When I was in grad school, I heard that female PhD candidates were still being told to publish under their initials rather than their names, because being a woman would impede their progress on the tenure track. We’ve come a long way, baby, and gender should no longer be the reason you’re not using your real name.
However, some writers do write and publish under pseudonyms. I can see why some people might want to write under an assumed name, especially if they’re just starting out, and need that extra layer of anonymity to help them release their writing inhibitions. A pen name is a kind of security blanket. Or a blank slate.
But adopting a pen name isn’t just for amateurs. Some writers who are already rock stars in one genre might want to try something new on for size without confusing their readers, or want to disguise their prolificacy. Three cases in point: Nora Roberts as J.D. Robb, Anne Rice as A.N. Rocquelare, and Stephen King as Richard Bachman.
You may not be Anne Rice, but you might decide to write under an assumed name for modesty’s sake. Let’s say your mom reads every single piece you churn out—but doesn’t know that you’re also writing super-charged erotic fiction under your “porn name” (your middle name plus the street you grew up on. That would make me Helena Baldwin. Posh, no?).
Perhaps you think your name is wretchedly boring, and you want your work to stand out. So, Mary Smith, maybe Mariah Smythe is a good option for you. Temper your creativity, though. The jury’s still out on Engelbert Humperdinck (born Arnold George Dorsey).
Maybe it’s the opposite: you think your name is too unusual. I always thought my maiden name was too difficult to spell and pronounce, so I spent countless teenage hours trying out new writerly identities. I still hadn’t figured out a great one by the time I got married, but taking my husband’s name made the exercise moot.
For some writers, the reasons for taking a pseudonym are much more personal. Writing an autobiographical account of child abuse, detailing your painful divorce, or fictionalizing the shenanigans of your old boss…these might be legitimate reasons for using a pen name. Some of these reasons fall under the category of CYA: Cover Your Ass.
Some reasons for using a pen name may be valid. But if you’re just shy about releasing your stories into the world and being vulnerable to public opinion, maybe being a writer isn’t for you. Your work will be read and judged and bought and promoted and rejected and critiqued and loved and forgotten. That’s part and parcel of the writer’s life.
As a dear friend of mine once said, “suck it up, buttercup.” It’s your work—own it!
Have any of you published under a pen name?