Nineteen years ago, for one year, I wasn’t Lizzy Kremer. I got married and I very proudly, very sweetly, changed my name. My new name was perfectly pretty. That is, it very soon became obvious to me that it was too pretty. Prettier than I could manage to be, anyway, prone as I was at the time to temper tantrums and festivals of swearing. Also: ethnically incorrect. A year later, I got a new job and I took the opportunity to go back to being known by my work pals as LK. At home, I was very happy to share the name of the man with whom I was sharing everything else. But in the office, I was the same old me, hard-edged as a Z or a K, and I wanted my old consonants back.
I had thought that changing my name wouldn’t make any difference to my sense of self but it had had a surprisingly destabilising effect on my idea of who I was. So when an author recently told me that she had been writing under a pen name for so long, she had gone through a period last year of not being sure who she was any more, I had a glimmering of understanding of what she meant. She wrote to me so beautifully, I won’t paraphrase: “I felt I was floating above my own life, not quite attached to what was going on because all was filtered into the world via my other persona. I was my own ghost writer. Where was I? Who was I? If a tree fell in the forest, was it she or me who heard it?”
Sometimes, destabilising your sense of self creates a positive energy, a short-cut to invention, to fiction. Another of my clients writes under three names and finds her pseudonyms liberating – they have freed her, variously, from writer’s block, from self-doubt, from the expectations of her peers. She is a marvellous actress, and she (sometimes unconsciously, sometimes knowingly) dresses and holds herself differently, depending on which author’s business she means to discuss on a particular day. Taking on a new name is, for her, like donning a costume; she is ready to act, to play, once she is transformed.
There are many commercial reasons for established authors to publish pseudonymously – in order to make a fresh start, or to mark a change of direction, or to lose a disappointing sales history. One of my clients writes: “Ultimately, it’s a more useful tool for the publisher than the writer. Writers gon’ write. It’s other people who package the result in the most saleable way.” Another author wrote to me: “A writer is a very flexible and changeable animal; it is publishers who like to box us up neatly, not us. We like to try anything and everything. A pseudonym gives you the freedom to do that, the freedom to fail and the thrill of succeeding, because if you do, it’s an affirmation. It wasn’t a fluke the first time; you really can do it.”
And readers are mostly complicit in the subterfuge. They understand that pseudonyms are a show; a game the author is inviting them to play. As 21st century citizens, consumers understand brand marketing, and how to be a brand advocate. They instinctively understand the odd pact made between author and fan on social media: Author will reveal carefully edited insights into personal life; fan will believe all the author cares to write, because it is her wonderful storytelling the fan loves; the writer’s knack for narrative, real or fictional, is the key to their relationship. So what if it is not her real name? The relationship is real.
The truth is that, whether an author publishes under her ‘real’ name or another, the relationship between a writer’s own self and her writing identity is complex and unstable. Last week I saw Anne Enright in conversation at Foyles. She explained that it takes time for her to write a novel; so much so, that she changes during the process. In fact, she explained, writing the book changes you. In writing it, you ‘sort something out’. The challenge is to stay true to your changing self throughout the writing process.
Several of my pseudonymous authors anticipate the day they might return to writing under their own names. When they do so, will they find that they are still the writer they thought they were? Or someone different; someone changed by the masks they have worn over the years, by the books they have written, by the years that have passed? Nearly twenty years after I chose to keep my name, I’m still Lizzy Kremer, and I still love to swear; much else of who I am is also the same. But of course much has shifted too, over the years; much has been ‘sorted out’. What I was trying to protect when I kept my name was something as elusive as my personality; I wanted my name to act as anchor, to hold steady an idea of self that flickered in and out of focus. What more can we ask of any name, than that it stamp us and help us to tell others a story about who we are?