Writing as Myself

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 . . .

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Lost in Transition

I’ve only recently started blogging again. I did not blog all through the fall, for various reasons. One was that I was finishing two books: The Sinister Mystery of the Mesmerizing Girl, which is the final novel in the Athena Club series, and the short story and poetry collection Snow White Learns Witchcraft. And of course I was teaching at the same time, so I ended up getting terribly behind on my work — all my work, both the teaching and writing, although I delivered everything I needed to. By the time the semester was over, everything had been turned in.

And then I got sick. And I kept getting sick, and the truth is that I’m sick now, as I’m sitting here typing this. I spent last weekend at Boskone, one of the local science fiction and fantasy conventions, telling everyone not to hug me because I was probably contagious. And of course also appearing on panels, signing books, talking to people. I think I’m getting over whatever this is, probably just a bad cold. But I still don’t feel well . . . My late night snack was two graham crackers and a tall glass of lime Airborne.

So clearly I’ve been overworked, but there’s more to it, because last fall I also moved into a new apartment, where I’m living now. I haven’t quite settled in yet, but I feel something here that I did not feel in my previous apartment . . . I can tell that I’m in transition. When I moved into the previous apartment, I felt a strange sense of dismay because I could tell that I was entering a period of statis, a period during which things would not change for a while. I don’t know how I could tell, but somehow I knew. And here, I feel a sense of dismay because I can tell the opposite, that things are going to be changing almost constantly.

I don’t know . . . I just sense these things, and I’ve learned that my instincts are a dependable guide to life. I can feel things in my gut, literally in my stomach, before I know them intellectually. The problem of course is that I don’t know what the transition is to. I don’t know where I’m going, although I’m being proactive. A friend told me about keeping a daily journal, even if the entries were short, even if they seemed boring and irrelevant, and I thought, why don’t I do that? So I’ve been keeping a journal that I write in most mornings, a page or two . . . And I’ve been writing down what I want in my life, as a sort of conversation with the universe. Maybe, my thinking goes, in this way I can convince the universe to give it to me?

Everything you experience tells you something about yourself, about what you want and don’t want in your life. This apartment is the entire first floor of a house that is at least a hundred years old, but probably older because it has wide plank floors with square-headed iron nails. There are things I don’t love about it: it’s expensive for a teacher to live in, for example. But then, any apartment would be in this area, so close to the city. And I can’t have a cat here, but again, that’s true of most apartments. There are things I do love about it. I have my very own back porch, where I’ve hung a bird feeder. This morning it snowed, and I could see blue jays, cardinals, and small gray junkos. The blue jays and junkos don’t like the feeder — they prefer to pick up seeds that have fallen to the ground. The cardinals perch on the feeder, but the ones who really love it are the squirrels. As you can imagine, they engage in all sorts of intricate contortions to get at the seeds. They are very amusing. And then, this house is on a quiet street lined with old trees, so when I wake up, it’s to the sound of rain, not traffic. I love that.

Don’t misunderstand me, I love so many things about my life: I love teaching, I love traveling and meeting readers, and there are even days when I more or less like Boston! But I also know that I’m missing a lot of things. Time, rest, and what is most important to me, the ability to spend an entire day writing, dreaming, creating things. I am always rushed, always trying to meet the next deadline, and nowadays often sick.

So something’s got to change, but the thing is, I think it’s going to, because I think I’m in the middle of a period of transition. Yes, I feel uncertain. Yes, I feel a little lost. And yes, sometimes I’m afraid of where I’m going, or the dark woods, or the night around me. All sorts of things. But life is a sort of fairy tale, isn’t it? I think it is, and mine has been so far in so many ways. The heroine of a fairy tale doesn’t quit in the middle of the dark woods. She keeps going. After all, she’s got glass hills to climb, white serpents to talk to, three old troll women to meet. They will give her a golden ring, a golden comb, and a golden spinning wheel, on which she will spin the silk rope for a ladder. With it, she will rescue the king held in the castle beyond the moon.

