The Problem of a Name

August 5, 2021 § Leave a comment

By Mary Hannah Terzino

“A change of name or place may sometimes save a person.” ~ Hebrew Proverb

Until I began writing creative nonfiction, I never had a problem attaching my name to my work. Oh, sure, there were those attempts at humorous Covid haikus that no one wanted to print, which probably set my reputation back a few notches with certain publications. Other than that, I’ve been mostly proud of my writing, pleased to build a catalog of work credited to my name.

Then I began writing the narratives of my own life. After a few false starts, I realized I was driven to tell stories about the uncomfortable parts, the sad and angry parts, because those made the best stories. I’d change a name or location from time to time, or eliminate peripheral people who didn’t advance the narrative, but these stories were emotionally true, and I longed to tell them, to create a literary context that readers might find interesting and meaningful. I’ve used my own name for that work.

As I continue to unravel the yarn of my life, I’ve realized that the most promising story is about my name. It features a person who shares the same name; in fact, that’s the premise of the story, the punchline. And because this name-twin is still living, I’ve felt that I can’t use our real moniker and still be true to the bruising truth of the story, the bedrock ghastliness of it. Yet the whole thing blows away like cottonwood fluff without the shared name.

Do I lack courage? Maybe. I’m Midwestern-nice. I like to get along, although I can rise to outrage when the occasion demands. Do I fear reprisal? Perhaps, but there are all kinds of reprisals, from psychological to legal. (Litigation, however frivolous, can pierce an assumed name or an anonymous publication; on the other hand, truth is a defense to defamation.) I’ve tried to analyze why I’m uncomfortable assigning my real name to the piece. The answer is a squishy rumble in my stomach, a sense that my extended family would be Midwestern-horrified that I dared to tell this story when they google me to find my latest work, and worst of all, a knowledge that I’d hold back truths if I published under my own name.

I considered using Name Withheld. I’d have to find a publication that would agree to withhold my name, and I didn’t know if that was, as the kids say, “a thing.” I learned that most publishers really hate it. I found one creative nonfiction publication that is open to it, in a column where readers write true, often difficult things about their lives. I sent it in, knowing it was the wrong fit. It wasn’t selected.

Now I’m thinking about using a pseudonym. “Deborah Delilah Hoffman” tickled my fancy. I tried it out in a Zoom meeting of writers, but the people in the other little boxes simply got confused. “Aren’t you Mary?” they asked. Or if they knew me, “Hey Mary, whose computer are you using?” I didn’t point out that “Steve’s iPad” wasn’t a real name, either, but I took heed nonetheless. Maybe Deborah Delilah was too exotic.

Using a pseudonym is completely legal, of course, and there are many reasons for using them. Some authors write in more than one genre, and use different names to keep their different genres separate. Some wish to keep their writing of erotica or romance novels distinct from their straight-laced day jobs. Others decide their own name is unexciting, or find they share their name with another writer or a celebrity. If you’re lucky enough to be paid for your writing, your editor needs to know your real name; a pseudonym isn’t an entity that can receive money. It’s more like an item of clothing, a flasher’s raincoat or a Halloween mask designed, at least for a while, to obscure the person underneath.

Some frown on the use of a pseudonym simply to conceal identity. In one article I read, the author claimed that mere concealment “suggests a hint of paranoia.” I’ll own up to that, but so what? Not every secret requires a home-improvement-show-type Big Reveal. 

Having decided to use a pseudonym, I started a contest in one of my writing groups to come up with an assumed name. The first name had to be common enough that two unrelated people were likely to have it, and I needed both a middle and a last name. I offered as a prize a book of poetry. After the group expressed polite excitement, only one person submitted. Her offerings were musical – for example, Constance Cello — leaving the middle name up to me. I sent her the poetry book, but despite the musical imagery, I remained dissatisfied with her options.

Now I think I’ve hit on the right pseudonym, and naturally, I won’t reveal it here. I’ll inform the editors to whom I submit the piece that I’d like the work published under my chosen byline. I don’t mind if the editors know who I really am from the get-go. And with the passage of time, maybe eventually I’ll be able to remove the raincoat and the Halloween mask.   

