A Higher Form of Power
I met Chelsea Hodson three years ago. No, that isn’t quite true. I met Chelsea Hodson three and a half years ago. I’d recently moved to the city and I was doing a Catapult reading, and after my reading Chelsea came up to me and introduced herself, and told me that she’d liked my reading, on the topic of affidamentos, an italian concept championed by Eileen Myles and Maggie Nelson that connotes a mix between mentorship and friendship.
Ever unsuave, instead of saying “Thanks,” I said, “Oh my god are you Chelsea Hodson?” She said yes, gamely not getting creeped out by my intensity and fawning. We talked briefly and she said I should take her own Catapult workshop in the summer.
That summer and that workshop is what I count as the beginning of our relationship. When I worked with her, first in that class, and then in private manuscript consultation and eventually in Italy at Mors Tua Vita Mea, I found that Chelsea was exactly the kind of teacher I needed—she is focused, direct, and values accountability, she takes a vested interest in her students, and her taste in literature is impeccable.
But Chelsea isn’t only important to me as a writing teacher, she was also fundamental to the development of my writing community in New York, which became, in turn, my life-community. She introduced me, directly or indirectly, to many of the people who are now important figures in my life—Michelle Lyn King, Paul Dalla Rosa, and, of course, Monika and Bryan.
Though it has always freaked me out to say this, lest I be overstepping a boundary, about a year and a half ago I realized that Chelsea was not simply a teacher or a mentor, she was also a friend. Unless she’s a really excellent liar (which I’m sure she could be, if she tried,) I think the feeling is mutual. That’s why it was such a pleasure to conduct this interview with her when her first book, Tonight I’m Someone Else, came out last June. I interview authors relatively frequently, but I’d never interviewed someone with whom I had such a long standing relationship, which is what makes this conversation so special to me, and so special to Triangle House as a whole—it’s possible that without Chelsea, Triangle House wouldn’t exist!
I said that I was going to end this introduction with a segue into evil charmers, which is what Chelsea and I begin this conversation talking about. But rather than go into the explanation of why evil charmers were on my mind at the time, let’s just get to the conversation.
Rebecca Schuh: Have you encountered any evil charmers lately?
Chelsea Hodson: I can now identify them pretty quickly. I used to be really seduced by them, but now things have become much clearer to me.
RS: That’s important. I think I’m in the process of figuring that out and it’s a much bigger life change than I realized.
CH: The more you know, the more you can see that the new people remind you of the old people. It’s a big red flag, you’re like, “Oh my god, I don’t associate with people like you anymore.”
Lately I feel really protective of my emotional energy. I feel very wary of anyone that’s asking too much of me. I’ve gotten really defensive and protective of my own time in a way that I never have been.
RS: I’ve always gotten the sense from you that you have this very good ability to delineate your time and also your distance from people, and I’ve always been so impressed by it. Do you think that’s true about yourself?
CH: I think a lot of people might perceive it as a coldness, which is unintentional. My attention is not an infinite resource. I’m a ride or die type of person—if I love you, I really love you. I’ve been that way since I was little. My parents always tell stories about me that, if someone would invite me to their parties too many times as a kid, I wouldn’t want to go. I’m naturally very suspicious of people, so I think that has to do with why I’m so close to the people I’m close with. And living in New York where I’ve had to work so much, it just kind of toughened me and hardened me. If I’m spending time with someone it better be someone that I really want to be with. It’s taking away from the small amount of time I have to read and write. I think in another city, it probably wouldn’t be that way.
RS: I was going to ask: you grew up in Arizona, and you also lived in California. Do you find that the relationship to time was different in California and in Arizona and here?
CH: In Arizona definitely, because I didn’t have a book in mind. For a lot of my adult life, I’ve had this dream of having a book, so that would be a deciding factor for me. Am I going to go to the barbecue or am I going to work on my dream? Not to be totally grandiose about it, but that is how I was making decisions at a certain point. And when I was in college, I did not think that way at all. It was more like, what’s the shortest amount of time I can get my homework done so I can be free.
