My interest in the letter "e" began when I was in second grade and learning that accursed writing style known as cursive. I did not quite learn how to hold my pencil correctly, had terrible handwriting, and the additional requirement of learning to write in cursive felt like I was learning to climb Mt. Everest. I sat beside my classmates, who seemed to have no trouble forming the a's, q's and p's. I found myself, in rebellion, adding several loops to a capital E.
My middle name, Elise, started with E. I wrote Karen E. Bender in cursive. My E looked like a series of lassos. It did not look like a letter, really, and my classmates found this amusing.
"You're Karen EEEE Bender," they squealed, and this was who I was.
When I wrote my stories in elementary school, I signed them all Karen E. Bender with the squiggly "E." I wanted, from an early age, to be a writer, and that name -- that E -- was a way of pretending I knew how to do it. It lent a grandness to the grubby humiliation of elementary school; it was a name that did not acknowledge the fact that I was always the shortest person in the class, that I stood on the playground while team captains debated, "No, you take her," that my handwriting grades were always "U." Karen E. Bender was the name of a writer. It was the name of someone who I wanted to be.
I loved writing during elementary school, and when I entered junior high school, I eagerly turned in my work with my newfound name. Now I received an unexpected jolt. My first assignment, which I had worked long on and which I thought was pretty good, got a B. And worse, the teacher said: "This is kind of cutesy." Cutesy? What the hell was wrong with this teacher? I was Karen E. Bender, that name! And, more gallingly, the student who received an A had written a morose piece with words that I did not understand. Clearly, now something was up.
I quickly abandoned the writing world to unleash this person, Karen E. Bender, on the world of ballet. After some years, I realized that the girl staring at me in the mirror was too short to make any inroads into this particular territory, so I went back to writing.
Karen E. Bender was my writing name. It also acknowledged, I think, the fact that becoming a writer is a process of denial. I did not know how to write a story, I did not know how to revise it, I did not know how to write a better one, did not know what to do when teachers said a story was "cutesy" or that it was basically bad, did not know what to do with that crushing feeling when no one in the workshop liked it.
But Karen E. Bender did. Or pretended that she did. And she pressed on.
Now I tell my students that part of becoming a writer means pretending that you are one. Make up a great writer name. Wear a scarf that a great writer would wear. Write a story a great writer would write. Because part of becoming an artist is pushing through all the disbelief of those around you, deciding that you are a writer when you have no idea what a plot is, or whether what you've written is any good, or anything. It means claiming yourself in a field where the road is invisible, where people hear you're a writer and ask all those terrible, crushing questions.
Have you published anything?
Then you're not a writer.
Then you have to think -- but I am.
In so many other fields, you have markers: You go to medical school, or law school, or you have a job; you can flip out those credentials to the other lost souls at parties who want to place you and, oh, this is who you are. Not so with a writer! You sit at your computer for hours, then slave away at your job that you may or may not like. You don't know how to explain to them that the time when you feel alive or present is when you are writing. You are a writer.
The others want dumb things: They want proof, that superficial curse of American culture. But as a writer, your proof may be invisible. And that name, Karen E. Bender, was my invisible proof, my beacon.
Eventually, I started publishing, and then the conversations went something like: Where have you been published?
A magazine called White Chocolate.
Never heard of it.
That caused its own issues. I would send out my stories with my cover letter desperately describing where I had been published, and wondering, am I a writer now? Now? When?
I wish I had told myself: You always were. You were a writer because you were writing.
At one point, I had a story accepted at the New Yorker, which sent off weird bells in people when I told them -- Oh, they thought, now you are a writer -- where I really had been for the last 30-odd years. And when the story was being set, an editor called me.
Do you want to be listed as Karen E. Bender?
I paused. Why not?
It sounds kind of . . . precious.
My heart stopped. What was this? Were they right? Was Karen E. Bender a name that sounded precious? What did they mean, exactly?
Yes, I said. That is how I want it.
When I opened the pages of the magazine the next week, I saw my name. Karen E. Bender. She was not the writer of the story. She was something else. And that is what the letter "e" has meant to me as a writer -- that beautiful denial, that process, that hope.