The poet Theodore Roethke once admonished his readers to “Be sure that whatever you are is you.” That’s sound enough advice. But, like a lot of good advice, it goes largely unheeded in contemporary society. Most of us, at times, transform ourselves in a thousand small ways to fit the expectations, desires and prejudices of those around us – particularly if we have something to gain by way of their approval.
To be sure, there are those roaming about in civil society who, quite frankly, don’t really give a damn. They are who they are, take them or leave them. These devil-may-care standouts are occasionally admired for their strength of self-identity. But, for the most part, this kind of flagrant disregard for the weight of others’ opinions is frowned upon, even vilified, either as the result of some mental defect or the outward manifestation of a coarse, unrefined character. Swimming against this stream can take its toll. Roethke, in struggling to smooth all the murky bits of his inner being into the lines of his poetry, worked himself into repeated breakdowns and eventually died of a heart attack. “You see, look at the price he paid!,” says that damnable little inner voice – the one that becomes increasingly loud the closer we come to any honest creative expression.
As small children we are taught the bounds of appropriate and inappropriate social behavior – a necessary enough undertaking, within reason. But we often continue to parent ourselves in the most stifling way as adults, bottling up and hiding our creative energy lest it offend, bore or otherwise interfere with the adult world around us. “Hush now,” we tell ourselves at the first inclination to creative energy, “the grown-ups are talking.”
Okay, I’m sure some of you at this point are asking “Who the heck is this ‘we’ he’s prattling on about?” You may be completely secure in your artistic or creative expression. You use and express your God-given gifts without reservation. To you, I say “Mazel tov!” Sincerely, I congratulate you. But this has not been my experience. Everything above about bottling up creative energy and hiding its expression from public view, lest it be undesirable: I do that. All of it. And, perhaps some of you do too. For me, this has been nowhere more prevalent than in my reluctance to publish my creative writing without use of a pen name.
I overcame this reluctance – okay, let’s just call it fear – when I recently published my short story “Taking Out the Tree” under my own name. I finished the story years ago, and put it up on Amazon under a pen name (thanks to all three of you who read it back then – you rock!). Publishing it now, sans pen name, was the impetus for this post. Putting it out there and sharing it to all my friends and family felt very much like getting undressed in the town square – a significant accomplishment for someone who hates taking off his shirt at the pool. But it’s out there now, so why the hesitation over using my own name?
This reluctance to see my name in print may seem odd to those who know me, or who knew me when I worked as a newspaper writer and columnist. For six years I worked every day (and I loved it!) collecting and compiling words into story. It didn’t matter if it was a rewrite of a press release, an editorial on local government or a feature piece on an old lady and her freakishly over-sized apple (it was rather large) – the words were crafted into a story I was proud to tell. Some of these pieces were, setting aside all false humility, pretty darn good. Some, written in haste or out of an insufficiency of interest, were middling – sufficient, but not great. And, I’m sure there were a few mixed in there that fit Stephen King’s quip about “shoveling shit from a sitting position.” But, regardless of where the work fell in the spectrum from manure to magnificent, I expected my name to be on the byline. Even if it was crap, it was my crap, and I looked forward to seeing my name there in black and white each morning. Had my name not appeared there, or worse yet another’s appeared in my place, I would have been furious. I would have thrown my coffee mug at the editor’s desk. Or I would have at least protested very loudly. Okay, I would have bitched about it on the way home. To myself. But, you get the point: it was my work and I wanted my name on it.
But, this was not the case when I started writing short stories a few years back. Newspaper stories were fine. No matter how painful, joyous or sensational the content, it was someone else’s story. I could write about the pain of a mother who lost a child to cancer, the shame of a pastor who traded the trust of his congregation for a few moments of indiscretion with a teenage parishioner, or the abounding joy of a couple who adopted a child after years of failed attempts at pregnancy. I could immerse myself in the story and give an honest effort at the telling of it without hesitation for one simple reason: it wasn’t my story. But, you start writing fiction – baby, that’s all you. No matter how beautiful or ugly, innocent or sordid the content, whatever you spill out onto the page comes from you, and nowhere else. And when the tongues of your critics (imagined and real) begin to wag, they have no-one to wag at but you.
