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.   
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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.

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