Little Wars with My Body: Leah Dieterich in Conversation with Chelsea Hodson

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Chelsea Hodson and I have only met once, briefly, on a stroll through the book fair at AWP in Los Angeles in 2015. I was negotiating the nausea and fashion choices of early pregnancy and coveted her sleek style. Her leather jacket, black tights, and mini skirt. Despite her serious appearance, I found her incredibly funny, warm, and unguarded. I remember sharing my impatience with how long it was taking to finish my book and feeling refreshed by her acceptance of the amount of time it was taking to write her own (we have a couple of other things in common: We are both students of Sarah Manguso and share an agent).

Three years later, both of our books are finished, and I’m excited to see that they explore some of the same themes: identity, art-making, bodies, and love. I spoke to Chelsea over the phone about the writing of Tonight I’m Someone Else.

Leah Dieterich: Early in the book, you begin the essay “Near Miss” with a quote from Roland Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse: “Waiting is an enchantment: I have received orders not to move.” It’s got a sort of BDSM-y vibe, this particular quote.

Chelsea Hodson: Yes, it does.

LD: A Lover’s Discourse was formative for me. I was curious how you came to it and what effect it had on you and your writing.

CH: I first learned about it when I workshopped with Maggie Nelson at Tin House. I came to it pretty late in writing my book. I’d never read anyone talking about waiting, so it set me on this path of thinking about what happens in between, ad interim, which Schopenhauer also writes about. I started thinking: Why is there this emphasis on the end result and not the life itself? I think in America, goals are always the only thing. Everyone’s always asking, “What’s your long-term goal? What’s your short-term goal?”

I feel like my life has been kind of propelled forward toward goals in this way that I really started to question as I was writing the book. I started to be OK with the fact that it was taking me six years to write. My life just didn’t look the way I thought it would look. I could be really frustrated by that or I could try to appreciate that and think about what it means to wait. So honestly, I love Barthes’s book, but that was the line in particular that really stood out to me.

LD: There’s another line in the first essay (“Red Letters from a Red Planet”) about waiting and its relationship to writing. You were working for a PR person during NASA’s Mars lander mission, and your boss said, “Make sure to explain that the signal could come later. It doesn’t always reach us right away.” When I read that line, I related it to how the signals for a particular essay don’t necessarily come right away. How much distance was there in terms of the writing and some of these events?

CH: I’m glad that you read it that way, because I think of that quote in a lot of different contexts. I meant it to directly echo any kind of reflection I had on the character Cody in that essay. You don’t always know what you get from a relationship until much later. The signal of that revelation or whatever lesson you may have learned or didn’t learn…that always takes a long time. And for that, it definitely took a long time, and I put that process into the essay itself by writing the line, “I wrote this essay once before, but I wrote it wrong. I made him the villain. I forgot women can be wrong too. I forgot I could be.” I always like reading essays where you see the exploration and second-guessing on the page. You can feel someone working it out, and I always like that, so I always try to not censor it out the way I’m sometimes tempted to.

LD: There is a moment in the essay “Simple Woman” where you talk about touch. “What I miss most about modeling, besides the money, is the way I was touched on set….the way a makeup artist would be brushing my face with powder while another stylist fixed my hair…My mother used to lightly touch my head or my arms when we watched television together and the touch of the stylists brought me back to that place of my childhood.” I really related to that, because I also feel like there have been a couple of experiences in my adulthood where I’ve had that type of maternal touch from someone, and I wondered if there were any other times besides in modeling that you experienced that in adulthood?

CH: When I lived in Los Angeles, I went to this Eastern European tailor and I would bring dresses to her and she would pin me into the dress, the same way that I wrote about in the book about the stylist, but she just kind of touched me all over with the fabric, figuring out where it should fit. These sensual experiences with people that are not romantic partners do kind of stick with me. I think I’m just naturally, I don’t know, I’m very calmed by that kind of touch.

LD: When I was reading that modeling scene, I thought about when I had to get orthotics to wear in my shoes, and they cast my foot with Plaster of Paris and then pulled it off. The medical tech was this sort of macho-looking dude who very carefully soaked the strips and applied them to my foot in a really gentle and deliberate way. I just remember feeling so comforted. So cared for. I think I allow myself to really enjoy these kinds of intimate experiences because they are touches that don’t ask anything in return. When there’s the potential for something sexual to happen, I automatically get a little bit on-guard in a certain way that doesn’t allow me to relax into it.

CH: When I’m writing, the element of having a body and something physical happening in the essay has been a good tool for me to use. I’m interested in the body in that way…either how I’m responding to the world around me, or even just kind of describing certain things that I can only know about my own body. I think there’s a lot you can do with that. If you have a really good physical description, I think your reader is maybe more inclined to follow you even if you go to a weird place.

LD: I was really taken with the scene where you have anxiety about losing a tampon inside yourself. I think a lot of people have had that fear, but the part I so related to was when you say you were “repulsed by your own texture,” when you stuck your hand up there, looking for it. You ask, “How do other women learn to love their bodies? I feel that I missed out on some phase or lesson.” I thought, Me too. How did that happen? I’m curious: Has your relationship to your body has changed since writing about the tampon experience?

