A couple of miles’ ramble from our house…
…is the tiny village of Ayot Saint Lawrence. It is most famous for being the home of writer George Bernard Shaw. Less well known is it’s where historian/novelist Carola Oman (pronounced, her niece noted, “…not Oman like an oil-rich sultan. It’s pure Viking with the stress on the first syllable.”) also lived for a time, and died in 1978; and over in the US on a Catskills bookshelf, I have a first edition of her 1953 Sir John Moore biography, which I’d bought in a second-hand bookshop in St. Mary’s in the Isles of Scilly (pronounced, uh, “silly”) thirteen years ago…
…and obviously, uh, I’m digressing there. 😉
Anyway, back at the weekend, I was sitting in the beer garden in Ayot’s only pub: the Brocket Arms, which is far older than either George or Carola…
…with my wife and our girlfriend when amidst the chatter around us, I overheard a college age American man with English friends at a picnic table next to ours.
He sounded as if he was visiting, and they had largely finished eating and left not long after we sat down.🇺🇸🇬🇧 Not to be negative about a fellow countryperson, but from what I did overhear I wish we had turned up a few minutes sooner. I can always use new material and he sounded like the type of “brash” traveler I enjoy fictionalizing.😂
As a result, my writing came to my mind…
…and I reflected for a few moments on how I feel much freer to write mostly because I use a pen name… and that fact led eventually to this blog post. I had started writing under one because of the nature of the stories I had initially wanted to tell. Simply put, I did not want family and friends finding my novels on, say, Amazon…and declaring, “Whoa! What the heck has he been writing? Am I in here? I’d better not be…”
The pros and the cons of anonymity on the internet remain hotly debated and will likely continue to be. Authors using pseudonyms fortunately do not appear to face the same levels of criticism and scrutiny from some quarters. Well, at least they don’t as of yet. (Although there are always efforts to unmask successful pseudonymous authors.)
Using a pen name is something that has existed since the beginning of the written word. Concealing one’s identity as an author is done for a variety of motives. Sometimes the reason may be as innocuous as a real name not seeming conducive (a writer or publisher believes) for marketing purposes, as in Downton Abbey creator Julian Fellowes having written romance novels under a female pseudonym.
Words can be much like roses. Roses are beautiful, but as we know they also have sharp thorns. Words may be beautiful too, however of course they have their figurative thorns as well.
The “why” an author conceals their identity is sometimes rooted in concerns beyond mere marketing. It may stem from a desire to write in a manner an author feels cannot be done if their real name is attached to the book, which may stretch to include fears of retribution from a government or others. Relatedly that is why real names are normally changed within fiction as well: to avoid real life hurt feelings, misunderstandings, and perhaps even legal troubles.
More fiction writers use pen names than you as a reader may realize. I know several who do. In turn, those writers know what my real name is; regardless, anyone really determined to do so could probably pretty easily discover my true identity anyway. In fact several readers have told me they have figured out who my now late uncle was.
After keeping my writing hidden from my uncle for two years, the year before he died in 2015 I finally told him what I had been doing. He was far more interested in the writing than in my character sourcings (which was a huge relief), said he enjoyed reading about what “I” had thought of him at times, and claimed he was not offended by any of it. More interesting to him had been my personal memories of decades’-past happenings he asserted he had largely forgotten about until rereading of them in the books. (He read my first two.) Indeed he got a kick also out of recollections of him shared with me by others, such as this exchange “I” had with his French then publisher:
Someday it may no longer matter to you if your real name is emblazoned across your book covers. You may have the luxury no longer to worry about what family, friends, or even what your employer, or a potential future employer, may think in discovering them. Until then, though, for personal reasons that are no one else’s business you may not want the world to know at a glance that it is you doing that writing, and that the world doesn’t know it is not unreasonable of you to desire.
“If we have nothing to conceal,” we are often lectured, “we have nothing to fear.” Hmm. Whenever I come across that statement, I recall as well the words put into the mouth of the fictional, and iconic, “Sam Spade,” private detective: “Everybody has something to conceal.”
If you want to write, but feel nervous about writing under your real name, my suggestion is don’t give a second thought to reinventing yourself in the form of a pseudonym. While always remembering that it is highly unlikely the real you will remain a secret forever, if you believe life necessities demand it a pen name will provide you some cover. In “distancing” and “separating” you from the real you possibly for years to come, a pen name may also help spur on your creativity.
Have a good day, wherever you are in the world. 🙂