the next writer in the series: october 1, 2015

I have been looking into schedules. Even when we read physics, we inquire of each least particle, What then shall I do this morning? How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.

On the first of each month,
a guest writer
shares
how he or she spends the day.

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photo credit: The BookReport

October 1, 2015: Carmela Ciuraru

In this year where I’m searching for truths about myself, I became fascinated by Carmela Ciuraru’s book Nom de Plume about writers who chose to use a pseudonym. In an interview, Carmela wrote,

There’s a quote I’ve loved for many years from Diane Arbus, in which she talks about the gap between intention and effect in how we present ourselves to the world. She describes a point “between what you want people to know about you and what you can’t help people knowing about you.” Pseudonymous writers are acutely aware of that gap, and are constantly trying to manage, control, and distort that information. I find that fascinating–the power in being able to toggle between two selves.

Some of the authors in Nom de Plume chose a pen name because they felt they could only tell the truth if no one knew who they were. Imagine–what would you write if no one knew who you were?

And there’s this:

A pseudonym may give a writer the necessary distance to speak honestly, but it can just as easily provide a license to lie.

And then there are the writers who feel a different name enables them to write a different sort of book.

Long famous now under their real names, each of the three Bronte sisters originally wrote under a pen name, all using the same last name–Bell. Their father might have encouraged their use of a pseudonym.

The children would put on masks, and Patrick [the father] would question them intensively, one by one, about various subjects to test their knowledge. He believed that by wearing masks the children would feel unselfconscious and learn to speak with confidence and candor.

nomdeplume-hc-c-671x1024George Sand, George Eliot, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, O. Henry, Isak Dinesen, Sylvia Plath–why did these writers (and others) choose to write under a name other than their own?

For each of the authors in this book, hiding behind a nom de plume was essential. However varied their literary styles and their reasons for going undercover, all of them longed to escape the burdens of selfhood–whether permanently or for a brief period in their lives.

The Bell Jar is a novel about the mental breakdown of a young woman whose repressed feelings regarding her mother led to the breakdown.

There was only one way this devastating novel could be published by a ‘good girl’ such as Plath, and that was to hide behind a pseudonym. She chose ‘Victoria Lucas’: ‘Victoria’ was a favorite cousin of Ted Hughes; ‘Lucas’ was the name of Hughes’s good friend Lucas Myers.

Despite a pen name, Sylvia Plath killed herself 28 days after the publication of The Bell Jar. And Plath is not the only author in Nom De Plume who died before the age of 40. Each of these 16 authors is worthy of the cover of People Magazine. Among them you will find a bisexual cross-dresser, an obsessive-compulsive who is also a collector of books about fairies, Federal Prisoner 30664, and one murderer. With Nom De Plume, you can whet your salacious appetite while reading literary “mini-biographies” in Carmela’s elegant prose.

These days, it’s hard to believe a writer could hide behind a pen name so successfully that despite the media, readers would wonder even about gender. But Elena Ferrante is doing just that, having refused to give any interviews until recently when she met with her publishers in the lobby of the Hotel Royal Continental in Naples–a meeting which resulted in “The Art of Fiction No. 228” in The Paris Review published in the spring of this year.

Two decades are a long time, and the reasons for the decisions I made in 1990, when we first considered my need to avoid the rituals of publication, have changed. Back then, I was frightened at the thought of having to come out of my shell. Timidity prevailed. Later, I came to feel hostility toward the media, which doesn’t pay attention to books themselves and values a work according to the author’s reputation.

Once I knew that the completed book would make its way in the world without me, once I knew that nothing of the concrete, physical me would ever appear beside the volume…it made me see something new about writing. I felt as though I had released the words from myself.

Perhaps we need pen names now more than ever. Perhaps each of us needs one.

“Carmela Ciuraru is not a pseudonym.” You may have already read her words–she writes reviews for the New York Times, and every other month, the “Newly Released” books column. You may have already heard her voice–on NPR, BBC, or on the Today Show. She is a recipient of a Fellowship in Nonfiction from the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA). Her next book is forthcoming from HarperCollins.

Come back on OCTOBER 1st to read how CARMELA CIURARU spends her days.

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