It began because everything was breaking. Had broken. Promises I made, promises that were made to me; it had been a long season of betrayal. I didn’t know what I was doing anymore or why I was doing it. I kept moving, frantically, although no direction interested me all that much. One winter day, I slipped on the ice in Riverside Park and fell flat on my back. I thought: I don’t know if I can get up, by which I meant not only in that moment, but ever. A young woman with a concerned look on her face stopped and said, “Are you all right?” Winded, wincing, I got up.
I have been a writer for a long time, but during that dark season, nothing that I wrote seemed to me to sustain any value. I would begin something, follow it for a while, and then suddenly lose interest, lose heart. I would, I suppose, betray it, toss it aside in the way that I felt I had been tossed aside in various ways, exiled, devalued, dismissed, erased. And I had also done damage to someone I loved. I had the persistent idea that I was being punished, that I was being judged and humiliated, that this was, in some karmic sense, my own fault. I both knew and didn’t know that this wasn’t true.
Anyway, my whole selfhood project felt like a failed invention, like some gizmo that, in retrospect, was a laughable misfire. Vanilla Coke. Vanilla Ice. I hauled myself around because I had to—also, I am the kind of person who gets up. But something at the core of my idea about the relative fairness of the world was broken. I kept being shown cruelty, use, lying, and exploitation—literal and emotional—by people to whom I was close and by people with whom I worked. Worse, I knew I had some of those tendencies as well. I thought I must have been naïve, or maybe just complicit. It seemed as if hungry ghosts were everywhere.I found that when students wrote without their names, much that was awkward, dull, strained, and frankly boring fell away. It was like watching people who thought they couldn’t dance dancing beautifully in the dark.
I was once a guest in the rambling, eclectic, art-filled house of a woman who had been rich and exceptionally well-connected to brilliant artists and all manner of powerful people all her life. She was a generous hostess. She walked around in curlers in the morning. She loved dogs. Everyone, at dinner, was hilarious and smart and naughty in several languages. It was an enchanting place to be, although I knew that it was known to be a treacherous place for women. Everyone knew that, everyone had warned me. I felt that I had been clever and canny in the way I handled myself around this woman. Also, I liked her, even if I knew she would never like me as much as she liked any male person anywhere. One day, this woman, my benefactor, described with some umbrage a previous female guest who, feeling insulted by what seemed to be fairly insulting behavior by a powerful man, had left the dinner table. I said it sounded as if the guest had good reason. “But you,” said the rich and well-connected woman, turning to me, “you would never get up from the table.”
I wouldn’t. Why should I? I had fought very hard to get there. Wonderfully accomplished people were at that table and I was proud to be included, even as a second-class guest.
However, during that difficult winter, it felt as if a bell had rung somewhere and more than one enchanted table had turned over, sending the plates and food and flowers crashing to the floor. I felt the loss keenly. I was tired, broken, and bewildered, and one of the places that it showed was in my stuttering on the page. I couldn’t seem to stop stopping. I couldn’t stay seated at the table, and all the tables kept running away, anyway.
Around the same time, I made a discovery in the classroom. I teach writing, specifically the writing of fiction, also the reading of it. One day, I noticed that there was an upcoming gap in the schedule of the fiction workshop I was teaching. I don’t remember what prompted me to do this, but I gave the students an assignment to write a few pages of anything at all, but with the condition that they not put their names on what they wrote. The students brought in their anonymous pages. I shuffled the pages, handed them around, and the students read the pages aloud. These brief, generally unedited anonymous pieces were markedly strong: fast-moving, well written, narratively alive, emotional, surprising. I was surprised not least by the fact that, apparently, when the students wrote anonymously their syntax, grammar, and diction improved.
At the end of class, I asked who wanted to claim their anonymous pieces, and, again, I was astonished. Students who had previously had trouble getting a scene going wrote excellent scenes. Students whose work had been disengaged and generically abstract wrote visceral, moving passages. Tortured sentences were replaced by elegant ones. Absurd and implausible situations were replaced by those with the breath of life. No one had turned in anything particularly illicit or salacious. Instead, they had written pieces that produced far more interest and pleasure in the reader—not only in me, but also in their classmates.
