Really Real

I’m at the coffee shop. This is the last of a four-day stretch of revisions and tonight I’m winding down. I’ll be back at the office tomorrow and Thursday, after which I’ve got four more days lined up. Bring on the caffeine.

My sister asked me over lunch why I’m doing all this. Since I won’t publish under my real name (if I publish at all, this novel could well end up in a drawer or possibly the shredder), what’s the point? I would have thought it was about being recognized for your work, she said. Averil Dean doesn’t exist, so where’s the recognition?

I didn’t know how to answer her at first. Part of me understands what she means–after all, recognition is the goal of most creative endeavors, and until she asked I would have assumed it was the point for me as well. But considered in those terms, I’ve realized that maybe writing is not about recognition, or if it is, perhaps the word has come to mean something to me that has nothing to do with my name(s). After all, it’s still me, doing the work; whatever I call myself, these are still my hands. This is my mind, creating the story. This is my eye, my heart. Does it matter that I’m building a life as a writer, completely unconnected to my “real” self? Does it matter that you’d look right past me on the street?

No. Not to me, not anymore. My goals have evolved beyond that, or maybe they’ve shrunk. Writing has become deeply personal, an exploration of who I am and how I see the world. Whether I call myself Averil or Lauren or Zoë or Sue, recognition is beside the point except as it exists in me.

Though if someone wanted to throw some money my way, I’d tell them how to make out the check.

Do you associate recognition with your name? If you wrote and published anonymously, would it bother you not to claim your work?

60 responses

  1. Averil Dean certainly does exist, and I think she’s great. (At the risk of sounding like a kid talking about Santa, I must insist. Just because she’s made-up doesn’t make her unreal. She’s “she” instead of “you” but she is still alive in my mind. Being made-up is almost realer [sic] sometimes.)

    • I’ve had a long history of my ideas being rejected or scoffed at, only to see somebody else come up with the same thing, to encouragement and acclaim. Or maybe I’m just the emblem of the joke Betsy makes on her Amazon profile:

      How many writers does it take to screw in a light bulb?

      Two.

      One to screw it in, and one to say she thought of it first.

      My problem is that I don’t screw it in immediately upon coming up with the idea. I’m also often ahead of my time. I know, all crazy people think they’re ahead of their time. Sue me.

      I’ve been staying the past week in a place with no internet. Thanks for thinking of me. I’ve been thinking of you too. xo

      • I know what you mean, though I do think many of the ideas are similar in bookland. It really is about getting to the finish line first with whatever it is you’re clutching in your hot little hand. You should also perfect the hunch, to guard your pages until they’re ready for their close-up.

        Did you read the link Shanna posted at Betsy’s place?

        • »Did you read the link Shanna posted at Betsy’s place?«

          Nope. What day did she post that? I’m behind on my Betsy-reading.

          While I’m here, may I tell you how much it means to me that you punctuate and capitalize properly, even in the comments section? I know some people think it’s always casual Friday in Comment Land, but I really appreciate your pearls-lipstick-and-gloves approach.

        • Here’s the link she posted (yesterday): http://nymag.com/arts/books/features/69474/

          What brought it to mind was your point about ideas–who gets to use them and what it means to lose an idea to another writer. I was completely pissed off by the time I’d finished reading.

          And thank you. I’ve been known to go back and remove the period from Mr iPants’ name and add it back when I’m writing to Mr. Pulp–so I get it right for whichever side of the border the writer hails from. Probably that’s taking it one pearl too far.

          XO

        • Thank you for the link. I just read an essay about James Frey (and the whole veracity issue of memoir) in one of those Best American Essays books. I can’t read the whole article right now but it seems like JF is a desperate man, although not in the good way. He seems like a wannabe literary yet low-rent version of James Patterson, whom I actually have more respect for than this guy. James Patterson has at least a modicum of humility.

      • Or how many shrinks does it take to screw in a light bulb? One, but the light bulb has to really want to change.

  2. I think you’re on the right track about the purpose of your writing being personal. It certainly is for me; I try to hide behind a pen name (not very well, apparently). Should my writing be a success, I will still feel the satisfaction of it even if “Paul Lamb” gets the credit.

