Snow, Boundaries, and Embarrassing Myself In Front Of Writers I Admire

I have barely left my house since having surgery seven days ago, but I really, really wanted to go see Chloe Caldwell read at Powell’s this evening. I got a little bit crazy about it. The last time I saw an author I love a lot read at Powell’s it was Emily Gould, and afterwards I invited her to come have drinks with me and some friends at the Bye and Bye and she came and read my Tarot cards with her brand new deck and it was very magical and exciting to have such an intimate interaction with one of my favorite authors so I think in my head I assumed that all Powell’s readings featuring my favorite authors would follow such a trajectory.

That’s a silly thought, obviously, but when has that ever stopped anyone. It actually mirrors some of the themes in one of the essay’s in Caldwell’s newest book, I’ll Tell You In Person, where she is supposed to have a sleepover with a very famous celebrity and she builds it up in her mind for weeks and then at the last minute the celeb cancels. You can read an excerpt of that essay online. (Spoiler alert: the celebrity is Lena Dunham. Extra spoiler alert: Dunham and Caldwell chatted about this incident and the essay it spawned at a book event last month in New York City and while I don’t often miss living in New York City, on that evening, with all the social media reporting of the event in real time, I totally did miss it.) So maybe I was actually just projecting myself into Caldwell’s book, as she suggests the reader could/should do in her opening essay. Except my fantasy was predicated on absolutely nothing, except for the fact that I thoroughly enjoy Caldwell’s writing and also write personal essays, whereas at least her fantasy was based on a real plan she made with a real person after they had exchanged real emails about their real mutual respect and affection for each others’ work. Anyway.

The thing is, it snowed yesterday, and so of course Portland lost its damn mind. This is my second winter in Portland and this is my second time experiencing snow in Portland and I just don’t really understand how a real live city does not have a legitimate plan in place for when it snows. I understand that snow is not a super common occurrence here, but there should be a city-wide plan in place for dealing with an event that reliably happens at least once a year, no? Apparently not. Anytime it snows or even seems like it might snow in Portland everyone totally freaks out and starts talking about how the city only has five plows and how we can’t salt the roads because it’s bad for the environment and how downtown and all the surrounding areas are going to turn into ice rinks and we’re all gonna crack our skulls open when we try to walk outside and then we’ll die. It’s not really an exaggeration, to say any of these things. Coming from New York, Boston, and Toronto, I can confidently say that Portland as a city is pretty incompetent when it comes to dealing with snow.

(Please note: I have no idea what the city should do in the event of a snowstorm. Please also note: a “snowstorm” here can mean 2 inches of snow. I understand not salting the roads because it’s not great for the water and the environment. I don’t know what the deal is with barely having any plows. What to do when the rain inevitably comes and the temperatures warm for a tiny second and then plummet down to freezing at night, insuring that the entire city does, indeed, freeze over to the point of complete and utter danger for all who attempt to move around it? I don’t know! But I am not a city planner or an environmentalist or a genius, and surely there are people who are paid actual dollars to think about these kinds of city-related problems and then create solutions to fix them and help the citizens of said city? I don’t know. All I can say for certain is that the way Portland handles a snowstorm is really not ideal and it makes getting anywhere in the days after the Snow Fall very fucking difficult.)

So I very badly wanted to attend this reading at Powell’s, and I also very badly did not want to die on an ice-covered sidewalk. Also, as I’ve mentioned in a couple of previous blog posts, I just had a small neck surgery, so my body is extra tender and I am extra neurotic about going out in public by myself, lest a stranger bump me and hurt my poor injured neck. To be honest, the reasonable decision would have been to stay at home in my pajamas like I’ve done every night for the past seven days. But I’m not really a reasonable person, and as my mother is fond of pointing out, when I decide I want to do something, I make sure I fucking do it. I don’t think she necessarily sees this as a positive. So off to Powell’s I went.

