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Bad Artist Statement #1: Chelsea Hodson
Chelsea Hodson and I talk about the Internet, psychic bombardment, and writing second books.
Chelsea Hodson is the author of the essay collection Tonight I’m Someone Else (2018) and the chapbook Pity the Animal (2014). Alongside the late Giancarlo DiTrapano, Chelsea co-founded the Mors Tua Vita Mea workshop in Sezze, Italy. I’ve known Chelsea for over four years now, first meeting her at Mors Tua Vita Mea’s inaugural workshop. Before then I was a fan of her work, her incantatory essays that often resemble lucid dreams, essays on desire, money, and turning one’s life into art.
We spoke over the phone, transpacific, Chelsea in her Brooklyn apartment and me in my Melbourne home. We talked about the Internet, psychic bombardment, and writing second books.
Chelsea Hodson: Sorry I didn't answer the first call. I get these targeted ads all the time and it makes me so crazy, so I turn my phone microphone off and I had to turn it back on.
Paul Dalla Rosa: I get lots of these scam calls that are just these really ominous robotic voice recordings saying like, "There is a warrant out for your arrest."
CH: Oh my god that's horrifying.
PDR: Or some of them use a program that masks their phone number, so a phone number will call you, but it looks like it's your number calling you. It's like one digit off.
CH: Yeah, and then then it tricks you into answering it. We have those here. Anyway, how are things there? Like isn't it so hectic there right now.
PDR: Yes and no. It's very boring. Australia doesn't want any COVID cases at all and to do that they've shut the borders since March last year. Then they do lots of lockdowns. I mean, I'm in Melbourne's sixth lockdown so you can only leave the house to go to the supermarket, or if you have work that's essential work, you need a work permit. You can leave your house for I think at the moment it's two hours a day for exercise. Like a lot of places I guess, but ours has been really long. I think today is almost like Melbourne's 210th day of lockdown, cumulatively. So it's pretty intense.
CH: That's really intense. Jesus.
PDR: It's like interesting because there's a weird thing that happens with time. I guess I'm pretty comfortable in them in like being a writer, you spend so much time alone. So it's not unusual, but there's stress outside of that, like the financial stress, mental, whatever.
CH: I'm glad you're coping because, yeah, I feel like I hear the craziest headline-type stuff out of Australia now.
PDR: What sort of headlines?
CH: The one real flashy one I saw was when they shot these dogs because they didn't want people to travel to pick them up. That was the story that reached here. Did you hear about it?
PDR: I feel like maybe I did, but it's like I don't even know. The media is in this kind of ecstatic state of reporting, constant live blogs every day, this information flood which totally buries everything until you have no memory. That could have happened last week and by this time in the news cycle it's wiped.
CH: Of course, and you know only the most wild headline is what reaches us. It's such a weird time. Anyway, we don't have to talk about that the whole time. I was just wondering how you're doing because you're one of the only people I know in Australia.
PDR: Well, it's like yeah, it's what it is. What's happening in New York? Everything's open now.
CH: Yeah, and nobody cares. What should we talk about?
PDR: We can talk about whatever we want. I feel like there was a period on the Internet where it was like people were just talking and having conversations, long-ranging interviews, and things like that. And I feel like more and more the Internet now is just this really corporatised place where everyone's either doing press for themselves or repeating other people's press releases. I stop myself sometimes and think, oh, am I just being nostalgic? And I'm like, no, actually I think the architecture of the Internet has changed.
CH: Yeah, no, it's changed. There's also this movement of people saying, you know, "don't look at your phone at night." "Oh, I'm addicted to my phone. I spend too much time on my phone." So it's a thing now, I feel, for artists where they shouldn't use it for the sake of their art, then they come back to it and use it heavily when they're promoting something. And I am certainly guilty of that as well. Like, ideally, I wouldn't have to be on the Internet at all. I think I like some parts of it. I do like that it helps me keep in touch with people who I don't see, people who don't live near me. But, you know, overall, I feel like bound to it as a career tool where it's like if I'm working on something independently, I have to tweet about it or else like it won't happen.
PDR: Yeah, it just won't exist. I actually did have a question for you about going offline. I know you do have periods when you've been working, and you've, you know, you've got off Twitter or stuff like that. Do you feel you need a break from it?