RS: So you said it was six years on the book?
RS: Was Pity the Animal the first thing you completed?
CH: I had one small chapbook a few years before that, Beach Camp, but Pity the Animal is the first essay from my book that was published. There are pieces of other essays that were started six years ago, and just kind of always evolved into something else. And then the majority of it was written in the past three years, mainly in my grad program. I had to produce so much that there wasn’t really an option to delay certain essays anymore. I’d feel so cowered or tapped out, out of ideas, that I’d be like, okay, well I did write that one essay three years ago, maybe I can revise it. And I think if I didn’t have those kinds of constraints, I wouldn’t have done things like that. So I liked having this constraint of ‘you have to be turning in 20-25 pages a month,’ I really had to kick it into high gear and I think, as a result, my whole writing style changed from that. I’m much more efficient now than I was when I started. I think that’s the goal: to learn from whatever you’re writing. I can now write the next book in a different way.
RS: I noticed while reading the book that you have a really interesting relationship to time within it, a great surreal ‘time is a flat circle’ effect.
CH: That’s kind of how I feel in life, so I’m glad you felt that way.
RS: Going from surreal to dreams, I want to talk about dreams because I had a dream about you the other night and it was very funny.
CH: Oh please!
RS: So you and I and Nick Mancusi were at a ski resort art fair, and there were these girls there who were really rich and were kind of being rude to us but we didn’t really know them and it was in general a weird dynamic at the ski resort art fair. We all left, but we came back ten years later and you and me and Nick were all there again, and one of the rich art ladies had decided to become a cook for the ski resort. An egg chef. Her best friend who was kind of like her sidekick had decided to become her egg chef assistant. So we were watching this, and that’s where the dream ended.
CH: I’ve always liked the idea of revisiting something after a certain period of time. That’s a very romantic concept to me. Like if the three of us went somewhere and said “Oh, let’s meet here again in ten years.” There’s a glamour inherent in that. An egg chef. That has to do with female genitalia, right.
RS: I hadn’t thought of it that way but I think it probably does. Part of the dream was a relationship between women, like our relationship with the moneyed women and then their relationship with each other. And watching it shift. Then I was rereading your essay about summer camp with Bianca, and thinking about the many facets of the relationships between women.
CH: The relationship I looked back on with Bianca is a type of friendship that I feel like only a teenage girl can understand. That’s why I felt strongly about getting it down and writing that. There’s something unique amongst women. Like, I’ve had female mentors that have mentored me in a way that my male teachers couldn’t even when they were great teachers, there’s this kind of intimacy—you don’t even have to really address it, it’s just there with a certain kind of woman.
RS: I think that’s true, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately because I’ve had a lot of really strong relationships with women throughout my whole life, but there’s a type that I’m just recently learning about where a woman aren’t helping you with your career, per se, but a woman is helping you protect your career, the idea that women are also protectors of each other.
CH: I’m thinking about the dream again, because think about an egg and how fragile it is. And it could represent like a book or an art project, keeping something safe.
RS: I think there was a level of judgment in it too because I know in the beginning of the dream I was judging the rich women but then seeing the one become the egg chef and having the intimate relationship it was kind of like … stripping away women judging each other.
CH: Wow, that’s really interesting. Weird. Do you dream a lot?
RS: I just started again. I used to dream so much, really intense ones like that. I hadn’t for a while. But they’re coming back.
CH: Mine come in waves. I’ll have weeks of super vivid dreams every night. And then a haze of weeks or months where I don’t dream at all.
RS: Have you had any lately that are weird?
CH: I don’t think I have lately. It’s been a pretty blank dreamspace.
RS: I wonder why.
CH: I was having really wild dreams as I started writing my new novel and I wonder if, when I get back to writing that intensely again, if I’ll start dreaming in the same way.
RS: You have dreams when you’re asleep, but when you’re getting into a really intense writing space it’s almost like a different kind of dream. Do you find that you go into a different zone?
