Chelsea Hodson on Why Being a Writer Is Such a Slog
The author of ‘Tonight I’m Someone Else’ on the quiet rebellion of making art in the face of the future
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Readers go in search of stories for more than mere escapism. In fact, for most of us, to get lost in a book is to be found. The ones that change our lives take measure of the complexities of life. Chelsea Hodson’s debut essay collection, Tonight I’m Someone Else is one of these books.
Her essays act like anchors for the themes — identity, sexuality, loss — we so often see reflected back at us. It’s this sort of honestly and deliberation that’s always drawn me to Hodson’s work — from as far back as 2014, when her chapbook, Pity the Animal was released by Future Tense books to her Tumblr performative project, “Inventory” — I found in Hodson’s writing as much mystery as there was meaning to being alive in this strange time.
Over email, Hodson and I chatted about the challenges of making it as a writer and how making art in the face of the future seems like its own quiet rebellion
Michael Seidlinger: Autofiction affords this sense of emotional integrity that can only exist after someone’s parsed the past; but I’m curious about how you view the often blurry boundaries between fact and fiction. What are your thoughts on reliability and memory?
Chelsea Hodson: I think nonfiction affords the sense of emotional integrity that you’re saying autofiction has. I’ve anchored my prose to the facts of my life, but beyond that I feel very free about exploring more surreal, imagined territory. In my essays, there’s a lot of this “what if” element — what if I were to do this, what if I looked like that. Even if those scenarios don’t play out, it still feels “true” to me. This dance between the real and imagined feels unavoidable — a memory is a memory of a memory and so on: All I can do is work with what I remember, and simultaneously trust it and react against it. How does one confront the worst parts of themselves? Perhaps by looking at their memories, and then looking away until they can stand to look again.
MS: Let’s talk about money, the idea of it, and the inevitable need for it: “Money can do that if you let it — if you close your eyes and enter its dream, the one where you are well dressed, fit, successful, in love with exactly the right person.” Do you think it’s possible to buy happiness?
CH: No, absolutely not. I think people take their misery with them no matter where they go or how rich they become. But I also never think to myself, “Ah, if only I was happy.” Life is very sad, and to able to make something beautiful in this sad life is enough of a reason to live. I don’t sit around longing for happiness, though I have sat around longing for enough money to live on while I finished my book. And then as soon as you get that money, you need more. It’s endless, which is why I wrote about it in the book — it seemed like a perfect parallel to desire itself.
How does one confront the worst parts of themselves? Perhaps by looking at their memories, and then looking away until they can stand to look again.
MS: What if we all collectively rejected the idea of paper currency and went back to, I don’t know, living under a rock? Could you imagine a modern or future society wherein value isn’t contingent on numbers, on the amassing of financial wealth?
CH: I stand by my idea I had when I was very young: everything in the world should cost one penny. That just… seems right to me. No, I don’t know, I absolutely cannot imagine a future that doesn’t depend on money, because money determines who gets power, and power determines the future. Making art in the face of that future seems like its own quiet rebellion. Every job I’ve had eventually gave me the opportunity to be promoted, but I’d usually quit shortly after that. I just never wanted a life that would put money before my writing. I remember I told an accountant that once and she laughed hysterically.
MS: In “Pity the Animal,” you disclose quite a bit from your struggling artist days. And I particularly love this sentence from “Simple Woman”: “I was miserable when I was too poor to go to the doctor, too poor to buy more than one meal a day. But, at the same time, everything I bought was accompanied by a new promise, a new possible version of myself.” There is indeed a sort of freedom, isn’t there? Did you find it easier to write, easier to center yourself creatively, more able to make use of the time you had since it wasn’t “owned” by the job(s) that often claim our best hours of the day? If so, do you miss it?
CH: Well, my dream was to magically have enough money to live on and have all the time in the world to write. For several years, I was fitting in my writing wherever and however I could around four part-time jobs, which was sloppy and messy, but somehow I did it. I don’t miss those days, because they were so lonely for me, but I did okay. I have some people now ask me how I wrote my book, hoping for some neat equation, like two hours a day multiplied by five days a week for four years. But the truth is I was scrappy and hungry and, though my writing was bad for a long time, I was actually writing. It seemed like a lot of people I knew talked about making things more than they actually made things, and I was determined to not be like that.
MS: Really, how does any artist survive in NYC, in LA, anywhere?
CH: Endurance. Quitting art is easy, so most people do that. Finishing anything is agony. But if you can train yourself to accept the agony, eventually you finish the thing you set out to do.
MS: How does your relationship with your work change over the course of its creation?
CH: Distance is really important for me — if I don’t have time to put it away, I just have to do something to feel further away from it. Typically, that becomes printing the essay out and manually cutting it up. That allows it to feel tangible to me, and I can look at it all at once to see its shape — something I can’t do with something that lives on my hard drive. My relationship with my works-in-progress usually goes like this over the course of writing an essay: I love it → I don’t know what to do with it → I hate it → I’m a failure → Oh, actually I came up with the solution → This solution is taking longer than I thought it would → OK, I think it’s done.
