Dealing with Burnout

It took a long time for me to realize that I was burned out.

It also took a long time for me to understand what burnout actually was. After all, I wasn’t depressed. I’ve been to depression, I know what that particular landscape looks like, and I wasn’t there. Instead, I was irritable. Tired all the time, but also anxious and distracted. I didn’t want to do anything — somewhere along the way, I had lost my motivation. I did my job, and did it as well as I usually do, I think — but sometimes I was angry about how much I was expected to do, how much people assumed I could take on. There was never time to rest . . .

Burnout is when you’re stressed for so long that eventually you just have no reserves left — of energy, of motivation, of optimism. I was used to having all those things, and it was unsettling to find that suddenly they were gone. If you had asked me what I wanted to do most in the world, I would have said something like disappear for a while, somewhere no one could find me. I wanted to be left alone. I daydreamed about things it seemed I could not have . . . time to walk along a beach or read a book.

If all of this sounds confusing, it was certainly confusing in my head — a mass of conflicting impulses and responses. It resembled depression only in that I was unhappy, but now I was angry as well, which I had never been when I went through a period of depression while finishing my PhD dissertation. I didn’t think therapy was going to help this time. I needed something else.

Why was I burned out? Some of the reasons are still present in my life, and I’m writing this as I’m starting to come out of it for the first time in . . . I don’t know, probably a year. First, I have a full-time job teaching undergraduates. Then, I have a part-time job teaching graduate students. I love both those jobs, and my students are wonderful — yes, even the ones who have problems of various sorts, even the ones who don’t do well. They are all fascinating human beings, and it’s a privilege working with them. But I teach writing, which means a lot of personal attention to how a student is expressing herself, growing as a writer, developing skills. I don’t give exams, I comment on essays and short stories and sections of novels. It’s intensive work. On top of that, I’m a writer, and at the time I was trying to finish a fantasy trilogy on a relatively tight deadline. A fantasy trilogy that required a lot of research, that was very hard to write . . . Plus I was turning in short stories, essays, articles, all sorts of things — partly for money, partly because I was asked to write various things to publicize the novels. And I was traveling to conventions, reading at bookstores, all those things you do as an author rather than a writer.

Underneath all of that was me, the person I am: an intense introvert who is drained by interactions and distractions, who needs to recharge like a battery on being alone and silent. I was also in the middle of the continual barrage we all face nowadays: the online world of social media, where the most horrifying events scroll by as though they meant nothing, and people express their horror with clicks, but little changes . . . There are good things about social media, and I try to maximize my connection with people who post about poetry, and gardening, and knitting, and saving the environment. But it can also be a monotonous river of despair.

And I have a few other traits that really don’t help: I’m driven by my love of the work, conscientious about getting it right, and a perfectionist. If you are already dealing with burnout, these will make dealing with it harder. Especially the perfectionism.

Finally, at some point, I realized I was burned out — months after I should have, because obviously the problem was me, right? It couldn’t be that I was simply trying to do too much. I just needed to work harder, be more organized. I don’t remember how I realized it . . . maybe reading an article somewhere in the endless scroll of pixels? There are worthwhile things online as well, as I said. That was when I started thinking about what I could do. Luckily, it was almost summer, and I’m a teacher, so summers are times when my schedule is more flexible — not free, because I still teach graduate students, I still have writing deadlines. But I was not teaching regular classes. And I came to the following conclusions:

1. I need to stop multitasking.
I had spent so much time trying to maximize, optimize, use time efficiently. I was writing papers on trains and airplanes, because that was free time, wasted time, right? I decided that when I was on trains and airplanes, I was going to sleep. Or maybe watch the in-flight movie. But I was going to use that time to rest.

2. I need to do things that have no immediate utility. I had stopped reading anything that was not work-related, simply for pleasure. I had stopped doing anything other than my work, and that was why I did not feel joyful, or even free. It felt as though there was no time to sew something, bake something, create a garden. I’m still not at the point where I can do all those things, but I’m trying . . .

3. I need to live in the real world. The online world had its uses, but I needed to get away from it, to live in the world that has sunlight, trees, the sound of rain. I needed to touch books, walk on streets. Go into small cafés and buy cakes, then sit and eat them without checking my status (what does that mean anyway? I want a life, not a status). I needed to put away the addictive glowing screen.