    • “Should my writing be a success, I will still feel the satisfaction of it even if “Paul Lamb” gets the credit.”

      Yes, exactly. Well, except for the “Paul Lamb” part. If Paul Lamb gets the credit for my smut-novel, he’ll find himself facing the business end of my stiletto.

  3. When I chucked my previous life and decided to write I was so proud. I would go out, armed with the secret knowledge that I was a writer, feeling good, looking for opportunities to tell people about the wonderful change I’d made, and to give them my name so they could watch for my future success. Six years later that feeling is long gone. The inequities and inanities of the writing business have bled all that nonsense from me. Now it is for the writing alone, and that could be enough. As you said, if someone wants to write a check, it would be great. But I’ve stopped holding my breath about it.

    • That’s how I felt starting out as a photographer. I was thrilled when someone asked me what I did, it felt magical to say it aloud. Now I try not to think about those years because the memory makes me feel like a failure. I know so many photographers with no feel for the craft, who’ve invested no time in learning about the tools of the trade, not even with an eye to redeem them, and they’ve succeeded. They have what I never will: a head for business. And common sense.

      This conversation is depressing, isn’t it, Joe?

  4. Yeah. Yeah. Big and fragile ego here. But I had an avatar on Wonkette a few years ago and it was fun to pretend to be someone else. I could tap into facets of my personality that were not always front and center, and I could write the most outrageous and offensive bullshit as long as it was passingly amusing.

    Online litmag >kill author has an interesting take on the issue of fame in writing. The editors remain anonymous, despite upsetting people because of it. They write, “We think the undue interest in who we are confirms our general belief that, as in so much of contemporary culture, the internet literary scene has fallen under the 21st century spell of the ‘cult of personality’.” (http://killauthor.com/)

    • The cult of personality issue is interesting. I like the fact that the editors are anonymous, though to be honest most of the names I hear in writerly circles go right over my head anyway. I’m not in the scene, and I’d be miserable trying to keep up. I don’t read the right books anyway.

      I can’t imagine you being offensive, Tetman. Why’d you do it? Did you save it for the pricks in the room or did you become one yourself just to see how it felt?

      • I’m in the scene and I can’t keep track. Most of the names I hear in writerly circles go right over my head, too, or around it or under it or through it without effect, like neutrinos. Already there was the phenomenon of MFA programs multiplying like weeds after a summer rainstorm, then came the Internet, which has had the effect of a singularity, a Big Bang expanding the informational cosmos in an instant.

        As for being offensive on Wonkette, I was offensive because Wonkette is a political website and being offensive was part of the game there. We all slung snark around to show each other how clever we could be. But it was an echo chamber of liberals. Occasionally someone not of the same political persuasion would drop by and we would pounce like cats on mice. It was fun! And shameful and pointless.

        • Well, you know, you have to pounce on the conservatives, they usually deserve it.

          The neutrinos line made me laugh. I always assume everyone else knows everyone else and I’m the only one who has no idea what the hell is going on. You’re a comfort to me, Tetman.

  5. When you sign up to direct-publish with Amazon, you provide them with your real name for the cheques. You can then publish books by ANY IDIOT. Case in point, look at me. You pen name doesn’t even need to have vowels in it. NO VOWELS. How do you like them apples?

    Also, isn’t pubbing under a pen name like wearing your favorite threadbare holey underpants under your nice clothes? Only you know! It’s your unsexy secret!

    I’ve given up on literary acclaim. I write a paranormal series. That second sentence is redundant.

    • For me it feels like French lace under polyester scrubs, but I get you.

      I don’t wanna direct publish, Ms. Marshmallow. I need HELP! Editing, marketing, validation, all of it. I’m a drunk on stilettos, looking for a sturdy arm.

      • I’d take a strong arm too, but nobody wanted me and goodness knows I tried to fling myself out there. Well, one day at a time. Get the effer finished first!

  6. I’ve posted several stories online under a pseudonym. I don’t mind not having my real name associated with them — they’re still being read.

