I’m the youngest of four children, and we were raised in a small house. There really weren’t any secrets between us, or at least none that I knew of. My father was a minister and my mother was a memoirist so… open books of all kinds. When I grew up I became an English professor, which is an extremely un-mysterious job. Aside from the occasional secret I kept for someone else, what you saw when you looked at me was what you got.
Then one day, a week before my 40th birthday, I sat down at my computer and instead of opening up the document containing the essay I was working on about Abraham Lincoln and Black Hawk, I opened up a fresh file and I typed in two words: “Bee Ridgway.” Then I typed the first sentence of a story about time travel. I looked at what I had done, I grinned, and I crashed on. Ten weeks later I had an extremely rough draft of the genre mash-up time travel extravaganza that would become my novel: The River of No Return. In my novel, the characters travel through time on waves of human feeling. As the Alderwoman of the Guild, the organization that controls time travel, puts it, “Normally your feelings are calibrated to keep you in the present, ticking over from moment to moment. But they also can propel you forward and pull you back. Don’t you see? We do it with feelings. That’s why we keep Guild members away from their homelands. Yearning, nostalgia, loss loneliness – these are all superhighways back to the past.”
There were two feelings that pulled me forward through the writing of the novel. An overwhelming joy in the process of writing, and a passionate need to keep that process entirely under wraps. Bee Ridgway is a pen name, and from the moment I began writing until the moment the novel sold, only two people besides me knew what I was doing. Everyone else – my parents, my sisters, my friends and colleagues – were told bald-faced lies about why I suddenly stopped answering the phone, stopped going out to dinner, stopped answering email. “I’m sick.” “I have to finish an article.” “I’ve started taking dancing lessons.”
It was a huge secret, and it felt as dangerous and as thrilling to me as an affair. Going in to work with this secret under my hat made me feel young, mischievous, a better teacher, a more creative scholar.
Why did it have to be a secret? Why the pseudonym? Writing novels is not a crime, nor is it shameful. But I protected that secret against all comers, for almost a year. I do know that I would never have written the first sentence if I hadn’t had a pen name protecting me, and if I hadn’t maintained nearly complete secrecy about what I was doing.
I felt more alive, more vivid during those months of secrecy and urgent writing. On days that I didn’t have to go work I would write for up to fifteen hours at a stretch, and I was happier than I had been for years and years. Having a secret, and even the telling of lies, was freeing in a way that I can’t quite describe. I felt literally untethered, unchained. And now, when the book is out and the world knows about it, now when my secret has transformed into the headline news of my life, I am a very different person than I was before. My secret changed me . . . or perhaps I should just put it as strongly as I feel it. My secret found me, buried deep, and it dug down and released me.
When I finally did tell my family and friends, after the book sold, unveiling the monumental surprise turned out to make for fantastic theater. “You know how I’ve been low profile for a year? Well, I’ve written a 500-page-long time travel adventure novel and it’s going to be published by Penguin in the US and the UK, and in four other countries, too!” I told my parents over Skype, and I wish I had thought to record their expressions. Their faces went entirely blank and they stared at me with huge eyes, like two fluffy bunny rabbits caught nibbling lettuce in the garden. Only in retrospect did I realize that this was the first time in my life that I had managed to truly shock them. And of course that in and of itself is a triumph, when you are a last child.
My friends were delighted for me, and there was general jubilation for several weeks on end. But eventually, one by one, they confessed that they had been very worried for me. One friend even said she had been convinced that I was slipping into a dangerous depression. When she learned that I had, in fact, been happier than ever before, she got a curious look on her face. “I always thought of you as such a transparent person,” she said. “But that was just a ruse, wasn’t it? Secrets are essential to you.”
Apparently they are. I will endeavor to keep them more often, now.
Bethany Schneider is Associate Professor of English at Bryn Mawr College, and writing as Bee Ridgway she is the author of The River of No Return (Kindle), released today, April 23, 2013.