In ‘On Writers and Writing‘, Margaret Atwood discusses (among other things) the notion that a writer is in fact two people. The ‘writer’ is an ever present twin aside the ‘person’. One observes, the other writes. This duality is explored mirrored by writers themselves in many stories from ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ to ‘A Picture of Dorian Grey’. But it’s also neatly encapsulated by the writers own use of a ‘nom de plume’ or ‘pen name’. In doing this, Atwood argues, the writer is actively naming the other self and acknowledging the two halves they possess. And you thought you were just picking a name to go after ‘by’.
A writer chooses a ‘pen name’ for any number of reasons; to hide their sex, escape persecution or retain anonymity are a few common ones. It’s perhaps not that regular these days for a writer to use a full ‘nom de plume’. It’s harder to keep your true identity hidden after all (as JK Rowling found out when she tried to hide behind ‘Robert Galbraith’). But plenty of writers use some variation on their given name such as initials, a different surname or a short version of their first name.
When I started entering writing competitions, I chose to use my initials and this was partly to avoid gender bias (conscious or not). Unsurprisingly there’s a long history of woman using ‘nom de plume’s’. The Brontes did it, George Elliott did it; Jane Austen was first published as ‘A Lady’. To be accepted, to even be published, you had to hide the fact you were female. JK Rowling (her again), decided that the boys who were the target audience for Harry Potter might not want to read a book by a woman, and so published under her initials instead (having no middle name, the K is actually for ‘Kathleen’, her grandmother).
So the name you chose to write under has more weight to it than you might think. I particularly like the idea of my other writing self, a person to inhabit when I fire up the fingers to get down to work.
What do you think about pen names? Do you have a ‘nom de plume’? Let me know in the comments.