I worried myself immensely over this when I started writing fiction, or even non-fiction if it strayed too close to home. This worry stemmed in part from the very reason I started writing stories. I was going through divorce, which was really just the culmination of a long and painfully dysfunctional relationship, all garnished with depression over losing my career in the Navy to something vaguely diagnosed as both epilepsy and definitely not epilepsy. In short, I had a lot of crap to sort out, and writing became a form of private cathartic exercise. I’d write small bits at a time, often going months between lines of a short story. But, whenever I needed them, the characters were waiting for me. And if I needed them to go through everything I’d been through and worse, they never complained.
So, why hide this work behind an invented name? There’s a thousand well thought-out and entirely appropriate reasons to use a pseudonym. Perhaps the most legitimate reason is that I write or intend to write across a variety of genres. If I write a wonkish piece on Machiavelli’s theoretical view of American politics (yes, I’m writing that…it’s going to be huger than Trump’s hair), and then I write with my wife a non-fiction memoir about faith, love and business (indeed, it’s in the wordsmith shop) and then I crank out a collection of short stories – those are all going to appeal to different audiences. To some extent it makes sense to use different names, and undertake the extra brand development and marketing, if the genres are in some way incompatible. But, it’s not like I’m writing children’s stories by day and alien vampire erotica by night. That author needs different and carefully compartmented pen names, but that author is not me. Seriously, it’s not me. So, circling back around, why the pen name?
Again, there’s thousands of reasons – excuses, really – but they all boil down to one nagging question: “What will people think?” I could write stories in which everybody has their shit together, always live life as they ought to, never question their faith or do things which they will regret. Then I’d never have to worry about what people might think about the deep recesses of my being. But that’s not life. That’s not the world in which we live. And if I’m going to go through the struggle of wrapping words around truth, I want it to be truth. I want to explore faith through the lives of those who have lost it, love in the hearts of those who feel totally cut off and light in the steps of those who walk in darkness.
But, what will people think? What will my friends think if I write a character who is deeply depressed? Will my wife be concerned if I conjure a story about divorce? What if the many bosses of my day job find offense in a character who has fallen out of faith, or (egad!) professes the “wrong” faith, drinks too much, indulges in well-seasoned profanity or is not compliant in every way with their preferred world view? What, oh what, will they think? This perverse little question lends itself to all manner of rationalizations to conceal my work. We own a business, which may be hurt if people are offended. Our families may not understand. The pastor may begin to worry. Friends may talk. People we don’t even know might look at us funny in the grocery store. These are all very reasonable concerns. And they are all utter bullshit. I actually turned to the thesaurus for that last bit, in an attempt to restrain the saltier side of my language. Hokum, flim-flam, bunk, baloney: these all were considered. But no, bullshit really fits the bill.
To be clear, the fault in this lies not with anyone out there who may be offended by or dislike my work. That’s their prerogative, and I would not cheat them of it. Frankly, I’m certain I’ve given my prospective readers too little credit for charity and understanding, painting them in the hues of my own self-doubt. They may take my work as they like, or don’t like, and I pray for some it may bring value. Either way, I offer my sincere thanks in advance for you taking the time to consider my musing (if only in this rambling post). But, what of the nagging question? I’ve replaced it with one new: “If I can’t write it in my name, should I be writing it?” The answer, I believe, is “No.”
I have no intent to dabble in sensationalism, to offend for the sake of offense or to unnecessarily cause unease in a world already too little at ease. But I do strive to be authentic, and to show life both as it is and could be. In that process I hope to churn up, out of all the beautiful murkiness that is me, and you, and this life, something worth the time taken in its reading. And however that work is received, it will be given in my name. So, if you do happen across some alien vampire erotica under another name, rest assured it is not me.