CH: I definitely do. It happened a lot in Tonight I’m Someone Else. Because I had no time to write, I would have to get up super early and write before I started my day of working 2-3 different jobs. So I knew that if I waited until I got home at the end of the day after working those jobs, my creativity would just be tapped, there was no hope for me. If I’ve been among people or emailing, there’s literally no hope. But there is hope in the morning, even if I’m super underslept. So I had a lot of moments where I would be writing in the very early morning and the next day not recognize what I had written… almost as though I was still dreaming while I wrote it.
I know that sounds a little mystical, but the next day I would just look back on it and think, I have no recollection of even thinking about that, and yet I wrote like three pages on it. It was this sense of being detached from myself, which I think plays into the title, Tonight I’m Someone Else. Dreaming is, in that sense, the ability to enter a subconscious in a different way.
RS: It’s a liminal space. I had an interesting experience a few years ago when I lived in California, where I was writing a story—I started it when I was drinking at a bar, doing the ‘I’m going to go to a bar alone and drink and write’ thing and I whatever then wrote stuff and went home, and I kind of forgot exactly which parts I’d worked on, so then I started again, and I didn’t realize but I was working on the same passage, and then when I compared the two versions I figured It out and they were almost exactly the same.
CH: Oh wow.
RS: It was very bizarre.
CH: That’s really cool. I’ve never done that.
RS: It’s an interesting exercise! I feel like it would be a little bit uncouth to do in a workshop because you’d be like, get drunk.
CH: At the Mors Tua Vita Mea workshop we could do it at night.
RS: I wish we had done that in Italy. I was trying to think of questions I could ask you that relate to Italy but we were all just obscene goons, like…“So Chelsea, here’s an inside joke that happened about tagging people on Facebook, let’s just talk about Giuseppe.”
CH: I know, it’s so inside jokey. That’s the beauty of that workshop though, it’s so intimate. Even doing the workshop twice, it was almost weird to have a different group of students. But it felt similarly intimate the second time, and it’s like, ‘oh, it’s the magic of creative people meeting up and being isolated from the world and isolated in language.’ I don’t think anyone in Sezze Romano really speaks English, so when we’re there, we are isolated in that way. In both workshops, everyone seemed to start revealing secrets by the second day. It was a totally different group, but the order of events was pretty much the same, in terms of how people were bonding.
RS: It’s reminding me of that forced intimacy, I don’t want to say that because forced makes it sound complicit, but that forced intimacy that can be used for good or evil. When I think about fraternities, I know that they manipulate tactics like that. I think the line between the two is super interesting. The line between the two is probably more blurry than one would hope.
CH: I think that human nature is closer to animal nature than we’d like to think. And there’s something very animal about wanting to get along with the people you’re around. I don’t think that’s artificial. A real connection comes out of that , but it comes out of being physically near people. You want to bond. You want to understand each other.
RS: You want to share, especially when you put writers together. There’s the compulsion to tell, that I’m sure we all try to tamp down to some extent in normal life, probably personal essay writers less so than the average person, but I think we have to work to control that impulse.
CH: I’ve seen that impulse a little bit at places like Tin House or Bennington, these heightened friendships or relationships right away as a result of being taken out of your real life and being tossed in with all these writers that you’re excited about and able to talk about books with, and you automatically have all these things in common. But the Italy workshop was a whole different level in terms of how intimate it was.
RS: Right, and we missed the cliqueishness of it because it was so small that it didn’t get cliquey at all.
CH: It’s impossible.
RS: Did you read The Folded Clock?
RS: There’s a section in it, that was also excerpted in Harpers, where Heidi Julavits talks about writing residencies and how they foster crushes very well, because they take adults away from their significant others and put them in kind of summer camp mode. She compares it to The Bachelor.
CH: That seems very apt.
RS: Well Italy was interesting because there wasn’t a sexual element to anything. It was a different kind of intimacy which I think is great, I love flirtation intimacy as much as the next person but any kind of space that can foster the kinds of intimacy that are not so privileged by society is amazing.