CH: I don’t think it really has. I still have little wars with my body all the time. Like, just feeling uncomfortable being a woman. I don’t know. I think this discomfort is very common no matter what gender you are. I think I wanted to write about the tampon incident because to me, there’s something really wild about this idea that there’s this space that I can’t myself even reach.

LD: Yes. That is one of the most upsetting and amazing things about the female body. There’s this regular cycle you’re aware of, but you can’t see all of what’s going on inside. I’m thinking about fertility in particular where you’re like, they’re my eggs, but I can’t see what they’re doing and I certainly can’t control them. It’s so frustrating.

CH: This, to me, seems somewhat like a metaphor for writing about oneself, or even exploring certain ideas about humanity. Even in turning the gaze on myself, there’s so much that I can’t see and that I can never know. I feel like that’s an interesting inquiry for essayists and nonfiction writers. I’ve heard people in MFA fiction programs say, “Well, at least you know what you’re writing about,” and I’m like, “I actually don’t.” That’s why I’m interested in writing about it. I love the idea of navigating the uncertainty of something that’s supposed to be fact.

LD: Absolutely. That relates to a bunch of questions I had about your writing process. You talked at one point in “The New Love” about not wanting to tell your mother what was wrong when you were a kid because you liked the intensity of emotion, even if it was bad—I’m paraphrasing, but you say talking it out or walking it off dissipated what you were feeling, and soon after, it would be gone. I was intrigued by that, especially in terms of how writing figures into this aversion. Does writing ruin the intensity of emotions for you? Or does it somehow have the opposite effect?

CH: I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. I don’t really know. I think that moments of intensity are what I’m drawn to a lot in writing because they’re the things I can’t get out of my mind. In writing about certain people in my essays, I almost come out the other side. Even if I’m writing about something super negative, the next time I think about them, I only think something really positive. In writing about these moments, I somehow become both closer and further away from them.

LD: I think it also relates to the Backstreet Boys fan fiction you wrote as a kid. In the essay “I’m Only One Thousand Miles Away” you write, “What I wrote wasn’t meant to be entertaining, it was meant to change fate’s course.” I wondered if you still feel that way? Do you think writing has the power to change fate’s course?

CH: That’s such a big question; I don’t know. I definitely feel that I’ve manifested certain things in writing, even though I know that sounds really wild. I have, I think three times, seen people on the streets of New York in Brooklyn that I was just writing about, people that don’t even live here. And I’ve talked with other female writers that have had this experience. I do actually kind of believe in the possibility of that, of bringing someone back into your life as a result of just thinking about them and obsessing over them so much. And that feels dangerous and real to me.

LD: I want to ask you about freedom. In “Pity the Animal,” you talk about missing the structure of school. You write, “I always thought I wanted to be free. But as soon as I was free, I longed to be corralled and guided.” Later, in “The New Love,” you bring up freedom again in relation to the pleasure of ghostliness, where you write, “No one knew where I was, which meant I was free.” I wondered, how do you think freedom and accountability relate?

CH: Whoa. That’s such an interesting question, freedom and accountability. Well, I guess I like the idea of those things meeting. Accountability definitely has to do with writing things down that are true. I like that element of accountability a lot. But there is some side of me that, I mean, I keep mentioning it, of keeping things to myself or being very private. When something is kept to myself, it maintains some kind of heat. I don’t really think it’s a good thing, but it’s something that I do experience where it heightens things for me. Even if it’s something kind of trivial, like talking it out with my mom as a child, that heat of whatever it was inside of me, gets released and dissipates. Beyond that, I’m not sure.

LD: It reminds me of when you say in another essay that strangers are the only perfect people and that you prefer to be a stranger to yourself. “I see myself as a stranger, and I love her better, I barely know her.” When I read that, I wondered: How do you write about your life and remain a stranger to yourself?

CH: I think a lot of it has to do with tricks, like writing very early in the morning. Some of the things I wrote were written in a haze of half sleep and almost confusion. The next day, I actually wouldn’t recognize it. It was as if I was reading something that someone else wrote, and then I could see it from an editor’s standpoint—I could efficiently pick it apart and rewrite it.

LD: Yes, and that is such an amazing feeling. I’ve definitely had that experience of wondering, “Wait, did I…where did this come from?” It’s kind of wonderful.

CH: Yeah. I wish I had more methods to do that. But for me, it only happens if I trick myself. If I’m writing with a bunch of coffee in the middle of the day, bright lights, fully awake—like what you would consider to be a “good” writing mindset—I will never surprise myself. It always has to be a little messy and a little sloppy to get to something surprising.

LD: That’s good. Because I love your desire and urge to keep that heat within yourself. I thought, “I hope writing this book doesn’t ruin it for her!” So I’m glad to hear that you feel you still can do both.

CH: It’s a really interesting point. And I’m excited about the idea of [the book] being a document of a certain version of myself, because of course, everyone is always changing all the time. And even if that does “ruin it” for me, I’m OK with it because those were the memories I was drawn to, those were the people I wanted to write about, and I did that. So I accept the consequences of that.

LD: I also loved in the final essay when you equate completion with death. And then you write, “I become attached to ongoing problems as if they might carry me somewhere.” I wondered if you see writing as one of those ongoing problems, and if so, where is it taking you?

CH: I’m currently dealing with writing about what art’s role even is. I’m working on a novel that I think will be partially about that idea. Yeah, writing is definitely an ongoing problem for me. But I like problems, so that’s OK.