CH: Yeah, I think my personality is quite compulsive and addictive in certain ways. And so I find it extremely useful—if I'm really trying to focus on something—to just delete things, especially my Twitter, but also Instagram, for weeks at a time. And then I don't miss it at all. But if I just delete it off my phone or change the password, it's like, if I do those things where I make it hard for myself to get back into it, I usually will just get back into it. I feel the pull of the checking, the dopamine hit, the notifications. With Twitter, you can go back within 30 days and everything's still there. So I just find that very freeing where I say, OK, I'm just going to leave for a little bit and I'll come back within that 30 days and it'll be like nothing happened. And I feel like that's a good reset for me. It's helpful, creatively. And then other times, I find that Twitter or scrolling through Instagram or whatever is fun while I'm working on something too. I just need to kind of scroll through something and turn my brain off. And so I find it both useful and a hindrance. And so it just kind of depends. Then I think there are certain times where I'll be like, oh my God, if I see one more tweet about blank, I'm going to go crazy. So that's usually the point where I'll be like, OK, I need to step away. That's not necessarily anyone else's problem but my own.
PDR: That makes sense to me. I think I have a thing where I remember I was like deleting my Twitter a bit last year and then I would like go out at night to a club and it would be 2:00 a.m. or something and I'd be like really over or understimulated. So, I'd be like, yes, I need to reactivate it right now.
CH: That's funny.
PDR: That was actually fun. And I sort of enjoy, I guess, using the things like that when you can be a bit like, I don't know, more playful with them. But I don't feel like that often. When I think about the Internet, lately, I think a lot about something Ottessa Moshfegh put in her last novel Death In Her Hands. There was this awkward kind of portmanteau that the main character would use; 'mindspace.' It's sort of like this physical idea of your mind taking up not just internal psychic space but external space that's projected out. So the character would be overwhelmed when they were in, say, a crowd or using the Internet because it was like their mindspace would start overlapping with someone else's. And I think that that's 100 percent what Twitter is. It creates this psychosphere that you get enveloped in. And I think maybe I'm just too sensitive and porous because online I actually feel really deranged.
CH: Yeah, well, it's not natural. I don't think we're meant to take in that many opinions at once. I think that's probably the core problem. Like, I find it so calming and invigorating to talk one-on-one with someone in person or even like now on the phone. It's so much easier for me, and it's almost never a negative experience when you already know the person. You can connect on so many levels that you can't when it's just like a little blip on a screen and you're like, oh, it's so annoying.
PDR: Yeah totally, it's like a thing where I have multiple friends or even artists where I know that person or their work but can't deal with them online. I like that person. They're interesting. They're fascinating. They're a complicated, you know, a complex human being, and then something about their online persona, whether it's that you can almost predict what they're going to say when they're going to say it or it just seems so uniform, and it's like sometimes when I see that like digital avatar of that person, I'm just like, I fucking hate you, but it's like no I actually probably quite like this person.
PDR: It's very intense. I guess I've been spending a lot of time on the Internet because one of the characters in the new thing I'm working on is very Internet-addicted. So, I'm really fascinated by it, experiencing it, how it changes us, how we relate. But like, I already know what those things are. I don't have to stay there to get more research.
CH: It sounds like an excuse to me. Oh, “my character’s” addicted, sure. Sure, Paul.
PDR: I know. I'm just lying to myself. And then sometimes you have this feeling like, oh, you know what if I miss something and it's like, what the fuck am I going to miss.
CH: Yeah, I think that is not actually a fear of missing out. It's like a longing for the dopamine hit that you get when you're seeing the new information, or you feel like you're a part of it. It's like it's mimicking something pleasurable that we would usually get naturally somewhere else, I think, but it's like inside the phone, and so the phone is the deliverer of pleasure.
PDR: I think that's true. I think my compulsion isn't about posting but like lurking and waiting until I see something really wild.
CH: When I feel that need just to scroll because I feel the same, I find myself very curious about what other people are doing or interested in that but I don't actually think that I am that curious. I think that the phone or scrolling is, you know, the quickest way to get out of your own head. And maybe that's super obvious, but for me, I think it was the real key when I realised that I'm like, oh, it's just the quickest way to stop whatever anxiety or sadness I'm feeling is just to put something else in front of you as quickly as possible. Like I find myself on Instagram Reels, watching dumb videos that I have no interest in, and I'll watch that. I'll lose an hour in it, you know, like, I'm like ready to go to bed. I go, oh, I'll just do a quick scroll, and then I'm watching someone make like chia seed overnight oats or whatever. I'm like, what have I been doing? I don't know, but the colours of it and the way that the videos move so quickly, it's like a vortex. It's so dangerous.