4. I need to take care of my physical health. I was starting to eat unhealthily, because if I was unhappy, I deserved snacks, right? And I was never getting enough sleep, because there was always something more important to do. “I’ll sleep on the plane” had become my mantra (but then I didn’t sleep on the plane either). I don’t know who came up with the saying “I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” but I would say to that person — if you don’t sleep now, you’ll get that chance much earlier than you would otherwise! I’m still not good at getting enough sleep, but I’m working on it. I’m trying to think of it as the recharge my brain needs every day. My phone needs to recharge, right? Well, so do I. And just like my phone, I don’t run as well at 10%.

5. I need to find joy. Perhaps this is as much creating as finding? But think of joy as a vitamin you need every day. How many milligrams of joy have you taken today? Is it enough milligrams to get your daily dose of joy? Of course, while doing this, I had to figure out what joy meant to me, where my sense of joy comes from. Roses. Perfume. Warm, clean sheets. A cup of tea. Dark chocolate. A skirt that swooshes around my ankles. Writing poetry, not for a market but just for myself. I didn’t realize, for a while, that I was taking the Marie Kondo principle of what to keep and what to discard — does it spark joy? — and applying it to my life. What in my life sparked joy? I needed to find out, and then do some of that every day. Not everything in your life is going to be joyful — life is filled with small irritations, like the tram conductor telling you, with a frown and in a tone of admonishment, that you need to ring the bell to signal when you want to get off, when you’ve been riding that line for ten years, probably longer than he’s been at his job. But it’s also filled with small wonderful things, like your favorite scarf. And when it is, you can give that tram conductor your best “Thank you, that was unnecessary and I think you’re kind of an idiot” smile, because you know that scarf makes you look romantic and sophisticated.

Stop, rest, smell the roses, find joy. I’m not always good at doing those things. But I’m working on it.

(I’m also going to stop traveling so much for a while, except to Budapest, which is my ultimate place to rest, because when people ask you to do things, you can say, “Sorry, I’m in Budapest.” And then they say, “Oh, when will you be back?” And they don’t expect you to do things until you get back. Also, there are narrow streets to walk along, and a lot of small cafés to sit in. If you’re burned out and you can afford it, I recommend the Budapest rest cure.)

This is me in my office, in the middle of summer, going in to get some work done. I think you can see the stress and tiredness in my face. But now I’m going to get some rest . . .

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The Mystery of the Missing Doily

Where had the doily gone?

You may not think this is an interesting question. After all, what is a doily? A small crocheted mat usually placed on a table, either to protect it from something, like a flower vase that may drip water when it’s just been filled, or for decoration under an object: a figurine, a tray. My particular doily was under a small glass tray on which I put my glasses. I used to regularly lose my glasses, because I only need them to see long distance, so I took them off all the time and placed them . . . on tables, on shelves, who knows where. I would spend an hour every day just wondering where my glasses had gone. And then I put a doily on a shelf, and a glass tray on top of that, and I called it my glasses tray, and put my glasses on it — consistently. After that, I always knew where I had left my glasses. It saved a lot of time and worry.

That’s the backstory.

The story is this: my oven stopped working. In Boston, I rent an apartment. It’s a very nice apartment, the first floor of a house, with windows on all sides and a back porch. It’s too expensive, but then everything is in Boston. I chose it because it’s close to the university, and also because there were so few apartments for rent in this area that I did not have much choice. Most of the apartments around here are for students: they have three or more bedrooms, so the rent can be split between a number of roommates, and they are not very well taken care of. This apartment, thank goodness, is very well taken care of — maintenance requests are answered promptly. So as soon as my oven stopped working, I was told the old stove would be replaced.

Yesterday, two workmen came to replace the stove. One was the regular maintenance man who has taken care of this house for thirty years. The other was his friend. Before they came, I looked at everything I had placed around the stove: the recipe box, the basket of napkins and placemats, the picture frame with a photograph of my daughter. I moved everything that I thought could be broken or damaged by the work of removing and installing a stove. My glasses tray was on a shelf near the kitchen, probably far enough away that it would be fine, but still . . . it was glass. So I moved it. I remember wondering if I should move the doily under it as well, but after all, it was a small crocheted mat (see definition of doily). How could it be hurt?