    And who cares if people address their kind words or criticisms to a different name?

    She is still me and the words are still mine.

    But for published work? I want my Mom to be able to brag a little . . .

  7. This is something I’ve thought about a bit. And of course, it doesn’t matter which name you go by as far as the recognition goes, in that you yourself still know that all things said about you as a writer or whatever under that pen name are still said about you. You can still feel good that smart people realise you’re a great writer. You can still realise that people are idiots when they think you’re not a great writer.
    However, there’s another side to this coin, and I think maybe you know that, and there’s even some possibility that’s really what brought this blog post on.
    I, Harry iPants, am, in some ways, a fraud. By not using my real name here I am in some ways unaccountable for whatever I say, and if I publish under a pseudonym, same thing. This frees me, of course, to say the things I don’t really have the balls to take responsibility for. One translation of that is that my balls are fake. Paint them bright colours and hang them on your Christmas tree, they’re impotent squishy rotting fruit with a fancy paint job.
    On the other hand, some circumstances, such as the ones “Averil Dean” has had up to now, make it a necessity. Do the circumstances still make it a necessity ? Quite probably. Even your type of work coupled with your type of writing may make it so.
    As far as your question goes, I would actually really enjoy anonymity coupled with being a successful author. It’d be kinda cool to hear the contemptuous “oh yes, a writer are you?” from people, and to just say “well, we live in hope”, when you actually wrote that book they were just raving to you about.
    The best thing I’ve read today is this…
    “Writing has become deeply personal, an exploration of who I am and how I see the world. Whether I call myself Averil or Lauren or Zoë or Sue, recognition is beside the point except as it exists in me.”
    This is for you Sue…

    • Ha! A blast from the past. I promise you this: whatever else I am, whatever name I choose, I am NOT a boy.

      I think the issue of accountability is complicated. You may not be accountable to people you meet face-to-face–then again, you may, if they read you–but if you use a consistent moniker or pen name, you’ll still get called on the carpet for what you say. You do have to own it, or leave the name behind and start over. You’re accountable inasmuch as you want to keep the friends you’ve made or maintain some level of honesty in your current persona.

  8. mark twain
    lewis carroll
    george orwell
    george elliot
    JK Rowling
    ayn rand
    diablo cody
    george sand
    joseph conrad
    pablo neruda
    stan lee
    woody allen
    averil dean

    all pen names that created bodies of work that have moved people. right? who cares if it’s attached to the name your parents gave you or the one you made up for yourself. i don’t think it’s about the ego getting recognized, i think it’s about the work getting recognized.

    • “i don’t think it’s about the ego getting recognized, i think it’s about the work getting recognized.”

      Where were you when I was sitting there like a deer in the headlights trying to explain myself? This is all I needed to say. From now on I’m flying you in for every lunch date.

      (It cracked me up to find myself on a list with Neruda and Mark Twain. Ha!)

    • Good point about this. It’s still a form of recognition, an identity you can choose to wear more closely to your skin or looser. You could sign your books with your pen name, you could book tickets to hotel rooms under that name. Or it can just be the one on the front cover.

      I think the only thing that would get to me would be to work as a ghost writer. Too much ego here to have my work claimed completely as someone else’s.

      Oh, or maybe, if I knew another language sufficiently, working as a translator. You really have to be some kind of saint to do that.

      • I could totally be a translator. Aside from the fact that I know no other languages, of course. It would be like putting a huge puzzle together, trying to sort out the euphemisms and the patterns of language.

        • I bet the work would be incredibly satisfying – but the lack of recognition? The disproportionately poor sales of translated works? That would get to me after a while.

  9. In the beginning, years ago, I used my married surname. Then we split and I chose to give it back. I worked in graphic design for a while, and when I came back to writing I published a story or two with a swish literary-sounding name.

    But I felt silly. Now I am publishing my novel with my own name. Yes it will be nice to make Mum and Dad proud (maybe) and I’m at an age where I don’t care. My book isn’t hardcore like yours, although there are some leather scenes with a whip!

