Your Best Work Comes from Scaring Yourself

Essayist Chelsea Hodson had to give herself permission to be uncomfortable.

Ryan Chapman | Longreads | June 2018 | 16 minutes (4,419 words)

Several of the sentences in Chelsea Hodson’s debut Tonight I’m Someone Else radiate with the epigrammatic wisdom of Kelly Link or Maggie Nelson. There’s just something about her lines — “How lovely to be young enough not to know any better” or “I once loved so hard I almost lost everything, including his life, including my own” (both from “Simple Woman”) — that demands furious underlining and exclamation points in the margins.

These essays span the writer’s life in Tuscon, Los Angeles, and New York as she investigates what it means to have a body, to be an object, to run away, to look for answers in strangers, and to chase danger. As in, let’s tie a butcher knife to the ceiling fan and sit beneath it until someone gets hurt (“Near Miss”).

With praise from Miranda July and Amy Hempel, Tonight I’m Someone Else is a book that delights and disturbs and — in its deep dive into the performance of female identity — feels very now. Hodson is an essayist with one foot out the door, and she’s holding the keys to someone else’s car, asking if we want to drive into the ocean.

I spoke with Hodson in her Brooklyn apartment shortly after the publication of the book. This conversation has been edited for length.

Ryan Chapman: I think there’s this sense that writing personal essays might be the most fraught genre of writing, because — I think it was Megan Daum who said you’re essentially inventing the form and the “I” with each essay. As opposed to reportage or fiction, you’re kind of creating a pop song while you’re inventing the instruments to play the pop song.

Chelsea Hodson: Right.

I was wondering how the form of these essays came together, and also what your sense of the “I” of the I in the book is.

Well I’ll start by saying with reporting that I do have a journalism background, it’s what I studied in school. It didn’t interest me that much. There’s something about that difficulty — curating the “I,” deciding what to include, deciding what that eye “sees” — that’s really interesting to me.

But I didn’t want to become a reporter. I like the difficulty in engaging with the self and what a person sees in a situation — not just the situation.

Being almost done…. That’s the magical part of creating something, when it still has the possibility of being perfect. And then there’s this great sadness in finishing something and realizing that is the best I can do.

Which comes up in the piece about visiting a courtroom trial in college. You fixated on the defendant’s face. It was the most interesting thing in the room, and not necessarily the crime itself.

Yeah. I didn’t want to write the news story. I really wanted to focus in on this person’s face. It just seemed very emotional to me. And I couldn’t imagine a future version of myself that was taking the emotion out of it. I really admire people that can do that. I’ve met reporters that can absolutely do this, and to me it feels a little impossible. I have to just be in touch with whatever I’m focusing on. And that’s what I want to document: something that seems very small but is representative of the whole thing.

So if you’re bent that way, essays are a good form because it’s just about investigating something. It’s not necessarily this neat beginning, middle, and end. It’s more like an exploration, and as the writer I can focus on whatever I want and maneuver through that.

There’s a cohesiveness to the pieces and the book on the whole that is certainly reminiscent of Maggie Nelson, who I know has praised your work. It also reminded me of David Markson’s books, which use the note form. Their arrangement creates a more powerful effect. I imagine that comes about through rigorous editing.

I like that feeling of reading something that feels effortless. I think the only way to make it feel that way, unless you’re a genius, is to highly curate it. I spent a lot of time rearranging those essays — especially those that have a line break in between the paragraphs — I spent a lot of time rearranging those paragraphs to see how they change, thinking about how to juxtapose them in a way that feels satisfying. Even if you don’t know how one is leading to the next, somehow it makes sense emotionally.

That’s something very few essayists can accomplish. What occurs in the book and in a lot of these pieces is the sense that you’re moving readers onto this plane where those kinds of connections are maybe somewhat subconscious.

In building out the essays, was there a lot of excavating of documents, past journals, and records?