The stove was installed, with the usual problems (there are always problems — this time, the new stove was dented and had to be replaced even before it was installed). I was out running errands during the last part of this process. When I came back, the doily was gone.

Now, you have to understand that this is only partly about the doily. I mean, the doily is important, because it’s a small pretty thing, and I value small pretty things. It fits perfectly on that shelf, and I wanted it back. But since I read my first mystery, which was probably a Nancy Drew, I have prided myself on my ability to figure things out. After Nancy Drew, I graduated to Sherlock Holmes, Miss Marple, Lord Peter Whimsy and Harriet Vane, Father Brown, Rumpole of the Bailey, and on to more modern detectives . . . Mystery lovers will be familiar with this sequence.

The doily was my gill of pickled shrimp.

If you’ve read Miss Marple mysteries, you’ll understand this reference, because Miss Marple refers to it repeatedly. I believe it’s mentioned for the first time in a short story called “The Tuesday Night Club”: Miss Marple says that a woman in her village, a Mrs. Carruthers, purchased a gill of pickled shrimp and put it in her string bag. But when she got home, the gill of pickled shrimp was gone. Mrs. Marple never tells us what happened to it, although she does mention that she later solved the mystery, which threw “a considerable light on human nature.”

The gill of pickled shrimp is the trivial mystery that nevertheless gives you an opportunity for what Sherlock Holmes calls ratiocination: the process of reasoning something out, of following a logical train of thought. My doily was missing, so I decided to ratiocinate.

Where could my doily have gone?

First, and most logically, I could have moved it myself without thinking about it. After all, I had thought about moving it before I decided not to, and there have been times when I’ve done things without thinking about them. Sometimes in my morning shower, I’ll be thinking about what I have to do that day, and wash my face twice because I forgot that I washed it the first time, and remember only when I’m washing it the second time that I’ve already gone through those motions. So, on the assumption that I had probably removed the doily to a safer place after all, I searched in all the logical places. The doily was not in any of them, and no matter how hard I tried, I could not recall having moved it. I was almost certain I had not moved it.

Second, less logically, the workmen could have taken it. Were the men who had replaced my stove doily thieves? This was highly unlikely, first because they were the sort of burly men who can lift stoves, much more likely to decorate with logos of sports teams than doilies. Now, a good detective does not judge entirely by appearances — still, I’ve found that you can get a general sense for who a person is by how they present themselves. If I went into these men’s houses, I doubt that I would find doilies! But also, they were very nice men, as careful and conscientious as stove installation allowed. I dismissed this possibility as just plain silly.

Third, could the doily have been knocked down during work? Possible, but I looked in all the places it could logically have been knocked, and it was not there. And then I remembered that the stove had been wrapped in cardboard. I had a vague memory that some of that cardboard had briefly been placed across the kitchen counter, with one corner on the shelf where my doily had been. Could the doily have gotten stuck to the cardboard? If so, where was the cardboard now? The workmen would not have taken it with them–it was trash. Logically, it must be in the trash bins along the side of the house.

I looked in the trash bins. There was no cardboard in the first one or second one, but in the third one . . . there was the cardboard, and when I moved it aside, there are the bottom of the trash bin was my doily, looking pretty and forlorn.

Reader, did I pull out the cardboard, tip the trash bin onto its side, and half crawl in to get my doily? Of course I did.

Then I immersed it in water with a great deal of dish washing liquid and let it sit. It was, shall we say, stinky. I let it dry overnight, and it’s now back on the shelf under the glass tray with my glasses on it. I solved the case of the missing doily.

You may think this is a silly little story, but it’s important to me because I want to write a mystery series myself — I have the first one all worked out. Mysteries are very hard to write. Honestly, I think they’re the hardest things to write, at a technical level. The Mystery of the Missing Doily reminded me of how much I want to write those books, and also gave me a little more confidence that I just might be able to do it.

(These are from my bookshelf. Just a small selection, of course . . .)

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Maybe Your Scale is Broken

I couldn’t figure out why I was gaining weight. I mean, I had recently been on a trip to New York for a reading. There, I had not eaten particularly well — cereal bars and yogurt with fruit on the bottom for breakfast, whatever I could buy at a cafe or museum for lunch. More desserts than I usually eat. Once, I’d had pizza. Once, a cheese plate. So yes, I might have gained a few pounds on the trip, but it should have been easy to lose them . . . after all, I was home now, eating healthy food, exercising regularly. And yet the number on the scale kept going up.

