Monday, July 25, 2016

WHY DO AUTHORS USE PEN NAMES?

By Jane Doe    (aka Valerie Capps)

Have you ever wondered why authors use pen names? I'm sure as writers we can all produce a list of reasons, but I have a theory that the word "Mother" would appear somewhere on most of our lists.

At fifteen years of age, I felt I had found my niche in life. Journalism was in my blood. I joined the school paper and the words seemed to flow naturally from my pen. My English teacher encouraged my writing and even submitted one of my fictional manuscripts, a short story about a teenage girl contemplating suicide, for competition. It placed second. I was thrilled, at least until my mother read the story. Then my budding career came to an abrupt halt.

Convinced that I was the girl in my story, Mother watched me constantly for signs that I might attempt to kill myself. She hid the prescription medicine, bought an electric razor, and suggested that I shower instead of bathe. She would even creep into my room late at night to make sure I was still breathing.

Mother showed my story to anyone in the family who would take the time to read it. If someone happened to mention it was well written, she would lower her voice to a conspiratorial whisper and remind him or her that "normal" people didn't think of such things. You couldn't just make up something like that!

After a while the family furor died down, but I was left with insecurity about allowing anyone close to me read my work. My constant self-censorship greatly hampered my creativity. I finally confided my problem to my English teacher and he told me a lot of authors felt the way I did. He suggested I assume a pseudonym, on the premise that what my mother didn't know wouldn't hurt her. He assured me that many great writers did this and pointed to Mark Twain as an example. I silently wondered if Mr. Clemens had also had a problem with his mother.

I took his advice and things went well for about a year. Then an article I had written for the school paper on drug abuse was reprinted in the local paper. What was worse, they printed my real name! It was right there in black and white for God and the world, and my mother to see! 

Needless to say, Mother was convinced my information had been obtained first hand. Using a fictitious name, she took me to a doctor (in another town, of course) for a physical. The doctor assured her that, considering the state of the world in the mid-sixties, I was within the range of normalcy for a sixteen-year-old and was not on drugs. Mother wasn't convinced and once again I suffered through weeks of covert surveillance as she searched for signs of a drug overdose. 

To Mother's relief, I finally gave up the fight and let my dream of becoming a journalist fade into oblivion. I settled into a nice safe career in business and started raising a family. The years passed and, as people are fond of saying, time healed the void left by my "lost love."  Or so I thought. 

One day we bought a new computer for the office. I installed it, and to check out the word processing capabilities, I typed a short anecdote about a paranoid computer and let it fly across the Internet. The phones came alive as coworkers and friends intercepted my e-mail. Everyone loved it. I was hooked again!

I wrote a short story and dropped it in the mail. It was accepted, published, and I promptly received a check for my work. After all this time, dare I believe I still had the knack? To prove to myself that my first publication in nearly thirty years wasn’t just a fluke, I took keyboard in hand and pounded out another story. Once again, my work was published. I was on a roll!

Somehow my mother, who rarely reads anything but the local paper, got word that I was writing again. She boarded the first bus out of town. (She has never flown—she insists that it is impossible for anything as heavy as a plane to stay airborne.) 

Mother traveled across three states, arrived at the front door with suitcase in hand and announced that she had just dropped by to see how we were doing. Mother stayed a week and for perhaps the first time in our lives we really talked. After all those years of tension and resentment, we finally reached an understanding. Mother agreed to accept that I was a fictional writer and my stories could possibly be the product of a very active imagination. In turn, I assured her I would always use a pen name when I wrote anything that might shock Aunt Mary or the Reverend Brown. Elated that I had finally removed the major stumbling block to a successful writing career, I put Mother on the bus for home.

With the problem of Mother solved, I finally began a romance novel that had been bouncing around inside my head for several months. My inhibitions gone, I proceeded with total abandon and was so excited with the results of my work that I let my husband read part of my first draft. It included a sizzling sex scene. 