My whole life I’ve kept journals on and off. I’ve never been able to commit to them every day. But I did a lot of freewriting the past couple of years. By which I mean just kind of an unloading. Usually from that I can get maybe two good sentences out a thousand words. (laughs)

There wasn’t much excavating in terms of taking lines from journals or something. I did almost none of that. They’re mainly just revisions of essays I started years ago. In “Red Letters from a Red Planet,” the first essay, I even reference it: I wrote this essay before, but I wrote it wrong. I like that you can acknowledge the writer is wrong, a mistake’s been made, and the essay is a correction.

There’s one piece where every paragraph starts with the phrase “I’m trying.” There’s a sense of openness: There are revisions here, I haven’t made up my mind about this — as if one could make up their mind about these kinds of aspects of one’s life.

Another aspect of the book is something very few writers talk about: writing and money. How to make it.

Yeah.

I’m curious to hear your thoughts on how you explored that. And if now that the book itself is an object, it’s imbued with a lot of yourself, but it’s also for sale…

Yeah, it weirdly coincides with the essay “Pity the Animal,” where the human becomes an object. I am interested in that. I accept it as part of this process of wanting to make things that reach other people. Otherwise I would just keep it to myself and not pursue this line of work. I think of The Book of Disquiet. Have you read it?

I haven’t.

Fernando Pessoa left all these scraps of paper in a trunk because he couldn’t commit to ordering and publishing them. So he published other things throughout his life, but his great masterwork was assembled after his death. I think about that extreme, and I think I just can’t become that. I want to be around, to talk about it, to just experience it. It is satisfying to complete [the book], even though it’s inevitably imperfect.

I like battling that side of myself, because I’m so controlling that I don’t want to ever finish something. Which is what that last essay is about (“When I Turn”), being almost done. That’s the magical part of creating something, when it still has the possibility of being perfect. And then there’s this great sadness in finishing something and realizing that is the best I can do. I feel satisfied by it to a degree, and then also I feel deeply sad. I get really depressed when I finish a big project because I know it’s going to have its own life without me, in this mystical way.

Like the kid’s going off to college.

Yeah. I’m getting a little off topic in terms of money, but I think about that. Money comes from you letting go of it. I’ve worked so many jobs to support myself as I wrote because I was never really interested in writing a book while making a living off of my writing. I know writers who have done both, and I don’t feel I’m capable of doing it. For instance, writing a piece every day for the internet and then still working on my creative work. I could never determine that balance, or even begin to imagine it. So I always just worked assistant jobs with very little responsibility, that didn’t require much creative work. I really liked that. It was very pleasurable to have a job, to be given a to-do list, and then to finish the to-do list. (laughs) That’s pleasing to me.

Your creative brain is guarded for your writing.

Yeah. It takes a lot longer for the book to be written, if it’s written around the jobs that you’re working. But I just accept that — I began to accept it. It’s very frustrating, but I find that now I will often have full days where I could be writing all day. And your brain just can’t — well my brain, at least, I’m not the type of person who can write for eight hours. And now I know. When you’re never afforded that privilege, you always romanticize it. If only I could have eight hours a day to write, I’d have my book done by now. I actually don’t think that’s true. If I was independently wealthy it still would have taken me this long, it just would have been even more frustrating. I wouldn’t have had an excuse.

Just because you put something super personal out into the world, that doesn’t mean that no one’s going to get it — it’s actually the opposite. People see themselves in something that’s really specific.

How long was the composition and the editing process?

From beginning to end I’d say six years. The main part of it was written in the past three years. Once I decided to go back and get my MFA, at Bennington, that program really kicked me into gear. Suddenly I was producing twenty pages a month, because I had to. I’d never been in the position where I had to be producing something. It was all on me. To have someone say, you have to produce twenty pages a month, or some months it’s twenty-five, for two years, with no breaks: that will really kick you into gear. It forces you to say, okay, that essay I’ve been avoiding, I need to finish it because I don’t have an idea for a new one. So I really appreciated those constraints and those deadlines.

There’s a phrase: you have your entire life to write your first book, and eighteen months to write your second.

