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If You Knew Then What I Know Now

4.36  ·  Rating details ·  423 ratings  ·  70 reviews
New York Magazine's The Year in Books pick
The Millions' A Year in Reading pick's Writers Choose Their Favorite Books

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
Paperback, 1st Edition, 209 pages
Published April 5th 2011 by Sarabande Books (first published April 1st 2011)
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A moving, quietly powerful essay collection about growing up gay in the Midwest. In these 14 linked pieces of memoir, Ryan Van Meter writes about his struggles and experiences with sexuality and gender spanning his childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. One of the most stunning aspects of Van Meter's writing includes his ability to focus in on a singular moment from his past and describe it with riveting detail and immediacy, so we feel an understated yet immense level of emotion. For example, i ...more
Feb 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing
4.5, rounded up.

This collection of 14 linked autobiographical essays will certainly resonate with any gay man, particularly if you have grown up in the Midwest, but really with anyone who realizes their 'difference' from an early age. Some of these I didn't really cotton to; the initial stories rely on sports stories that held little interest, but the pieces got stronger and more personal for me, and the final three blew me away. Not sure if Van Meter has continued to publish new pieces in magaz
Matthew Allard
Dec 02, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 5-star-favorites
I couldn't put this down. It's smart and thoughtful and honest. It's a book I'd want to write and never know how or where to begin. There was eerily so much of my youth in here, feelings and moments so succinctly described, that I felt Van Meter was writing about me. Special. ...more
Nov 15, 2012 rated it really liked it
I don't want to besmirch this sweet memoir w/ one of my lame-ass reviews, because I really liked it. So I'll just say: I laughed, I cried. Mostly cried. In a good way. ...more
Mar 29, 2013 rated it really liked it
“"So how do we learn to love?" asks Van Meter toward the end of this touchingly honest memoir and the answer is, we don't; we keep trying to reinvent love sometime succeeding for fleetingly precious moments of time, more often than not ending up disappointed. Van Meter's own answer . . . "The only thing I know about love is that I don’t know anything." ...more
Charles Cobine
Jul 04, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I started out reading this book in the early hours of the Fourth of July, and I just couldn’t put it down until I finished it. I was uncertain whether I would find it painful to reflect on how I felt about my identity at different points in my youth as I expected. Instead, what I found are coming-of-age stories that so closely reflect my feelings growing up at the same time, that it was fascinating, affirming, resonant. How can the author have known that this was what it was like, almost exactly ...more
Alex Simms
Sep 02, 2018 rated it liked it

I see this book in two acts and I think the organization of these essays is very good and effective since taking a chronological approach. I would define Act I as Van Meter’s confusing childhood with discovering his sexuality. Descriptions here were heightened so well that Van Meter is able to capture a nostalgic painting of anyone’s childhood to some degree, I think, especially anyone’s anxiety with not wanting to disappoint others.

Act II, to me, is when Van Meter describes his adult life. T
Chance Lee
Apr 15, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Today I'm analying Ryan van Meter's essay colleciton If You Knew Then What I Know Now. Like Joey Lawrence or Keanu Reeves, I can only say, "Whoa."

There were few essays in this collection that didn't leave me misty-eyed for some reason or another, yet I never once felt manipulated.

Van Meter's collection is a series of essays, in mostly chronological order, about his childhood. Many of the essays revolve around coming to terms with his sexuality. Because most of the essays were published in a vari
Maureen Stanton
Mar 07, 2012 rated it really liked it
This book, which feels like half memoir that shifts into essays later, may be the best book I've read on what it is like to grow up gay, or even just "different" from the cultural norm, especially in a small Midwestern town, with a father desperately trying to shape his son into a "boy" in the traditional sense. This part of the books is poignant and affecting, the essays lucid and beautifully written. The book then leaps to RVM after he has come out and his first serious relationship, with inte ...more
Jun 02, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This book is sweet and riveting and timely and so many other qualities that I was looking for in a book. Definitely a gift to the queer world, the human world.

