Praise for Chloe Caldwell:
"I read it a couple of months ago in one can't-put-it-down-even-though-it's-the-middle-of-the-night sitting. It's as intense and interesting and clear-hearted as they come."Cheryl Strayed
"I'll read anything Chloe Caldwell writes. She's a rare bird: fearless, dark, prolific, unpretentious, and truly honest."Elisa Albert
"Nothing's sexier than first love and first intimacies, and Caldwell's brave autobiographical tale twists the trope into a powerful story about unexpectedly falling in love with a woman and the discoveries, sexual and otherwise, that ensue." Time Out New York
"The essays in this collection are as exuberant as they are sad. Her storytelling is as vulnerable as it is bombastic. These essays roll in gangsta, but wear freshly picked daisies in their hair." Rookie Magazine
Flailing in jobs, failing at love, getting addicted and un-addicted to people, food, and drugs I'll Tell You in Person is a disarmingly frank account of attempts at adulthood and all the less than perfect ways we get there. Caldwell has an unsparing knack for looking within and reporting back what's really there, rather than what she'd like you to see.
Chloe Caldwell is the author of the novella Women, and the essay collection Legs Get Led Astray. Her work has appeared in the Sun, Salon, VICE, Hobart, Nylon, the Rumpus, Men's Health, and LENNY, among others. She teaches personal essay and memoir writing in New York City and lives in Hudson.
About the Author
Chloe Caldwell is the author of the novella Women, and the essay collection Legs Get Led Astray. Her work has appeared in The Sun, Salon, VICE, Hobart, Nylon, The Rumpus, and Men’s Health, among others. She teaches personal essay and memoir writing in New York City and lives in Hudson.
Read an Excerpt
I'll Tell You in Person
By Chloe Caldwell
COFFEE HOUSE PRESSCopyright © 2016 Chloe Caldwell
All rights reserved.
In Real Life
what should i do with my life? my notebook from 2005 reads. Music therapist? Retail/venue owner? Substance-abuse counselor? Writer? But I'm unfocused, unambitious, have an addictive personality, and what if no one cares?
I've spent the bulk of my years on planet Earth asking for forgiveness rather than permission. I've never had a plan B or F or even A. I don't know how to read maps. Driving with my mom some years ago, I got lost, and rather than stopping or looking at a map, I kept going the wrong way. "When you get lost, you're supposed to pull over and turn around," she said. I do when I'm ready. One editor asked my agent last year what my five-year plan was. I laughed, even though I was the stupid one, not the editor (who rejected the book).
As the cliché goes, I've always counted on either dying young or never dying at all. I displaced my enormous anxiety onto dogs, electrical outlets, Mack trucks running me over, and, apparently, essay collections. I did not imagine my life past thirty, because I thought women in their thirties were magical unicorns, part of a club that didn't want me as a member. But I'm still here — not unhealthy, not unhappy, a little unaffluent. When this book comes out, I will be thirty (and a half, if I can avoid those Mack trucks), and even writing this now, my current life contradicts some of the sentiments in the essays that follow, which I wrote at twenty-five, at twenty-seven, last month. For example, I now have a car and a savings account, and God help me if these additions to my life don't feel incredible — magical-unicorn status, even.
* * *
I felt my age for the first time last spring. I was sitting at a picnic table at the writing residency I was attending in Martha's Vineyard, and we were talking about having children. One woman, a murder-mystery writer, told us she was eight weeks pregnant. She explained she was getting used to the fact that she couldn't drink or eat oysters. She joked that she couldn't believe and didn't believe she was pregnant. The woman as she knew herself was changing, gone. "I can't do anything fun anymore," she said.
We shared stories of being mistaken for being pregnant. (This has never happened to me. Instead, I get asked if I have children — which I think is worse, since it means I don't look glowing and pregnant: I look like a stressed-out mother with toddlers.)
Anyway, as we discussed this, I offered, "When people ask me if I have kids, I'm like, 'No!' because in my head I'm still twenty-one years old."