This was not what I had been expecting. I don’t know what I was expecting; mostly, I was filling a gap in the schedule. Mostly, I was trying not to lose my shit in the classroom that winter and embarrass myself. But here it was, this life on the page. I didn’t understand it. I could understand why my students felt more free when writing anonymously, but why did the writing itself get better, on every level? I tried this exercise a few more times in other classrooms elsewhere. Again and again, I found that when students wrote without their names, much that was awkward, dull, strained, and frankly boring fell away. It was like watching people who thought they couldn’t dance dancing beautifully in the dark.
I wanted this experience, too. Lost as I was, I thought it might help me get somewhere, anywhere. However, and perhaps paradoxically, one can’t really write anonymously by oneself. Readers are required; the anonymous writer needs an audience to whom one can be unknown. I walked around with this conundrum, not particularly doing anything about it, until, at a literary event, I met Yuka Igarashi, then an editor at the online literary publication Catapult, who offered me an assignment. Instead of doing that assignment, I suggested an anonymous column. I became the Magpie, a pseudonym that came to me immediately. For the next year, I published as the Magpie every two weeks. It changed me in ways I never would have expected.
The principle of the Magpie, true to the bird that inspired the name, was serendipitous collecting: of facts, events, observations, art, memories, talk overheard on the street. The Magpie had a particular eye for art of various kinds, and the unexpected ways in which, say, a pop song, a piece of visual art, and a poem might be found to be thinking about some of the same things or connected in other orthogonal ways. In my first Magpie column, the meridian ran from the sunflowers on my desk to Beyonce’s Lemonade, to Van Gogh’s sunflowers, to the super-saturated colors in the photographs on exhibit that week of Jimmy DeSana, to the rainbow flags all over Facebook following the shootings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, to Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. And a few other things. The method was associative, bricolage-like. The Magpie was identified at the bottom of the column only as someone “who notices what gleams in the world.”
Of course, what gleams to anyone’s eye is composed of all the forces and conditions that have gone into the composition of that person. My gender (female), race (white), sexual orientation (queer), class (middle), nationality (American), education (higher), age (middling), and all manner of other demographic material incline my eye to light on this element or that one, and, more crucially, to value this element or that one in certain ways. Sensibility is informed by what the world has made of you and your own relationship—obedient, belligerent, anxious, etc.—to that making.
Anyone who cared to sift through the columns could probably figure out without too much trouble what sort of person with what sort of values might be writing them. I didn’t imagine that I could be free of my demographic composition. What I was curious about was what would happen if I were at least nominally free of my ego. Would I write differently without my name tagging my writing, and all the attendant psycho-optics of who I think you, reader, think I am and my response to that? How? I didn’t tell anyone about this experiment except my partner, and, eventually, a close friend. The audience in my mind was basically three people: those two, plus Yuka.The first thing that happened, and that continued throughout the entire year that I wrote the Magpie column, was that I found that I was completely interested in just about everything. The whole world called my nom de plume.
The first thing that happened, and that continued throughout the entire year that I wrote the Magpie column, was that I found that I was completely interested in just about everything. The whole world called my nom de plume. I walked around in the extra-alert state that I used to experience when I was doing journalism, mentally and sometimes literally filling my bag or my notebook or both with sights, sounds, scraps of overheard conversation, memories, facts, sensations, tastes, and surprising connections. I was hungry for, and curious about, all of it. I didn’t start slowly, limping on my shattered sense of self, trying to piece together a few shredded words. I took off in a rush, more in the manner of someone who’d been confined and restricted to bread and water than someone who was irretrievably broken. I felt like Emerson’s transparent eyeball, suffused with “the currents of the Universal Being.”
