I’ll be on a panel at Pure Spec this weekend with the insightful and entertaining S.G. Wong and Rhonda Parrish. It’s called “Author Incognito” and is all about what it’s like to write with a pen name.
Having had my pen name for a relatively short period, there are a few things I’ve learned that might help you on your own cattle-cart ride through the ether.
When I switched to my pen name, I migrated my website and had to systematically remove mentions of my previous publications under a different name. I didn’t do this because I was ashamed of what I’d published. Not at all. I did it because I wanted to create a separate identity from my original one, and if I maintained all those ties, it would defeat the purpose of a pen name for me.
Authors have differing opinions in this regard. I might change my mind on this later, but for now this is where I sit.
An important requirement for me was to maintain different author and professional personas. In order to keep employment options open as a teacher, I had to minimize my online presence as much as possible (again, there are examples of author-teachers who ignore this, but I take a ‘prepare for the worst’ approach). This directly conflicted with the requirements of being an author: being accessible online, having a visible platform, and being a multi-national award-winning flame juggler.
This is what the pen name does for me: it allows me to keep these spheres separate, and make this cognitive dissonance possible. For the outside world, teacher-me barely has an online presence, while author-me will hopefully be part of a blooming utopian community of interested readers, creators, and acrobats.
I’m not going to lie. It was hard to “say goodbye” to my previous publications by removing their presence from the website. It felt like, in many ways, those words hadn’t mattered. In those moments, I try to remind myself that they did, they have, and they will. I try to reframe the situation as an opportunity to start fresh with many years (decade(s)?) of experience under my belt.
The other issue is whether or not I can be happy not seeing my real name on the page when a work is published. Can my ego, delicate after continuous rejection, handle not getting credit when I finally pass the gatekeepers? For me, that was why the creation of the pen-name had to contain so much of me. I entertained the notion of a random name, but nothing really felt a part of me, even when I’d try to roll the names around in my head for several days. In the end, I had to choose something that was an amalgam of things I identified with.
Part of this creation involved getting feedback from others. People I trust and respect told me it was important for my author name to be easy to spell, pronounce and remember. There is definitely some cultural bias in that suggestion, but I can see its merits nonetheless. In the end, I opted for the name you see before you. I believe that it meets my need to see myself on the page, though it is and always will be a little different from seeing my real name there.
Before anyone asks, no, my name was not at all intended to be reminiscent of Joe Haldeman. Although I did love The Forever War.
That’s my take on pen names, for now. Now get back to cultivating the circus of your own split-personality lives.