Yeah. (laughs)

In a way, it feels like the wisdom and the experiences of a whole life are on the page. Which is great for readers, but I imagine is a hollowing out for the writer.

I think that’s part of the reason people turn to other genres after their first book. That’s what I’m doing now, I’m turning to fiction. I also feel this sense of permission. I got over this sense that I couldn’t do it.

It can feel so scary to make art, that I think it’s easy to get stuck in what you think you’re most capable of. Your best work actually comes from scaring yourself, and being in discomfort to some degree. So when I finished this book I was really eager to scare myself, to say, what would really bring me out of what I’ve been doing? So I started a novel.

I’ve been comparing it to running, these little sprints. When I started writing the book years ago, I genuinely didn’t have any idea of how people wrote three hundred pages. I thought, that feels impossible to me. And now that I’ve written this book of essays I see how it’s possible. Where it wasn’t before.

You think okay, I’m ready for the marathon.

I think about permission a lot. I get so sick of myself restricting myself, that I finally just let go. I’m just going to do it.

I think a fiction writer would say it’s easy compared to the amount of permission given in [Tonight I’m Someone Else], and especially the amount of admission. You get very open about the seduction of strangers, a proclivity towards danger. With fiction, the writer can always hide behind the fiction.

As I was finishing up the book I definitely saw the appeal of autofiction. (laughs) I was like, I’d love to say that part’s fictional! But ultimately my favorite kind of writing is this female portrayal of one’s life and one’s desires. So if I can remember that enough, I accept it as this weird uncomfortable space where secrets get revealed and confessions get made. That’s always the kind of thing I like to read. I just ultimately leaned into that.

PublishingPity the Animal — again, to use the word permission — that was a big thing for me, to see how people responded to that.


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“Pity the Animal” has had many lives, as a piece.

Yeah. It’s in the book, and it’s an essay that came out as a chapbook in 2014 with Future Tense. And the response to it was really strong. I had people of all walks of life coming to my readings — people who I didn’t expect [the essay] would reach or it would connect with. That to me was a really good lesson of, okay, just because you put something super personal out into the world, that doesn’t mean that no one’s going to get it — it’s actually the opposite. People see themselves in something that’s really specific.

The personal is universal.

It’s a strange thing. I saw it for myself, and that allowed me to write about certain other things that I would otherwise think, oh, that feels too private, or too scary.

It’s good to confront your fears in that way. I wouldn’t say I feel at ease, but I feel more at ease than I would’ve if nothing was out before this book. I would be really on edge and instead I just feel like, well it’s out in the world, it’s going to do its thing or not. I feel pretty stoic about it.

That’s a great place to be!

(Laughs) I don’t worry about people understanding it. Someone asked me that recently, “What if people don’t understand it?” And I just thought, that’s beyond my control.

Do you feel like the “I” in the book is close to you? A greater version of you? A lesser version?

It feels very distant actually. It’s this weird thing that’s happened, where the book became an object. Somehow, when it’s on my computer it’s still accessible to me. And now that I can’t touch it, it feels far away from me.

The book went through a lot of titles and I’m really happy that it ended up with this one. It feels the most true to me, this element of these different parts of yourself. That’s what initially drew me to nonfiction: this idea of being able to document parts that I can write now that I maybe can’t write in thirty years, because the memories will be gone or I’ll just have lived a different life by then. My perspective now is what I was interested in documenting.

Something happens when the essay is done, to me; it feels detached. I appreciate that and I like that element of it. But it’s very strange and kind of surreal for me.

It’s this weird thing that’s happened, where the book became an object. Somehow, when it’s on my computer it’s still accessible to me. And now that I can’t touch it, it feels far away from me.

Tonight I’m Someone Else is the perfect title. All of my notes in the margins were things like “Masks! New identities!”, and I realized this was all answered by the title.

It’s interesting how a title can inform so much. That title came almost at the very end.

Part of the reason I kept getting drawn so deep into the essays was that feeling that what I’m reading is the way you’re experiencing life.

