I’m Not Really Bob, But Call Me Bob Anyway
The author of a James Tiptree Jr. article says this:
The taking of a pen name is in many ways a frightening process. It is easier than we believe to become something other than ourselves.
I first came up with my current pseudonym/internet handle during high school. I had worked for the school’s student newspaper as a news editor which was fine with me. I wanted to see what this journalism thing was all about since everyone else who was of a writerly bent seemed so enthusiastic about it. All I can say now in hindsight is, at least they didn’t make me write the sports stories. Anyways, during one staff meeting, the editor-in-chief came up with this bright idea about starting a poetry section. The inaugural column would come from in house and then be later opened up to submissions from the student body.
This, of course, spurred everyone on the newspaper staff into a poetry writing frenzy. I recall writing quite a bit of poetry while I was a teenager, but even then, deep down I knew that everyone else would probably call it overwrought dreck. That was why I came up with the pseudonym and insisted to the editor-in-chief that if she decided to publish any of it, the pseudonym byline was going with all of that angsty and nihilistic free verse, not my real name. Fortunately, she ended up using the sports editor’s love poetry instead. (Teenage love poetry is such a bad idea*. The fledgling poetry section crashed and burned and I think the editor-in-chief learned her lesson.)
There was one point before I started blogging that my pseudonym wasn’t me. I was dabbling in a post-apocalyptic sci-fi idea where my pseudonym was a character making a precarious living exploring a decaying urban underground filled with mutated monsters. Sometimes I would write bits of dialogue or quotes from the character on the whiteboard hanging outside my dorm room door. My dormmates would find the quotes disturbing–because like all that horrible teenage poetry, the character was of a rather angsty and nihilistic sort. The story ended up going nowhere.
Then came the blog and the pseudonym came with it. I could have come up with a new pseudonym. Maybe even a pseudonym that could have sounded like a real name. But I didn’t. I like to think it was due to laziness. My subconscious might say that I clung to the pseudonym because it represents the cynical and not particularly reticent side of me. Whatever the case, I’m still using it as a byline for churning out prose of the fiction and non-fiction variety that almost no one reads.
Some people argue that using a pen name is inauthentic and cowardly. Under some anonymous handle, a person would feel the freedom to say anything–including flinging vitriol like a souped-up Linda Blair–without repercussion. This, I think, is patently authentic rather than the other way around. And perhaps it is cowardly, but it is the sort of cowardice born from society’s expectation for polite conversation and the realization that there are just some things that are better expressed anonymously.
I would like to think that I come across as authentic on this blog even though I do not post about everything that pops into my head**. But I think it is true, too, that there is a line between being authentic and becoming “something other than ourselves.” In some ways, my internet self is a different person. From my online words alone, there is a certain picture of me that is projected to the reader because those very words have been thought over, chosen, and posed on the screen to present a certain image. If the reader were to interact with me in real life, I am sure a different picture would emerge no matter how authentically I write.
But then again, I think this is true for anyone who has done any sort of interaction online, including anyone blogging under their real names. You might post a picture of yourself–or even a video–so that your readers would know exactly what you look and sound like, but it’s still posing. The unavoidable distance between the poster and the reader is the inherent barrier of the internet. While words and the choice of them may be revealing, in the end it’s the equivalent of a pseudonymous personality. It might not be deliberately created by you, the real-named blogger, but it’s there nonetheless in your readers’ imaginations and those electronic squiggles that look suspiciously like Times New Roman.
*My advice: Don’t do it! And if you do, make sure it never sees the light of day. You’ll thank me later.
**Twitter is more amendable to that.