As soon as I stepped outside I regretted it, to be honest. I had severely underestimated how cold it would be and I was underdressed. In an attempt to look cool and impressive for the reading I had worn my go-to feel-good outfit: black velvet leggings, pale pink sweater, Danner’s boots, Carhartt beanie. As I’m typing this out I’m thinking, when the fuck did this combination of things become my “go-to feel-good outfit”? But it is. Unfortunately it is not particularly warm. I had decided to wear my long grey wool coat, the one that is not waterproof and does not have a hood, and of course I didn’t bring an umbrella. I did have a scarf and my special touchscreen gloves that let me text without taking them off. I also had my hiking poles. It was raining lightly when I left my house and in the ten minutes it took me to walk .3 miles to the MAX stop the drizzle turned into heavy freezing slush. The MAX promised “serious delays” because of the weather when I checked the website at home, and sure enough I waited 32 minutes for the train to show up. I couldn’t feel my toes and the cut on my neck was pulsing. I thought about turning around and going home, but I did not.

Once the train arrived it was a quick ride to the city center, and I was pleasantly surprised to see the walking conditions on the West side were much better than what we were dealing with in North Portland. Whereas my hiking poles were an absolute necessity when navigating the streets in my neighborhood, I felt a bit silly carrying them down Oak Street. Sure, there was a lot of rain water, but not a slick ice spot in sight. I could practically run all the way to Powell’s.

I like going to readings alone. I don’t mind going with friends, but there’s something very calming in going to an event that requires you to focus all of your attention on an author and being completely solitary about it. I picked a chair close to the front and put down my wet coat, my wet bag, my wet hiking poles. I went to the bathroom and when I came back the reading was beginning. It was a conversation between Chloe and a man I didn’t know called Jay Ponteri. It was a sweet conversation. Jay was a little bit awkward, I think on purpose, but he asked smart open-ended questions and I liked the way he and Chloe interacted. She shared that they’d been having coffee together whenever she came to Portland since 2012. I wondered how they met.

I try to make it a point not to ask questions at readings, because I think all questions at all readings usually end up sounding dumb. It’s not because the people asking them are dumb – there’s just something about when a person raises her hand at a reading and starts trying to contextualize her question and then inevitably begins to ramble about herself and then the author has to interrupt her to get to the point and, whatever. It’s just good to challenge myself not to be that person. Except tonight, for some reason, I decided to be that person! The audience had asked several very good questions, actually, and no one had really stumbled on their words or been a self-centered weirdo yet, and Chloe’s responses were rad and I jotted down the authors she mentioned when someone asked who her favorites are and I felt victorious when she said Sharon Olds is one of her favorite poets because Sharon Olds is one of my favorite poets, and all in all things were going very nicely when I decided I absolutely had to ask a question. Why? I have no idea.

What I wanted to know, really, is how Caldwell chooses what to share in her writing. I wanted to know, of course, because I want to know how to choose what to share in my writing. This question, if asked incorrectly, can sound sexist and boring, because no one ever asks men if people are okay with what they choose to share in their writing, no matter how personal or “inappropriate.” Jay, the person “in conversation” with Chloe this evening, suggested I read an essay she wrote earlier this year titled What I Think Of The Fact That You Keep Asking Me What My Family Thinks Of My Writing for more insight. I was immediately embarrassed that he suggested that, because that’s not what I was trying to ask at all, and I worried that I had said the question wrong, asked the sexist version of my query rather than the intimate one I meant to say. Also, I’d already read that essay; I’ve written almost everything Caldwell has published on the internet.

I am not interested in asking women what their families think of their personal writing, because that’s incidental. It is sexist to ask a woman that because we never ask a man. But I am interested in asking women who write personal essays how they choose where their boundaries lie, because I’ve struggled with that question so much myself. It is in my nature to overshare. I like telling you everything. (You are you – my audience, my readers, my friends, my people.) It gets me in trouble sometimes, sure, but that’s okay. The problem is when I feel “in trouble” with myself. There have been times I’ve shared personal details of my life or my story and regretted it later. Sometimes I’ve published those details formally but sometimes I’ve just casually chatted about something to a large amount of humans and later wish that I could take it back, keep it private, make it just mine again. That’s the conversation I’m interested in having, and that’s the question I tried to ask.