What was so disconcerting was the hearty laughter that followed. People laughed. My feelings weren't hurt, but I was a little shocked. I wasn't expecting them to say, "Well, you do look twenty-one," or "Yeah, me too," but I was surprised when they didn't. It was surprising that they saw me for what I am: An adult. A twenty-nine-year-old. I want to ask something like, is twenty-nine really that different than twenty-one? Of course it is. It makes perfect sense. I am twenty-nine, and I lived the fuck out of my twenties. I even documented it to prove it. That night in the mirror, after taking off my makeup, I put my hair in braids. I was buzzed on wine, my eyes half-moons, and I thought I could see, for the first time, what I would look like as an old, decrepit woman.
* * *
When I was eighteen and in my final year of high school, I broke into my older brother's bedroom, looking for leftover Halloween candy or quarters to steal. I ended up taking a random book off his bookshelf. There was nothing special about the book that attracted me to it — no reason for me to pull it down. The cover was white and orange, with an etching of a street and a palm tree. It was a 180page paperback: Like Water Burning: Issue One. The book was a small-press anthology, collecting eighteen pieces of writing. Of the eighteen, three of the titles in the table of contents had an asterisk next to them. The asterisk at the bottom of the page read:
Nonfiction tastes best with a bottle of Charles Shaw Cabernet.
Naturally, I turned first to one of the nonfiction pieces because it seemed special and juicy, and I don't believe in reading books in order, a quirk that frustrates most people who know me.
I was painting long before I started writing and longer before I met you, the essay I read first begins. The essay was "Mono No Aware" by a writer named Miki Howald. It is an essay that is simultaneously a love story. The narrator, Miki, is an oil painter who works for the government. She falls in love with a boy who plays baseball and is soon leaving town. The essay is structured around the cherry blossoms outside her window. It is about grief, joy, change, love, and the beauty of transient things.
I cant let go, Miki tells her mother toward the end of the essay, after watching the blooming and dying of the cherry blossoms outside her window over three days.
Hooked. I was hooked. The way her beginning is her ending and her ending is her beginning. The way she zooms in and then out, then back in again. How the last sentence both opens and closes at the same time. The way I could imagine her bare feet on the fire escape and feel her heartache and the way it soothed my own heartache. I wanted to do that. But how did she do that? Take something from her life and craft it into this moving piece of art that resonated with me even though it had nothing to do with me? I inserted myself in the words and made her experience mine. I've learned this notion of not knowing where you end and the artist begins, while watching films and reading books, has a term: participation mystique. The concept is closely tied to projection.
Returning to the essay now, it is absolutely embarrassing how much I have taken from it. I have used her rhythm and versions of her sentences and sentiments in both of my books and in various essays. I've basically memorized the essay, and sometimes I forget I'm not the one who wrote it.
Once every few years I search for Miki Howald, wanting to tell her how much her essay means to me and wanting to read more of her work. She is less findable than most authors these days are; she has no website or Twitter account. I can't find her e-mail address and have sent her one unanswered Facebook message. When I Google "Mono No Aware by Miki Howald," I find only myself, talking about Miki Howald in an interview. I have attached my name to hers, myself to her. The only facts I know about her personal life are from her biography in the anthology from 2005, which is now out of print. She was living in Alaska, getting her mfa and training for the Iditarod.
"Oh, I absolutely love hearing the details of other people's lives!" Stephanie says in Judy Blume's Just as Long as We're Together, a book I read seventeen times through puberty and adolescence.
* * *
"The thing about your essays is that they're always about you," a past boyfriend said. "Well, yeah — personal essays are a genre," I retorted. "Ever heard of it?"
"I'm trying to be as nice as I can, but I can't stop thinking about your essay where you talk about getting fucked from behind," a different past boyfriend said, after going limp in my mouth. We broke up the next day, and I never saw him again. Bye.
"What are you doing with your life? You should go to school and get a business degree," said another, you guessed it, past boyfriend, after too many Manhattans.
* * *
The liberating thing about publishing an essay collection before you are a fully formed person is that there is nothing to fear. You have no readers. No experience. No memories of doing it before. No wounds. The bad thing about publishing an essay collection at twenty-five, when the frontal lobe has barely finished developing, is there is nothing to fear. No readers. No experience. No memories of doing it before. No wounds.
