Styling by Michael Cook. Hair & Makeup: Melissa Dezarate at Exclusive Artists Management using Sisley Paris and Davines Hair Care. Dress by Mara Hoffman. Jacket by Levi’s.
Chloe Caldwell is a master of the personal essay, and in her latest collection, I’ll Tell You in Person, she covers a lot of ground: yoga, drugs, obsessive relationships, intense friendships, and T.J. Maxx. The New York–based writer explains what being a grown-up really means, and why “queer” might actually just mean “normal.”
Why do personal essays get such a bad rap?
There’s a surplus of them on the Internet these days, so we often confuse a personal essay with what’s just a stream-of-consciousness vomit blog post. When I’ve online dated recently, my date will say, “What do you teach?” because I say I’m a teacher, not a writer. And I’ll say personal essays. And they’ll say, “Is that, like, blogging?” I get so offended. But I think the more people who write about their lives, the better.
In the introduction to this collection, you say the essays in your previous collection, Legs Get Led Astray, divulge what many people would consider TMI. Is there such a thing?
My students ask me this a lot. It’s case by case. It depends on the person’s relationship with themselves and with their family and friends. I can do it because it’s my life and I’m comfortable with it. I was brought up to be creative and to be a writer. I don’t regret anything I’ve written. I was young and didn’t have any experience in publishing at the time, so I didn’t have the foresight to think, How will this affect my relationships in my 30s? But I also think if people have a problem with that, they’re not the kind of people I want in my life anyway.
I’ll Tell You in Person is billed as an essay collection about becoming an adult. What makes you feel like a grown-up?
I just bought a couch. On my 23rd birthday I bought lingerie and this blow-job gel because I thought that’s what a woman would do. So that was then. And now, buying this couch and making decisions about my own money that I earned makes me feel like an adult. Also, having foresight: Tomorrow I’m going to the city to teach, and I’ve packed my lunch and some trail mix. Being a grown-up is thinking into the future and saying, “You’re going to be hungry. You’ll regret not bringing this.”
You write about how you enjoy that on Broad City Ilana is allowed to date women and it’s not a big deal. Does sexuality require a label?
No. I was reading Jenna Wortham in The New York Times, and she talks about how maybe everyone is baseline queer and that’s the norm. I could not relate more. It’s like everyone’s queer and no one is queer. The way she described it, “queer” means “normal.”
Jane Lynch was just on Chelsea Handler’s show Chelsea and she said we’re going to keep adding to “LGBTQ” for a while. But what’s exciting is after that, we’ll add five more letters, and then the whole thing will just be gone. It’s great that people are finding new ways to identify and that there are words for it, but at the same time I think the fewer labels, the better.
It could be cool if, in the next few years, one day you show up to dinner with a man and that’s fine, and then the next night if you show up with a woman, that’s fine too.
I’ll Tell You in Person will be published by Coffee House Press/Emily Books on October 4.
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