In 2015, at a New York City gallery where terrible box wine was being poured, I first heard Chelsea Hodson read. Under stage lights, Hodson’s commanding presence combines with a soulful voice of authority. Her narrative flow is precise and unsparingly vulnerable with charged interior of thoughts belonging to an observer, journalist, writer, poet, photographer, lover, friend and consummate artist.
Those occupations, obsessions and, relationships are effortlessly imbued into Tonight I’m Someone Else, her new essay collection. Her writing is without barricades or gimmicks. It’s not raw, nor is it safe.
In “Near Miss,” a Russian roulette game is devised: a jump rope tied to a butcher knife is hung from a whirring ceiling fan. With two friends, Hodson sits below on the couch and watches the blade circle above them at top speed. “Anything could happen, so, for a moment, everything did.”
Recently, Hodson and I talked about documenting desires, vulnerability as power, and the uncertainty within truth.
The Rumpus: In Tonight I’m Someone Else, female vulnerability doesn’t minimize how sexuality is complex and charged, or how a woman can be drawn towards places of darkness. How do you give yourself permission to be vulnerable?
Chelsea Hodson: Does vulnerability ever minimize the complexities of sex? I think many people assume vulnerability equals weakness, but being vulnerable is the only way I’ve been able to truly connect with another person, and seeing someone else being vulnerable allows me to understand them in a new way, so, really, it seems like a form of power to me. If I didn’t allow myself to be vulnerable on the page, I wouldn’t get anywhere. My worst, most complex emotions and experiences are behind a carefully constructed veil that I’ve trained myself to lift as I write.
Rumpus: Some of your essays explore longing, responsibility, consent, and uncertainty about consent being given. How difficult was it for you to balance those elements?
Hodson: The process was extremely difficult, but possible with enough drafts. It takes me forever to say what I really want to say, and I basically have to trick myself into it—by doing things like blindfolding myself, or drinking so much coffee that I become temporarily fearless. Once I’m able to quiet the perfectionist side of my mind, I think I’m able to access a more animalistic, instinctual logic where I can begin to write about something difficult and complex, like consent, or lack thereof.
Rumpus: What develops first for you in crafting an essay—an idea, an image, the tone, an argument, or a question?
Hodson: An image, question, or title is usually the first thing I begin with. Any sense of argument or ending doesn’t come until much, much later. I will also often have an idea for an essay’s structure, which is enough to get me going, and then I abandon it later. I’m unsentimental about getting rid of possessions in real life, and I’m the same way in writing—once I realize it needs to go, I don’t hesitate.
Rumpus: The complexity of “Red Letters from a Red Planet” is expansive and amplified during a second and third read. One memory twines with another without meddling with outcomes: The narrator is an undergraduate journalism student who writes image captions for NASA. Her lover is a bad boy who is big, tough, and tattooed. He graffitis buildings.
How did this essay develop? Did you intend for it to be the guidepost for the reader to think about terrain and connections to the other essays?
Hodson: I didn’t think of it as a guidepost until the very end, when I began to see it as a metaphor for the entire book—this search for something that may or may not exist. I’m always looking for unlikely juxtapositions in my essays, so I became very fond of the idea of pairing a scientific Mars narrative with a sort of Wild West atmosphere. It’s a good thing I liked the idea, because it took about four years and a hundred drafts to get it right.
Rumpus: Established early on is your impulse to be intrigued, maybe even flirt with danger and self-harm that feels seductive, yet also worrisome. How did you strike the balance?
Hodson: I don’t know if I struck the balance, but I was attempting to document an aspect of my desires that felt complicated and often illogical. I resent the idea that female desire is safe and tidy—it feels messy and amorphous to me, and I thought that narrative was sometimes missing from the things I was reading or watching. So I thought I might try and write it. What feels like a pursuit of true love can later be revealed as utterly self-destructive—a person truly in love can’t tell the difference. Or I can’t. Or I couldn’t. It’s easier to see these contradictions years later, so that’s usually when I begin to write about them.
Rumpus: In “Red Letters from a Red Planet,” you wrote, “Many of the photos I captioned were actually composites of photos—different camera captured different angles, and the images needed to be put back together. By the time I saw them, they appeared whole.”
Did you intend to examine all the essays somewhat as composites, from different camera angles, where images are put together one way, but years later, viewed from another perspective, with more, or even less, certainty?
Hodson: Yes, certainly. I think it also speaks to the idea of different aspects of the self—I often have trouble recognizing myself within certain behaviors or memories, almost as if I’m remembering a dream. I like the idea of uncertainty paired with the truth of my life, since even “truth” seems totally uncertain to me. A memory becomes a memory of a memory of a memory.
Rumpus: What goals and concerns did you have as you were putting together the order of your essays for the collection? How did they reveal themselves to you?
Hodson: I didn’t think about the order until the very end. I thought about it in terms of emotional information—without chronological order, what kinds of things might the reader need or like to know about the speaker in the beginning versus the end? My partner, who is an artist and musician, encouraged me to think about it as a record—the first song has a different impact than the last song does, the single comes a few songs in, and so on. I don’t just write essays because I like writing in short form; I like the idea that they can influence each other simply by being presented in a certain order.
Rumpus: How do you determine balance in an essay that has components of poetic journalism, cultural criticism, and lyrical/creative nonfiction threads?
Hodson: When I began putting outside sources and research into Pity the Animal, suddenly it gave me something to react against in my own voice, and that was an important lesson for me. When I feel truly stuck, I wonder, How might I bring the essay back to life? What could I introduce that complicates the essay and gives me something to either bristle against? The balance of these elements never has a mathematical equation to them; it’s always an instinctual decision for me—what feels right versus what doesn’t.
Rumpus: What were your biggest challenges as a writer who writes about her life?
Hodson: I think it’s difficult for me to know how much to disclose about someone I’m writing about. As a writer, I want it to be a detailed, vivid portrayal, but as a person, I don’t want them to be identifiable. I found myself working around a lot of physical descriptions or details that might “give them away.” I think of the book as very secretive in some ways, so that was my way of keeping certain things private. It’s never my intention to hurt anyone through my writing, though I certainly have hurt people in the process. Writing about someone is always a reduction, even when it’s done out of love. I’m still learning to live with nonfiction being an imperfect and sometimes hurtful genre.
Rumpus: Was there a working title for your collection prior to Tonight I’m Someone Else?
Hodson: It went through about twenty titles over the years, but the most recent working title was Awful Form, which was a reference to the line in the book about all the “awful forms of love.” I felt quite fond of that title, but I think Tonight I’m Someone Else suits the book much better.
Rumpus: Is there a new project you’re working on?
Hodson: I’ve been working on a novel. Somehow, writing essays for so long has freed me from my fear of writing fiction. I stopped thinking about the genres as such separate entities—I see how one can lead to the other.