You know that feeling when you’re finally able to meet up with your best friend after days or weeks of being away or out of time to talk? They have so much to tell you that they can't shut up for an hour straight, but you don’t care because you were dying to see them and hear all their stories? That’s what it feels like to read Chloe Caldwell’s collection of personal essays titled I’ll Tell You In Person. Caldwell is just like your best friend, but also just like you, so reading her brutally honest narrations is not about escaping to a fantasy world where your problems don’t exist, but rather about exploring those problems and confronting them head on, regardless of how embarrassing or painful they might be.
Published in 2016, the essays in I’ll Tell You In Person are about different episodes and situations in Caldwell’s life during her twenties. She’s not in her twenties anymore, but she writes about those years of her life because it’s all she knows. “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 its member. But I’m still here--not unhealthy, not unhappy, a little unaffluent.” Her issues, failures, body, and dreams are all she knows and feels compelled to share her experiences with the world. While any other writer would bore the reader to death with stories about bad hookups, hangovers, and dealing with acne, Caldwell makes us laugh and relate thanks to her funny and informal style.
What makes her so relatable is her openness about all her mistakes and how she has no idea what she’s doing. “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.” Even as she tries to get her life together and become a “real” adult, she embraces her twenties as the time to be a mess and make things up along the way. Early on in the book she writes, “I’ve never had a plan B or F or even A.” Who in their twenties hasn’t thought this at some point when we force ourselves to reflect on our lives?
It’s important to note that Caldwell’s essays are perhaps a bit more extreme than the average I’m-a-millennial-and-I-have-no-idea-what-I’m-doing book or movie. She struggles with serious addictions to everything a human being could possibly become addicted to (drugs, alcohol, food, people), and she fully embraces every kind of self-destructive behavior she can. Like most of us, she’s lost and doesn’t know what she wants. Yet she takes it even further, getting involved with things that most people wouldn’t touch. In a way, it could be because she knows her life is what she writes about, so if nothing interesting happens to her, what would she write? Would she even be a writer?
The Chloe of these essays is a young woman trying to survive and build a life for herself. We read her, laugh with her, cry with her, and identify with her because that’s the person we are too, and her struggle is our struggle. Reading her essays is entertaining and, to a certain extent, comforting, but we also learn with her as the book progresses. We learn that it’s okay to be a mess and screw up all the time. That’s how we grow. “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.” We still have a long way to go before we actually figure anything out, and, if what the author says is true, when we finally “figure out” that thing, life might still come out of nowhere and show us that we’re wrong. That’s the beauty of it all, and we just need to go with the flow.