“IT'S MORE INTERESTING IF THE READER IS UNCERTAIN ABOUT WHAT IS REAL AND WHAT'S NOT."
Places Chelsea Hodson Has Imagined Herself:
“The tops of cliffs”
“A flooded canyon”
“An island where former versions of [herself] gallop around on all fours”
When I read an essay, I’m often on a self-interested adventure away from myself. In order to investigate some private question of mine—or maybe just for fun—I want to ramble through other thoughts, other places, other times. But because essay-reading mostly happens in my head, I’m also on a self-contained adventure away from myself. All my readerly rambling never actually breaks loose from my own mind. Lately I’ve been looking for writers who make the most of that paradox, of the vast and multiplex universe that language reveals in our self-bound experiences. Chelsea Hodson is one of those writers.
In her new book of essays, Tonight I’m Someone Else, Hodson contemplates first-person engagement with distant possibilities in ways both mundane and sublime. On using a treadmill with a video screen, she writes: “Running outside is real, but what I want is the less real: I want the path unfolding on a screen in front of me, I want to run through a place I’ve never been.” Even while considering the most monotonous, solitary chore, she regards possibilities for something dreamily different.
I was struggling to eat a baguette in a Brooklyn café when Hodson sat down to talk to me about her new book. Its essays are everything my baguette-consumption wasn’t: precise about the most mysterious things, cool, and thoughtfully exploratory. They take the reader through Hodson’s work for a NASA Mars mission, her involvement in Marina Abramović’s Generator exhibition, and her wide-ranging encounters with peril from Arizona to New York. From the title on, Tonight I’m Someone Else draws upon a concentrated attention to self that leads continually toward something new.
I. Just a Feeling
THE BELIEVER: I found this recurring idea in Tonight I'm Someone Else of getting beyond the self even while self-focusing. How did you go about coming up with that?
CHELSEA HODSON: At a certain point I just noticed that I was really interested in writing and documenting moments of intensity. That seemed to be coming from a death drive, or a self-destructive tendency, testing boundaries in sometimes dangerous ways. Those are what stuck out in my mind as formative moments, maybe. That’s where I started leaning into it.
BLVR: Did you always have an interest in the death drive before reading Freud—did you just intuit “death drive”?
CH: I think from a very young age, I’ve been drawn to people who were dangerous. I was drawn to the bad girl who had seen all the R-rated movies at age twelve and could tell me about them. I’ve always been interested in people who don’t seem to think about rules or have no concept of boundaries. My sense of boundaries and rules are very clear, to the point where I have a desire to test them because I feel so bound by them.
BLVR: Can you talk a little more about the vicariousness you’re describing? It seems related to this line, in your essay “Pity the Animal”: “I had a desire to watch the world, admire it from a balcony that held no authority.” It seems like a counterintuitive choice for a first-person, lyric-essay project.
CH: I think that as an often passive person—who was a passive child, versus an active rules-breaking child—I’m interested in seeing things from other people's perspective. I like reality television, for example. I find myself sucked in again and again purely because I think I’m attracted to the mundane. I really like the sensation of feeling like I’m momentarily living someone else’s life.
BLVR: Throughout the essays, there does seem to be a sense of inhabiting a mood intensely. Is that a priority for you over narrative?
CH: In some ways, yeah. But I’m very aware of taking a reader along with me. In early drafts, I’ll collect moments of intensity or memories that stand out, and then put them together in a list. Years ago I maybe would have stopped there. I would have been like, “I collected them and that’s enough.” But as I wrote “Pity the Animal,” the first essay I wrote in this collection, I noticed how interacting with other texts helped me form my own narrative, even if it's just the narrative of what I think.
BLVR: What other texts?
CH: The books that show up. That’s why I included the German horror movie, Der Fan. I’d written a version of that essay (“I’m Only a Thousand Miles Away”) before about my stalker, but it didn’t have the right tone to me because nothing happened to me, it was just a feeling, so how do you write an essay or a narrative about a feeling? To me it spoke to other moments of my life where maybe I was the person watching, and toeing that line of almost stalking at the level of teen-girl fandom. By bringing that movie in, and talking about the movie, I was able to piece things together in a way that felt satisfying to me, whereas in the previous version of the essay, I was just talking about me working at the copy shop, it just felt very expected. The girl is the victim, the guy is the aggressor. I’m more interested in where those lines are blurred or where the roles switch in some ways.