During another interview I did recently we were talking about how there are some authors on the page exactly as they are in life, and some others who are completely different. And what I found interesting about your book is that there were some moments where I was like yes, this is the Chelsea that I know, and other moments where I was like … oh yes this is the Chelsea that is like, the twitter Chelsea, like the social media presentation Chelsea, and others where I was like this is a Chelsea that is new. Did you think about that at all when you were writing it, or have you experienced that only as people are reading it?
CH: I’m curious what moments, because you know me as a person, what moments you had … what are your memories of like “oh that’s the Chelsea that I know”?
RS: I felt like a lot of the aphorisms felt very like... I don’t want to say “performance” because I feel like that’s a bad word.
CH: No, it’s okay, I know what you mean.
RS: The public, this is the Chelsea that faces the world, so I felt like a lot of the aphoristic stuff in that voice, and I think that the thing that I felt … just the stuff that was you talking about things that I could connect to events in your life that I knew about, around this time, or when you were funny. The humor was definitely a big connection to me, like “oh I have seen Chelsea in a humorous state.”
CH: I get this a lot. People being like, “I didn’t know that your work could be funny,” or if they’ve only read my book and then they meet me they’re surprised or something, I find that very bizarre, but I get it.
My writing is definitely performative and I accept that. I think writing should be performative, to some degree. I think if I was interested in portraying exactly how I speak I would have a podcast or I would write a different kind of book. So, I am interested in this performative side of writing, of making it a better version of what it really is. Some of the essays are maybe lighter or more innocent and others are more, I don’t know, darker or bolder. An essay that takes place at age 13 is not going to have the same voice as other ones, but there can still be a cohesion in that, a remembering. A time in your life when you knew something different than you knew now.
I feel like every collection of essays should feel that way—disjointed in the sense that there’s different voices and different levels of maturity and humor speaking. It’s natural to my experience in life. Sometimes I’m more grandiose or aphoristic than others when I’m just more chatty. I think that the essays speak to that.
RS: They absolutely do and I think it’s people who write about themselves and it’s also people who have a somewhat public internet persona, I’ve been thinking more and more lately about how we deserve to keep something for ourselves. Because if you completely take away the barrier it’s scary, you’re giving people access.
You’ve been on twitter for a long time and joined Instagram recently. Do you ever get scared about how much people, like say someone followed you and liked like twenty of your tweets at the same time...
CH: I very casually unfollow or block people that I get the wrong vibe from. I feel somewhat at ease with my social media presence, and in a way I’m interested in revealing more. I’ve come to really like Instagram stories. I’ve actually really become fond of teen vloggers. I’ve become really into Youtube and I’m trying to write about it now because I don’t understand what it is that I find so alluring about it. I’m almost addicted to certain blog accounts of these teen girls just driving around and running errands, nothing amazing is happening—it’s just about getting to know them, and there’s something so engaging about that.
I think I used to impose on myself a more serious social media persona than is true to me, but I’m interested in being a little more casual about it now.
RS: I’ve been thinking about that lately because I think I felt pressure for a long time to be very serious but my natural nature is pretty casual and I found that for some reason being involved with Triangle House has made me a lot more comfortable with it.
CH: Oh interesting. Do you feel like you have this role where you’ve been accepted as you are?
CH: Then what else is there to worry about? You’ve been accepted for doing the thing you want to do.
RS: Do you think that the book did that for you to a certain extent?
CH: Yeah, a little bit. I don’t feel this need to be perceived as super serious. I don’t really have control over how people perceive me anyway. And I don’t really think about it much anymore. I think it’s the kind of thing that plagues you when you’re still figuring out if you're going to pull it off.. being a writer, I mean. As I write about in the book, people drop off one by one, and it’s scary. You periodically reckon with yourself, am I going to actually do this, or am I just kind of fucking around?
