Trial & Error

He was simply impatient for his life, the real story, to start...
— Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach

It was a weekend much like any other in our 90s-era household. My mother was in my room making my bed and I was playing with some Beanie Babies on the floor beside her. (As an only child, this was often my privilege.) It struck me for some reason, while my mother moved around the bed tucking sheets under the corners of my mattress, to stick an orange, bean-filled goldfish down the front of my pants. I pulled off my shirt and leaned over, gazing curiously at the small bulge rising underneath the zipper. "Look, Mom, I'm a boy." I poked out my belly. My mother--a steadfast traditionalist Republican--was not amused. "Lauren. Michelle. Put your shirt back on and take that thing out of your pants. You are not a boy."

This is not a story of gender conflict. This is, however, a story of identity and a woman yearning to feel at home in her own body.

Life is a series of restarts. We leave home, we leave school, we change apartments, we change jobs. Presidents come and go, and seasons, the various moons. But every day there is the same sun. And every day we are the same person. Except we're not. Not really. We are constantly shedding skin, re-growing it. We lose hair, we grow that back too. Our bodies are redeveloping on a daily basis. From the time that we are conceived we never stop changing. Change, of course, is a polite word for evolve. Among the other things this story is not, evolution is one of them. But I do think it's important to understand that, even for Christians and your strict traditionalist Republicans, evolution isn't just physical. It's mental and emotional as well, and it affects everyone whether they want to believe in it or not.

I bring this up because evolution is a scary concept to many and as a writer I consider it an obligation to discuss that which is not easily discussed, which brings about my purpose for this project. The Coffee Journals was something I started several years ago on Tumblr before moving it to Squarespace with the idea of turning it into an online literary landmark. At the time, I was experiencing tidal waves of depression that, instead of being properly dealt with, went ignored. I used this blog as a distraction. I wrote essays, book reviews, interviewed authors. I take full responsibility for these writers' time being wasted. One of my more unfortunate habits when slithering out of projects is wanting to eradicate them entirely from existence. It is a failure, yes? We don't want those to be seen. I'm going to take this moment, though, as an opportunity to forgive myself for all of them. I'm also going to take this moment to refresh and start again.

In the years that I've been on social media I've found it incredibly difficult to maintain a single identity. That's not to say I pretend to be different people completely, except for that one time in college when I tried going by the name Alice (don't ask). But I have had a lot of trouble keeping one handle or one URL or one account running. I think the trouble is that when you're young, and especially if you come from a sheltered household, you're used to being told who you are, what you think, how you feel, what you believe, who you can spend your time with. I'm an only child and it's only been in the past few years that I've really felt entitled to my own mind. I come from a family with little tolerance for differing opinions, something I struggled with through college as I began to separate the thoughts I'd been told to think from the ones that were truly mine. In some ways, social media gave me the freedom to further tease out this independent economy and I've taken the reigns on that freedom quite aggressively. If I feel like one identity isn't aligning well with my personality--or the personality I want to cultivate, at least--I've been known to ditch it in favor of trying something else. I'm 26 now and I'm still guilty of doing this.

It's odd to me that this has even been a problem in my life. Embarrassing, really. But I think, for writers anyway, identity tends to be pretty important. Ford Madox Ford, actually, was born Ford Herman Hueffer and first published as Ford Madox Hueffer before ditching his surname entirely after leaving his wife in Germany and moving to Paris.  Ernest Hemingway wrote about this in his memoir, A Moveable Feast:

’There were many reasons. He changed it after the war.’

Ford had started the
Transatlantic Review. He had once edited The English Review in London before the war and before his domestic trouble and Ezra told me this had been a really good review and Ford had done a splendid job of editing. Now under his new name, he was making a new start.
— pgs. 200-201

People--but artists especially, I think--are in the habit of perceiving themselves as a series of trials and errors. It's practically Biblical. Whenever we shed one shameful skin we want to wield something that signifies this personal evolution in hopes that this will be the trial that ends in our favor. Naming is perhaps the most significant aspect of our person for this reason. It's not only what we want others to see when they think of us, but it's also how we want to see ourselves.

The other day, one of the men in my office--we'll call him James--asked me if my real name was Lauren. I elected to go by Wren at my new job when I started the summer of 2015, even though no one ever called me this and had only been used a couple of times as a pen name for my writing. I told him yes, it was. "So where did Wren come from?" he asked. When I first made this decision people wanted to give me a hard time about it. I told James I had used it when I had some stories published in a couple literary journals and ended up liking it better. Which is true, to an extent. I didn't fully justify my reasoning. This was because I don't know James that well. He's older, early 60s maybe, and I had a feeling I was already coming off fairly odd to him. The larger reason is that I wanted some agency over the person I aged into, and where Lauren is a nice name I wanted to control not only the way I was seen or how I felt about myself, but I wanted to commit to the work of becoming a better person and, as I said before, naming was the best way to signify this evolvement.