You see, I’ve got things to do. When you’re feeling a little lost in transition, the thing is to just keep going . . .

This is me last weekend at Boskone. It looks almost like a publicity photo, but actually I was hiding in a little back corner of Starbucks, drinking something hot to soothe my throat. That’s not a decorative scarf but a warm winter one, to protect my throat from the cold hotel air. And although I’m smiling, my nose was stuffed up, my voice hoarse. But I was there, doing what I do, being an author.

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Writing Fairy Tales

This week I’ve been thinking about fairy tales because I just had a collection of short stories and poems come out, all of which are based on fairy tales. And now I’m thinking of them particularly because I’m trying to put together a reading group guide with questions and activities.

What would I want a reading group to think about and do, in response to my book? I don’t really know, since I’ve never written one of these before . . . But I’ve been thinking about what I might want someone to ask me in relation to fairy tales. Like the following:

Why fairy tales? Why did you get interested in them in the first place, and why write about them now? I mean, you’re an adult now. Does an adult really need fairy tales?

I started reading fairy tales as a child because I was given them — that was what children were given, when I was growing up in Europe. All my fairy tales books are in Hungarian, so perhaps it was simply a European thing? The books I was given when I was older, in the United States, were generally more realistic, but I still gravitated to fantasy, like the stories of Edward Eager and E. Nesbit. I loved magical stories because they showed me that magic was possible, and my world was often a dull place — I would have loved to step through a wardrobe, even into a land dominated by winter and the White Witch.

But fairy tales had, and still have, something else as well. There is a darkness at their heart that fits with what children know about the world. Children experience the world as large and irrational. (Why do they have to go to bed at a particular time? Because a parent said so.) It’s filled with forces they don’t understand (even gravity, which they have to learn about over and over through direct experience). Some people will help you, but some people will harm you, and it’s difficult to tell which is which. Food is strange — why is there broccoli and why do you have to eat it? There are witches and trolls for sure.

As we grow older, the power of fairy tales does not diminish, because they also reflect the adolescent experience. To an adolescent girl, all men are wolves, bears, foxes. They are the animal other, hairy and unpredictable, who may end up being good husbands, or may keep the corpses of dead wives in their castles (metaphorically, although fairy tales are also about the reality of violence). And then, if it’s time for marriage, fairy tales tell us a fundamental truth: that all marriages are to animal brides and bridegrooms. We always marry an animal because we are all animals, all “other” to each other. You are as strange and unknowable to your spouse as a swan bride, a bear groom.

Fairy tales tell us fundamental truths about the world, truths I often think we don’t get from other places — from economics or political science or religion. They tell us that hunger hurts, that we need to share, that sometimes we need to be clever because the trolls are ready to trick us. But also that being too clever, to the point where we lose our hearts, is never good.

What is your favorite fairy tale and why?

You see, I can ask this question in a reading group guide, but I can’t answer it myself. There are too many I love, both old folktales and literary fairy tales. But if I really had to answer, I would say Madame d’Aulnoy’s “The White Cat.” A beautiful princess who also happens to be a powerful sorceress, disguised as a white cat, falls in love with a youngest son and gives him a dog so small it fits in a walnut shell, a veil so fine it slips through the eye of a needle, and finally the most charming woman in the world — herself. I would not mind being a cat princess-sorceress, living in a castle filled with cats. In the collection, the story “Blanchefleur” is based on “The White Cat.”

If you could rewrite any fairy tale, which would you pick? How would you rewrite it, and why?

Of course, I’ve already written so many. But right now I’m working on a story that combines the narrative structures of “Cinderella” and “Donkeyskin.” It’s a completely realistic story, other than being set in an imaginary country — there’s no magic in it, but it has the feel of a fairy tale. I’ve just started, and so far it’s going well, but I’m not entirely sure how long it’s going to end up being, or what I will do with it once it’s done. I’m writing it because “Cinderella” and “Donkeyskin” are essentially mirror images of the same story. I wanted to see what putting them together would be like . . .

