No, it's not an afterthought (P.S. I killed your cat) or a reference to a Public School, or, as jokingly suggested by a coworker with those initials, a cryptic declaration of love. It is the Library of Congress classification number (LCCN) for me as an American author (PS) of the 21st century (36xx) whose last name begins with H (08, H is 8th letter of the alphabet), second letter e, third and fourth letters (re) represented by numbers, as on a phone (.E375) with an alphanumeric representation of the title of my first published novel, Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander (P49) and the year it was published: PS3608.E375 P49 2008. In cataloging terms, it is a "local" LC-style number. The official LCCN has even more elements, and this shorter version was as much as seemed practical to ink onto my arm.
When I posted the image on Facebook, I received very few Likes. I imagine most literary friends were appalled. Why would I want to carve a reference to a first novel, by definition imperfect, flawed, at best a prediction of better, major works to come, at worst a sad reminder of failed promise, into my 62-year-old sagging flesh?
Many people think the design is weird: confusing, complicated, crowded. Maybe I'm suffering from early-onset dementia or having a much-delayed midlife crisis. Better not to ask. A few older people recoiled at the sight, and I was asked several times, in the concerned tone used for dealing with the suicidal and fragile: "It won't come off?"
No, it won't, unless I have it removed. Apparently all tattoos fade over time, but for the near future it is here to stay. And that's why I did it. One of the most disappointing aspects to me of Phyllida's fleeting fame was its fleetness. How often are we warned that the Internet is forever, to be careful what you post online because it will never go away. And yet, a couple of years ago, I discovered to my sorrow that the links on my website to the glowing reviews Phyllida had received had all disappeared. The pull quotes I had copied are all that remains. To find the full text, the proof that Booklist and Library Journal had thought Phyllida quite special, one must identify the date of the issue and plow through microfilm at a public library.
However flawed, Phyllida represents the moment in my life when pleasure and fun and creativity all came together in one (almost) perfect moment. People find this fact so uncomfortable that they laugh, or deny it, or decide they can no longer be friends with me, so I will try to say it quickly and move on: I am one of those people who need to do creative things with their hands. Play the piano, knit, carpentry. The fact that I don't have hands has caused me unimaginable frustration. My brain, like all human brains, is wired for hands. And all humans, even those who have no interest in musical instruments, woodworking or handicrafts of any kind, are defined by a deep, inextricable connection between brain and hands, for language, thought, speech, communication and creativity. If you know me and think I am good with language, with words, then you are seeing the brain part of me that is constantly asking WtF?!? as it is unable to receive the satisfaction of its desires from the messed-up equipment of my arms.
When personal computers became available, it occurred to me that writing could be a way to relieve that pent-up creativity through my "fingers." I can't touch type, but I can type. After a few years of pleasure and not very good prose, I wrote Phyllida--imperfect, flawed--but with enough of me, my voice, that indescribable something that editors look for when deciding to take a chance on an unknown author.
A year after publication, I had the happiest day of my life when I was invited to an invitational conference on romance fiction and popular culture at Princeton University and gave my presentation on my firstborn child, in an appropriate comic style, and was applauded. I suspect that most of the people there, including scholars Pamela Regis and Sarah Frantz Lyons, and organizers William A. Gleason and Eric Murphy Selinger, discovered that the creator of Phyllida was not exactly what they had imagined, not a professional romance author, but for that short time it was magic.
In a much-earlier post I referred to the cliche of writing as a painful process: "I just sit at the typewriter and open a vein." I said that when writing stopped being fun I would quit. Over the past few years I have struggled, not admitting that the fun had stopped a long time ago. Maybe I was lightheaded from blood loss. Although I was still writing fiction, and fantasy, the subject was too painful, too autobiographical, too close to my reality. Challenging to turn into successful comedy, but too serious to write as anything except comedy.
Recently I have considered pursuing other pleasures: acting, teaching. Even my day job, the library cataloging, has become a greater source of satisfaction, with its logic puzzles of subject analysis and exposure to works on natural history and science.
So this is what Phyllida means to me. As a novelist and a cataloger, I saw this LCCN as the perfect way of memorializing my pleasures on my body, my body that has thwarted and stifled my creativity, that has allowed me so little creative satisfaction. As a writer, can I do better than Phyllida? Of course. But will I ever have that great pleasure, that big O of a first orgasm that Phyllida became? I doubt it.
On my arm is proof that I had it once.
Finally, a genuine PS:
To the readers who prefer my second novel, Pride/Prejudice: Thank you! I am grateful that my different style and subject, however misleadingly similar on the surface, appealed to some readers. You are not forgotten, but for now I am content with this one LCCN. My next tattoo, and I'm already thinking about it, will be very different.