What’s In a (Pen) Name?

pen name tagAt this week’s meeting, as a number of writers have recently completed first drafts of their novels, our leader Greg Smith was gathering official titles and author names with which to update our website (agilewriters.org).

This mere housekeeping activity opened into an organic discussion by the group of the decisions surrounding Pen Names. Of course there is strong historic precedent for writing under one or more pseudonyms. (Mark Twain, Lewis Carroll, George Eliot, J.K. Rowling, and Stephen King as Richard Bachman, to name a few.) The reasons for adopting a Pen Name are numerous, and the issues surrounding these reasons are varied. Some of the most common reasons are as follows:

• To protect one’s privacy.
• To avoid confusion with another author of the same or similar name.
• To differentiate between an author’s work across several genres.
• To conceal the gender of the author.
• To provide cohesion when multiple authors work collectively on one work or a series of works.

But we live in the era of the internet, of social media platforms created to funnel in readers. I wonder if the game has changed?

The author’s photograph on the back jacket or “About the Author” page has become standard practice. Most contemporary writers maintain a presence through a website, blog, facebook, twitter, or other media outlets in order to support and facilitate the sale of their books.

We, even as private individuals, share more of our lives and selves in public spaces—that is, figurative online “spaces”—than ever before. We expect to have nearly unlimited access to and information about those in public life through twenty-four hour news outlets and other, similar mediums. Will our readers have that same expectation? Are they buying more than just the book? Are they buying into a persona? And how does that effect the decision to use a Pen Name?

For one thing, I think it is much more difficult to maintain a completely private identity in the modern world. If your book(s) garner any following at all, someone is likely to figure out who you are and share that information publicly. After all, Richard Bachman was exposed as Stephen King. And all we need to do is google J.K. Rowling to learn that she was born Joanne Rowling on July 31, 1965.
I suppose we could put that into the category of “A Nice Problem to Have” and one that we will worry about once we get a call to accept our Pulitzer Prize and thus have to reveal our true identities.
As for the reasons behind wanting a Pen Name, are they all still relevant in light of our super-connected societies? I think most of them still hold weight for new authors. There is one that unsettles me, though: the category of female authors writing under male pseudonyms, and similarly replacing “ethnic” names into more mainstream Pen Names.

I’m not denying that there is some tension here between the reality of our society and the way I might wish it to be. That is an unavoidable truth. The considerations of prejudice and its effect on the salability of one’s work are real and necessary. I won’t speak ill of authors who have chosen, many under good professional counsel, to adopt a Pen Name for these reasons. I will say that personally I hope this reason for concealing one’s identity becomes a thing of the past.

I, for one, intend to publish under my own name. Maybe it’s the least I can do to further the cause of normalizing the presence of a female author in any genre? Maybe I will switch genres and use a Pen Name one day? I can’t definitively say that I won’t.

I do appreciate having a group of Agile Writers with whom to have these open discussions. I’m curious about your take on this complex, personal choice.

Are you writing under your own name or a Pen Name? What shaped your decision?
Please share in the comments below!

Quiet the Chatter of Your Mind

indexHere at Agile Writers, we have a mantra “Constantly Move Forward.”

There are so many ways to get stuck. A novel is a long project. A snafu at any juncture can derail the whole venture.

We explored one common obstacle to the writing process this week in our weekly “Craft of Writing” installment.

Periodically, we choose a book about the craft of writing to wade through as a group. Individual members volunteer to read, digest, and present a chapter to the larger group every week. We are currently nearing the end of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. This week’s chapter, “Radio Station KFKD,” dealt with the kinds of “static” found in writers’ heads. Lamott says that “as writers we have very noisy heads” (I’d modify that to say “as people”–but maybe it’s more problematic for writers/creatives than others?). She breaks down the internal chatter into two categories: positive and negative.

You might think that the positive internal chatter (about how special, gifted, talented, brilliant and wonderful we are) would be helpful and encouraging. Actually, Lamott says (and I wholeheartedly agree) that both the positive and the negative internal chatter are equally detrimental to the act of writing. Obviously, dwelling on our doubts, mistakes, and past failures can cripple our capacity to do creative work of any kind, including writing.

Lamott says we need to quiet our minds. We need to find ways to tone down all of the chatter–positive and negative–flooding our internal radio waves. When we are quiet, we can dip into the world of our story. We can hear the characters clearly. We can intuit what they will do next. We can write from an unobstructed and attuned space within us.

But, how do we quiet the chatter?

For me, that’s where Agile Writers comes in. My own Inner Critic got installed a long time ago. She knows what to say to stop me in my tracks. For years, I couldn’t even allow myself to write anything that was important to me because I was certain I would fail and make a fool of myself. The chatter in my brain sounded something like this:

“You’re a talented writer. If only you had the time to write…”

“Who do you think you are? You’re not a writer. You’re a wannabe.”

“If you write something, and by some fluke it gets published, everyone you know will read it and laugh at you.”

“You’re so selfish. Writing is something that people can do who don’t have families and careers and people depending on them.”

Over the last year, these voices have been slowly silenced by other voices. There is something so powerful about sitting in a room surrounded by people who are brave enough and humble enough to show up with their dream, the same dream you have–the dream to write–and act on it, week after week.

I got in my car after my first Agile Writers meeting, where everyone had applauded me just for showing up (as we do all new attendees), and tears came to my eyes. And I thought, maybe I can do this. Maybe with the support of the people in that room, I can really take a stab at this dream of writing.

I know I’m not alone in this. The support and accountability of a community of writers is a valuable antidote to the chatter in our own minds. Weekly progress check-ins at Agile Writers force us to keep one foot in the world of our novels-in-progress at all times. The support and honest assessments of our critique partners keep us grounded in a more comprehensive assessment of our work. The structure of the Eight Stages of Agile Writer Novels give us a map, so that when the “static” of doubt or self-aggrandizement comes, we know how to keep going, how to take the next small step and keep moving forward.