by Chloe Caldwell
Coffee House Press, 2016
When Chloe Caldwell was writing her third book, I’ll Tell You in Person, the stakes were high. She lived in an apartment but didn’t have a car or even a savings account. She also didn’t have a five-year plan, a college degree, or much work experience. Aside from her first two book deals, Caldwell could boast only a long list of brief stints in the retail industry. She would be turning thirty soon.
More than her financial or career stability, though, Caldwell’s reputation was at stake. I’ll Tell You in Person was a collection of personal essays describing in vivid detail her cystic acne, failed romances, and heroin addiction, among other intimate issues. She had touched on some of these topics in her first book, Legs Get Led Astray, but that had been four years earlier. She was younger then and, as she puts it, had “nothing to fear.” She had “no readers. No experience. No memories of doing it before” (5). But, this time, she did.
Still, to Caldwell, that wasn’t a reason not to publish I’ll Tell You in Person. As she says in it, she hopes to help readers “project [their] mistakes and failures and heartaches and joys” onto hers (9). By readily embracing embarrassing, difficult, and emotional personal truths, Caldwell does that successfully.
Raised to be open, Caldwell lives out that guidance in an essay called “Prime Meats.” After describing a silly request she posted on Craigslist, the essay reveals several surprising details once Caldwell begins accepting offers. From the scandalous thoughts she has to the risky actions she takes while meeting the strangers who replied, the confessions Caldwell weaves in aren’t essential to her story’s plot. But they do add dimension to her book, acting as windows into the deeper desires that drive her seemingly foolish, impulsive behaviors.
Still, while essays like “Prime Meats” might make it appear as if I’ll Tell You in Person relies only on sensational or immature disclosures to achieve depth, it doesn’t. In another essay, “The Laziest Coming Out Story You’ve Ever Heard,” Caldwell reflects on her struggle with her sexuality. While she candidly discusses her relationships with men and women down to their blush-inducing details, she admits that she also faces a few internal challenges. As Caldwell meditates on them through anecdotes, a combination of blunt honesty and palpable vulnerability draws readers into her struggle. In the end, that link leaves Caldwell’s ultimate realization richer, clearer, and mutual.
Given the personal discoveries that Caldwell makes, it would seem appropriate to call I’ll Tell You in Person a sort of modern “coming-of-age” story. In it, she grows from a woman chasing excitement and thrills because she’s bored to one concerned about the path she’s paving and the legacy she’s leaving behind. What’s more, Caldwell writes in a simple, conversational style, incorporating a few internet abbreviations to appeal to younger audiences. But her book also goes beyond adolescent or young adult growth. When Caldwell talks about scheduling pap smears, gaining weight in her stomach, and wishing she hadn’t found someone else’s underwear behind her lover’s bed, she’s not speaking to anyone under eighteen. Instead, she’s addressing an older cohort of women who share these experiences, anxieties, and regrets with her. Perhaps, it’s more fitting, then, to call Caldwell’s book a “coming-of-any-age” story than simply a “coming-of-age” one.
But, still, everyone won’t agree with that label. As Caldwell recognized before publishing I’ll Tell You in Person, her book is a risk. On the one hand, her confessions are raw, unfiltered, and verging on oversharing. Yet, on the other hand, they explore issues that are real, relevant, and often under-discussed. Certainly, anytime anyone steps outside the norm to confront a personal truth, there will always be stakes: shame, regret, humiliation. And, sometimes, there will be stakes for audiences, too: awkwardness, discomfort, overexposure. But, as Caldwell has found making a career out of embracing personal truths despite the risks, that isn’t a reason not to give them a try.