We writers can be a vain bunch. We write because we think what we have to say is magnificently important, and we think that we articulate these magnificently important thoughts in magnificently impressive ways. Often this is true. Sometimes it is not. Even when it isn’t true, we’ll never admit it. Such is the nature of the writer. So why, for fuck’s sake, would anybody ever want to write under a name other than his or her own?
Well, a lot of the best writers in history wrote under pen names, so there’s gotta be some sort of legitimate reason, right? Mark Twain, O. Henry, George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), Charlotte Bronte published Jane Eyre under the male name, Currer Bell. Now, luckily we live in a world where female writers don’t need to write under male pen names, but there are still some definite upsides to writing under a name other than your own.
One of the main things is that you can deal with topics unabashedly and without inhibitions. Maybe you’re writing a pretty intense and intimate love scene, and you’re a little hesitant to send it out and risk friends or family reading it.
There is also a certain allure to operating in secret. It helps the mind go to a different, more writerly place. By day, you are yourself and you go by your given name—but at night, when writing, you are somebody else entirely. A new name, a new person, an anonymous writer who writes unapologetically and is daring and bold. A Jekyll and Hyde of sorts, except rather than turning into a frightful monster, you just turn into a frightfully good writer. You hole yourself up in your atelier in the wee morning hours, a different self, tapping away at your keyboard, channeling a new personality, creating a work of genius.
Sounds fun, right? But here are some drawbacks. First off, it’s hard to choose a pen name. You think it’d be easy, right? Wrong. This is your alternate identity. This is your writer name. This is a huge deal. Make it right. Think about good writer names—Flaubert. Twain. Kipling. Orwell. Pynchon. Hemingway. Salinger. Fitzgerald. The list goes on and on. But these are just last names, even. First names are even harder. Personally, I find that emulating J.K. Rowling in this respect is a good option. E.E. Cummings. E.M. Forster. All great writers, all great names. Don’t even get me started on three part names—David Foster Wallace, Garth Risk Halberg, etc.—if you want to go the three-part pseudonym route, more power to you.
Another drawback is that you may feel like you forfeit some ownership of your work. Let’s say you publish your novel, your baby that you’ve been working on for years, and you do it under a pseudonym. Let’s say it becomes a massive success, because of course it does. What then? All the recognition belongs to your pseudonym. But then again, sounds kind of fun, right? Going to a reading or a book signing, having an entirely different signature for your author-self, and then going home and answering to a different name.
Many of us already feel like we’re somebody else when we write. We silence our phones, lock our doors, and shut out the world so we can focus on what we love doing—writing. Why not adopt an entirely new identity for this side of ourselves? Why not create a new name.