"For an essay to fit together, I really want it to be so honest that it actually becomes dangerous."
Catapult instructors Leigh Stein and Chelsea Hodson discuss artistic sacrifices, gender expectations, and Hodson's new essay collection, TONIGHT I'M SOMEONE ELSE.
Leigh Stein is teaching an upcoming 10-week workshop and craft class designed to help memoirists develop a strong proposal that is ready for agent attention, as well as a two-day publishing master class on building your author platform with Laura Feinstein.
Leigh Stein: In your essay "The End of Longing," you write something about motherhood that I think about all the time: "When you're young, everyone's an artist. But it's a game of endurance, a fight against addiction, children, comfort, stasis, health insurance, home ownership. People drop off one by one. No one ever tells you that."
Chelsea Hodson: It's very reductive and it's meant to be a little playful. Obviously, children aren't a reason that people never make art again. It's just meant to be a series of things that could influence your time and your sense of being an artist.
A lot of people I was in high school with, for instance: two of them became artists and the rest of them didn't. At the time, it seemed like everyone would be a filmmaker, a photographer, a painter. I thought, wow, I know all these artists! It's so cool that we'll be artists forever!
I fought my own fight moving here, just with some vague intention of being an artist. I've seen personally how hard it is to maintain a living of any sort and make art [in New York City].
How much are you willing to sacrifice to maintain being an artist?
Not to be dramatic, but almost everything. I really feel that way. I definitely have a higher standard of living than when I was twenty; certain comfort things are more important to me. So I don't mean, I'd be a starving artist to be happy!
But I think certain decisions in the book were super hurtful to people in my life, to the point where I was willing to sacrifice what they thought in order for the book to be good.
Can you give an example of that?
Certain things that I dance around in the book were more explicit to people who knew what I was talking about—so to reveal it in a book instead of to them specifically was very hurtful.
For an essay to fit together, I really want it to be so honest that it actually becomes dangerous. That proved to me that I would go farther than I thought I would.
For so long, the book felt simultaneously inevitable and impossible. I really felt like I would finish it someday but also that it would never be done and that nobody would ever read it.
It was so internal that once there was an audience for it, it was like, wow, that was maybe a hurtful thing to do or say or write.
There's a gendered expectation that you're a woman so you should have thought first about how you were going to hurt people.
I think it's definitely a gendered thing. I read something in the Paris Review Daily by Jamie Quatro about people asking her, "What does your husband think about the book?" And she writes fiction, but still, if there's any similarity between the narrator [and the author], the question is, What does your keeper think of this?
I'm willing to give up a lot, if I feel like what I'm trying to do requires it. I've given up really good jobs in order to take writing more seriously. I've basically, at every turn of potential career advancement, quit the job. And that was all in service of trying to take art and writing seriously.
We're living in boom times of the personal essay. And there's a certain expectation of how that's going to go. Some person experiences shame, they learn something, they confess to us, and then they get over it (or they learn to live with it).
I've never thought of it being the word shame but you're totally right that's the expectation. There's a shame and then it's uncovered or revealed and then it's resolved.
But in this collection, you're not writing any tightly resolved story.
I think atmosphere is really underrated in non-fiction because of the exact thing you're talking about. It's all about what happened and what I learned and I'm not intentionally resisting that, but It's something I've noticed, the more I pay attention to how my work fits into other works. Sometimes I'll read essays and think, I wish this felt more cinematic.
A lot of novels have that. But I think people forget to do it in non-fiction.
We have to talk about visibility/invisibility. In your essay "Longing," there's one moment where you decide you're more miserable than ever and your boss says, "you know what I like about you, Chelsea? Nothing is ever wrong."
At the end of the same essay: "You look like you're suffering, a man I'd just met said, and I said, I'm the human embodiment of the opposite of suffering."
When I was recording my audio book recently, the audio engineer said, "Did you really say that?" I was like, "I did…and I remember thinking it was so weird, I had to write it down."
We've been talking about how this book was written in this container for me, this private space. I was only able to write about certain things because it was invisible, because I wasn't expecting to publish it the next day or on deadline. A lot of these essays were written over a period of years. I think that allows the lines to be blurred, where the invisible can actually become visible to me, and therefore I can begin to try to articulate it. I think there's a part in the book where I say I feel really far away from myself and writing essays is a way to get closer to myself.
Who is the you that is not the essay writer?
It's a curated version of myself. I think about this a lot. I don't really know how to define it. But I've had people meet me recently who've said, "You're much different than I thought you'd be. You're actually friendly and smile…and laugh…"
You wrote about Lana Del Rey for the New York Times Magazine in March. In this piece, you ask, "Can women still be 'good' feminists if they are willing to ride along with this romanticized violence [in her music and cover songs]?" At the end you say, "Maybe…it has gone out of fashion to view violence, fatalism and apolitical ennui with any sort of affection."
Your book is the book I would have read in my teenage bedroom with Ani DiFranco on the boombox: depressed white girl feelings. Are we not allowed to have that anymore because the political climate is so tense? You say that at the end, too, in an essay: "This is my year, finally—the year of extremes."
That's the id speaking (the id is the pleasure principle). So that's my persona times ten, a super performative version, as if only one part of me is speaking. Finally, this is my year. I fit in because I'm so extreme. Around the election, just the sensation that things are changing for the worst, brought out a bad side in a lot of people, including me. Some people seemed really hopeful. I was very pessimistic. Some people were ready to march. I was super depressed. That's kind of what I'm speaking to, playing with this idea that "it's my year."
Is there room for these more personal, private moments of depression? How do we make space for political action in the streets and inaction?
That's what publishing on the internet is.
I think that's a super hazardous thing, for both the writer and the readers.
Do you ever feel that, gazing upon the Internet? Like, Oh, she should have waited…
[Laughs] Constantly. But I don't read much on the Internet anymore.
Working at the intersection of literature and activism, Leigh Stein is the author of three books, and the co-founder of BinderCon, the conference for women and gender variant writers. Her newest book is Land of Enchantment, a memoir about young love, obsession, abuse, and loss, published in hardcover by Plume. She has also written for the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post, Allure, BuzzFeed, Slate, Gawker, and Poets & Writers.