And you, reader? If you could rewrite any fairy tale, which would you rewrite and why? Is it your favorite fairy tale, or one that bothers you somehow, that you want to retell even if you’re not sure why?

As for activities, I think I would tell this hypothetical reading group to research a fairy tale, to find out its history and read various versions. Then to come together and tell the tale to each other, the way women did long ago while shelling peas or spinning. In the end, the best way to interact with a fairy tale is to ingest it, like a slice of bread — to learn it and tell it and make it your own.

I’m so delighted to have this book out into the world . . . I’m especially proud of it, and I hope it finds a readership. If you, reader, like fairy tales — well, I wrote it for you.

This is the cover of the book, with wonderful art by Ruth Sanderson. I was also very lucky that the amazing Jane Yolen agreed to write the introduction. And yes, I did model for the image in the apple! That is based on me . . . If you’re interested in ordering it, here’s the Mythic Delirium order page.

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Home from the Sea

This be the verse you grave for me;
“Here he lies where he longed to be,
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.”

No, I’m not dying — of course not, even though the verse I started with comes from the Robert Louis Stevenson poem he wrote as his own epitaph. It’s on his gravestone in Samoa. But that was the verse that came to me the other day, when I realized that I had been on ten airplanes this summer, and that I was now home for a while. Well, until the end of the month, but I won’t be going too far again until next summer. All my travel will be up and down the east coast.

In May, I flew to Budapest for two weeks, then I went to London to do research for the novel I’m working on, then by train to Penzance and Marazion, then by plane again from Newquay to Dublin, then train and bus across Ireland to Dingle, where I taught for a week. Then I flew from Shannon to Budapest, passing once again through the banal horrors of Heathrow. London was interesting and overwhelming as usual, Cornwall was a beautiful adventure, I loved Dublin, which reminded me of Budapest, and Dingle was work but also fun. And then Budapest again, city of my heart, where I belong probably more than anywhere else on this earth.

But do I actually belong anywhere? I feel as though I don’t know the answer to that question yet.

From Budapest I flew back to Boston, but went almost immediately by train to Portland, Maine, and across the bay to Peaks Island for a week, and once I got home from the island, I flew across the country to San José for WorldCon. As of Thursday, I’m back in Boston again — for a while.

Perhaps it’s because I spent my entire childhood moving around that I often feel more at home living out of a suitcase than in my own apartment, with my books and music and art. Here are the places I lived as a child: Budapest where I was born, Debrecen (I’m not sure how long, but not longer than a couple of years), Budapest again until we left the country, then Milan for six months, Brussels for a year and a half where I went to first grade, Philadelphia where I repeated first grade in English, Maryland where I skipped forward to third grade. We moved between fifth and sixth grades, then moved again for seventh grade, and then for eight grade in Virginia (so I went to three different schools in three years). Ninth grade was in California, tenth through twelfth back in Virginia, so the longest I went to any school, the longest I lived in any one place continuously, was three years. Honestly, it was a relief going to college for four whole years in a row. That was in Charlottesville, and then I moved to Boston for another three years, to attend law school. Then a year in New York, and then back to Boston, where I stayed for graduate school . . . and here I am. Except that I keep going away as often as possible.

When does the sailor come home from the sea? What is home, anyway?

I know what the sea is . . . I saw it from both sides this summer. I walked in the Atlantic near the town of Marazion, crossing the causeway to St. Michael’s Mount before the tide had entirely gone down. And I knelt beside it on Peaks Island, picking up snail shells and small stones from the tidal pools. It’s a gentler ocean near Cornwall. In Maine, it’s notorious for its temper tantrums, its storms.

I feel like the sailor, always setting out for a new horizon. I feel like the hunter, although I’m not entirely sure what I’m hunting or what lies beyond the next hill. I’m searching for something, and I know neither what it is nor whether I’ll find it. And so I keep departing, with a suitcase and a laptop bag, and a purse that I bought in an airport, which has pockets for a passport and the different tickets and passes I need to use public transportation in five different cities. Maybe eventually, when I die, the right epitaph for my tombstone will be something like “She’s not here either.”