Over the course of that year doing the Magpie columns, a partial list of the things I wrote about would include: locks and locksmiths, radioactive boars in Japan, Mike Nichols, plastic bags caught in trees that are revealed in the winter months when branches are bare, Hannah Hoch, dogs, the shadows of dogs, photographs of the shadows of dogs by photographer Thomas Roma, the work of Amy Sillman, Ovid, Hillary Clinton’s white pantsuit and its relationship to Glinda the Good Witch, the work of Maeve Brennan, ghosts, the beauty of red flowers in fields, the Women’s March on Washington, the Weeknd’s video for “Starboy,” the Rose Planetarium in New York, the Pinochet regime, the increased numbers of people begging for money on the subway, thoughts on what a giant might see on earth if looking from outer space, the work of Douglas Wheeler, the unexpected synchronicities between Charlotte Brontë and 1960s performance artist Charlotte Moorman, jookin’, the rare blooming of the corpse flower at the New York Botanical Garden, John Cage’s silent performances (or performances of silence), the people I could see from my window cleaning brick on the next building, archaeological finds, Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field, my mother (thinly veiled), and Thoreau.
I was always on the lookout for what to write in the next column and went off on little expeditions to see this or experience that or I simply noticed things that happened with increased intensity. I wrote one entire Magpie column on a conversation I had with a man who was driving me to a train station in a red state, about a month before Trump was elected. The man was a Trump supporter, and I just listened to him talk for about an hour. Freed from what this or that column would or wouldn’t do to my reputation, my bank account, my pride, or my desire for revenge on those who had harmed me, I was—well, I was happy.
There, I’ve said it. I was happy. By which I mean, I remembered that I just wanted to walk around this world and write about it. I wanted to string words together about being alive. I didn’t remember this after hours of staring in existential despair at the blank page. I remembered it instantly. It was like a Road Runner cartoon and my desire to walk around the world and write about it was the Road Runner: screech, cloud of dust, there he is. The columns themselves had a range of tones, material, and emotion; they weren’t uniformly upbeat or even optimistic. My life off the page continued to be difficult. But the writer wrote. If anything, those 1,200 or so biweekly words weren’t even quite enough to slake my thirst for writing about the world as it is.
Anonymity, pseudonymity, double lives, alternate selves: these have always fascinated me. In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf famously wrote, “I venture to guess that Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” For women, anonymity or pseudonymity (often as a man) has long been a way around the constraints of gender or—as in the case of Anne Declos, who wrote the sadomasochistic classic The Story of O under the name Pauline Reages, or Patricia Highsmith, who wrote the lesbian classic The Price of Salt under the pseudonym Claire Morgan—a license to write about different kinds of forbidden sexual practices and emotions. Men, of course, have done this, too. The Anonymous who wrote Primary Colors, a roman à clef about the Clintons, was eventually revealed to be political columnist Joe Klein. Jonathan Swift originally published his satire Gulliver’s Travels anonymously to avoid possible political trouble. Sometimes, the given name and the pseudonym exist simultaneously as an open secret, an ongoing public doubleness. John Banville, for instance, openly writes the popular Quirke mysteries under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. Many people knew for years that the BDSM Sleeping Beauty Quartet written by “A. N. Roquelaure” was really written by Anne Rice, and she publicly acknowledged that fact in the late 1990s.I remembered that I just wanted to walk around this world and write about it. I wanted to string words together about being alive. I didn’t remember this after hours of staring in existential despair at the blank page. I remembered it instantly.
Often, we assume that writers are using Anon or pseudonyms to say what they feel they can’t say in public otherwise. Often, this is the case. However, there is also a long tradition of stage names, drag names, rap names, and these days, avatar names, or names that change as a person moves into different life phases. The modernist architect Le Corbusier was born Charles-Edouard Jeanneret; his chosen name is both a version of a family name and means “crow-like.” The artist Judy Chicago was born Judith Sylvia Cohen; Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little, Amiri Baraka was born Everett LeRoi Jones—self-naming can be a political statement, a means of empowerment, of discarding an oppressive legacy, or exuberant self-fashioning.
Shame, in other words, is not the only reason to use a name other than the one on your birth certificate. My partner is a man who, when he ordained as a Zen Buddhist priest, was given a new name, known as a dharma name, and that is the name he goes by. In the radical faerie community, many invent different names for themselves: Jupiter, Hush, Blue, Nuh-Uh. Sometimes, using Anonymous or a pseudonym isn’t about covering up, but about opening up, opening out, unfolding another wing of oneself. David Bowie, born David Jones, created Ziggy Stardust, a being both like and unlike Bowie, who existed simultaneously with him.