* * *
Chicago, Illinois, February 2012, the first place I touched my first collection of essays. I'd taken a painkiller on the morning flight and passed out drooling. I made my way to the Time Out Chicago offices and picked up a box of my books. I asked the receptionist to take a photo of me holding my book. I could not juggle my box of books with my rolling suitcase and purse and backpack, so I went to a Chipotle across the street, pounded a burrito, and flipped through the book, staining the pages with guacamole and salsa.
This book was the first project I'd ever finished. At my book release party, I overheard a woman say to my mom, "She's really a go-getter, huh?" and my mom agreed. My heart fluttered when I heard this. The sentence did not align with the way I'd thought about myself and how I presumed others thought about me. I was just coming to terms with my own mediocrity. I'd failed significantly, and I've always been a quitter. I didn't go to school on Career Day in high school, and I have zero degrees. It wouldn't have surprised me if I'd been voted Most Aimless in our senior yearbook.
I sometimes wonder what would have happened had I not published that essay collection, because almost all of my best friends, and everyone I've slept with since then, I met through that book.
* * *
"It's funny hanging out with you after reading your work. You seem like a monster in your books, but when I hang out with you, you're, like, the loveliest person," my friend Lauren said to me as we walked through Crown Heights.
"Most of the stuff I wrote about was liquor induced, and I don't drink liquor anymore," I told her. Then, sensing I was hurt, she said, "Maybe monster is a little extreme."
The essays in my first collection divulged what most would call TMI. I wrote about how I loved giving blowjobs and that they were a safe place for me (I see what I meant but never had that experience again) and about my frequent masturbation (still often, but less) and how I liked to eat burgers with blue cheese after orgies (never again had an orgy and probably never will but I stand by burgers after sex — no bun, though, as I'm on my gluten-free high horse, and salad instead of fries, please). I wrote about using headphones during sex (sounds fun now). I said I disliked my legs and loved my stomach because weight didn't go to my stomach (it does now, sucker!).
Maybe six months after Legs Get Led Astray came out, my mother and I were driving home from shopping. She twisted her hair around her finger as she always does while driving and said, "I'm at peace with the book now." As for my dad, I put hot-pink Post-its all over his copy and wrote Skip on them. For my nana's copy, I straight up ripped out the essay about an orgy and the essay about masturbating. This copy was the PG version and the version passed around to my younger cousins.
My nana then sent me a handwritten letter, which was long and moving, and said she'd thought her twenties were hard, living through World War II, but now she sees the twenties are hard regardless of your situation.
* * *
Then you experience the second half of your twenties. Your hair grows longer or you chop it short. You learn how to cook rice properly (pretty much). You let your belly-button ring fall out and the hole closes up. You fall in love with a woman. You make kale chips. One friend has a heart attack and another has a baby.
You move into an apartment with a bathtub and trees outside your bedroom window. You find cocaine disgusting, and nothing will go up your nose again. Cigarette smoke makes you want to die. You talk about what you learned in therapy, and you go to bed before eleven p.m. each night. You learn to say no sometimes, instead of defaulting to yes.
I cant let go.
You hold on really tight until you're forced to learn to let go of the ideas you had about yourself. You learn you are a mercurial human being and never and always and declarations change.
But you're still you. You still get a tattoo on your wrist in Miami because you can. You still binge eat when your roommate is out of town. You still have sex with the wrong people once in a while after taking shots of tequila. You still get cystic acne. You still are a monster at times, just not as frequently. It's less of a lifestyle and more of a personality flaw. You pay your electric bill. You schedule pap smears and dentist appointments and actually go.
* * *
After five years of serious waffling, I decided, with a heavy heart, not to go to school for business. Just kidding! As if. I didn't consider it, obviously. Can you imagine?
Write about what you can't shut up about, David Shields says.
We are called "selfish," "self-indulgent," "masturbatory," and "navel-gazers." Our family and friends are pitied, and it's recommended we stop writing and immediately seek therapy, Jay Ponteri says.
