When I first talked to my agent as an agent, meaning about the possibility of working together, rather than just saying hello at some convention where we were both appearing on panels, he asked me whether I would ever write under a pseudonym. I said no. And I don’t think I would, although one can never say never. But for now at least, whatever I write, everything I write, is published as Theodora Goss. If I would not publish it under that name, I don’t write it.
I’m not criticizing pseudonyms, not at all. I understand why other writers use them. It’s just that I’ve had a complicated relationship with names. As is true for many immigrants, my name was Americanized soon after I came to this country. I was already in school, so I had gone by a Hungarian name for the formative years of my life. I hated my American name — it never seemed mine, and it made me feel as though I had lost, not only my original country and language, but myself. When I got married in my early twenties, I took my husband’s name, which is where the Goss comes from. It was a real name, a name with a history: the first Goss had come to this country before it was the United States. His sons had fought with General Washington. I had lost my original name long ago, my legal name did not really feel mine, so why not take his? And I have used it since. It’s the name I publish under.
But this blog post isn’t actually about names. It’s about what it means to write as myself. The issue of names is just an entry point, one among many. A second entry point is an experience I had while a student in the Clarion Writing Workshop. I wrote a story called “The Rapid Advance of Sorrow,” which has been reprinted a number of places and translated into several languages. It’s a cold story, in more ways than one. Another student, I no longer remember whom, said something like, “I wish you would write something really personal, where you would let your emotions out. I want to know what a personal, emotional Theodora Goss story sounds like.” Now first of all, “The Rapid Advance of Sorrow” is actually very personal: it’s about a cold silence descending on Budapest. It’s about my childhood. But second, I understood where this statement came from. It wasn’t just about my writing; it was about me personally. I never spoke about my private inner life, about my feelings, at the workshop. Not because I’m a particularly cold or unfriendly person, but because my primary approach toward the world has always been a combination of the instinctive and intellectual. I sense something, and then I try to understand what I’m sensing. On the Myers-Briggs test, and yes I know it’s probably inaccurate, don’t lecture me, I’m consistently an INTJ. Of course I’m also an introvert, so whatever is going on inside my head, I’m unlikely to share it with anyone except a close friend. I was certainly not going to share my personal life with the Clarion Writing Workshop!
But my point is, I don’t write the way this particular student wanted me to, because that would not be me writing. That would not be my brain, my experience of the world. My most personal stories situate the emotional within a framework — often the framework of history, sometimes of theory. You know, there are other writers who do this, who are not particularly personal in their writing. They tend to be men. I don’t think anyone ever said to Umberto Ecco, “You need to let your emotions out.” I was once asked in an interview why Mary Jekyll is the main viewpoint character in the Athena Club novels. The answer is that she was the easiest for me to write. She’s the one who is most like me. She has my particular flaws and blind spots. The difference between us is that I know they’re flaws and blind spots, so I can have the other characters criticize her for them. The second easiest character to write was Diana, because she’s the opposite of me: I just had her do and say the opposite of what I would in any given circumstance!
The third entry point, the third thing I want to discuss in this blog post about writing as myself, is the recent New York Times review of Snow White Learns Witchcraft, my collection of fairytale-inspired short stories and poems. If you’re not a writer, you may not know what an enormous privilege it is to have your book reviewed in the New York Times. I’m so grateful to the reviewer for reading and writing about this collection! In her review, she wrote,
“These pieces, all centered on fairy tales, refract and reshape familiar stories as much as they retell them; fairy tales, after all, get told and retold because there are elements in them — young people and old people, trials and quests, a visceral desire for justice — that are universal, while their configurations are almost endlessly changeable. Fairy tales are clothing, and to retell them is fashion. The fashion of these particular stories and poems is an abundance of lace, roses and porcelain contrasting with fur, snow and blood.”
Above one of my two writing desks, the one with my laptop on it, I have a corkboard, and on that corkboard are pinned quotations that are important to me. One of them says, First give them beauty. Then give them darkness. This isn’t from a famous author — it’s just me, just something I though of one day as I was trying to describe my own process. I want to write things so beautiful that you may not even notice the darkness underneath. But the darkness will be there, because beauty by itself has no tension, no suspense, no narrative. It needs darkness to work with and against and through. Just as every object needs a shadow . . . This is not just a matter of technique. It’s an expression of what I believe, at the deepest level, about reality. I want my writing to reflect reality as I see it. So my roses have thorns and beetles and blackspot.
The review goes on to say,
“The collection is at its strongest when troubling the boundaries between memory and memoir, exploring the terrain between childhood and adulthood. Recurring along with bears, snow and roses are a love of Boston and Budapest, and the sadness of moving between those places, and between the phases of life they represent. ‘I have always prided myself on my ability to let things go,’ a graduate student named Vera writes in ‘A Country Called Winter.’ ‘I’ve had plenty of practice. When I was a little girl, I let go of an entire country.'”
Which brings us back in a circle to the issue of names, because Vera is not her real name either — she is Veriska, but even that is an approximation, because you can’t pronounce her name properly unless you too grew up speaking the language of Winter. I want my writing to be versatile — in this collection, I write stories that take place in different time periods, and they are in different styles. But underneath it all is my voice. Underneath it all, I’m writing the only way I know how — as myself.
This is me with the collection. A few perceptive people have asked if the image on the cover is me, and the answer is sort of . . . the artist, Ruth Sanderson, asked me to model for it because she needed a woman holding a potion in one hand, reflected in an apple (actually her cell phone camera). So yes, it is me, in a sense, just as all the characters in the book are me, even though I have done my best to give them their own individual personalities and lives. Because that’s the way writing works. We are all, always, spiders spinning the threads of narrative out of ourselves . . .