I should explain that once upon a time, before my life got so busy, I used to take ballet classes several times a week. I had taken them as a child, and then started again as an adult. A ballet class is the hardest, most intense workout I know. In order to survive them, I had to make sure that I was very healthy — sleeping enough, eating well, and at the right weight for my body, the weight at which I felt strong and fit. I had to stretch every day, do Pilates and yoga regularly, so I wouldn’t be injured by the bar exercises, the floor routines — especially the jumping. So I got into the habit of monitoring not just numbers like weight, but whether I was eating enough vegetables, going for a walk every day . . . Even now, when I’m so busy, I try to make sure that I’m taking care of myself, staying as fit as possible. I don’t have to make it through ballet classes anymore, but my ordinary life is just as stressful.

So anyway, there I was with a dilemma. The scale was telling me that I was gaining weight. And yet I was eating normally, exercising normally. Why wasn’t the number on the scale matching how I felt? I figured I must be eating more than I thought, or perhaps it was stress — I didn’t have much time to think about it, because it was the end of the semester and I had papers to grade. So I just tried to eat especially well — no cookies! And still the number on the scale kept creeping up.

I felt like such an idiot when I walked into the hardware store to buy a new scale. I mean, it wasn’t the scale’s fault, right? Clearly I was doing something wrong . . . After all, I’d had that scale for probably ten years, during which it had functioned reliably. I bought the exact same model, took the new scale home and stepped on it, expecting to see the exact same number . . . and found that I was the same weight as I had been before the trip to New York, even a few pounds lighter because I’d been so diligently not-eating cookies.

In other words, the old scale was broken. Which leads me to the life lesson here: Sometimes it’s not you. Sometimes it’s the scale.

Sometimes the problem isn’t what you’re measuring, but the way you’re measuring it.

Are you happy enough? Are you rich enough? Are you successful enough? We have scales for all of those things, and sometimes our scales need to be recalibrated, or we need new scales altogether. I’m the sort of person who finds large meanings in small things (which is probably why I was a literature major). So this realization led me to all sorts of philosophical questions: What did I really want out of my life? How would I know when I had achieved it? How was I going to measure my own happiness and success? What did I need, financially, to get where I needed to go? It was a small experience that led to some larger resolutions.

I could connect it to even larger issues: I recently heard a very smart presentation by the Prime Minister of New Zealand in which she talked about using measurements other than GDF to evaluate the effectiveness of economic policies. GDP didn’t, she said, accurately represent the well-being of the population. If wealth was concentrated at the top, GDP could look fine, but there could be poverty and deprivation below. The method of measurement could actually mask information.

I hesitated to start by talking about my scale, because I knew someone would inevitably tell me not to use a scale at all, that I should focus instead on being healthy. But I am healthy . . . And I think we have to be honest about the fact that here in the United States, we live in a society that makes it almost impossible not to take in more calories than our bodies actually need. I know this because I spend part of the year in continental Europe. There, I have a scale, but I don’t really need one — and I eat whatever I want. As soon as I get back to the United States, or (with apologies to British friends) set foot in England, I have to watch what I eat again. Why? Because the food is literally different. It’s grown and packaged differently. European foods have fewer additives, and no high fructose corn syrup. Also, the servings are smaller. Americans visiting Europe can be surprised by how small the pastries and cups of coffee are. How there are no muffins (those 400-calorie American extravaganzas pretending to be health foods) in the cafes. There are circumstances in which we need to measure and monitor things — we just need to make sure our instruments are accurate.

This is a topic I think about a lot because I’m a teacher: I both give grades and deal with the effects of imperfect measurements — by which I mean the SATs and AP exams. My students have been taught to write to their standards, so part of my job is teaching them to write as though they’re not taking an AP exam — thoughtfully, with care and conviction. Many of them assume, based on past writing classes and exams, that they are bad writers. But none of them are bad writers — they are just writers who could improve, as we all can. Hopefully my scale is a little more accurate, and conveys better information, than the ones they’re used to. I don’t think not grading them at all would be helpful, just as I’m not going to throw away my scale altogether. I just need to make sure that my grades are fair, and that students understand how and on what basis they’re being given.