And all its imperfections and uncertainties. That’s what I always trust in a writer. I never trust the “neat” journey to something. (laughs) It feels very false to me. So I can appreciate it for what it is but I don’t think it’s the kind of thing I’m capable of writing, or even seeing in my own life.

Which is great on the one hand, but it leads to a much more difficult writing process on the other.

Also it becomes much more about the language. I can hear it. Even though I don’t have a “The End” — that’s where that’s going to go, nice and tidy — I can feel the sentences accumulating toward something that feels like an ending to me. I’m thinking of “Leaving Me,” where it ends with:

“I won’t make any more promises. I won’t try to solve you.

There.

That’s my last promise.”

When I wrote it, I realized I was making a promise, and then I made another one. I was like, no no no, that one is the last promise. I think to a lot of readers that would be a really weird ending, but to me it makes total sense. (laughs)

There are a lot of epigrammatic phrases in the book. I wouldn’t be surprised if most readers underline everything and start instagramming everything. (laughs) From “Halfway Out the Door,” which is to some degree a breakup essay: “Everything I do is an effort to answer a question, even if the question is, How selfish can I be?” I think every writer should hold that dear.

(Laughs) I think so too, especially people who write about their life. It’s a big issue.

Pretty quickly in the book it struck me that the book had more in common with writers who have a foot in the art world, like Wayne Koestenbaum or Lynne Tillman. Certainly Marina Abramović is a figure that is explicit in — is it “Pity the Animal”?

Yes, in “Pity the Animal.” That was when I encountered her work for the first time.

Marina Abramović could be an spiritual cousin of the book, in the performative aspect, the vulnerable aspect, but also in the idea that she’s trying to create new forms to explore her art, of which she herself is always at the center.

For her in particular, her work helped me think of the physical body as a tool. That really helped the rest of the book. There was just something really moving to me about seeing her physicality. And also the videos in that retrospective: all the things the viewer projects onto that image of her whipping her own body, or her on this white horse holding a white flag.

I really liked the idea of having these images that could appear in an otherwise linear narrative essay: What if there are just these moments where the body takes on all this narrative weight? It becomes this anchor, of a sense.

I started to think a lot of about how the body is used in performance art and in dance. In “Pity the Animal,” I really didn’t know where to start the essay. So I just started listing exactly what I was doing at that point in time. I do that often in the book: where is my actual, physical body, and what is it feeling.

By putting the body at the center of so many of the essays it becomes a marker for your own change: exploring sex in Tuscon, through dance, imagining sex work and “sugar daddy” work — the reader sees a progression of tested boundaries.

One could read “Pity the Animal” as about a particular body in a particular milieu. Including the Grand Theft Auto section, which is taken from a video capture of a player attempting to have sex with a stripper — that really opens up the piece into something beyond New York.

That was one of the first instances where I realized how much I really love this element of voyeurism in my essays. Because I chose not to even introduce that transcript, it just kind of drops the reader in. Suddenly it’s, “From a youtube video called this” and then just a script as if you’re reading a play or a screenplay. I liked the idea of having the reader just plopped into it as if they’d clicked on it. I felt it was a big risk to take, but I’m at ease with it. It was one of the first times where I tested myself, with How much will a reader follow you? without saying “This is what I was doing that day,” or “This is what I was looking for when I looked at this video.” I just chose to leave all of that out and let the script just exist in the same way that sometimes I’ll just have an image exist.

Like I was talking about how visuals are implemented. Sometimes very surreal images that cannot be real are just presented in the essays. The reader is smart enough to know what’s real and what’s not, but there is this kind of dance between, which makes it more lively.

Your essays always exist in the now: you’re talking about being 13, or 18, and you’re putting the reader right in the memory; there’s isn’t a zooming out to say, “This is how it informs me as an adult.” Did that come about through revision? Was it more instinct?

For the ones that take place a long time ago, they’re just shorter. I don’t think it needs this kind of “wrapping up.” Which I like in a lot of essays, I just feel these ones in particular it just needed to be that moment. “Second Row,” about having this huge crush on a singer, it’s wrapped up by him teaching me and my friends about the meaning of longing, what it means to be really near to someone but not quite reach them.

