I see a lot of writers and artists pondering whether to use a pen name. Pen names have many purposes and your reasons for using one should be very personal, but I wanted to impart my experience with them to help you in your journey.
Sometimes the reasons to use a pen name are pretty obvious. I see it most commonly with fine art nude models. You don’t want your professional world and the world of nude modeling to collide, as they might not always understand each other. With writers, there is a common perception that newbie writers need to use a pen name. Perhaps they are afraid of their job finding out about their writing, or they don’t want their family to know, or they are embarassed about the genre in which they choose to write.
The first time I used a pen name, I was using it for photography. I was photographing fine art nude models, and I did not want my job to know, or that to be easily searchable with my Google name, and I wanted to be published for my work. I’ve promoted my work with my real name before, and run into misconceptions about it; people assume any photography of a naked woman must be porn, when that’s absolutely not the case. Figure studies are a fine tradition in painting, but turn the medium from a brush to a camera, and people’s moral judgments flavor their views. I just didn’t want to deal with that.
I used the pen name Ruth Wonderly, which I took from a character in the novel the Maltese Falcon. I started a Facebook page which I used to find models with whom to collaborate. I actually did publish a set of photographs involving gold Egyptian bodypaint under that name.
Fast forward a few years. I was looking for a new day job and I wanted to write science fiction, fantasy and crime. I wanted to write about people I knew and I didn’t want them to recognize themselves in my portrayals of the characters. I wanted more privacy and separation between my personal, creative pursuits and my professional life, especially as I work in the legal field.
So I decided to use a pen name. I wanted something more androgynous, so I picked my middle name. I am part Swedish, so I thought a Swedish surname would be fun. I picked Noël Eklund. The umlaut over the e is actually part of my real middle name, the old French spelling. My mom uses it in every card she addresses to me. I stuck with the umlaut because I thought it would be funny, like a tongue-in-cheek commentary about a writer with a sophisticated name. I got a Twitter account and even though I didn’t publish anything under that name, I quickly became known for it on Twitter, growing to 5,000 followers. I deleted that page because it became too time-consuming and I realized I wanted to be published under my real name.
I realized I was proud of my work. I’m a geek and I love sci-fi and I’m not afraid of telling people that. I’m seeking to elevate genre fiction with a more literary quality. I am not doing anything online that I want to hide or that I’m embarrassed about.
A lot of people hide behind a pen name to express their political views openly online. I don’t typically talk about politics any more. Besides, I’m not in a position where my objectivity in my personal life is paramount to my duties. For example, when I was a reporter, I had to be seen as non-biased at all times, even in my personal life. It’s just ethics. I am aware that not all journalists follow this, but it is a bedrock of the profession. Some reporters will even go so far as registering their political party as independent. Now the reason I don’t rant about politics online is simply because I find it unsatisfying and unproductive.
In December I made two submissions under my pen name. One was accepted. Two months later I recognized with certainty that I wanted to publish under my real name. I wanted to feel that ownership over seeing my name in print, even in an electronic publication. I asked them to change it.
Maybe things would have been different for me if I were not previously published as a journalist. I have seven years of byline credits that will follow me around in my Google searches till the end of my days. I’m proud of them, but given the power of facial recognition technology, it makes it far more difficult to assume an alter ego.
Here are a few things I discovered about protecting your privacy using a pen name.
As a journalist, a bot-driven website called Muckrack crawls the web for data about reporters to sell to PR agencies. It found my personal Twitter account under my pseudonym, even though I did not label myself as a journalist, and it linked my real name to that account, which appeared in the top 5 results when you searched for my name in Google. I eventually was able to contact them and get them to remove the page.
I believe they found me because if you use Twitter as an app on your phone, it preserves the metadata from your previous accounts and entangles it with all future accounts. So in a previous iteration as a journalist I used my real name. It still appears in Google searches at times as @DeniseRuttan. Using social media makes it very difficult to maintain separation, even if you create a new email address. Even on Facebook, it is the policy of the site to require users to use their real identities, so they make it very difficult to create a new page under a second name. But it can be done with different email addresses. I haven’t had a Facebook page in years so I don’t know the deal now for them.
Facial recognition is another thing to watch for. You may think you’ll just have a photo of an inanimate object for your profile picture, and many people do. But it makes it more difficult for people to connect with you on a personal level that way. People want to match a face to a name. It humanizes you. It assures them that you are not a bot, or a stalker. It’s a marketing strategy. Google your name and you’ll see many photos of you pop up. Google matches your face to your name, too.
And then there are your pronouns. It’s important to put your pronouns in your bio or profile if you want to show support for LGBTQ community. It normalizes it. But then that’s more personal data about yourself that you are putting out into the world, if people can now identify your gender or pronouns.
Creating a new email address is an obvious one. Using the same email for all your sites. It’s easier to start from scratch than to convert. There are so many details to catch if you convert your Internet presence, as I did.
It’s a lot of work, but it may be worth it. People don’t always use a pen name because they have something to hide. Even using a pen name I was careful with the content I put out online. Always write your social media posts as if you expect them to be subpoenaed, because you never know when that could be a possibility. I approach online spaces with that mentality. Using a pen name can be freeing, however. It can help you drop your filter that you use for friends, family and coworkers and open up words you never knew you had in you. It can be fun to try on a new identity, too.
But in the end, I went back to my real name. Under my pen name, I could not publicize my past published writing, and I am proud of my journalism. I wanted to combine my worlds in the end. And I still plan to maintain my privacy, because privacy is also what you make it on the Internet. You have a certain amount of control over what data you put out there, even if corporations can find you through your shopping and Google searches. You can be as private as you want to be. In the end, given the power of technology these days, if you ever become popular, respected or sell well, people will find you anyway, if corporations don’t.
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