RS: I’m interested in both how New York and men relate to that idea. I always thought that New York would make me feel worse about not being serious, but, when I moved here and started to meet people whose social perception is very serious, and this being men, and realizing that like oh they just kind of created that idea and being like oh you’re just as absurd as the rest of us, and then being like oh if you can be taken seriously just because of that, and who you are, maybe I can as well.
CH: I don't really have that experience in particular because actually some of my male friends were instrumental in helping me pursue things that I was too scared to do, encouraging me to ask for what I want at a job or in a mentorship. They had an audacity that I don’t naturally have or wasn’t programmed to have, wasn’t socialized to have. And so I actually feel like I’ve learned a lot from them in certain ways.
RS: Do you think you’ve adopted it to a certain extent?
CH: Absolutely. I’m very sensitive, very soft, but I think I’ve trained myself to be more assertive in certain ways. Engaging in classes and writing workshops and other situations where I can be challenged is really what changed that for me, and that’s why I believe in the workshop as a form.
RS: It’s really its own space in a way that I think is special to the writing process, like I’ve had workshops where people aren’t even necessarily complimenting each other’s writing, they’re complimenting each others ability to exist in the space. Do you think that facilitates more writing?
CH: Definitely, I think engaging in your writing in any sense helps. So even if you don't get a bullet point list of things you can change about your manuscript to make it better, or whatever expectation you go into a workshop having, you might not get that, but you’ll always come away with something else. If you're open to it, that is. I see a lot of people go into workshops expecting something and then they’re closed to anything else that they could accept. A lot of people don’t like that loss of control, and they react negatively.
RS: I like it in workshop because it’s out of control but you’re in a controlled space, it’s not like you’re taking acid.
CH: If you have a good teacher! I’ve had teachers who have let workshop go off the rails. I’m pretty militant, as you know.
RS: I love that so much. I’ve been in so many different workshops and I think that’s really what clicked for me in yours, my college professors were pretty relaxed but you know it was college so there was still a level of enforcement. I’ve found a lot of people in New York to be very casual about it. I liked it so much when I found your classes because it was like oh this is what I’m doing. This is someone who takes it seriously and also expects us to take it seriously. Because you’re really asking something of the student.
In terms of creative relationships, we’re in a time…or I personally am paying more attention to how you’ve always been told like here’s your family, there’s your significant other, there’s your friends, but then there’s the creative relationship, and I feel like it bridges many of those things while also being something new is a really fascinating thing for me.
CH: One thing I feel like I’ve been really enriched by this year is befriending people who also have books coming out this year. We’re in the same boat, and you just automatically understand the other’s anxiety and you look out for each other.
My best friend is not inclined to write at all. I love that about her, because we can talk about everything else. But I also need people who understand the day-to-day of what I’m going through right now.
RS: This is the opposite of what we were just talking about, but, do you have a nemesis?
CH: No, I don’t have a nemesis.
RS: That’s good. I think the nemesis thing is very interesting. I have for some reason been having many conversations about this lately, and people have been getting very specific with me about the meaning of nemesis. I would be complaining about someone and referring to them as my nemesis and my friend said ‘no, she’s not talented enough to be your nemesis. Your nemesis needs to be someone who is doing the same thing as you, but differently.’ But is on a similar path. And I was like oh this is too much I was just calling a girl my nemesis because we slept with the same person.
CH: I think it can be personal.
RS: A personal nemesis, a professional nemesis…
CH: I think it depends on how you want to focus it. I feel like competition can be motivating but the problem is it just so easily gets out of hand. I used to be really competitive, but now I’m a little more chill about it.
I’m just thinking right now how much I love your affection for gossip. I like that about you. I think it’s funny. It reminds me of Eve Babitz, who loves gossip. She just lives for it.
RS: We read that thing in Italy...
CH: The section from Slow Days Fast Company, totally about gossip.
The thing I think of is, just the stories we tell ourselves versus what we hear. I can remember things that were gossip to me but they turned out to be true. Sometimes a message can be really important and you just don’t want to hear it.
RS: I’m glad you made that connection, I feel like that’s one of the things we’re dealing with right now as a society. The relationship between gossip, drama, and true warning.
