If there is a commonality present in the profiles of young artists, it is this cliché: they are precocious—old souls encapsulated in a child. Take for example Millie Bobby Brown—the twelve-year-old actress that made captured our collective attention as Eleven in Netflix’s smash-hit Stranger Things. If you google her name and that ubiquitous term, you’ll find several articles that extol her precociousness. This easy descriptor for anyone of a certain age masks our uncertainity on how approach prominent, artistic children in writing. “Smart” feels too patronizing, “wise beyond their years” ages them up. Precocious is a safe, arm’s-length distancing term. We recognize your talent, but we also recognize that you are young.
Nicolaia Rips gets categorized with the same adjective in most of the write-ups about her recently released memoir, Trying to Float: Coming of Age in the Chelsea Hotel. Rips, a seventeen-year-old recent high school graduate, writes about her early years living at the Chelsea Hotel, the New York City hotel famous (or infamous) for being an artistic hotspot, housing celebrities like Madonna, Edie Sedgewick, Marilyn Monroe, and Sid Vicious, among others. In her memoir, Rips chronciles her Bohemian lifestyle, including the outrageous cast of characters that make up the other residents at the hotel. The memoir focuses on how her upbringing made her an outcast at her fancy elementary and middle schools, as a more indie version of Eloise.
Precociousness can only take you so far, especially in the genre of memoir. Leigh Stein elluciates this in her piece “Millennial Days” for The New York Times: “While time and distance can add depth to personal narratives, the assumption [is] that the young memoirist is too naïve to know she must wait to tell her story […].” Memoirists, especially young women memoirists, are urged to wait for the insight that comes with age to write their story. I think it all comes back to our internalized disdain for creative, successful children, these kids we label with precocious in order forgo an in-depth analysis of their work. To quote Bioshock Infinite, “This world values childhood, not children.” We love stories of childhood; it is our personal mythology. We craft conspiracy theories that suggest that the reason we are the way we are is because of the way we were raised as children. However, we do not value children as artists in the same way. Stories of childhood must be told through the filter of an aged self that has the vocabulary and expertise to craft and bend a life story to fit a more complete narrative. With the distance, we are able to see how the foggy events of our adolescence fit within the context of the whole. In effect, you must wait to create if you want to be taken seriously as an artist.
More power to Nicolaia Rips, then, for taking up a pen and writing her experiences at such a young age. Rips makes use of the lack of distance between her experience and the writing of those experiences in what Leigh Stein calls a “zoomed-in” observation of her girlhood. Girlhood is already my personal favorite element to examine in literature. Already this summer, my personal reading has focused on the ways in which women writers use their craft to talk about the vulnerability of girlhood. Here, Rips does not focus so much on traumas particular to girlhood, but rather, the magic and confusion of this period of her life in short, vignette-like chapters.
The strongest passages of the memoir are found when Rips focuses on the almost magical aspects of her unique upbringing of her coming of age. Descriptions of her neighbors’ artistic temperments and her character sketches of those lifelong residents of the Chelsea Hotel are almost magical and surreal. When she spends time to develop these passages, Trying to Float becomes a kunstlerroman, wherein Rips discovers where she fits in this world of artists and starts to hone her own creative side.
Trying to Float takes advantage of the liminal space of hotels and the cast of bizarro characters that they tend to draw to track her girlhood experiences, but we often leave the hotel to follow Nicolaia’s early education. Even though the memoir itself is about the duality of Nicolaia’s life (the Bohemian romanticism of growing up in a storied refuge for artists versus her attempt to connect with her well-to-do WASP-y classmates), I found myself uninterested with the typical outsider narrative that she employs to write about her education. When we move from the hotel to her schools, we lose some of that magic that Rips has built-up. Not to diminish the important narrative of the ways in which her upbringing marginalizes her and makes her an outcast among her classmates, but these moments drag on and left me skimming the pages in order to get back to the sections set in the Chelsea Hotel.
Rather frustratingly, she does not take advantage of the lack of distance between her life and her writing about her life to draw conclusions or at least explore the importance of these moments. Her chapers, which are short enough to read as vignettes, do not move beyond the surface. This narration without discussion makes the book weaker and squanders the magical Eloise-esque passages of the memoir. I would have liked to see a bit more self-awareness from Rips as an older narrator.
Rips’s voice here is slightly underdeveloped, as if she hasn’t quite found the right tone and is still experimenting. This could be due to audience confusion. As I was reading, I found it difficult to place the book with an audience. Is it for a general audience, or, is Rips doing something more interesting and writing to a young adult audience? To my knowledge, memoirs are not typically marketed to young adult readers. Her writing style could fit easily in the YA category and maybe it should be marketed as a YA memoir.
I personally don’t subscribe to the theory that books must a perfect, moving piece that have to be inline with the canon. They are allowed to be a playground of experimentation. While I believe that Trying to Float could have been a better book with the elements of X, Y, or Z, what is important is Rips’s ability to experiment with what a memoir should read like. Given that this is Rips’s first book, and that it was published before she left high school, it would be asking too much for her book to be the precocious work that it is made out to be. I am excited to see where her writing takes her and even more excited if the rumors about her writing a second memoir about her high school years are true.