At the same time, I knew that what I had seen in my students when writing anonymously was often, glaringly, what happened when they didn’t feel they had to be “literary.” It made me laugh—sort of—to see, by the evidence of what they wrote when they weren’t writing under their own names for the writing teacher’s approval, that “literary” apparently meant abstract, cold, boring, plotless, obscure, and devoid of joy. “Literary,” in the reverse view offered by the unsigned pieces of apprentices, seemed to be a dead planet where the emotionally disconnected writer walked around in an aesthetic hazmat suit picking up tiny shards of gloomy experience with a tweezers and putting them in a formal test tube in the few minutes before the writer’s oxygen tank ran out and he or she dropped dead as well, perhaps after a brief episode of hate-fucking (if the writer was a straight man) or getting fucked while remaining entirely numb (if the writer was a straight woman).
What had I taught them? What had I learned myself? If anonymity/pseudonymity offered a release from shame, what was mine? As a queer writer with a long history of writing about queer subjects, about sex of many varieties, about unconventional lives, my shame, if it were shame, didn’t seem to lie in those areas. On the contrary, they had built my career. I took my knocks as well because I wrote about these things, but I felt, for better or worse, that those knocks were to be expected, and I had a name for them: homophobic, conservative, boring. What I didn’t have a name for was something more insidious, an aesthetic odorless, colorless gas that, secretly, made me suspect that I would never, myself, be “literary” enough and I have come to the unhappy conclusion this may, pace Woolf, have to do with gender.
What Woolf meant in her essay was that women writers used Anon because otherwise they wouldn’t be taken seriously or even published. It’s improved since Woolf was writing, but the publishing numbers and the distribution of prizes, grants, and awards continues to bear out the reality of this problem. My shame, however, had to do with something I suspected about women writers, Literariness, and damage. To wit: if you’re a woman who writes, and you want to be taken seriously in America, your female characters better be significantly damaged, mutilated, self-mutilating, self-hating, and/or anorexic either literally or psychically. Do not, under any circumstances, have a body that gives you anything but trouble, suffering, and humiliation. Alternatively, retreat up to the innermost recesses of your mind, like a nun in a bare attic. Issue pronouncements about metaphysical or political issues from that attic. These are the ways to be considered smart and serious, if you’re a woman who writes.
Does this sound extreme? If I look at some writers—Samantha Hunt, Elena Ferrante, Deborah Levy, Toni Morrison, Jeanette Winterson, Carmen Maria Machado, Ali Smith, among others—I see work in which female appetite is not pathologized or absent. But if I look up toward the pantheon in America, and for years I tried not to look up too much because I knew what was up there, I still see a marked preference for female characters of modest appetite or little appetite at all.
For instance, let’s say that, as an ambitious fiction writer, I’d like to think I have a shot at the Pulitzer Prize, just to use the biggest brass ring of literary prizes in this country. Don’t we all? Ambition should always shoot for the moon, right, even if you only get to the treetops and so on? In 2015, Nicola Griffith analyzed the data on women winning the top Anglo-American literary prizes in the previous fifteen years and found that, overwhelmingly, “when it comes to literary prizes, the more prestigious, influential and financially remunerative the award, the less likely the winner is to write about grown women.” Griffith found that, in regards to the Pulitzer Prize, none had been written entirely from the point of view of a woman or girl since 2000. By contrast, on the Pulitzer-winning male side of the ledger we have the characters of Oscar Wao, Rabbit, Kavalier and Clay, Nathan Zuckerman, Frank Bascombe—should I go on? And that’s just the Pulitzers since 1990.As the Magpie, relieved of my ego or at least carrying it more lightly, I was astonished by how abundant and interesting the world became.
