I’ve admired Chelsea Hodson’s work ever since I read her chapbook, Pity the Animal, back in 2014. That essay was full of raw honesty and surprising insight—all conveyed through a brilliant structure that allows the writer allusive latitude and amazing range. I was excited to learn that essay was included in the essay collection Tonight I’m Someone Else and to read so many other essays using this wonderful structure to great effect.
I’m a big fan of your work, and, in particular, the way you structure your essays. There is a structure you first used in Pity the Animal—one paragraph and then a line space before the next paragraph. Each paragraph is self-contained. That line space allows the reader a momentary processing break, in a sense, and then suggests that there might be a leap of sorts to the next paragraph. And it allows the writer to weave multiple narrative threads in such a natural way. Sometimes, I think this type of structure lines up with how the human brain functions and that’s why it’s such a satisfying reading experience. Could you talk about why you chose that structure for that essay and why you’ve continued to use it with most of the essays in Tonight I’m Someone Else?
I think this structure grew organically from my fondness for prose poetry—the idea that a whole story can live inside a small, beautiful, sometimes strange block of text intrigued me, as did the potential for using a series of these blocks as a way to gain momentum towards an argument or idea. My favorite kind of essay is the kind in which you can feel the writer earnestly working something out on the page, so I’m interested in maintaining that sensation of uncertainty while also making my sentences as tight as possible. This, I think, has the potential to create a strange tension: that between neat-looking prose and a wild assortment of memories and ideas.
I find that the line break and white space between paragraphs gives me more freedom to move around. It’s my way of giving the reader a cue: now, we may go someplace totally different in space and time, or we may simply return to exactly where we were, which is its own kind of surprise. In this book, I found myself almost always beginning with this structure in early drafts, but, in later drafts, taking it out in the essays that didn’t need it. Some shorter essays simply don’t leap around enough to warrant the structure, and instead are more effectively read, I think, without the extra line breaks between paragraphs.
I like that phrase to describe your essays, “a series of blocks.” They are solid, built things like that. I’m wondering how you think about each “block” – that is, what can constitute a block? And how do you think about the accumulation of those individual blocks?
I think what constitutes each “block” changes depending on where in the essay it appears. For instance, I like to give the reader a lot of information at the beginning of an essay so that I don’t lose them. By “grounding” the speaker in time and space, I find that I give myself room to “lift off” into things like surrealistic dreamscapes, even if only momentarily. For instance, the essay “Pity the Animal” takes place in a very real world, and yet, near the end of the essay, I begin one of the paragraphs by plainly stating, “There is an island where former versions of myself gallop around on all fours.” The paragraph goes on to describe an impossible image of animals learning to make a fire—I’m aware that this sounds silly in summary. But that’s actually what I’m interested in: These paragraphs that wholly rely on each other to make sense and to propel themselves forward. I think if that island paragraph appeared early in the essay, it wouldn’t work, but it seems that certain experiments work better in essays if there is other narrative work completed first.
Absolutely, I love how that sort of authorial latitude can increase as the writer gets deeper into the particular piece of work. And, I love the implicit tension that is built-in, the uncertainty of what is next that you mentioned. I often think this lends itself to an increasingly intense feedback loop of sorts. How do you think about that tension as an essay moves forward and how do you think about resolving the tension as an essay moves toward its conclusion?
It usually takes me a very long time to build momentum in an essay. Usually, I begin by free-writing—writing with my eyes closed, writing without stopping for a certain period of time—anything to turn off the self-editor in my head. When I feel I have enough of a draft to work with—usually after a few weeks of working on it—I will print it, cut out each block of text, and begin to rearrange by hand. I can do this to some degree on the computer, but the only way I’ve been able to make it work all the way is to physically touch it. I can see the potential narrative tension in a new way during this stage, or at least I have enough new ideas to start over, and then I retype the new order into my computer. This brings me closer to saying what I want to say, and therefore it brings me closer to knowing how to end the essay. Sometimes I will repeat this process once more, sometimes I will repeat it ten more times—it depends on how afraid of the essay I am. Sometimes I am very afraid.
I’m familiar with that method of organizing work! I sometimes spread out entire books like that throughout the rooms of my home and it’s almost always an incredibly satisfying experience. What are you afraid of when you’re afraid? And what happens during those times when you’re not afraid?
I’m afraid of lots of things: revealing too much about myself, hurting someone by writing about them, and most of all, writing something imperfect. The horror! Of course I am not so crazy that I think perfection is truly possible, but the failure to articulate something accurately is a constant anxiety for me. I’ve found that coffee helps me override all of these fears, as does blindfolding myself, or closing my eyes while I type. It’s basically a matter of writing faster than I think—outrunning my anxiety for at least a little while. Ultimately I embrace my cautious, careful side because I think it comes in very handy later on—it’s just a matter of keeping the methods separate. Writing quickly is one of the only ways I’m able to truly surprise myself in my own writing, like, “Oh, I didn’t know that’s what I thought.”
How did you find your way to that method—blindfolding yourself or closing your eyes—and why doesn’t it make you more afraid?
My endurance training with Marina Abramovic for her exhibition, Generator (where I worked as a performance facilitator), involved all kinds of physical constraints that did really wild things to my brain. The act of writing has always felt too stagnant and quiet for me—that’s part of why I play guitar, to be able to hear and see something as opposed to typing words that live inside a computer. So, I like the idea of making writing a more physical act—I’m not doing jumping jacks while I write or anything, but I am provoking a different kind of response from my body than if I’m just sitting there staring at it. And if I can’t see what I’m writing, I can’t be critical of it. I don’t invite my perfectionist side into the conversation until much later.
I keep thinking about the line space between each block. What happens if you remove that line space from an essay like, say, “The End of Longing,” in which the dozens of self-contained pieces accumulate into a greater whole? What is lost, gained, or changed? How would the presentation of the content be restructured (or not)?
I’m panicking even imagining the line breaks being taken out of “The End of Longing”—I think its only hope of succeeding has to do with the “breaths” between each block. Years ago, I liked the idea of each paragraph being on its own page, but I’ve let go of that—I think having a visual marker of the shift is enough. But I think without the break between paragraphs, the reader would just visually be taking in too much and it would be a frustrating experience. There has to be the signal of something beginning, ending, and shifting.
Yes, the shifting. Please talk about what is happening during the shifting?
I see the shifting as a reaching toward the cinematic elements of storytelling: the camera turns to another character, or it zooms in, or it zooms out, or it shuts off completely. When working within the constraints of my own memory, I have to create structure whenever and however I can in order to make the process not only manageable but also bearable. Satisfaction is rare but a glimpse of it sustains me for a long time.
Chelsea Hodson is the author of the essay collection Tonight I’m Someone Else and the chapbook Pity the Animal. She is a graduate of the MFA program at Bennington College and has been awarded fellowships from MacDowell Colony and PEN Center USA Emerging Voices.
Photo: Ryan Lowry