Someday, I will probably have to settle down somewhere. I just don’t know where that place is yet. I’m still searching for something to tell me where home is . . .

In many ways, it has been a miracle of a summer. I’ve been to the most wonderful places, met the most fascinating people. I’ve sat on top of a cliff on Great Blasket Island watching the seagulls and butterflies, writing (not very good) poetry. I’ve written two fairy tales (both on airplanes), which will be published in a collection next year. I’ve had my second novel come out, and revised the third. I’ve talked to professors and writers and critics, old friends and new ones.

Now that I’m back, I feel a terrible sense of restlessness, of longing. I don’t yet lie where I long to be . . . If it were up to me, I’d be off again. But there are duties and responsibilities here, at least for a while. I don’t think it’s going to be like this always. I think I will eventually find the place I’m looking for. I just don’t know where, or when, or with whom — not yet.

I’m home from the sea. Just not permanently.

(Sitting on a wall in Marazion, looking across to St. Michael’s Mount.)

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The Horns of Elfland

I don’t know why I write fantasy.

I mean, I’m pretty sure I write fantasy because as a child I read fantasy. But why was I drawn to fantasy in the first place? When I was a child, all I wanted to read were books about magic. I read Edward Eager, E. Nesbit, J.R.R. Tolkien. I read fairy tales, and the Oz books, and The Once and Future King. Sometimes I would pick up books that seemed to be about magic, and they would not be, and I would get very angry at them. I would feel as though I had somehow been tricked. Bridge to Terabithia and The Witch of Blackbird Pond earned my ire. There was no witch, there was no Terabithia except in the children’s imagination, and what was the point of that? If the magic wasn’t real, I wanted no part of it.

Now, as an adult and writer, I will not write a book in which the magic isn’t real. I won’t promise you magic and not deliver, because that would have made my child-self furious.

But why was I so drawn to fantasy in the first place? Looking back, I can see that my obsession with Narnia, and Earthsea, and Middle Earth, had to do in part with the fact that I was an immigrant. I had lost my country of origin, and because these were the bad old days of an Iron Curtain across Europe, that country was as lost to me as Naria is to the Pevensies after Aslan tells them they must leave. There was no way to go back, not then. And I did not have a magical wardrobe. It also had to do with my sense of displacement — where did I belong? Nowhere in particular. I read books about imaginary countries to belong somewhere. While I was reading, I could pretend, for a while, that I belonged in Prydain or at Green Knowe.

But I loved books about magic happening in the real world as well. I still remember the strange little rhyme that Mrs. Tuggle sings in The Witch’s Sister and its sequels. I adored Carbonel and Mary Poppins and the house with a clock in its walls. Stories about magic happening in our world promised me that it was not as dull and ordinary as it appeared — that our real world had the possibility of magic in it. And I needed that promise, as I think all children do, because despite how we romanticize it, childhood is hard. When you’re a child, the world is large and doesn’t make much sense. Adults are continually telling you what to do. Other children can be cruel.

I even loved books that were what I might call fantasy-adjacent, like The Secret Garden or The Wind in the Willows. They, too, promised that there were hidden powers in the world, although we might not call them magic. The chapter in which Mole and Rat meet the god Pan is still one of my favorite episodes in English literature.

At that point in my life, I wanted to be a witch. When I grew up, I became the closest thing to one, which is a writer. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that witches cast spells: both witchcraft and writing are about using language to alter reality.

In “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien says some people simply have a taste for fantasy, while others don’t — and if they do as children, they will likely have it their entire lives. I’ve found that to be true. I moved from Nesbit to Anne McCaffrey to Isabel Allende without ever losing my love of magic. I still want to know that there are hidden powers and possibilities in the world, behind the facade of the everyday. I want to know that circumstances can change, that wishes can come true, that somewhere out there, someone or perhaps the universe itself loves us.