I’ll end this long, rambling post with the takeaway. Here’s what I want you to remember:

Maybe it’s not you. Maybe your scale is broken.

(The image is Justice by Pierre Subleyras.)

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How to Be Elegant

I hesitated to write this blog post, because its title implies both that I believe myself to be elegant, and that I think I can tell other people how to be so. And that’s not quite true . . .

What’s true is that one day, I decided that I wanted to be elegant — that it was one of the qualities I admired, and I wanted to figure out what it was, and how to achieve elegance myself. I was tired of seeing women dressed elegantly, not just in magazines but walking around the streets, and knowing that I could never dress like them, could never be them. Knowing that whatever they had, that air of quiet confidence, was unattainable for me. When I was growing up, there was no money for fancy clothes, and anyway I was taught that emphasizing clothes, or really anything to do with appearance, was frivolous — I should be working on what was in my mind.

Of course, I also grew up in an inelegant era: the deliberate ugliness of the seventies, meant to break the quiet propriety of the fifties and much of the sixties, was followed by the excesses of of the eighties, when shoulder pads sprouted like mushrooms and nothing was the right shape. That was followed by the deliberate dressing down of the nineties, which was better — at least clothes looked as though they might fit on human beings again. And since then . . . well, we’ve been in a twenty-year period when there have been no new ideas in fashion, just constant recycling.

But through all those eras, there were elegant women. I could see them — and I envied them! I had no idea how to be one of them. When I was a teenager, I tried by dressing in what was fashionable, buying the cheaper versions of course — the imitation Izod polo shirts and L.L.Bean duck boots when everyone was preppy for a while. Ripped jeans and off-the-shoulder sweaters when everyone was wearing them, inspired by the success of Flashdance. I succeeded mainly in looking silly. It would have been better if I had stuck to being the nerdy student I was. And then, when I had money for the first time, after graduating from law school and starting my first real job as a corporate lawyer, I did what seemed logical — I bought expensive clothes. But you know, I didn’t look any better in them than I had with my polo shirt collar fashionably turned up. I looked just as much like I was wearing someone else’s clothes, pretending to be someone I was not.

One day, I remember, I was in the dressing room of a Laura Ashley store, looking at myself in a $200 navy blue suit that was supposed to make me look like a lawyer who was also the heroine of an English novel, but only made me appear rather lumpy. I took off the suit and walked out, knowing in my heart that not only would I never find clothes that looked right on me, but I would never become the person I wanted to be . . . no, never. Don’t laugh. Clothes have that kind of power, and dressing rooms are places of deep psychological torture, antechambers of hell. No wonder we walk out of them in despair.

Throughout those years, I had been researching and reading about historical costumes, because I was interested in how women had dressed over time, and what their clothes had said about their lives, their circumstances. Finally (why did it take me so long?), I decided that I was going to research elegance. What was it? Why didn’t I have it? Was is some sort of genetic trait that had simply passed me by? That only people like Audrey Hepburn had? With the help of Edith Head and Hubert de Givenchy . . . At the same time, I went back to graduate school. The era of buying expensive clothes had ended for me some time ago (they didn’t help, so why spend the money?), but now I quite literally could not afford them anyway.

In between reading books for my graduate degree in English literature, I read books about women’s clothes, about the history of fashion and style, about ballet (since I was taking classes at the Boston Ballet School) . . . all sorts of things both central and peripheral to this particular question. It was only half-deliberate — I knew in my heart of hearts that I, personally, would never be elegant. But I was interested on a theoretical level. At the same time, for my graduate degree I was reading theories of the beautiful (Hogarth, Burke, Kant). And I was shopping where I have to tell you I still prefer to shop: my local Goodwill, and all the thrift stores around Boston. There, I could buy a skirt for $5, and if for some reason it did not work — if it did not go with anything else I owned, if I ended up hating how it looked on me, if for some reason it just felt wrong after a while — I could return it to Goodwill. It would turn into a $5 donation for which I was getting nothing — except perhaps a lesson in what was not me. And if I loved it but it did not fit exactly right, I could take it to a local seamstress who would tighten a waist or shorten a hem for $25. It would still end up costing considerably less than anything I could buy in a boutique or catalog.