CH: Yeah, I can remember times in my life where I would have rather died than believed something someone was trying to tell me. I just wasn’t ready. And that’s part of the reason I’m interested in writing essays, is to try and toe that line of like…in between those spaces which is so scary and also sad to remember that about yourself. I’m interested in writing about that juxtaposition or that pairing of good and bad and everything that exists in between those worlds.
RS: When I’m thinking about things in terms of like, a justice framework, I’m very willing to be like yes, bad, but if I take away social, global justice, and focus just on myself, the lines become so much more blurry.
In the book you're you’re building this relationship with violence. And I was wondering how, as you were writing it, how that related to ethics. I think the relationship between violence and ethics is very mushy.
CH: Well in the first essay, where I’m not involved in any of the violence, I’m watching people commit violence or talk about violence that they’ve endured or enacted, You know, hindsight is supposed to be 20/20, but even in my hindsight I believed in their version of justice. And that seems really weird. How I could still think that? Because it seemed to me that I should know better. But I just thought, well what is justice?
Things that I can’t easily answer for myself are always what I’m interested in exploring. That was how I approached that. That was my first foray into seeing people actually get into fights or actually commit acts of violence. It felt very real to me and therefore I remember a lot of it because it was very scary and exciting to me. I chose to write about it again in “Swollen and Victorious” because it felt unfinished in the first essay. The first essay is somewhat about violence but it’s mainly about feeling closer to something that you can never fully reach, whether it be a planet or this person or that will just never love you the way that you want them to love you. I felt that was mainly what that essay was about, and that there was more I was interested in in terms of just violence and how privilege even plays into that. There’s this dance between that that I was interested in trying to explore. It reminded me of writing “Pity the Animal” where I felt really scared of what people would think, and that to me seems a reason to explore something. I want writing to feel dangerous.
RS: I marked a page. I loved this passage, “I’m trying to stop using love as an antidote to end times, part of me thinks it won’t matter what I do, because the world will end before our love does, but everything seems on the verge of collapse, I don’t know what to do besides indulge every desire. Help me?” I love the question mark, but my question has more to do with the line before that: “I don’t know what to do besides indulge every desire.” I think about that all the time. Is fleeting pleasure the only thing we can hold onto?
CH: I think that’s what the Romans believed.
RS: I did not know that. I’m thrilled to know that the Romans also believed what I believe. Do you find yourself doing that in your life or more thinking about it theoretically?
CH: Both. I find restraint to ultimately be more pleasurable.
CH: The idea that you have power over yourself to not do certain things is actually a higher form of power than indulging every desire.
RS: Wow. I’m going to need a minute.
CH: Did I just read you?
RS: You really did. I’m going to get that tattooed on my arm.
CH: Wow. I think that’s ultimately what I think, but that struggle with what I wrote was real. I didn’t know what else to do. That was written shortly after, we were dealing with Trump being in power, and I was like what even is our life going to be. What is this world. Things that seemed certain no longer seemed certain. Couple that uncertainty with deep depression and a lot of ugly things can happen. That’s just where that sentiment came from. Of help? Help. I liked the idea of keeping that in. I almost took that out, I thought, this is kind of strange. I like the idea of asking for help in the middle of a book. It’s not false. When I wrote it, it was real. Anyone. Please. Help.
It becomes kind of like a journal where you’re documenting how you felt on one particular day. It hasn’t happened since the book came out, but in early readings where I read the book at a certain place or read from it, these women came up after and were like, “are you okay.” And I think that’s really interesting. Like first of all that’s not a question you ask someone that you don’t know. Second of all, you have to say yes.
RS: Right, if you say no, what’s going to happen next.
CH: I don’t want your advice! I don’t want to tell you anything else. I told you the thing. I read you the thing. That was what you get. The idea that a thing in an essay or in a book is the entire author is so bizarre to me. I can’t believe that people think that.
RS: It’s insane.
CH: I’m at peace with things in the book that don’t feel true to me now. They felt true to me then.