The essays like that inform certain other essays touching on the same topics. In a way they’re concluded within the book. The essays are speaking to each other, and not just existing on their own. They do tend to wrap up, just in a different way.

The reader is smart enough to know what’s real and what’s not, but there is this kind of dance between, which makes it more lively.

There’s a constellation to the way they fit together. With respect to longing, I was reading it and thinking, “Poor 13-year-old Chelsea, life gets better!” (laughs) But at the same time you see that no: this longing develops. It becomes adult longing.

It does not go away. (laughs)

In “When I Turn,” you write: “Parties have never saved me, but I’ve never stopped thinking they might. What are you working on? Is your book done? New York is great because everyone’s too tired to hide their contempt, but they know they have to ask something. It’s understood here that failure is contagious, so being almost done only works for so long.”

It’s meant to a bit cheeky. I thought people in New York would think it’s funny. I think it’s funny.

It’s very true.

No matter where you go, everyone has that experience: So, what’s your deal? I guess I have to ask something, because you’re here, and we’re alive, I’m looking for something at this party, I don’t know what… (laughs)

You should be able to say, “I just published a book, and it’s amazing.”

Right!

The novelist Will Chancellor was at a party in Art Basel and a famous artist asked him, “What do you do for a living?” Will said, “I’m a writer,” and the artist asked, “Are you fucking amazing?” Will hesitated and the guy went, “Wrong answer!” and shoved him in the chest.

(Laughs)

If someone asks you the same question, just be bold.

Back to the book. Over the course of the composition of the book were there texts you returned to or writers that helped you channel the voice or the form you wanted?

I read a lot of different things. I read a lot of poetry in the beginning, then I read a lot of novels. I was interested in what kept me going page to page through something, and how I could apply that to the shorter form.

One of my go-to’s is Letters to Wendy’s by Joe Wenderoth.

That’s a great book.

It may be my all-time favorite book. I’m really obsessed with it. It was one of the first books I read when I started writing. When I studied creative writing in undergrad I had this amazing poetry teacher named Shelly Taylor. She taught Joe Wenderoth, Sarah Manguso, Sarah Messer, and some other people who continue to be my go-to’s.

It’s kind of like the music that you listen to in high school, you still have that feeling, you’re brought back to that place.

It’s in your bones in a different way.

Those books speak to me in that way. Especially Letters to Wendy’s: when I read it, it moved me profoundly. I thought, I want to do something that is this weird and wild. I adore that book.

And Sarah Manguso was my mentor for several years. I always reach for her books. It reminds me of the things we’ve talked about. I feel like every time I read one of her books it will teach me something else. She’s a great reader, writer, and editor. I’ve learned a lot from her.

We might conclude on a cheesy question: do you have advice for people who are just starting down this road?

I teach at Catapult and at this writing workshop in Italy. I’m pretty big on unsolicited advice actually.

My big thing for students — and I’ve used this word a lot — is permission. Just giving yourself permission to be uncomfortable. Putting yourself in the situation where you allow yourself to produce work. You’re not stopping at every sentence to say, oh, it’s bad, it’s not good enough. Put yourself in an environment where it doesn’t feel safe but you’re producing something. I think that’s where the heat is able to rise from, and something interesting can happen. I like that. I’m always encouraging people to come up with restraints, like timing themselves to a half hour of freewriting. I’ve encouraged students to blindfold themselves while writing so they’re not afraid of what they’re seeing, or overthinking it. If you can type without looking at the keys — it can get a little messy. I can type without looking, and sometimes early in the morning I will close my eyes and just see what happens. (laughs) I like that element of not knowing, and just kind of engaging with that uncertainty.

* * *

Ryan Chapman lives in Kingston, New York. He has written for BOMB, GQ.com, Electric Literature, Buzzfeed, and elsewhere. His novel Riots I Have Known (Simon & Schuster) will be published in 2019.

Editor: Dana Snitzky