduating, he lived in Chicago for ten years and worked in advertising. He holds an MA in creative writing from DePaul University and an MFA in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa. His essays have appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Indiana Review, Gulf Coast, Arts & Letters, and Fourth Genre, among others, and selected for anthologies including Best American Essays 2009. In the summer of 2009, he was awarded a residency at the MacDowell Colony. He currently lives in California where he is an assistant professor of creative nonfiction at the University of San Francisco.
Praise For If You Knew Then What I Know Now…
In this moving debut, a collection of 14 linked essays, Van Meter charts the repercussions of growing up in Missouri with a secret. He delicately charts episodes from his youth, such as baseball practice with his increasingly frustrated father, who couldn’t hide his disappointment in his son’s disinterest in sports, despite the promise of a new TV. Every time, I’m the small kid who slouches at the quiet corners of the action, stands still and tries not to be noticed.” A season of practice culminating in a painful injury allows a new perspective to emerge: This summer, we’ve been trying to be certain kinds of men we probably weren’t ever meant to be.” Van Meter recalls, with sensitivity, finally coming out of the closet and the strain it put on his relationship with his best college friend. Before finally speaking those words, I had known I was gay but wasn’t ready to admit it...before that, for almost all of my teenage years, I thought I might be gay and was afraid so I prayed every night for it to be taken away. And before that, I didn’t know I was gay, but I knew I was different, and I didn’t want to be that either.” Thanks to Van Meter’s honesty, essays on his own childhood, identity, and love have a profoundly
Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Reading Ryan Van Meter's collection of 14 ruminative essays, If You Knew Then What I Know Now, feels like sitting in the priest's side of a confessional. As Van Meter drifts elliptically between his childhood as a closeted young boy and his life now as an openly gay man, he draws the reader inexorably to this book, and its compelling weight.
Vikas Turakhia, Cleveland Plain Dealer
"Van Meter has come a long way from the 5-year-old who held his bestie’s hand and said, I love you.” But in these moving pages, what he tells us about the years in between is every bit as shining and true."
Gina Webb, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Van Meter has come a long way from the 5-year-old who held his bestie’s hand and said, I love you.” But in these moving pages, what he tells us about the years in between is every bit as shining and true.
This exploration is crafted with beautiful language and innovative attention to form, surprising the reader as often with humor as with heartbreak. In the end, If You Knew Then What I Know Now makes the coming out story and the coming of age story new again.
Ryan Van Meter’s is both a charming and wounding intelligence. To read a book this observant, this fiercely honest, and this effortlessly beautiful is to feel the very pulse of contemporary American essays.
If You Knew Then What I Know Now reconstructs the pain and astonishment of coming to know oneself deeply. These essays are insistently honest, darkened by melancholy and yearning, yet polished by prose so lithe, so elegant that Van Meter’s human presence brightens every line. It is truly rare for an essayist to marry dramatically compelling storytelling to rigorous investigations of language; Van Meter investigates both intimate and public forms of language with a highly refined sense of craft and a curious, open heart.
In a culture hungry for consolation and easy answers, it’s a relief to come across a memoir that’s only hungry for the truth. So how do we learn to be in love?” asks the speaker of Ryan Van Meter’s If You Knew Then What I Know Now. We don’t know, says the soul of his book, which is why I’ll keep coming back to these pure, generous pages again and again.
Sarabande Books, 9781932511949, 209pp.
Publication Date: April 5, 2011
About the Author
Conversation Starters from ReadingGroupChoices.com
1. Two of the essays in the book are written in second-person point of view, although in each, the “you” represents a different listener. What are the effects and implications of second-person stances inpersonal essays?
2. In putting the essays in order in the book, I (Ryan Van Meter) resisted strict chronology because I didn’t want readers to expect that this was a conventional memoir, where every section of my life was accounted for. Did you read the book in order? What effect did any interruption of time from essay to essay have on how you understood the overall life experience?
3. Present tense has always been more comfortable for me to write in than present, which would be “correct” for an experience lived long ago. I (Ryan Van Meter) hope it creates a constant feeling of immediacy, but what do you think? Why do you think the few essays written in past tense purposely get rid of that immediacy?
4. Many of these essays came out specific assignments from writing classes. Two of the essays, though very different as end results, “Specimen” and “Things I Will Want to Tell You…” came out of the same prompt. What do they have in common? Can you guess the original prompt?
5. “If You Know Then What I Know Now” is the title of the book but also the title of an essay. Is there any other essay title that you think would make an interesting title for the complete book? Why?
6. Most of my essays employ a “classic narrative” strategy—a story with a beginning, middle and end presented from start to finish. But in several, I (Ryan Van Meter) tried taking on more experimental forms, like “To Bear, To Carry,” “Things I Will Want to Tell You,” or “You Can’t Turn Off the Snake Light,” and perhaps some others. What kinds of experiences seem to dictate unconventional forms?
7. Chickens, fish, snakes, dogs, ducks, spiders and even aliens…animals, natural or otherwise, are apparently an important part of the texture of my essays. What is the effect of so many creatures? Are those creatures ever only just creatures?
8. I (Ryan Van Meter) can’t work on an essay until I have what feels like a compelling first sentence—one that raises questions and plops the reader into a world that’s already in action. What makes a good first sentence of an essay or story, or the first line of a poem? What kind of variation is possible with those aims in mind?
9. I (Ryan Van Meter) especially enjoy personal essays where the writer isn’t afraid of making him or herself unlikable, in at least a few moments. What were the moments in the book where the narrator challenged your sympathy? How did he win you back, if he did?
10. The experiences in this book range from age 5 to 33. I (Ryan Van Meter) tried hard to match the sensibilities of each age with the voice of each essay. In other words, the five-year-old voice hopefully sounds more wide-eyed and innocent than the fifteen-year-old one, which should come off as a little more guarded and know-it-all. Which voices endeared you to them most?