PDR: I find Reels and TikTok scary. Very threatening. The neurostimulation on TikTok seems to be honed to this like perfected form and there's a part of me that's conspiratorial where I really think TikTok is like psychological warfare.
CH: I don't think that's a stretch at all. And that's part of why I don't have TikTok. This goes back to something about my addictive personality—I just know I would completely love it. I think David Foster Wallace might have had a similar issue with television. Where he just, you know, he couldn't have a television because he would get sucked into it. I'm kind of like that because I grew up with very limited television, no cable, and when my family would go on vacation, we'd camp a lot, but if we stayed in a hotel, I thought cable television was like the ultimate luxury. And I think as a result, I still think that, where I go, ooo, I'm watching whatever I want.
PDR: Well, it's like that thing which is true, which is like it's actually really thrilling because it's just riding these sensory receptors to this dizzying sort of degree. When I indulge in it, I feel mentally and physically unwell.
CH: And that is the proper reaction.
PDR: Going on what you said before about too many opinions, when I'm online, I guess connected into this matrix, what I really hate is all of a sudden like having a barrage of other people's thoughts. And it's like, I don't care what anyone thinks about Sally Rooney or whoever. I just really don't. So this stuff appears in front of you, and somehow maybe you linger on it, and then whatever, but it's like none of this actually applies to me or should really enter my mind at all.
CH: Yeah, well, I think that's how artists should be, actually, like that's my thought on it. And that's why I avoid the books that everyone's reading for the most part. Like I'm reading Knausgaard now for the first time because I feel like the hype cycle has finally ended in some regards—I felt like I had heard too many opinions to really experience it. And, you know, I think what an artist should do is ultimately avoid those types of overhyped or super popular things, but that's just my opinion. So many of the most popular books aren’t good, and if you read a bad book, that makes its way into your writing whether you want it to or not. It’s not going to help you as much as a book that really inspires you and gets you thinking about language in a different way.
PDR: I feel that. I feel really strict in my reading, probably the strictest in any part of my life because I just won't read something if it doesn't interest me or the sentences aren't a certain way, just because I know that it affects me and it actually affects me in a really depressive way, psychically. It's like I'll be reading a book that sort of feels dead and then I feel dead. It reminds me of like the vampires in the Anne Rice books I used to read as a kid. They can't drink blood from a dead body, and if they do, it kills them. I feel it's like that. And sometimes it's not even the book, it's me, and I think it really irritates my partner because he'll buy me a book, and sometimes it's a book I've really wanted, but I get it and I just know that the energy of it isn't right for that particular time. So, then I'll go three years without touching it.
CH: No, I have the same exact reaction. I think that that's totally accurate. And then other times I’ll buy a book and I'll read the first five pages and I like it, but for some reason I'm just like, I feel like I got everything I needed out of this. I don't even put it down because I don't like it. I just feel that I already got what I needed from it. I'm just big on having influence be a kind of instinctual experience rather than super intentional. I think, mine is very random in certain ways. I'll pick up books based on the cover, based on the title, based on like, you know, someone recommending it to me years prior or finding the book or someone giving it to me. And, you know, I think that you can take your influence in many different ways through that.
PDR: Which Knausgaard are you reading?
CH: I'm on My Struggle book three.
PDR: How are you finding it?
CH: Up and down. I don't know. I'm not qualified to give a full critique at this point in time. But I've always been interested in the project itself, just like, you know, the sheer length of what he wrote. And I saw him give a speech at the Windham-Campbell ceremony a couple of years ago. So I actually met him and I saw him give this speech and it was like life-alteringly good. It was so good, the speech that he gave, that I was like, I'm a fan of him. And that's exactly what I was just talking about—I loved the talk so much that I actually didn't feel that I needed the books. And I think most people would say, like, I loved the speech and now I have to read everything he's written. But I felt like I got what I needed from hearing him speak about his own writing process. And so I'm just interested in that, in My Struggle, conceptually. But I don't have a fully formed opinion on it just yet.
