On the first page of her new essay collection, I’ll Tell You in Person, Chloe Caldwell writes about upgrading to a car and savings account, after spending much of her twenties in shitty apartments, making drunken mistakes, and writing about shitty apartments and drunken mistakes. This introduction, titled “In Real Life,” makes a later essay like “Soul Killer” easier to take. “The worse my skin got, the more stressed I felt and the more heroin I would buy. The more heroin I snorted, the worse my skin would get and the more stressed I would become. I couldn’t find the source of my sadness, my stress, or my acne.”
The job of the personal essayist is to make readers feel as if we know her. When she hurts, we hurt, as cohorts. When she wins, we win. Something I’ve always appreciated about Caldwell is how she presents herself—in interviews, blog posts, and essays—as a passionate artist and at the same time, a person with daily stresses and obsessions.
In the opening essay, she also writes about being inspired to try the form by Miki Howald and her piece, “Mono No Aware,” after discovering it in a small-press anthology. Caldwell admits to borrowing its rhythm and sentiments in her books. “I’ve basically memorized the essay, and sometimes I forget I’m not the one who wrote it.” When she Googles Howald, she finds only herself, talking about the author in interviews.
I stumbled upon Caldwell’s interview with The Rumpus in 2012. She was twenty-five, a year older than I was, and had already published a collection of personal essays. At the time, my number one fear was never publishing a book, followed by (2) disappointing my hypothetical future wife and children, and (3) death.
I immediately ordered Caldwell’s book, Legs Get Led Astray, from Powell’s, which I had never heard of and seemed to be the greatest bookstore on earth. The cover was yellow and purple with a sepia photo of a young woman balancing upside-down.
Reading LGLA, I fell in love with the author’s creative uses of repetition (inspired by Joe Brainard). In “My Mother Wanted to be Betty Boop,” she starts nearly every paragraph, “My mother…” “My mother wanted to be a dancer.” “My mother wanted her daughter to be sexually free, since she was not.”
Until rereading “My Mother Wanted to be Betty Boop,” I forgot about how Caldwell’s mother would nap on the couch and say, “I’m not sleeping, I’m resting my eyes.”
My father said the same exact words.
I recently told a coworker I had a friend with “CHUG LIFE” tattooed on his stomach like Tupac, even though I knew the detail came from LGLA.
In 2013, Tin House awarded me a scholarship to attend their week-long workshop at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. I chose to study with Cheryl Strayed, partly because I knew she was a kind and intelligent mentor to Caldwell. I had recently interviewed Caldwell over email, and the two of us planned to meet up in Portland, where she lived at the time. On my flight, I unknowingly sat next to her friend Vincent.
I took the bus across town to meet Caldwell at a Maggie Nelson reading, held at one of those multiuse workshop/art collectives. We drank warm, dark beer because it was free, and after, Caldwell asked Nelson to sign her journal, she was so happy to meet her. I wondered if a younger writer would ever want to know what I was like in real life.
I rode back to campus with Caldwell to have a drink with Vincent, at a picnic table, in the dark. In my memory, we mostly talked about films I had not seen, like Frances Ha.
I read Caldwell’s second book, the novella Women, during a layover at the Baltimore airport, after Christmas at home. I had barely written since Portland, two years earlier, and had been primarily reading books about tech entrepreneurs, but one night, in my childhood bed, unable to sleep and watching St. Vincent on YouTube, I thought, What the fuck am I doing?
I flicked on the light and started writing.
At the time, I wasn’t moved by Women, but a year and a half later, I have to blame the experience of reading from my phone’s Kindle app. I teared up numerous times rereading a physical copy of the book. Women reminds me of the beautiful confusion of love, how it actually feels, and Caldwell describes heartbreak with such control, I want to do the same. Her words feel like growth.
“Before the crash, before the smoke from the airbags, there is the sight of two deer directly in front of me. My brown eyes meet their brown eyes, their beautiful and graceful limbs bent mid-air.”
At twenty-nine, I’m preparing to publish my first book, which includes an essay made up of paragraphs starting, “My father…”
During “In Real Life”, Caldwell explains that what’s so liberating about publishing at a young age is also what makes the process difficult. “There is nothing to fear. You have no readers. No experience. No memories of doing it before. No wounds.”
I finally watched Frances Ha and loved it. The movie, about New York friendship and young ambition, might be the most Chloe Caldwell movie of all time.
She develops her character in ITYIP through anecdotes such as eating ten (adult) gummy vitamins because they taste so good. “How does someone learn to take one instead of two?” She buys artisanal chesses, nearly over drafting her checking account, to impress a celebrity who never visits. She gets anxiety diarrhea and practices yoga and knows how harmful sleeping on your stomach is. This is twenty-nine.
The essay that stands out structurally is “The Laziest Coming Out Story You’ve Ever Heard,” a list of reflections on not identifying as bisexual or gay or straight, feeling like an alien, not knowing. In her first collection, Caldwell often settled for quick, humorous endings, but here, she goes further. After bursting into tears while talking about sexuality at a writing retreat, she writes, “I did not know. And it was causing me strife, grief, extreme distress. I used to know myself so well. Maybe someday I would, again, but on this night around the fire in California, I did not.”
She excels at writing realistic dialogue, most noticeably in “Sisterless,” about her bond with Cheryl Strayed’s daughter Bobbi. (Caldwell writes about babysitting as John McPhee writes about rivers.)
“[Bobbi] once said, ‘Your mom’s like active.’
‘What do you mean?’ I asked.
‘You know, like, she’s a ‘let’s have a dance party kind of person,’ she explained impatiently, ‘And she photo bombs people.’”
My favorite essays in the collection are the final two, for their calmness, the slow release of sadness. In “Maggie and Me: A Love Story,” Caldwell uses declarative statements to relay her friendship with Maggie Estep, before the slam poet and novelist died suddenly from a heart attack. Maggie used to wear a red CBGB t-shirt and blast Patti Smith while teaching Caldwell’s yoga class. They planned to rent an apartment together, maybe a book tour.
After she gets the phone call: “The light outside is too bright, like coming down from an acid trip, or when you finally leave the house after a weeklong flu and everything is too real and cartoonish.” She reaches her hand in her pocket and feels the extra sugar packets she grabbed for Maggie’s coffee a few days earlier.
“Berlin 2009” retells a story from LGLA in greater depth—a friend encouraged Caldwell to return to the subject. The narrative starts with her finding another woman’s underwear while apartment sitting for a lover. “It was pouring the next morning, and his cat had vomited on the floor. I wanted to leave it, but I cleaned it because I loved him.”
Berlin has literal playgrounds for adults. She and a friend find an apartment above a German man who recently tried to commit suicide. They adopt his catchphrase, “I can’t be bothered.” Unable to enjoy the community living she fantasized about finding in Berlin, Caldwell returns to New York, spending her first night on the floor of Penn Station. She finishes the essay, and the book, by remembering a photograph from that night, one more time.
“I am lying on the floor with my legs over my backpack. My arm is over my face. My sneakers smelled. But I was almost home. I was getting closed to knowing what that meant.”