"...she was obsessed with Tetris, a game where small jagged bricks inch down the screen, and the point is to fit them back together. It was a game about making order out of chaos, putting back together what rained down in pieces.
...On the screen in front of her, I imagined the bricks falling faster and faster, and how at some point, she wo
Apr 05, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This book makes me want to write. It reminds me that when we tell our stories in the right way they can be just as cathartic to read as to put on the page. Moving through these essays I felt like I was gaining insights into how to retell my own youth... and not just because I grew up gay in suburbia hating baseball and trying on dresses. But because these stories manifest like our memories - with all the emotion and images we carry recreated through our current reserve of experience and knowledg ...more
Apr 14, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction, memoir
Read this one in two sittings, which is amazing for me these days. A beautifully written memoir in the form of coming-of-age coming-out essays. Van Meter has a great ear for dialogue and an eye for detail. Stories of his midwestern anxiety-ridden childhood and his struggles with romance were compelling in that easy, inevitable way - never self-pitying or maudlin. I'm sure I'll come back to this book to reread it. ...more
Apr 05, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Lovely collection of essays about growing up gay. Some really wonderful gems in this book, especially "First," the title essay, "Youth Group," "Tightrope," and "Things I Will Want to Tell You on Our First Date but Won't." ...more
Jan 03, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Ryan Van Meter was my first real experience with creative nonfiction. And after reading "First" and "If You Knew Then What I Know Now" with my class, I knew I needed more. When Van Meter came to read at my school, a friend of mine purchased his book for me so I could get it signed, and I only just managed to finish it more than three months later.

I found myself crying several times while reading this because it was so relatable. Even though my experiences as a queer person differ from Van Meter'
Morgan Miller-Portales
Aug 22, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Ryan Van Meter's collection of essays on growing up gay in small-town America is a brilliant and poignant depository of memories that perfectly encapsulates the experiences most gay males go through - the prejudices, the differences and ultimately in the best of cases, our emancipation from heterocentrist norms. One of the best books I have read so far in 2017. ...more
Jul 18, 2018 rated it really liked it
The childhood essays were viscerally gripping, the later essays less so, perhaps, but still emotionally connected. I would love for Van Meter to write YA gay fiction. He has a gift for transporting me back to memories from my early years I had to push away, and now both resist and yearn to fully remember.
Jan 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This book was recommended to me by a coworker who said it made him cry, and he was not wrong. Ryan Van Meter is such a masterful essayist. He tells moving personal stories that are simple, yet I've never seen them told before. And, without layering in a ton of analysis, he somehow makes them universal. Marched right out and bought a copy to give to a friend and pass on the love. ...more
Brian Benson
Apr 08, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Such a moving, inventive, exceedingly well-written collection. We need more writers like Ryan Van Meter, who write with candor and humor and vulnerability about all of the turmoil that comes of being a boy (especially a boy who likes other boys) in America. The lead essay, "First," is a stunner, one I've read countless times, as is the title piece. Grateful to have found this book. ...more
Sep 04, 2017 rated it really liked it
These stories pull you in with the descriptions and emotion. I am glad that the author is now a successful author and professor--reading through the earlier chapters, I was worried for him. I am glad that he made it through.
Oct 29, 2020 rated it liked it
beautiful writing but nothing new, radical, or even (so sorry) interesting. tender, sure, but also so repetitive and some things were just ridiculous.
LaTanya McQueen
Nov 09, 2011 rated it really liked it
I had no idea that this was a collection of linked essays when I purchased it. It was published through Sarabande and the look of it made it seem like it was a collection of short stories. I picked it up and bought it on the strength of the first piece “First,” about a boy who during a car trip home tries to understand his fledgling feelings for his childhood friend. I’m not sure if I would have bought this had I instead read the back of the book or looked at the author’s bio. That said, I’m gla ...more
B.A. Brock
Jun 24, 2014 rated it it was amazing

This is a collection of 14 nonfiction essays about how Van Meter learned how to love.