PDR: I want to ask about your writing. You don't have to say much. I understand it's like never talk about the book you're writing. How are you finding the process of writing a second book?
CH: Where do I even start... it's taken me so long to write it, and I'm still not done. I find myself exhausted in hearing myself talk about still working on it. Like I can't stand to hear myself say the same thing again because I've just been in a loop of certain problems. And I've never worked in the scope that I'm working on now, of you know, a novel-length piece of work. I'm just encountering all kinds of problems, big and small, that in an essay are a really quick fix, and they're not a quick fix in a novel. It's an intimidating process for me in a lot of ways and I go through stages of doubt. I'll go from one week thinking that it's like my favourite thing I've ever done and feel so attached to it. I'm really in the book. And then the next week, I'll think, what am I doing? I can't do this. So I find my confidence actually wavering a lot in a way that I'm not used to with my writing because I've always just felt that my writing belongs to me and is really, really private. And I think something about having a book enter the world in the way Tonight I'm Someone Else did really ups the stakes for me. Before that book was published, I would just exist in this state of thinking, it's very possible no one will ever read this book. I didn't think that in a sad way, either. I thought that in a really kind of exciting way—like, wow, this book might only be for me.
PDR: I think that's really freeing. That's how I was with my forthcoming story collection. Even though the stories would go places, it's like I don't really... I mean, I never really cared about them having readers. It was just this thing that I was working on for, you know, an inordinate amount of time, sort of in obscurity, just for myself. And even now, because I guess I spoke to you last... I guess early this year. But it was like at that point in time I was so burnt out and just exhausted. And now it's like I'm approaching the possibility or idea of the next book and I'm really excited, but it's like I'm working at this really intense pace, and it's not even that I'm in a rush to finish it, but I just know that I'm in this really protected bubble of time before the first book even comes out.
CH: Yeah, you are. It's good to acknowledge that. And like I said, I kind of make myself sick talking about this stuff because it's so cliche, but there really is something precious about that time before you even turn in the first book. But I mean, you're still in that time, between books, or between publication date rather. That's sacred time. And I even wrote about it in Tonight I'm Someone Else, where I write that my favourite part about making something is being “almost done” with it. I like that so much that it’s become kind of like a curse, being unable to let a book go. It's almost delusional, where it's like Jesus Christ, just let the book go already, and I just can't yet. I know that I'll get there someday because that happened with Tonight I'm Someone Else. I was like deeply sad to actually be done with that book. Did you feel that at all?
PDR: I feel like I'm still in mine. Like, I'm waiting on edits at the moment. But I do feel sadness when, say, a story I really like goes to print.
CH: What about the moment when you gave the book to your agent or something where you were like, this is the final manuscript? Obviously, you still may edit it, but yeah, at that time when it was kind of done with being like in your hands only. Do you know what I mean?
PDR: Yeah, well, it was interesting because I think it was actually over such a long period of time that there wasn't one definitive moment where it felt like it was over. There were lots of lapses between going back and forth with my agent or whoever. So it was sort of diffuse or maybe it's just because I haven't made a narrative of it yet. But I think there was a small level of grief. But I think it was more of this thing, like, I've spent six years with my entire life oriented towards this one thing, and now that thing is sort of not mine anymore. It's gone. And that was really hard. That was sad, I think.
CH: Yeah and I think that's exactly what I felt, too. And I think it's a pretty common experience, but I just… I cannot relate to people who are so excited to let things go like that. I felt so sad to turn in a book. So I don't know. I think that just means that writing is what we're meant to be doing because I just find myself kind of addicted to always having something ongoing, like “I'll never be done with the work of my life,” or something.
PDR: Yeah, and I think it was just scary because it's, I guess, very existential because it's like you have a purpose. Obviously, you know, your entire life isn't the book, but then at the same time, it's not not the book. Then all of a sudden it's gone. And the book was a really stable thing in my life, a constant, that no matter what tumultuous thing was happening it was there and I'd always be moving towards it. My purpose was just to be this little story machine.
PDR: And also, I guess this is similar to the essay collection, but when it's your first book there's just so much of you and your life in it. So it's really like closing a chapter, which is an embarrassing metaphor, but it's like, my entire 20s was that book. Almost.
CH: Yeah, yeah, totally. I don't have anything to add to that I guess I'm just relating to that, like, yeah, totally.