A Conversation With Chloe Caldwell About Truth, Sugar Packets, and Her New Collection 'I'll Tell You In Person'
I'll Tell You In Person is one of the best books I've read this year. I've always enjoyed Chloe Caldwell's personal essays, but there's so much emotional honesty here, such a command of word and self, that it pretty much knocked me on my ass, over and over again.
Part of the reason for that is how familiar it feels—maybe it's because we're about the same age, and she's writing from that place of being in your early 30s and gaining perspective on where you were, where you are, and where you're going. But really, I think she does the thing that most personal essayist strive for: She finds the universal in the personal.
Chloe is also one of our regular instructors here at LitReactor, and we chatted a bit about the new collection, to mark the release.
What was the process of assembling the essays for this collection? Were there any that almost made the cut, but didn't? Did you write anything specifically for this?
The collection of course underwent dozens of changes. I had an essay called Holes for the final essay and it wasn’t working and I hated it, so I changed it completely and made it into the preface In Real Life after getting inspired reading the introduction to Sallie Tisdale’s collection Violation.
Some of the essays felt redundant or repetitive because they didn’t know they were in the same collection together. Some essays I’d written for money in times of need for Medium and the like, and aren’t that good. So we cut them.
Yep, after having multiple meetings with potential editors who were thinking of buying the book, I got some ideas. One editor had asked me, What happened to you as a teenager? She said she felt the collection needed to know who I’d been as a teen so they could relate to me in my twenties. And her question got me writing the essay that turned into The Music and The Boys. Once I got clear on the themes of the book—intimacy, failure, female friendship—I’d get ideas for essays. For example I also wrote Failing Singing and Sisterless specifically for the collection.
One of the subjects you cover is your own heroin use, which you talk about hiding from your dad. There's no hiding now—how do you prepare for something like that, when you're writing about a subject that is going to make someone else worried or upset? Do you reach out to them first? Do you just let the essay fly and wait for the fallout?
Well, Soul Killer published as My Year of Heroin and Acne three years ago on Salon, so that’s when there was no hiding. I don’t think it’s fair to publish something like that without warning the people you’ve written about first, so I emailed my parents the night before it published. (I teach that in my LitReactor class, too.) Yes, I was worried. But I was proud of my essay, and I needed $150 as I had no money at all. Yes, my parents were saddened. Did we get through it? Yes. Are we still super close? Yes, closer, probably. My friend calls that essay the “gift that keeps on giving” because like you said, there is nowhere to hide. But that essay, difficult as it is, is dear to my heart. For some people it’s snorting opiates, for others, binge-drinking or an eating disorder, for others, hair loss. And, in my actual life it wasn’t as cut and dry as I did heroin while I had acne! It was much more complicated. I had bad acne for a few years. Sometimes I snorted drugs. I used those two details to combine and explore how they related to each other, and out of that came that essay. They were literary devices, you know? When I checked my email the morning after I published it three years ago I had dozens of emails to sort through from strangers. That made me feel I’d made the right decision. People still write to me about that essay and tell me it helped them through dark times.
The thing that struck me while reading this was: Nonfiction authors are probably braver than fiction authors. Because I think a lot of fiction authors take their experiences and filter them through a lens that lets them renounce ownership: Oh, that wasn't me, it's my character. Whereas this is you. Do you think there's anything to that? Are you attracted to the truthfulness of nonfiction?
I’m attracted to both. I don’t know if it’s braver or just stupider, lazier. It’s easier to take your life experiences and mold them into narrative for some people like me. I’ve always been attracted to the form of the essay, and loved emotional plot more than plot-plot.
The collection deals very much with that transitional period in your 20s, where you have the autonomy of an adult but don't really feel like one. What did you learn about yourself, and that period of your life, while putting this together?
I suppose I am still very much in that period of my life. I think writers are often so existential, so hyper-aware of aging. At least I am. I’m pretty obsessive over age, so in my early twenties I knew it was time to make bad decisions. In my late twenties I realized if I didn’t change some of my ways I was fucking myself over. Writers are looser-ends than people who decide to get a car, a house, a family. I never prioritized those things. But in the past few years I realized, I need a home. I need a car. And I need a way to make money. That’s probably the biggest lesson I learned—that being broke isn’t fun or glamorous and you’re not impressing anyone, least of all yourself. Before submitting this book to publication, while working on it, I was so fucking poor and grocery shopping at CVS. So being an adult is one thing, but being an adult and a writer feels like a whole other species all together. It reminds of this essay by Stephen Elliott where he questions how do writers get by? So I had to figure out how to maintain being a writer while coming into adulthood, because the choices I’d made up to turning 30 were not conventional or domestic in the least.
Given the level of emotional honesty you display in your writing, I'm curious to know if there's anything you hold back—is your whole life fair game in terms of your writing, or are there things that are too personal to explore in a public setting?
There’s a ton I don’t write about. I think it’s funny how people say it’s like my diary or my darkest secrets. It’s so not. Like, in my “diary” I would never write about the silliness of Prime Meats, etc. I just choose life experiences that I think could translate well to the personal essay form. There’s a lot I haven’t delved into. I’m just choosing anecdotes that hopefully speak to larger themes. I’m riffing. Not telling all. My first essay collection, Legs Get Led Astray, has more the “everything and the kitchen sink” feel, I think. But though people feel like they know me because of the intimate voice I use, my real “secrets” are not in the book. David Sedaris talks about this, that he’s not actually exposing himself, he’s giving you the feeling that he’s exposing himself.
The sugar packets in "Maggie and Me: A Love Story"—such a beautiful, shattering detail. Is that the kind of thing you hold on to in the moment, knowing it'll be important—or do you circle back to it, something that comes up in the writing? I only ask because Amy Hempel once told me to not be afraid to write from the white hot center of something. And when my daughter was in the hospital recovering from surgery there were details I tried to hold on to, because I knew they'd be important when I wanted to write. This is a big question that boils down to: How does being a writer that deals in truth affect the way you process emotional or traumatic experiences?
This is fascinating; you are the fifth or sixth person to call out the sugar packet detail. That’s been different for me—usually people react to my pieces differently and point out different details. It makes me happy so many people were moved by the sugar packets. I think it’s because we’ve all been through that sort of surreal experience of losing someone. Honestly I don’t totally remember how I processed her death, it’s sort of a blur. I don’t think I was taking notes, like I used to. I didn’t plan on using the sugar packet detail, I don’t think. For me if I find I’m repeating a tiny detail of something to multiple people, I know it will wind up in an essay.
When my apartment building was condemned in 2008 someone told me, take all the notes you can. I used to be huge on that, documenting what people said immediately, journaling compulsively, but I don’t anymore, in big part because I don’t have a daily commute anymore.
But to attempt to answer your question, I think writers linger much longer in processing periods than normal people. We walk through the world with a constant voice telling us, pay attention, you might write about this, which makes us annoying to be around. We document life twice, so to speak.
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