I arrived at the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins in September 1985, bearing a box of books, a Kaypro word processor and a long blond wig I kept hidden in a box in the closet. I wasn’t out as transgender in those days, not by a long shot, but I did have the tools I needed to slip out of the house, once in a while, and prowl around Baltimore en femme. Then I’d head home, wash off the makeup and get ready for the workshop, taught by the writer John Barth.
We’d been told to call him Jack, but it seemed impossible. Barth was considered an Olympian of literary maximalism. In the vein of Borges, Pynchon and Calvino, his work combined erudition, parody and the sense that a novel might be, among other things, a comment on itself. Even if the high-water mark of maximalism in American literature had come and gone by then — the writers in my workshop were more likely to dream of becoming the next Raymond Carver or Ann Beattie — Jack was revered for his teaching. We sat there, enthralled as he introduced his theory of plot (“the gradual perturbation of an unstable homeostatic system and its catastrophic restoration to a new and complexified equilibrium”) or compared the structure of dramatic action to a love affair. I can still see him smiling wickedly, saying, “There’s a reason they call it ‘climax.’ ”
I was working on a novel called “The Invisible Woman” at the time, a story that was meant to be Barthian in its comic self-referentiality, but which, in the end, turned out to be inescapably Boylanesque — a tale of a woman who had to keep herself hidden, lest the unforgiving world discover her identity. It would take me years to understand the obvious: I wasn’t writing a novel, but a memoir, and the woman in hiding was, of course, myself.
On the 40th anniversary of the founding of Hopkins’s Writing Seminars, the university staged a reading by the program’s professors. That was the first time I heard Jack read “Night-Sea Journey,” a short story narrated by a sperm. “I’ve begun to believe, not only that Sheexists, but that She lies not far ahead, and stills the sea, and draws me Herward!” he says.
I did reach Her in the end, if by Her I may refer to my own female self, the woman I finally embraced and unveiled to the world just shy of my 42nd birthday, a woman who was welcomed with almost inconceivable grace by my colleagues and my family. I found the very thing the narrator of “Night-Sea Journey” tries to forswear, the unrefusable summons of “Love! Love! Love!”
I can trace the courage to make the transition back to Barth, from whom I learned a lot about writing but even more about the art of revision. He taught me how to see my life as a story and rewrite it, finding the narratives that brought sense to the chaos. I came to understand that embracing my identity had more to do with genre than gender: The life I was living needed to be truth, not fiction, and in order to live that truth, I needed to get on with the daunting project of creating a new draft.
I wasn’t sure how Jack would react to the news of my transformation. While I thought of him (or at least his characters) as sexually adventurous, transgender issues in those days were still seen as exotic, even by the liberal and openhearted. But one day I got a lovely little email, in response to my memoir titled “She’s Not There.” Jack wrote, “I should say she is very much there, Boylan — or should I say, Girl-land?” The offhand pun on my name, the loving acknowledgment that I had indeed moved from Boy-land to Girl-land, was Barthian to its core.
A few years later, Colby College, where I was teaching, gave Jack an honorary degree. There we were, together again, after all those years — teacher and student, writer and writer. At a celebratory dinner, Jack addressed the faculty and spoke about thinking about life as a story, the very process that had saved me, both in and out of his classroom, half a lifetime before. He repeated his definition of plot, his definition of life: “It’s — all together now, Boylan — the gradual perturbation of an unstable homeostatic system and its catastrophic restoration to a new and complexified equilibrium.” I said it along with him, word for word, for a short, strange moment, a student again, still young, all the triumph and turmoil of life still far ahead.
He returned to the table and embraced me. “Nicely done, Jack,” I said. He replied, “Nicely done yourself, Girl-land.” I should have just let go of him, let him return to his chair. But instead I held him just a little bit longer, that great, kind genius of American literature, and thought — well, what else? Love! Love! Love!