Quitting art is easy, so most people do that. Finishing anything is agony. But if you can train yourself to accept the agony, eventually you finish the thing you set out to do.
MS: In the essay, “The New Love,” you employ a compelling refrain, “I went to _____ and didn’t tell anyone,” to punctuate the liminal and subliminal spaces navigated throughout the essay. It recalls the liberating feeling of being truly independent, feeling like you could go anywhere, do anything, be anything, with no one searching, ever the wiser. Given the impending book tour, the influx of events impending, if you could go anywhere without telling anyone, right now, completely disconnected from reality, where would it be? What would be a theoretical 1–2 paragraph addendum to the essay?
CH: I was always annoyed by the cliche of the writer alone in the cabin in the woods, but I lived that exact cliche at MacDowell Colony last December, and I loved it. So, I would like the addendum to be, “I went to the haunted cabin in Peterborough and I didn’t tell anyone.”
MS: “I’m trying to identify what drew me to the people I’ve loved. I seem to thrive in a state of in-between, of wanting to love all the way but only receiving a portion of what I want.” Do you feel geography informs desire? Might the in-betweeness be something… reassuring, as though if things went sour you could easily disappear into another town, city, life, with minimal effort?
CH: I’ve never thought about geography itself informing desire, but yes — longing requires distance, whether that’s emotionally or physically. Something is out of reach, and that’s why you want it. I address this “in-between” feeling in the essay, “Near Miss,” when I elaborate on the beauty of waiting. In between one thing and another thing, the ending is still unknown, so that means anything can still happen.
I absolutely cannot imagine a future that doesn’t depend on money, because money determines who gets power, and power determines the future. Making art in the face of that future seems like its own quiet rebellion.
MS: You have experience with performance art and the exploration of the act, experience, and self: I’m curious to know a little bit about what led you to that corner of the arts. Do you have any specific exhibits that resonated and informed your own work?
CH: Encountering Marina Abramovic’s “The Artist is Present” at MoMA really affected me, which is why I wrote it in “Pity the Animal.” I began studying everything she had ever done, and started thinking about the possibilities of the female body as an art object. I sent my chapbook, “Pity the Animal,” to the Marina Abramovic Institute, and shortly after I was invited to collaborate with them, and later, to work on Marina’s exhibition, “Generator.” The endurance training I did for that exhibition really changed me, I think. It helped me understand performance in a new way, and it also made me interested in the limits of my own body. This led me to do more performance work of my own, but also led me to write about the body in a new way than I had before — suddenly I understood that everything I needed was already within me.
MS: In 2013, spanning 657 entries, you cataloged every item you owned alongside a picture of yourself with the item and a poem under the title, “Inventory,” on your Tumblr. It culminated with a 7 and a half hour marathon reading of every entry, without breaks, recorded and streamed live. It’s a daring piece of performance art that spans the digital and physical. Care to talk a little about Inventory, specifically how the experience affected your writing and creative interests?
CH: It began as a simple writing exercise for myself. I had been studying performance art and thinking about the body, so I wanted something that would combine the worlds of the physical, object, and digital. I decided to put myself in each photo with the object simply because I thought it would make the photos more interesting — who would want to look at an iPhone photo of an object on a table? Putting that human element into a photo always improves it. And I thought, if I put it online, then there’s at least the idea of an audience, which was motivating to me, even though I only had about ten followers when I began. The project began further informing my relationship with objects, and contemplating the ways in which the body can become an object, which helped me to complete “Pity the Animal.” By the end of the project, I had nearly twenty thousand followers. I felt very sad when Inventory was over — it became like a friend I talked to each day.
MS: You have worked for Marina Abramovic, for her exhibition, “Generator”; not to give anything away from what is disclosed in the book, what’s the first and most vivid memory from being part of the exhibition? What was it like, watching blindfolded people navigating a foreign space? How quiet was it in that room?
CH: It was extremely quiet — the only sounds were people bumping into the wall, or occasionally saying, “Oh!” in surprise. I loved the job, and often took on extra shifts when they were available. I had a strange relationship to time in the exhibition — in the beginning of the day, it would feel very slow, and then in an instant it would seem as if six hours had gone by. I hate how loud New York is, so I felt grateful to be in a place so quiet. You could feel the energy changing, which was exactly set out to do.
MS: Do you have any other desires or ideas to dabble in the performance art space again?
CH: I would like to someday. Finishing this book has taken all of my energy, so I feel very focused on that, but I can see performance becoming a part of my life again in the future.
MS: Last question: You’re a big supporter of indie authors and the community at large. You’re also a great lit citizen and have helped pave the way for others. Yeah, this is the shout-out prompt. Who showed you the way, made you realize we’re all struggling to get the words down and are less alone than we think?
CH: Sarah Manguso was my mentor for several years, and she changed everything for me. I never knew any working artists until I moved to New York, so the life of an artist was a mystery to me. She helped show me how I might make a life for myself, and also how I might start writing essays instead of poems. After working with her, I continued to seek out classes and workshops that might continue to challenge my writing, and I think that’s been very important for me. I don’t see workshops as a way of getting “better,” necessarily, but a space in which a writer can interrogate their own work and intentions.