Since 2000, the Pulitzer Prize in Literature has been given to six women writers (in other words, not even half: a third). The books were The Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, March by Geraldine Brooks, Olive Kitteredge by Elizabeth Strout, A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, and The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Of these six fine books, three are centered on male protagonists, two are linked short stories that range among perspectives, and just one, Strout’s Olive Kitteredge, is mostly centered on a female character. In the previous decade, three Pulitzer Prizes went to women, to Carol Shields for The Stone Diaries, E. Annie Proulx for The Shipping News, and Jane Smiley for A Thousand Acres. Of these, two are centered on women. These two female main characters—Shields’ Daisy and Smiley’s Ginny—are beautifully made, emotionally complex masterpieces of endurance within rigidly conventional lives. (The Pulitzers in fiction can also be parsed for race, sexual orientation, and class as well, but those are essays for another day.)
I’m not casting aspersion on any of these books, which are certainly worthy, serious, moving works of literature. My point is about which worthy books by women are considered Serious enough to merit even a fraction of the power and glory given to male writers and under what rather severe restrictions. At some point, no matter the novels and reviews I published and the opinions I held and the diverse syllabi I made and what I said in the classroom, my subconscious did the math and, at a particularly rough moment, it gave up. Serious, for women writing female main characters, means half-frozen or gravely impaired—psychically castrated, basically—which was, I suppose, a price of the ticket I wasn’t willing, or even able, to make them pay. Was this demanded of Rabbit? Of Frank Bascombe? Of the Texas Rangers in Lonesome Dove?
Freud’s definition of libido was “the energy, regarded as a quantitative magnitude… of those instincts which have to do with all that may be comprised under the word ‘love’.” Jung defined libido as “the energy that manifests itself in the life process and is perceived subjectively as striving and desire.” Energy, love, striving, desire, life, and, perhaps equally as important, perceiving subjectively or subjectivity: these are the elements of libido, which includes but is not limited to physical acts of sex. Libido is the life-force. The reverse view offered by my own foray into pseudonymity was that I had clearly decided, somewhere along the line, that a visceral, curious, libidinous, ever-hungry engagement with the world as it is would not be considered Serious Literature, not for a woman, and I wanted, above all things, to be writing Serious Literature. Male libido is the subject of great art and the engine of its creation. (Let’s just say Philip Roth, shall we?) Female libido is not.The Magpie was flying away from something, and that something was lodged deep within me.
If I had ever been asked, which I never was, if I was cowed by this situation in some of the powerful vectors of my field, none of which is exactly late-breaking news, I would have vehemently asserted that I certainly was not, and backed myself up with plenty of vivid examples from my own work and the work of other women. I am, after all, the kind of person who gets up. But now the Magpie came home to roost, as it were. The Magpie, the bird, the alternate writing self, that I conjured in an hour during this dark time, suggested that it had all finally gotten to me, and to such an extent that I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, write anymore under those conditions, the conditions imposed on my name—my female name. This was, apparently, the secret I was keeping from myself. I was keeping it from myself so well that I truly had no idea this censor—that same old boring, misogynist, white, patriarchal censor, not even a unique one—was there. And yet, released, the Magpie lit out for the world so fast I could barely keep up. The Magpie was flying away from something, and that something was lodged deep within me.
Would that be the subject of Serious Literature? How about if a piece of liver and a milk bottle were involved?
As the Magpie, relieved of my ego or at least carrying it more lightly, I was astonished by how abundant and interesting the world became, and I am a person who is generally very interested in the world. And yet, the vividness of what I saw when not expecting anything or anyone to look back was so beautiful, so strange, and so powerful. It felt like waking up to a much wider world than I had ever been able to perceive before. After all, if you get up from the table, you can go outside. You can go to the corner and get a sandwich. You can see who’s out on the street or up in the trees, and what the clouds are doing. I started a new novel, and it was different than what I’ve done before. Anonymity was a technology that allowed me to widen my vision and there was so much to see without myself in the way. I can’t really call this libido; it’s something more like the awareness of so much extraordinary presence everywhere all the time and a primal desire to shout, Look at that! Maybe a way to say it is that it was a new awareness of the libido of the world, of which I am a part. Some language must have a word for this realization. I can only say that it’s a gleaming thing. Now I see it everywhere.