The title of this blog post comes from a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson:

The splendour falls on castle walls
And snowy summits old in story:
The long light shakes across the lakes,
And the wild cataract leaps in glory.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

O hark, O hear! how thin and clear,
And thinner, clearer, farther going!
O sweet and far from cliff and scar
The horns of Elfland faintly blowing!
Blow, let us hear the purple glens replying:
Blow, bugle; answer, echoes, dying, dying, dying.

O love, they die in yon rich sky,
They faint on hill or field or river:
Our echoes roll from soul to soul,
And grow for ever and for ever.
Blow, bugle, blow, set the wild echoes flying,
And answer, echoes, answer, dying, dying, dying.

I think there are some people who hear the horns of Elfland, and some who do not. That’s all right . . . not everyone has to hear the same music. Those who hear them are the ones who long for magic, who try the backs of all the wardrobes just in case, who wait for their letters from Hogwarts, who secretly in their hearts believe that there is a deeper, truer life than this one, and perhaps even live as though there were. They make their homes in cottages out of fairy tales, or keep bees, or recite poetry. They talk to cats, and wait for a response. I do think, although this is based on no empirical evidence, only personal observation, that more people nowadays hear the horns of Elfland than when I was a child. There are more books about magic, there is more fantasy in media of all sorts, and that makes a difference. There is also a widespread view that we have lost something essential in our lives — we are losing the environment, we are losing handicrafts and old hobbies, we are even losing community with other human beings, and that loss is being felt. It makes us long for the ordinary magic of sitting under a tree, or weaving a tapestry, or telling stories with friends.

Nowadays, I make magic, or at least I try to. I sit down with pen and paper, or at a computer screen, and I put down words. Hopefully, when you read them, castles will rise above you, hills and green meadows will unroll around you, the sky itself will unscroll its myriad stars. Hopefully you will hear and see and, most importantly, feel my world and its characters. This is what it means to be a spell-caster, a witch or do I mean writer, a wielder of words.

I still hear the horns of Elfland. Nowadays, I try to transmit what they are blowing, to capture their music in my own language. But I know that the music comes from beyond me, as does the magic itself — that I am a sort of translator of what is already there, the underlying magic of reality. I feel it now even more than I did as a child. Adults are not necessarily more obtuse than children — we can also choose to become more sensitive. We can learn to hear the music better. Nowadays, hopefully, the horns of Elfland blow through me as well . . .

(The image is The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania by Sir Joseph Noel Paton.)

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Love, Home, Work

I’m the sort of person who makes lists.

I make lists of things to do. I make lists of things I’ve done. I make lists of books I want to read, clothes I want to buy, tasks I want to complete. I find that lists help me clarify my thinking, focus on my goals. And of course it’s always satisfying to cross items off once you’ve found, achieved, or completed them.

Several years ago, I started making lists of things I wanted in my life — not just what I wanted to read or buy or do, that week or the next, but ultimate goals. The lists contained anywhere from eight to twelve items. I would describe them elaborately, I suppose from the notion that if I could articulate what I wanted, I could have it . . . naming it would function as a kind of magic, a summoning. And it did in some ways — at least it helped me clarify in my own mind what it was I actually wanted (rather than what people told me I should want), and focus on getting those things in my life. I still have one of those lists pinned to my cork board, where I can look at it every day and see whether I’ve worked on the items listed. Today I’ve worked on six of the items — unintentionally, since it’s been such a busy day that I haven’t thought of anything but the immediate tasks at hand. Still, it’s a good way to check oneself . . .

But recently, I sat down to look at those lists again, potentially revise them, and it occurred to me that what I wanted in life could be described very simply, in three words: love, home, work. And that I was doing very well at one of those, somewhat well at another, and at yet another, not well at all.

