Call Me Ishmael

“Call me Ishmael…”  No, wait.  I’m not Herman Melville, and the things I write are nothing like Moby Dick.  My name is Rachel, so I would like you to call me… Rachel.

It’s come to my attention that one of the many things that writers have to consider is whether or not to attach their actual name to their work or to use a pen name.  The whole concept of a pen name baffles me.

I guess I can understand why, for example, someone whose passion is to write books but they regularly write a daily newspaper or monthly magazine column to pay the bills, might want to use a different name on the periodicals. I can especially see that reasoning if they write in periodicals only for the paycheck and don’t especially agree with the magazine’s content as a whole (such as an author whose passion is writing Amish fiction, but gets a paycheck from writing for Penthouse magazine each month).

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I can see why an established author who may decide to cross genres or for some other reason might decide to publish under a pen name just to see if the work is good on its merit alone, such as when Stephen King published under the nom de plume Richard Bachman.  I can see why Virginia Andrews used only her initials, V.C. Andrews, when she was published in a category that, at the time, was mostly a male-dominated genre.  I also get why Ben Franklin used an entire arsenal of pen names when he was writing Poor Richard’s Almanac so that it might look as if there were more contributors than just himself.  And I can totally see why Anne Rice uses that moniker and not her real name of Howard O’Brien (Yes, really!) so she is not confused for a man, but then why is she also Anne Rampling? 

But I still don’t get the reason that Samuel Clemens was, for all intents and purposes, Mark Twain.  And why was Eppie Lederer known as Ann Landers?  Or why is Dean Koontz also David Axton as well as Deanna Dwyer and Owen West?  Also, let’s not forget that Agatha Christie was also Mary Westmacott.  I can see why Dr. Seuss is a funnier, more child-friendly name than Theodor Geisel.  But why did he also need to use Dr. Theophrastus as well as Theo LeSieg, not to mention Rosetta Stone? 

What especially baffles me is that if all these authors went to the trouble to conceal their true identities, then why do we know who they really are?  Whether you write books, poems, or short stories, you reach down into the creative part of you and use that creative passion to tell your tale.  As such, writers are artists every bit as much as painters, sculptors, and other craftsmen.  And why do artists create?  They create to say, “I was here.”  Long after they are gone, if their works evoked emotion in the admirer, they’ll live forever through their masterpieces. That said, why, if they go to all the trouble to write a 100,000 word work of literary art, do they sign a name to it other than their own?

I do not, in any capacity, want to offend any author who chooses to use a pen name, but as I said, I just don’t understand it.  (Keep in mind, however, that I have Asperger’s Syndrome, and as such, I tend to be rather exact-word oriented, so there may be a bigger picture that I’m missing here.) 

I think my issue with using different names other than the one you were born with comes from my own family.  As I’ve stated before, I was raised by my maternal grandparents.  My grandma’s name was Toby.  But not really.  Her real name was Cora. Her middle name was Lee.  She hated both those names, and as a young woman, she started signing her name Coralie.  And somewhere down the line, that got changed to Toby.  Don’t ask me why; I never got a straight answer out of her. 

My grandfather’s name was Pete.  But not really.  His real name was P.I.  It was initials.  His dad was Peter Irving, and the son was supposed to be a junior.  But on my grandfather’s birth certificate, the doctor got lazy and put his initials only.  So for the first half of Pete’s life, he went by Junior, then when he entered the military, he had to go by his legal name which was initials only.  And somewhere during that time, he adopted the moniker Pete.

My birth mother’s name is Dianne.  But not really.  That’s her middle name.  Her first name is Ruth, though her parents never intended to call her by her first name.  I also had an Aunt Susie who really had a first name of Sarah, though she mostly went by her middle name of Alice until someone started calling her Susie and it stuck.  I had an Uncle Harold who was really William, and I had a Grandma Betty who was formerly known as Bessie but was really Elizabeth.  And my own grown daughter, Stefani, for some reason unbeknownst to me, has recently decided to start calling herself Joy.

With my name being Rachel, there isn’t much I can do with that.  It’s not like Robert that can be shortened to Robbie, Bobby, Bert, Rob, or Bob.  As much as I used to hate my name growing up, I didn’t even have a good nickname that could be derived from it.  I think I hated my name because it was so unusual.  (Have you ever heard a song about someone named Rachel?  It’s not likely that you have.)  In fact, I was in my late teens before I ever met one other Rachel.  Thankfully, Jennifer Aniston and the “Friends” writers made the name popular in the mid-1990s.

At any rate, it should be evident that while I was growing up, I feared that all the adults in my life had an identity crisis.  I had no idea what might happen to me one day to cause my name to suddenly morph into something else that could potentially be even worse.  So, perhaps other authors have a very good reason for changing their name; but as for me, just call me Rachel.

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19 thoughts on “Call Me Ishmael

  1. Great stuff, Rachel. I must say, I never even thought of adopting a pen name, either on here or as a novelist: I thought Alienora Taylor was quite distinctive enough!! xxx

  2. I guess once you become famous maybe you want to use another name to see if people actually would read your work, but you make a good point “As such, writers are artists every bit as much as painters, sculptors and other craftsmen. And why do artists create? They create to say, “I was here.” … a nut shell best reason to use your name:-)

  3. Speaking only for myself, of course, I use the Neo moniker, on blogs and such, so as not to conflict with my business, since i occasionally say things that could hurt me in the real world. Of course, it is a very thin disguise, and quite easily penetrated.

    And by the way, Rachel is in my top five favorite female names, very likely the top three. It’s a beautiful name.

  4. people judge a book by the name of its author as much as by its cover. plucking a different name is an attempt to unload particular etymological baggage in favour of associations better appreciated by the target audience. it’s manipulation of the undecided reader. and it works.

  5. Great post and good points, I never use a pen name, though I know writers who do. They sometimes write erotica, so I can understand the reasoning for using a pen name when publishing that, as they often say it comes with a lot of stigma.

  6. I’m playing with different pen names for 2 different genres, mainly for work issues. We live in an extremely conservative area (lots of military contractors), so if you want a job that can pay the bills, employers are not so cagey to hire someone who may have written materials that a client could find objectionable.

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