A trailer was adapted after his first essay, "First".

Even though this was nonfiction, it had a wonderful "fiction" feel to it. There are POV and tense shifts, a poem to a hypothetical person, and an essay where he's talking to his younger self.

In "Tightrope", he cleverly revels parts to the reader, while his character is oblivious to the true meaning of what is going on i
Jun 20, 2013 rated it really liked it
This was a great collection, and I was glad to be reading it when DOMA was struck down. Ryan Van Meter gives insight about what it's like to grow up with all kinds of subtle pressures are telling you not to be what you aren't even aware of yet. All the while, Van Meter shows a good amount of sympathy, too, for his parents and grandparents. The essays range in style from conventional first-person memoir to more experimental second person pieces. I liked the more straightforward sections the best ...more
Sep 04, 2011 rated it really liked it
These (mostly) biographical essays by Ryan Van Meter are about growing up in a traditional, religious (but not fundamentalist) middle class, middle-American family. "First" captures a moment when he is five and tells the "brown-eyed boy' he has fallen for that he loves him and wants to marry him. their parents overhear them, and both boys realize that they must draw apart from each other. The essay which gives the book its title explores the effect of junior high harassment on the bullies and th ...more
Mar 04, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I read half of this book on the plane coming back from AWP, and then found myself slowing down as I was reaching the last several essays, not wanting it to end. Van Meter writes with a stunning language on the experience of growing up; how growing up and living in the closet impacts gay men at specific times, and echoes continuously, in their lives. There's a learned fragility and growing strength in Van Meter vs. the straight world (the path we all walk through), a reflective, inquisitive natur ...more
Barbara Coe
May 10, 2012 rated it really liked it
I heard this author read one of the essays from this collection at AWP. I knew within the first two minutes that I had found an author that I would seek out and follow his entire career. Luckily, he is quite a bit younger than I am, so my plan is to stack his books on my nightstand deep into old age.
This book is a collection of essays that deal with growing up gay in the Midwest. Because of the dense and specific theme, I read a few stories at a time and then picked up something different ( mos
Jul 22, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Through several short essays, Ryan Van Meter is able to take anyone, even the white heterosexual, into the world of longing, hurt, sadness, and ostracism. Van Meter grew up in conservative middle America, and the scathing and curious looks he received growing up form the basis of these essays. He explores his short stint with baseball, a sport his father was adamant he continue playing; he illustrates the time his grandmother found him as a young and innocent child wearing dresses; he takes us t ...more
Aug 02, 2012 rated it it was amazing
I read one of the short stories in this book online before purchasing the book, so I knew that it was likely I would love it - and I absolutely did. Ryan's talent as a writer contains a specific beauty to capture those moments of childhood that words seem to not be able to describe - feelings, emotions, fears. This is particularly true for a young child wrestling with their sexuality.

I'm extremely thankful to Ryan for sharing this beautiful insight into his childhood and for his contribution to
May 18, 2011 rated it really liked it
In these essays Van Meter has beautifully exposed the feelings of growing up unable to fit into the society to which he is born. Along the way he encounters misunderstanding, denial, bullying, confusion and insecurity. How difficult it must have been to remain true to himself, but it is evident through these essays that he did. He shares that here with his passion, hints of humor, and forthrightness. This is courageous writing. Easily accessible, compelling. Well done. Recommended for misfits ev ...more
Jun 17, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2011-read
One of the things that drive me nuts in reviews and workshops is when the critic critiques a story based not on what it is, but rather what he or she wanted it to be. Right now I have to resist the urge to become the very thing I despise.

I wanted more from Ryan Van Meter’s If You Knew Then What I Know Now. Not because the book itself is lacking anything, but because I’m a greedy, greedy reader who could not get enough of his lovely, bittersweet prose.

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Ryan Van Meter's 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 is an assistant professor of creative nonfiction at The University of San Francisco. ...more

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