BLVR: Is there an ideal reader experience for this book?
CH: I wouldn’t say there’s an ideal. I really like whenever people say that it feels like a dream. I write about dream logic and things not quite making sense but going along anyway. One thing leads to the next leads to the next. I am aware of wanting it to be readable in that sense. I don’t want to be so obscure that you don’t really know where you are. But I like the combination of having something really physical, starting with the physical body and then lifting off into a more lyric space, a more meditative state.
II. Expansive Thinking
BLVR: I noticed that the word “imagination” doesn’t come up in your writing much, even when it seems like it’s a factor. Are you trying to sidestep a certain tradition of stodgy ideas about the imagination?
CH: I think you’re giving me a lot of credit by implying that I would do that intentionally. It’s more interesting to me if the reader is uncertain about what is real and what’s not. When I talk about an island where there are versions of myself running around on all fours, it’s presented as if that is possible. Instead of saying “I imagine myself” I think it’s more interesting to present it. Obviously it’s not real.
BLVR: It makes me think of these moments where fiction seamlessly emerges or half-emerges from these nonfiction essays.
CH: I just haven’t written enough fiction to designate that in my head, like, “Oh, this is a short story now.” I always pursued the pieces in this book as essays.
BLVR: You can indulge fictional moments, always recognizing that they're moments—they can’t take over the essay.
CH: Right. The closest to what we’re talking about is maybe the “Id Speaks” sections of the book. In those, I’m imagining my id literally speaking. Some of it is based on something real, but it’s really just an imagining of the most hungry, lustful, disgusting part of yourself speaking. What would it say? What would it look like? I liked the idea of that existing in a book of essays instead of a book of short stories.
BLVR: Often this speculative tendency in your essays seems to direct things toward vast spaces. Even moments when you're thwarted or in some way confined actually exist within or lead into spaces for more expansive thinking, whether that means the desert, the void of outer space, or the ocean.
CH: I like the idea of being alone or with one other person in a very anonymous-seeming space. That’s what I really liked about the desert. I could be downtown with my friend at night and it felt like a movie set. It infuses a different level of tension to something than if you’re amongst people or at a party or something.
BLVR: There's an almost addictive sense of wanting and craving in these essays. Yet you never let it get hyper-focused on the craved thing. Do you have ways of narrating yearning, craving, and wanting without getting too laser-focused?
CH: I think for me it comes out of trying to describe the object of my longing to someone else in the form of writing. There’s a part in one of the essays that’s like, “The best way I can think to describe you to someone is...” and I go off. It’s impossible to translate someone’s essence to language and to prose. It’s like: what stays with me enough to help someone understand what was so desirable about that event or that person?
BLVR: So the act of mediating through language automatically opens it up?
CH: I think so.
BLVR: Could you talk some more about how you characterize non-you characters?
CH: I usually start by writing super descriptive, and super identifiable. Then I take out lines that I don’t think are adding anything. Certain parts do provide identifiable details, but I felt that they were necessary and that they weren’t hurtful. That’s where I draw the line, or at least try.
BLVR: Has anyone ever approached you and said “I recognize myself in that”?
CH: Not enough people have read it yet. I’m sure someone will say that.
BLVR: It’ll be okay.
CH: I accept it. I’m interested in documenting parts of my life and presenting it as such. If I didn’t commit to that, then it would be fiction, which is fine. But that’s not what I’m interested in portraying. I like the idea of having a document from my life.
BLVR: You would say this is a documentary project.
CH: The fictionalized aspects, to me they're still very true to my life. If it’s a meditative essay, then I think they're in some way warranted. You can go off on that fictional tangent and come back.
III. "Almost" Moments
BLVR: Is the modular approach that I see in a lot of the essays a constraint you impose, or does it just happen?