The one I was succeeding at was work. This goal was about doing the work I love, and I’ve succeeded at that: I’m teaching writing, and of course I’m also writing. The last few years have been difficult, but they’ve been difficult because I’ve done so much. I will soon have had three novels published in three years, and there are all sorts of other projects in the offing. Work can be hard, work can be frustrating, but I’m very lucky to be doing what I do. It’s also the category that I have the most control over — I design my courses and seminars, I decide which books to write. It’s where I have the most freedom.

The one I was doing somewhat well at was home. Recently, I was told the building in which I live would be renovated, and I would need to find a new apartment. I looked around me and realized that despite living here three years, I had never finished furnishing this apartment. There are still paintings stacked against a wall, still furniture that needs to be reupholstered. It’s a charming apartment, but it has never felt like home. I spent two weeks looking for a new one, stressed and worried about trying to find a place to live in one of the most difficult rental markets in the country. Finally, I found a place — the first floor of a house in an old neighborhood with tree-lined streets, where, when I walked down the street, all I heard was birdsong. I was anxious about the expense — it was, of course, right at the top of my price range, the very most I felt I could afford. But it’s large and sunny, with high ceilings, tall windows, and old plank floors that are probably original to the house. It has an office for me, and a porch on which I can grow flowers. It’s not, I’m sure, where I will ultimately end up, but for now at least, it will be a perfect home. And I intend to make it that — this time, I will hang all the pictures on the walls.

Love was the one at which I was failing. I use the word “love” both broadly and specifically, including the wide network of family and friends, all the people one loves, all the significant others as well as any particular ones. In doing all the work, I realized, I had not left enough time for people. There is always this tension in the lives of what we call “creatives” — art takes so much time and effort, and often there is no time to socialize, to form bonds, even to talk on the phone. Last month, when I was finishing up my third novel, everything else fell by the wayside as I tried to meet a deadline. My cat, whom I had rescued from the streets of Boston as a kitten, died. I took time to be with her during her illness, but afterward, I did not have time to grieve. I realized then that there was something missing from my life, and that I would need to recalibrate, to find my bearings again.

So I guess I learned three things. The first was that what I want is really much simpler than I thought, that it doesn’t take elaborate lists. The second is that the things I want are variably under my control. I can seek out and create work, I can find and make a home, but I can really only make space and time for love. Human relationships, and other human beings, are still the greatest mysteries of all. The third is that I need balance — that I need love and home as well as work.

You can consider that my new to-do list.

(This is the park near my new apartment, where I will move in the fall. And that was one of the days when I was realizing all this, when it was running through my head, changing my thinking about what I had prioritized, about how I allocated my time.)

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The Thrift Store Rules

I love buying clothes in thrift stores. First because they’re so much cheaper, but second because I can find things in thrift stores that I can’t find in ordinary clothing stores. Floral skirts from the 1980s, when skirts were long and full; wool coats from the 1960s, with labels from companies that went out of business long ago. Cocktail dresses with real boning and structured bodices. I love being able to buy things that are no longer in fashion: one of my latest acquisitions is a black velvet opera cape with gray silk lining and a beaded frog closure.

But it’s easier to make mistakes at a thrift store than in an ordinary store, and over the years I’ve made many. So I’ve developed some rules for myself, which I’ll share with you. Fortunately, if you make a mistake at a thrift store, it’s likely to be a $7 mistake rather than a $70 mistake. Nevertheless, here are my rules (or perhaps I should call them principles), in case you find them helpful.

1. Understand sizes.

The sizes printed on women’s garments mean very little. First, they’ve changed over time. In the 1980s, I would have been a fairly consistent size 6-8. Nowadays, I’m somewhere between a 0-4, except in outerwear meant to go over other clothes, in which case I need a 6. That’s a huge variation: clothing sizes for anything made in the 21st century are wildly inconsistent. I can be an extra-small for some companies, a medium for others. Obviously, these are American sizes: British sizing is closer to the old American sizing, and European sizing is a completely different system altogether. I rather like the clothing labels I see in the European Union, where the size may be given in five different sizing systems . . .

