I wrote this to fellow writers on Instagram but in truth, the impact of a pen name touched my deepest psychology and every relationship. I think my fellow humans will relate.
It started innocently enough. Smart and advised, even.
I have a memoir on a dark and sensitive theme. My story is about how the church grooms, nurtures and sanctions domestic violence — and my journey to autonomy and freedom. In my book, I name names and turn the light on the hideous shadows, and I felt the need to protect innocent family members and my privacy. Many memoirs are written under a pseudonym and a pen name was good advice in this context.
Pen names are also recommended to genre writers. If you are going to create significantly different products, it makes good marketing sense to brand them accordingly. I write memoir but also magical realism and urban fantasy, and I’d love to sink my chops into religious horror. I also write professionally as a digital content creator for a nationally known healthcare system. Splitting my “brands” felt like the natural choice.
I didn’t realize the reason it may have felt so natural to split myself in two was deeply psychological. I just ran with it.
Setting up a pen name takes work.
After coming up with a name, the first thing I had to do was create a digital footprint for my new persona. She needed a list of previously published material to show agents and publishers. Not only did she totally not exist online, but I’d spent years building the platform around my own name. This caused a lot of discomfort the pen name would relieve.
Such as…when someone who loves my prose on motherhood doesn’t jive with my politics.
Such as…when my religious trauma community doesn’t care I just made moon water.
“That’s okay,” I said. “I have two sides. Tia-Light and Tia-Dark. You’ll probably be more comfortable over here.”
As I created content for each platform, I wasn’t doing much to protect my privacy. It turns out, that’s pretty much impossible online. There’s so much bleed through and overlap that even a mildly-savvy reader would know both names pretty fast. This irritated me, but I pressed on.
In 2020, I created a new website, mailing list, and social profile for my pen name. I also started a podcast (The Working Writer Podcast) and entered every writing contest that year as Tia Lindstrom. Pretty soon, she had a footprint and I had freedom. I could explore each community with enthusiasm, and without having to curate the parts of myself they were interested in.
To an abuse survivor who used people-pleasing as a survival drug, this felt like slipping into a favorite pair of old jeans. I wasn’t myself: I was who they wanted.
This the hidden joy of people-pleasing, finding your tribe, and hitting your target market: THE SUN SHINES. It’s all hearts, likes, and rainbows. And in the space of a new identity, I was finally able to rip the scab off the last layer of my memoir. I wrote boldly and without fear and my manuscript is better for it. I’ll always be grateful for my pen name for that.
But they—the people I engaged with and my hopefully-someday readers— weren’t getting the “real me.” I’m political AND poetic. I’m magic AND motherhood. Spirituality AND Spirited Fun. I’m ready to present myself and my story to the world as myself, take me or leave me. It turns out, major publications want the same from the writers they accept. I can’t strive for the sky with a pseudonym. I want my writing career to be mine, the real me, not a pretend or curated me.
I share the entire backstory in episode 10 of the podcast. While the space a pen name created felt freeing for a while, it ultimately wasn’t a good idea either for me or my career. (Listen to “Should You Have a Pen Name” by clicking the link or look for it anywhere you listen to podcasts.)
My platforms and graphics will all be changing soon, and since I have a lot going on, that process will probably be a little messy. I was worried that would look waffly and flaky to my friends. (Didn’t she just change her name?) But my coach called it out: share the story. Share your wisdom and experience with other writers and let your readers see behind the curtain. To that end, I’ve done it here and on the podcast. I hope my share is helpful to you and thanks for supporting me, as me.
Do you know a writer who needs to hear this?