The reason it's very easy for me to write about myself is that I know I'm just like everybody else, Elizabeth Wurtzel says.
When I was writing my first essay collection, I felt no shame. But now, because of the repercussions, or people being able to Google me and read about my acne, my sex life, my family, I feel shame. Who do I think I am to write about myself? Who do I think I am to be so solipsistic? Who the fuck am I?
One morning at the residency, I took a walk with my friend Karina. The weather was the kind I hate, overcast and ominous. I broke down crying. "It's too hard," I said. I felt like I was using too much of myself in my work. What could I save for just me?
"I don't have ... stories," Karina said later on our walk (we'd gotten lost, not knowing how to navigate Martha's Vineyard) when we were talking about pitching magazines. I agreed. I do not have "crazy stories" or compelling anecdotes that have happened to me that sound good or interesting or pitch-worthy on paper. I've never gone skydiving or had cancer or rode fast through the countryside of France on the back of a motorcycle belonging to a man I just met at a bar. I've never been divorced or donated my eggs or cut my wrists or had a baby. This is why the personal essay form is my favorite. I don't have to have crazy, pitch-worthy stories to do it. I don't have to have done shit — I only have to exist and have feelings and observations.
In the television series Six Feet Under, my favorite antiheroine, Brenda Chenowith, sits on her bed with her computer. She hallucinates these sentences on the screen:
Go ahead, write.
What exactly do you have to say that hasn't been said before?
All you do is observe yourself.
* * *
Growing up, my mom kept stacks of memoirs near her bedside. But my dad has an adverse reaction to most memoirs and mumble-core movies starring a strong female lead who makes "poor decisions," as he calls them.
"Chloe loves tragedy," he likes to tell people. "She loves train wrecks."
"Why would you want to read or watch someone continually make stupid choices?" he'll ask at the dinner table.
"Why wouldn't you?" my brother will retort.
"Because it's exactly like my life!" I'll say.
"True," my dad laughs. He used to say I led a charmed life, that every time I fucked up, I was taken care of, like when I showed up for one of my flights across the country two hours late — I had the time wrong in my head — they put me on another flight without a problem.
"All essay collections could be called the same thing," he said once. Feel Sorry for Me: I Fucked Up Eighteen Times and I'm About to Do It Again.
Sure, I am writing here about myself. Duh. But that's not the point of this book or these essays. I hope you will project your mistakes and failures and heartaches and joys onto mine. I hope you will feel a touch of participation mystique while reading about my sometimes poor decisions. Unless you're perfect. In which case ...
* * *
I'm the type of person who doesn't change the clock back in her car, the type who instead waits for spring to come around again. I'm also the type of person who gets mistaken for an employee no matter where I am: the Gap, a coffee shop, a bookstore, an Applebee's. People come up to me and expect me to wait on them. "I don't work here," I say. But I used to. I quit or got fired from everything. Failing and quitting and not showing up were my resting states. I missed so many gym classes that the teacher made me walk the track fifty times before I could graduate. When I worked at a clothing shop on the Upper West Side, I saw an e-mail from the cooperate manager to the store manager, reviewing the staff's lateness. After listing how many times each employee had been late, the manager continued, "But Chloe takes the cake, being ten to twenty minutes late for every single one of the forty-five shifts she's worked."
I quit community college and piano and soccer and the graveyard shift at Old Navy. At some jobs, I was so horrendous at adding up the day's total or the bill, I lied and said I was dyslexic. "Oh, that explains it," my bosses would say. The one time I really shined in anything school related was during the spelling bee in second grade when everyone was impressed with my ability to spell the word agriculture.
Excerpted from I'll Tell You in Person by Chloe Caldwell. Copyright © 2016 Chloe Caldwell. Excerpted by permission of COFFEE HOUSE PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
In Real Life 1
Prime Meats 13
Hungry Ghost 35
Soul Killer 55
The Music & the Boys 69
Failing Singing 89
The Girls of My Youth 121
The Laziest Coming Out Story You've Ever Heard 127
Maggie and Me: A Love Story 135
Berlin 2009 149
Reading Guide: Discussion Questions and an Interview with Chloe Caldwell 167