Unfortunately, I’m not convinced I got any of that nuance across when I asked my question tonight. I totally floundered, hitting every embarrassing thing a question-asker at a reading event can do, stuttering and talking about myself to much and oh god, worst of all, potentially accidentally insulting Maggie Nelson while Maggie Nelson was potentially in the room?!?! This is too horrible to even really think about so I am trying to put it out of my head and convince myself that it didn’t really happen. While trying to spit out my question, which took me about three minutes instead of the appropriate 30 seconds, I tried to explain that a similar question had been asked at a literary panel featuring Maggie Nelson that I once attended. “You know, she basically just rolled her eyes,” I rambled, “and said this is what she does, and that’s that…” and then a woman in the front row turned around to look at me and I am fairly sure she was Maggie Nelson?! Unless I have totally lost my mind and of course it was not and I am a crazy person. But I think it was, and I was immediately Very Stressed Out that I had made my framing of her answer sound bad, when in actuality I admire that outlook so much, and wish I had a better idea of what in my life is up for grabs creatively and what I should keep shielded.

In any case, Caldwell saved me, answering the question before I could fumble my way through any more poorly chosen words. She talked about how she thinks the difference between her work and Nelson’s is that actually Maggie Nelson does have quite a strong boundary between her art and her personal life, and she is able to keep that boundary because of her use of academic texts in her work. Then she spoke a little bit about her own boundaries, and my understanding from how she spoke about them is that she has decided to be at peace with whatever she shares. Essentially, she said that because her work is to write about her life, it’s always okay for her to write about her life. I thought that was a brave and logical way to look at it, and I felt envious of her assuredness. She seemed so certain of her decisions. I feel like I second guess much of what I choose to share. I wish I felt more at peace with how much of myself I expose in my writing.

I waited in line to have my book signed once the reading was over and tried to say too many things at once: that I was an Emily Books member and that is how I originally discovered Chloe’s writing, that I also used to live in New York and I loved her essay in the Goodbye To All That anthology, that her essay where she comes out as queer in her new book means a lot to me (and that the woman who was rude to her about it on Twitter sucks!), that I was really embarrassed and upset about potentially making it seem as though I was saying anything negative about Maggie Nelson when I asked my stupid question, whether she was in the audience or not, because I would never ever ever say anything negative about Maggie Nelson…I proceeded to embarrass myself yet again, stumbling over all my words, so excited to be chatting with Chloe and thus taking more than a few minutes to sense that she probably wanted to move things along and chat with the other folks waiting in line to get their books signed and perhaps eventually hang out with her actual friends!

I decided I could not face the prospect of waiting for the MAX in the freezing cold for another 32 minutes in my wet wool coat with no hood, so I paid $11.64 for a Lyft driver to deliver me home, door to door. In the car I googled Maggie Nelson, so I could try to decide if the woman I thought was her in the audience really was, and of course the first thing I found was an interview with Maggie Nelson by Chloe Caldwell. Oh god. That was definitely her in the audience. Or maybe it wasn’t…

In any case, the interview ends so beautifully, with Nelson musing about the boundaries or lack thereof between her personal life and her writing. The way she phrases it in this interview actually brought me a lot of peace, in spite of all my general panic and anxiety:

Generally speaking I have a lot of flow in my life; i.e., I don’t experience big partitions between being a writer or a person or a dinner-maker or a partner or a parent or a teacher or a reader and so on. So I guess I feel that I wear one hat, it’s just capacious.

Upon arriving home I told Alley my entire ridiculous tale and she laughed and laughed and said, “Sounds like typical Vanessa antics,” and I laughed too but also sort of kept panicking and then I said, “Maybe I should email Chloe to explain all of this!” and Alley looked at me like I was a truly crazy person and said, “Maybe you should write a blog post about it instead.”

So I did.

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