“Hey, Honey,” he said, his forehead furrowed into a concerned frown as his gaze quickly scanned the pages of my manuscript, “just where did you come up with this story . . . “

17 comments:

  1. LOL, love this!!! I wonder if that's changed now that towns aren't quite as small anymore. If you live in a small town, what you write can become the local scandal. But if you live in a big city like Nashville, nobody knows what you write but your own close circle of friends and family.

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  2. I believe most writers have a filter that makes them hesitate when writing something that might shock or be controversial. I think writers get away with a lot more than we did fifty years ago. People don't shock as easily as they did in the last century. Plus there are still some people who read fiction as fact and think, "you just can't make up stuff like that!"

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  3. I'm still wondering where she gets some of her stories....

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  4. This is funny and sad. I guess as a parent, I could see where your mom might get the wrong idea, but still . . . I'm kind of in a different boat. I wanted to use my maiden name as a tribute to my parents, but it turns out that using your legal name is easier for payment reasons and whatnot. I might use it anyway, as I tend to write in different genres.

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  5. It was a different world in the '60s Tamara. It was not only the decade that changed a nation, it was also a time that changed family life. A time of innocence and hope changed to a time of anger and violence. My mother grew a lot during that time as well. A housewife widowed at age 38, she raised a young family on her own. She kind of grew up with us kids. Shortly before her death, she became a Grateful Dead fan. Hey, maybe I need to do a blog "Mama was a Deadhead"? Anyway, I do use my maiden name, mostly in honor of her achievements. She was a remarkable woman.

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  6. So glad you are writing without inhibition again, Valerie. It's obviously what you are meant to be doing. Can't wait to read some of your work and I promise I won't turn up on your doorstep, suitcase in hand with a concerned look on my face :) Go for it! All the best and enjoy the journey.

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  7. My parents don't have any problem reading my books (my dad really surprised me there). However, my son (who is 34) has bought all my books, but refuses to read them. He can't handle reading sex scenes his mother wrote. Haha!

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    1. That is so funny! Maybe someone can mark those passages for him so he can skip over the sex scenes. But what a shame that would be. ;-)

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  8. Oh wow. I guess I'm lucky that my mother refuses to read my work...

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  9. As a mother, I know she is very proud of you and your accomplishments. I wonder if maybe she doesn't want you to feel inhibited and secretly reads your work? Ooops, sorry I put that thought in your head... ;-)

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  10. What a great post! I can totally understand why some author's use pen names. I love that you and your mom came to a good place with your writing and that she understands you have an awesome imagination. :) Your husband's comment cracked me up!
    ~Jess

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  11. Thanks Jess. My mom was a remarkable woman. She came a long way from a very simple upbringing to a truly modern woman during the 1960s and 1970s. My husband is great and supportive, but when it comes to some of my writings he is still a work in progress... ;-)

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  12. My parents don't read my work, and this fills me with relief. I hid my writing for a long time worrying what other people would think. Thank you for sharing this about yourself. It's nice to know that we're not alone in what we do and how people react to us.

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  13. Wow, you hit the nail on the head. It took me a long time to decide to use my name. I've never liked being the center of attention; but, the idea that people think what I wrote is something I lived through is more than awkward. However, I am unpublished so it is no big whoop. lol

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    1. It is unnerving when people think your fiction stories are fact. At the insistence of the publisher, I published a story under my legal name back in the 1990s and it got a lot of attention. So much so I had people looking me up and contacting me directly. One was in Australia--thank heavens. If they had been local, I believe I would have had a stalker. To tell the truth, it was kind of scary anyway. It made me careful of what I publish under my legal name. Of course, with the internet it is more difficult to hide from the crazies.

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  14. LOL! I would think your husband would be thrilled with your creativity. ;) Oh my. I write clean reads, thinks I don't have to hide from family members, although sometimes I do worry what they think when they read my stuff. Honestly, I don't want to know.

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    1. I've moved away from the explicit stuff. As I said earlier, so many people think fiction is fact that it can be a little uncomfortable at my age. ;-)

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