Fear and Bravery of Pseudonyms
At the AWP bookfair, Michael Kimball showed me a copy of this pretty little book, Normally Special, by a writer called xTx. I asked Michael something like, “what’s the deal with the name?” He said she was a writer who publishes stuff under her real name, but also uses this pseudonym when she writes stuff she doesn’t want her family to read or kids to read. I asked Michael if anyone knew who the writer was and he said maybe Roxane Gay, since she had published the book, but maybe nobody else knew. “I don’t think I’d want to read any of that other stuff anyway,” he said.
Tiny back story: When I was twelve or thirteen I learned how to code HTML so I could build websites. It was 1999 and compared to now, the internet was pretty barren place. I built a website for my church’s Youth Group because I was really into that kind of thing, a fan site for Sheryl Crow because I was really into her first two albums, and I published my own stories on a Geocities page because I wanted someone to read things I’d written, just so long as I didn’t have to answer to it.
Another story: A few years ago, a mentor of mine from New Orleans came to visit New York and we had coffee. He was the one who got me to move to New York in the first place, the one who told me to go to grad school, the one who made me excited about creative nonfiction. He published a very autobiographical novel about his childhood in Louisiana and told me his mother had a hard time with the way the mother character was represented in the book. Over our coffee, he asked me what I was working on and I said, somewhat embarrassed, that I was working on a memoir. He asked me if my family knew and I said not really and he said, “Don’t talk to them about it until it’s done. They’ll change your memories, they’ll change your story without even trying.” (A loose quote, of course, but you get the picture.) Most importantly, he told me, You can’t write a good story if you’re worried about what someone is going to think about it, if you’re worried about hurting someone’s feelings.
I was about 23 when he told me that, and I knew it was important, but it took a year for this to sink in. I wrote a first draft of a book that was filled with worry about what different people would think about it. I ended up throwing the whole thing away.
So. When Michael said he wouldn’t want to read anything that xTx wrote under her real name (I’m assuming xTx is female), I was reminded of this earlier lesson, the trashed memoir and my lost Geocities site. I’m not sure (but I could guess) what the thirteen-year-old me was writing about or why she didn’t want anyone in her life to read it. But I know precisely what kind of writing happens when you’re worried about someone else’s feelings or about what people will think of you.
Bravery is essential to all writing, but of course it gets complicated if there is a legitimate peril in that writer’s life. I don’t know what the whole story is with xTx, but it’s plausible that there is some kind of real threat in her life and that if certain people she knows read Normally Special, she might be put in some real danger.
Or maybe that’s just what I want to believe. Normally Special knocked the breath out of me several times and I would hate to think that someone in my own life could have this kind of talent and stories in her, and keep them from me. Hurting someone’s feelings by speaking the truth, whether it’s your husband’s, your mother’s, or your friends’ feelings, isn’t reason enough to hide your writing. Though it’s hard (and I know because I still haven’t given my full manuscript to anyone other than my agent and the prospective agents before her) in the end, I believe that it’s worth it. As for a thirteen-year-old’s juvenilia, well, maybe that’s better left on an unmarked Geocities page.
Update: Sorry to upset anyone about this. I feel like I was a little unclear and some things got misconstrued here, so I’d like to quickly add something. Of course everyone is free to write whatever they want under whatever names they want. I am merely wondering what happens when anyone separates a strand of their writing from the rest of their writing– what would be the motivations behind that? Self-protection? A feeling of freedom? Both? Neither? Speculating if maybe a writer was abused or has some kind of pain in their past that has motivated them to use a pseudonym so they can protect themselves and their family in the present– to me that is not shit talking at all. Just the opposite. I have things in my past that have seeped into my writing (fiction or non) that I know people who know me will read and recognize and be hurt by in some way. That’s life. I’ve wondered about using a pseudonym. I continue to wonder. I was just trying to get a dialogue started about it. I am certainly not trying to shit-talk xtx, and I probably should have been more sensitive about the way I wrote that post. Really sorry to have upset anyone by this. That wasn’t my intention at all.