Mary Hannah Terzino resides in Saugatuck, Michigan, where she writes overlooking the Kalamazoo River. Her work has been published in The Forge Literary Magazine, MacQueen’s Quinterly, and Blue River Review, among others. She was a 2017 finalist for a fellowship for emerging writers over 50 from The Forge, and won first prize in Fiction Factory’s 2021 flash fiction competition.

I’m Not Sure a Pseudonym is Really Me, and Other Debates

June 24, 2019 § 9 Comments

JamesIrwinsmJPGBy James Irwin

During my most recent trip to India I was invited to speak as part of a series called The Other Side, in which business leaders share stories about how they rebounded after failures and setbacks. At my advanced age I have plenty of those, but I decided to tell them The Big Story about how I had been a successful media artist and writer and consultant in San Francisco before the Violent Unknown Event devastated my life at age 34, after which I reinvented myself as a marketing communications strategist working for The Man. And that was the tone I used, that something Really Bad happened but I wasn’t about to explain the details. Even now, in this piece, I’m glossing over it, using an arcane film reference for my own amusement rather than be candid and tell you that everything in my personal and professional life was destroyed, that I was so affected by all the loss I would have been suicidal if I had the energy or emotional engagement but I would have gladly agreed if someone volunteered to shoot me in the head to end it all quickly, that the nightmare followed me back east where my relationship with my father was so irreparably damaged because of his complicity that years later as he lay in a coma in hospice I told him what a piece of shit he had become and sent him off with a good riddance, something I would never admit out loud or for goodness sakes put in writing because Jesus what if my sisters read it they would be heartbroken. So I just bottle all the stories up.

But a woman came over after my Other Side talk and asked why I don’t write again. (This was refreshing enough since most people ask me why I don’t make films again and I dislike explaining how whatever filmmaking part of my brain that wasn’t scorched when the heavens rained fire upon my shoulders was deadened by teaching film in universities.) She had a point, of course: before my life went south I had a screenplay in development in LA, influential people were complaining about my journalism, and my agent was close to a deal with Farrar, Straus and Giroux for my first novel but that, I told her, was five thousand years ago, before I put on my mask and blended in.

I was lying, though. I’m a few years from retirement and I have a plan, or at least part of a plan, about 12 percent of a plan, that I’m going to return to writing. I’ve started in a bunch of strange ways. I thought at first I would do it under a pseudonym so I’ve established a couple of personas out there – you might have come across one in your travels! – but I’m not sure a pseudonym is really me. I’ve also put together a proposal for a book about organizational communication. I’m even returning to speaking in public which I haven’t done for over a decade, my next gig is at a conference later this year in the Midwest. At some point I’ll need to install flying buttresses to support my social media platform. Taking tentative steps into the Out There, from the safety of my professional identity.

What I can’t shake off is that I’m so sorely tempted to craft The Big Story as a memoir. I know it would make compelling reading because I told it, or at least the juiciest and most mystical parts of it, to my son when he was 19 while we were having brunch in a diner and he was so fascinated by this Great Tale that he essentially forgot to eat his broccoli and cheese omelet, and the kid really likes his diner omelets. Thing is, I’ve been sorely tempted for years; it’s a leap of faith that I never seem able to take.

So I thought, maybe I should write something short about this situation, send it over to Dinty W. Moore for the Brevity Blog. Splash a little water on myself at the shoreline before I dive into a wave. It will publicly announce my intentions in such a way that I’ll feel honor-bound to go forward. I can slyly make a passing reference to there being mystical parts. My decision to submit to the Brevity Blog could be discussed in the essay, a dollop of unrevealed meta that will give me just enough of the ironic distancing that I seem to need. Because really I’m not getting any younger and I have stories to tell and it seems a waste not to tell them, if only for myself.

James Irwin leads a global marketing communications team for the world’s largest business services firm. He has an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and a BFA from New York University. He’s published widely in magazines, journals and newspapers, and is associate editor of the Atlantic Journal of Communication. Before the VUE he earned awards from the Rockefeller Foundation, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, American Film Institute, National Endowment for the Arts, and National Endowment for the Humanities. He lives in northern New Jersey, and is on Twitter and Instagram @jamieri

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