    Don’t change a thing. Now you are Averil for me. Hard-hitting, fragile, dirty. Walking in an empty park, sitting at a window. Don’t change a thing.

  10. I’m so proud of you. You really know how to see a thing through.

    I’m with Amy and Cat. Don’t change a thing. You’re perfect. You may decide later that it’s time to come out but if there’s anything holding you back from that, listen.
    I’m all for curtains to hide behind. The world is a nasty place.

  11. Maybe I’m confused, but isn’t your work still “recognized” even if you publish under a different name? I think she’s getting confused between being a famous person and having your work recognized and appreciated. Fame is something entirely different. The Kardashians are a prime example of fame.

    I am many people. I’m a handyman, a sailor, a writer, a mother, sometimes even a friend and a partner. The list goes on. The number of people who know me–who even *can* know me–in this totality are very few. The vast majority of people know me primarily as one of those things with mere hints of the others. Recognition of the me that is A Writer will always be separate from all the other things, whether I am using one name or twenty.

    • Another friend said something similar to me recently, about the limits we have in cyberspace in getting to know each other. And it’s true of course, we don’t really know each other, but in some ways I think we leave the most interesting parts of ourselves on the page.

      But that’s just me, maybe, because I’m so quiet day-to-day. I often think my writer-friends know me better than my husband does. I have a horror of boring people and my beloved is easily bored, so I’ve gone with mysterious in the hopes of keeping him.

      • I don’t think it’s limited to just the people you know online. The people I sail with know me primarily as someone who likes to sail and that’s what we talk about. The people who hire me to fix something know me as a person who knows how to fix things and that’s what we talk about. The people who know me as a mother talk to me about children. Etc, etc. A few people might put two facets of my life together and know me that way. My partner is probably the only one who can begin to appreciate me as a whole person.

        • Yeah, that’s very true, our lives are naturally compartmentalized. I think you’re very lucky to have one person in your life who appreciates the many facets of you the way your partner does. But even then . . .

  12. I’ve been thinking about this and am surprised to find I do want recognition under my own name. Not for the people I don’t know, but for those who taunt me for riding for free. Those who forget I clawed my way out the white trash bin, waited tables and changed sex stained sheets for school money, and worked just as hard as my husband to earn this chance. It’s shameful, yet I’d love to stuff a book with my name on it right in their faces. Vindication. I wish it didn’t matter. It does. I commend you for not letting the recognition define you.

  13. For me it’s not the personality that enjoys recognition, but the maker in me whatever her name, the spirit imagining, pulling the words together, he, she, whoever, sometimes needs a pat on the metaphorical back.

    Who you are shines through “Averil” and would make herself known by any other name you give her.

  14. Don’t you think we write for a lot of reasons? Recognition is part of it, but it fills a personal need, too. Most of the time, I’m, satisfied to have a way to exercise my creative muscle.

    I loved writing as my alter-ego. I miss her and her saucy ways. Now that I’m going back to work, I might adopt a new pen name to use for some of my more opinionated and racy writing/blogging.

    If using a pen name gives you the space and security to explore in ways you never could (for all kinds of reasons) as yourself, then that’s a reward in itself.

    • I haven’t read it but I will. It looks terrifyingly brainy, I may have to tackle it in the morning when I’m firing on at least three cylinders and swimming in coffee.

      • I’ve only read it once and I’ve saved it for further study and rumination. Those Frenchies can be so serious. Germans with chic accents (I stole that from someone).

  15. I guess having the name out there means something to me. I give much credit to those of you who use pseudonyms. To me, that indicates it’s less of an ego thing, and more a thing about personal pride. And that’s something to be proud of in itself.

  16. First, I must say… I’m in love with the woman in the photo.

    Second… I love your last line. That would ease the pain of a pen name.

    Lastly… I have made many charitable donations anonymously over the years, and recognition was never an issue. I am not a writer, but I think I would like to bask in some kind of light over something I wrote… hopefully pleasant. Is that what makes me different from the people amyg makes note of… maybe. Of course there are a lot of reasons for an alias, I’ve never needed one, but I do see her point. I think it would bother me.

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