I can’t tell you how it happened exactly — it was a long process of trial and error. But over those years of graduate school, of skimping and saving but also learning and growing, I think I did achieve what I believe to be elegance, for me. My personal idea of elegance, which may or may not be yours (but elegance, I’ve learned, is deeply personal). So what I’m going to give you are my personal rules. If you want to be elegant, if that is even something you care about (and you don’t have to), you can develop your own. Here they are (there are only five):

1. Your clothes should be appropriate to the occasion. If you’re going to a ball, dress for a ball. If you’re going to a punk concert, dress for a punk concert. If it’s winter, for goodness’ sake, dress for winter. Walking around in freezing temperatures without socks because it’s currently fashionable just looks silly.

2. Your clothes should be an expression of yourself. That’s you at the ball, you at the punk concert. What do you feel good in there, what do you think expresses who you are in those places? This takes experimentation, because we often don’t know who we are, we often don’t know our own taste. This is where a store like Goodwill helps, because you can walk down the aisles going “ugh, ugh, no, seriously? wait, yes, that looks nice.” You can develop your taste. And if you buy something then later realize it’s not you? Well then, you made a mistake, and a $5 or $10 donation to Goodwill. Try to figure out who you are, what you actually like, and over time you will learn a lot . . . which is applicable to more than clothes.

3. Your clothes should fit and be in good condition. Your clothes should always fit right, and if they don’t, here’s your opportunity to support a small local business by finding a seamstress. If the problem is a small rip, a stitch coming out of a sweater, a button that needs to be replaced, then learn to mend your clothes. It’s one of those valuable life skills, like cooking. Make sure the heels on your shoes are not too worn — if they are, take them to your local cobbler. Polish your shoes. Make sure everything is fresh and clean and ready to wear. This is also an argument for buying good quality, because clothes that are made well, of material that lasts, can be repaired. (Obviously don’t buy anything you personally can’t wear — wool is wonderful but I’m allergic to it. It’s not elegant if your clothes give you a rash . . .)

4. Your clothes should emphasize what is important. Unless you are a model, what is important is never the clothes themselves, but whatever you are wearing them for. You need to be able to move in them comfortably — if you’re uncomfortable, you’re going to miss the most important part of being elegant, which is the effortless confidence truly elegant women have. (Remember, I studied this stuff. How I envied them!) Even if you’re dressed for a party, you want to be able to walk, move, eat. You want to talk to people, be yourself without worrying about your outfit. The whole point is to put on the clothes and then forget about them, to just be in them. To live.

5. You should never spend too much on clothes. One of the reasons I wrote this column is that I see a lot of advertising for clothes online. Recently, I saw a skirt I liked quite a lot. I clicked on it, and . . . it was $300! I don’t spend that much on my monthly heating and electricity bills, in Boston, in the middle of February! I mean . . . that’s kind of disgraceful, really. If it had been the price for something genuinely beautiful, and the money were going to support skilled workers earning high wages, that would have been one thing. But it was an ordinary although rather nice skirt, probably sewn by women earning very little money, with a fancy brand name. Well, I find all the fancy brand names I need at thrift stores, thank you. I’ve found Ralph Lauren, Diane Von Furstenberg, even Mary Quant, for under $30. If you’re wearing something for which you know you paid too much, for which perhaps you actually went into credit card debt, that outfit will never be elegant because you’ll be wearing it with a worried expression on your face, with trepidation in your heart. And that’s not elegant. There are two things I do spend money on, because they need to be sturdy and last: everyday shoes and purses. Those are the workhorses of your wardrobe, so make sure they’re of good quality, which does not necessarily correlate with price.

In the end, elegance is an attitude. It’s about wearing clothes you love and that make you feel comfortable, and then moving in them gracefully through the world. That’s really all there is to it. It took me a long, long time to have that much confidence in myself. I hope you’re a quicker learner than I am . . .

This was me on a day I felt particularly elegant, in a not very elegant part of the city, reflected in the post office window. Boots and coat by Land’s End; purse (my trusty go-everywhere bag) by Baggallini; dress from Goodwill; hat, scarf, and tights from CVS. I wasn’t going anywhere in particular, just office hours . . . but I felt great.

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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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