CH: I think it’s the result of free writes. I’ll write a lot in the beginning. And after I feel like I have enough of a draft to work with, I’ll physically cut it out and rearrange it. Even if it’s a block of text, I’ll cut out the parts that I feel like could be paragraphs and see how they feel. My work can feel imaginary to me if it’s inside my computer. It helps me to see it laid out, and only then do I have the key to the next step. It’s very much like piecing together a puzzle. Some people can do this really effectively on a computer, but for some reason I can’t.
BLVR: So the connective tissue between these modules or paragraphs is one that you physically sense out?
CH: Yes, because only then I can see the links, and the weak links. I can see where I have to build it up.
BLVR: I can see, in those leaps, a dreamy association; is that how you would describe the connections?
CH: I’ve worked on these so long that I do see the connections, but that’s the result of working on them a lot. For "Red Letters from a Red Planet" I tried to align the captions of the essay with the photos of Mars, to tell the emotional narrative. There’s a part where the robot doesn’t find what it needs, so it reaches out for more. That to me seems like, no matter where you drop that into the essay, it helps the reader understand what’s going on in my mind or in the speaker’s mind.
BLVR: Is there ever a point where you think, “This essay has too much of a thesis?” Do you actively evade thesis statements?
CH: I wouldn’t say I actively do, but that’s just not the kind of writer I am, where I say, “Here’s an essay about this.” It’s always evolving. I try to use titles in an interesting way. At the end, if I feel like there’s nothing for the reader to hold onto, I’ll try to add something in the title. The titles often change. I probably had ten drafts of a lot of them.
BLVR: The title will give the reader some direction, but it’s not going to define the thing?
CH: Yeah. For me I think it’s become just a matter of trying to sharpen my instincts. If I read it out loud to myself, if by the end I feel some sense of satisfaction, then that is enough, I don’t really feel like I need to outline much beyond that.
BLVR: You’ve used the word “satisfaction” to describe the payoff, and yet these essays are so much about dissatisfaction or longing or non-attainment. How do we square that?
CH: For me, the satisfaction comes from collecting these moments, these “almost” moments, of almost understanding something, almost reaching something. For me that seems more realistic and true to my life than a memoir that has a really clean book-end beginning and “this is my journey” end. To me it’s just not about a journey. It’s about changing your mind about something or learning a very small thing. Which is maybe not something you can really write a plot around, but I think you can write an essay around it.
BLVR: Is there a direction you’d like to see the essay form move in the years to come? Do you have a vision for how it ought to be?
CH: I would never say it ought to be anything. I understand why you’re using that in a question, but I’m really against prescribing. But I am interested in the anthologies that John d’Agata has put together, disrupting what a lot of people think of as the essay. I have a lot of students, for instance, who think that it should be one thing, and I think sometimes in my teaching and my writing I’m trying to disrupt that in a way that I sense from John d’Agata. Of like: “It can be this, or it can be this.” To me, the collage element of lyric essay really speaks to our time, and just the way that we’re always absorbing different information, always looking at our phone, absorbing snippets.
BLVR: You mentioned certain conventions that students bring to the classroom that then you try to disrupt. What are the student conventions? What do students tend to go toward?
CH: I see a lot of clean endings, which I sometimes will resist. Because to me if you’re writing something that’s true to your life: was it really that clean? That’s always my question at the end. “Was it that clean for you? Because congrats if it was, but...” I like things where you can feel the writer working something out on the page. And I don’t think all essays do that. I think a lot of essays are trying to do that, but I like that element of working something out along with the writer, even if they don’t come to a solution at the end. That’s the kind of reader I am. I think a lot of people don’t like that, but I like that.
BLVR: I’ve been irritated by something similar to the clean ending: the essay about how the writer made the right decision. “Ah, and that’s how I won this thing.” Basically a story about this person’s victory.
CH: Those are nice now and then, but it’s certainly not what I can write. I’m not interested in that kind of pursuit.
BLVR: This is, yeah, it’s not a self-advancing book.
CH: I would love that blurb.
Adam Colman has written for The Believer and The Organist, the podcast from KCRW and McSweeney’s. His book, New Uses for Failure, is forthcoming from Fiction Advocate.