Also, clothes from different eras are fitted differently. A Jessica McClintock skirt from the 1980s will be tighter in the waist and wider in the hips than a modern skirt. Why? Because it comes from a time before we all began exercising our ab muscles. Women’s waists were smaller and more compressible. So if sizes are meaningless, what should you do? You can, of course, try on clothing, but I don’t usually bother because the sort of clothing I buy in thrift stores always looks different after you wash it than in a thrift store dressing room, especially if you alter it in any way. It may hang completely differently . . . (I mostly buy dresses, skirts, and sweaters — if I were buying a pair of pants, I would certainly try it on.)

So I recommend two things. First, learn some general principles of sizing through trial and error. If you like Gunne Sax dresses, figure out how that company sized its dresses and the sort of figure they were meant for. Know that J. Jill garments always run a little large. You can actually learn a lot about fashion history this way . . . Also, carry a tape measure. Waist and bust measurements are usually the most important, and you can measure those flat.

2. Know your fabrics.

Sometimes there’s a fabric tag sewn into the inside right seam. Then you can see what a garment is made of. If you try to avoid wool, as I do (because it’s persnickety to care for and itches), you’ll know not to buy that particular article of clothing. But sometimes the tag has already been cut out, so you need to be able to tell what a garment is made of by feel. That just takes practice. I do still make mistakes — something that I thought was acetate or polyester may turn out to be silk, which is not always a nice surprise (silk can shrink, acetate and polyester won’t).

But practice guessing what a garment is made of and then checking the tag. Eventually, you won’t need to check.

3. Know your eras.

It’s helpful to get a sense for what era a particular garment is from, in part because that will give you information about how to care for it. Dresses from the 1980s are tricky because that was the Age of Drycleaning — many garments were made to be drycleaned. Items from after 1990 that are marked Dry Clean Only can usually be either thrown in the wash on a delicate cycle or washed by hand and then hung to dry. But a dress from the 1980s has often not be pre-shrunk or washed by the previous owner. Even an ordinary cotton dress may shrink by a third, which will make the zippers buckle — and it will be a different length than you anticipated.

Anything from the 1970s will fit you best if you have the body of the 1970s: boyish, flat-chested. Anything from the 1960s was made to be worn over a girdle. Know your eras so you know what to expect in terms of fit and shrinkage . . .

4. Consider alterations.

There are some alterations you can make yourself, even if you’re not a particularly skilled seamstress. You can cut out shoulder pads, cut off belt loops, sew straps on strapless dresses, change buttons, fix broken hooks and eyes. Consider having a well-stocked sewing box with buttons; hooks, eyes, and snaps in silver and black; a selection of needles and pins; thread in the colors you’re most likely to wear.

But there are alterations that, at least for me, require a seamstress. Do you have a seamstress? If not, consider finding one in your neighborhood. Mine owns a local drycleaning business, and she does things that I could not possibly do, like alter waists in such a way that you can’t tell they were altered. So when you love a particular garment but it doesn’t quite fit, ask yourself if it could be altered. Can a too-large skirt be taken in on the side? Can too-long pants be shortened? And — this is the important part — calculate the cost of alteration into the price. If I love a Herman Geist skirt, it may be worthwhile buying it for $6.99 and then paying an extra $25 for alteration. It will be a $31.99 skirt, but you can’t buy Herman Geist anymore, except second-hand, so that’s an entirely reasonable price.

I’m mostly writing about clothes here, but I also buy most of my jewelry second-hand, because I passionately love old silver and marcasite. So I have to consider whether a ring can be sized up or down, and how much that will cost. Is the piece still worth it to me, when I calculate in the necessary alterations? In addition to having a seamstress, I also recommend that you find the following: a good shoe repair shop and a good jeweler. And remember, although getting something fixed or altered will cost a little more, you will be supporting your local economy, instead of sending money to large corporations.