It wasn't so much that I expected to have people call me this and suddenly I would be this whole different person. For the first six months of my job I felt like a complete idiot, questioned my decision, and wondered if I'd made an inglorious mistake. Hearing people call me a name that wasn't actually mine began to sound irksome, but that was only because I didn't feel I deserved it. Some people who already knew me as Lauren went so far as to tell me it was akin to lying and that I was tricking people into thinking I was someone I wasn't. I took this criticism very seriously, as writers do. But I stuck with it and worked through the insecurity born of these disagreements, mostly out of stubbornness. Though I worried over the same things they were accusing me of I stood by my right to reinvent myself if I wanted to. From there, feeling truly like Wren was a combination of time, repetitive association, and learning not to give a fuck what people thought. It also helped, though, to hear certain people call me Wren--people who knew that wasn't really my name but were kind enough to humor my effort.

There was also a bit of professional calculation to my decision. As a mortgage assistant, I was told I'd be accompanying loan officers to open house events and to meet with clients. Wren, though entirely southern, is not a widely used name where I'm from and certainly not as common as Lauren. I felt there could be a certain distinction in using a name that not a lot of people had, especially in a business that uses name association so fervently. I thought it would be especially beneficial if I ever decided to become a loan officer myself. Unfortunately, due to the business's ever-evolving nature, that all became a moot point. I no longer go to open houses nor do I accompany loan officers on client meetings. But I don't regret the decision. I feel more at home in this name than I ever did as Lauren. Not least because I chose it and work very hard to own it.

We cannot Name or be Named without language. If our vocabulary dwindles to a few shopworn words, we are setting ourselves up for takeover by a dictator. When language becomes exhausted, our freedom dwindles—we cannot think; we do not recognize danger; injustice strikes us as no more than ‘the way things are.’
— Madeleine L'Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art

Earlier this year, I was crossing Main Street for a short walk one afternoon. Bourbon was still open for lunch then so the sidewalk was crowded with diners. There was also a man sitting on the bench in front of the restaurant. He was large, scruffy--I couldn't really tell what he looked like due to the salt and pepper beard fluffed out over his chest. He wore a brown coat and baseball cap. He wasn't sitting with anyone, just leaning alone against the window watching people pass by. As I came to the other side of the street and began to veer left around the black iron tables he called out to me, "Hey Wren-girl, how are you?" My confusion as to how this man knew my name, or at least knew me by Wren, shifted me into polite robotics. Hello, I'm good, how are you? I didn't stop to talk. My mother's anxious nurturing, and not to mention an unpleasant encounter with an older man at a Books-A-Million the year before, reminded me that a lot of the time when men take interest in you it's not always innocent. But I couldn't stop thinking about this encounter the whole way up the street and he was gone, of course, when I walked back down the other side.

I don't believe I had been in any danger with this man. Actually, my instincts told me something very different, which was that he, whoever he was, had a warm and friendly nature. It's sad, yet helpful in this way, that I've experienced enough unsettling situations with the opposite sex that my intuition has developed a sense for innocence versus malice. While I think that people can be manipulative to the point where that instinct becomes compromised, those realizations take time and I had been judging the situation off a passing greeting. There was something unsuspectingly mysterious about his presence--that he would be there this one afternoon in which I'd been stewing on my identity and wondering if it would become another error. Both the beauty and the ugliness of experience is that we can decide from there what to do with it. It is beautiful if we use experience to further our humanity; it is ugliness if we use it as an excuse to shrivel ourselves and each other. That I felt I could be better as Wren rather than Lauren was a personal decision. At that point, it had nothing to do with career. It wasn't so much that I wanted to forget who I had been, more so I wanted to build off of her. I needed to lose some of her weight, though. She had been a part of my life, but she no longer had to be my life. I could move on and I could do it however worked best for me.

Something useful that I've learned this year is that you can't always compartmentalize your life. Things usually have to work adjacent to one another, if not smoothly. But one of your selves' turmoil is another of your selves' artwork. After so many failed attempts, I finally understood how to work through chaos. Elizabeth Gilbert's TED Talk becomes relevant here. Regardless of what is happening, you have to sit down and do the work, you have to show up and be a part of it, and then that mysterious other will join you to solidify your intent. It will sidle up beside you and fill the spaces you have no control over. Together, despite the lingering madness, you will create something someone else needs. In the words of Sarah Manguso: "If people read your work and, as a result, choose life, then you are doing your job." And that, essentially, is why this project exists, why it is Wren who must be the one to keep going.