5. Know yourself.

Are you actually going to wear that stunning black silk velvet dressing gown that is so long it drags on the floor? In my case, the answer was no, but it hung in my closet for a long time. Finally I decided to give it to a friend. Same with the silver Sam & Libby sandals that were oh so strappy and oh so uncomfortable. I live in Boston — there are many thrift stores and second-hand shops. The one closest to me is enormous. I could easily come home with bags filled with garments that fit me — but that were not really me. The purple satin Jessica McClintock ball gown eventually just had to go back, because where in the world was I going to wear it? It had a bustle, and it was boned to within an inch of its (and my) life.

These are the things I have learned about myself: I do not wear uncomfortable clothes, no matter how beautiful they are. Wool, even the softest, finest wool, makes me itch and needs to be reserved for garments that don’t touch my skin. I don’t have a lot of time to deal with finicky garments or take dresses, unless they truly are special evening dresses, to the drycleaners. I love pretty purses but they hang, unused, on the wall of my walk-in closet. (I do have a collection of them — after all, one must decorate one’s closet with something.) My personal downfall is hats. I love how they look, but don’t actually like wearing them unless they are knitted hats on cold days. So much for chic little chapeaux . . .

Know what you actually wear and how you actually wear it. After all, you could have bought coffee and a biscotti with that $6.99. On the other hand, if you make a mistake, think of it as a lesson learned . . . That $6.99 paid for a little bit of self-knowledge.

7. Forget perfection.

If a garment were absolutely perfect and pristine, it would probably not be in a thrift store. It’s all right for skirts and sweaters to look a little worn — in fact, it’s better. Once, wearing garments that were lovely and cared for, but obviously worn, was a status symbol. As my European mother said one day, when I was complaining that all my friends had new clothes and I didn’t, “Only the nouveau riche wear new clothes.” So, you know, pretend you’re poor but genteel, and you inherited everything from your grandmother the countess, who had the most exquisite taste.

This rule applies to everything except shoes. Modern women’s shoes cannot be repaired as easily as older shoes could or men’s shoes still can, and most modern cobblers don’t do a very good job — if you’ve found a good one, never let him go. Shoes can have small scuffs, but they really should otherwise be in almost perfect condition, or they won’t last very long. Anyway, you want to take care of your feet, because they’re going to carry you for a long time. Hercules Poirot once said that however a lady might be dressed, she will always wear good shoes. Yes, I know, that’s terribly old-fashioned, and you may not care about looking ladylike. Nevertheless, if you have to pay a lot of money for any item of clothing, let it be good shoes.

8. Be mostly realistic.

There are some things I’ve found over the years that I just had to have. The embroidered silk evening clutch so delicate that it would be impossible to use, yet so fine that it did not belong in a thrift store. The silk scarf with flowers on it that I probably would not wear, but that, again, was so beautiful I simply wanted it in my vicinity.

Still, I mostly try to be practical. Will I actually wear that light blue sweater? Does it fit with what I already own? After all, I’m not running a clothing museum. I have a lot of closet space for a small Boston apartment: a bedroom closet for dresses and skirts, walk-in closet for more dresses and skirts, a hall closet for coats and scarves. I rented this apartment precisely because it had, for an apartment this size, an amount of closet space that I could not have anticipated or imagined. (Seriously, I was giddy at the realization. And a linen cupboard! You never, ever find this sort of thing. I rented my last apartment based on closet space as well.) Nevertheless, I have limited space, and of course limited financial resources. I mean, I’m a teacher, not a fashionista.

So, mostly be realistic, but sometimes be unrealistic, because sometimes you just have to buy the burgundy velvet dress and then find somewhere to wear it. (I wear it to the ballet.)

That’s it, those are my rules. I try to stick to them, but of course I make mistakes, buy clothes I later look at and wonder what I was thinking, who I thought I was at the time. It happens. And then I promise myself, next time I’ll know better, but at least I’ve learned something about myself, and perhaps even about the history of clothing and fashion. So I really should take myself out for coffee and a biscotti . . .

(The painting is A Moment of Contemplation by Fernand Toussaint. I would totally wear this dress.)

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