By Jay Duret
The best decision I ever made as a writer was to adopt a pen name, or more precisely, several pen names. Why would anyone ever want to write under his or her own name? A pen name is so flexible. Pen names do not have social security numbers or driver’s licenses. There is no registry, no governmental permission. A pen name can be a wisp, an evanescence. How perfect! You can write cringe-worthy prose for years, then cast off the old nom de plume and start fresh under a new pen name in a matter of moments. It is as easy as murdering a character in a story.
Over the many years I have used pen names, I have learned a few things that a well advised writer might wish to consider:
A bad pen name is as easy to create as a bad sentence. I know this from personal experience. I began to use a pen name at 12 years old writing stories an impress a girl in my class. Suavely, I used the nom de plume “Clive”. I thought Clive – just one name, like “Cher” – had a sophistication that my given name lacked.
I did not stick with Clive long but I clearly liked its weight and compactness because my next pen name was “Cleave”. With Cleave I thought I would get all the sophistication of a Clive but also the whiff of menace that a Clive would have if he, say, wielded a cleaver.
Cleave clove to me for several years but by my mid- teens I had gone to ground in Middle Earth and I had became “Merlyn”. Yes, I know, Merlyn did not inhabit the pages of The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings, but with his long beard and forkéd staff, he could easily have worked his magic in Middle Earth. And to make that point explicitly, I spelled Merlyn, not in the pedestrian manner that I have spelled it above, but in a more mysterious and vaguely Elvish fashion: “Merlÿn”.
Oh that looked good at the top of the page, just under the title. I loved the umlaut; little in life can match the power of a good umlaut. An umlaut is the symbol that means true dat. Those two profound dots on the top of the Y made my Merlÿn distinct from all the other Merlyns and Merlins out there; indeed, it exposed them as pretenders.
I stuck with Merlÿn far longer than I would confess, but gradually my taste in fiction matured. And so it was that I became “Hoadley”, the single worst pen name ever created.
What was the etymology of Hoadley? What was I thinking? It was Goddamn J.D. Salinger. He created Holden Caulfield and that’s where I got Hoadley. Making use of all the subtle artistry of a 17 year-old writer, I simply borrowed five of the six letters in the name “Holden” and secured the benefits of his name without being obvious about it. Oh my God.
By the time I finished college I had given Hoadley the burial he richly deserved and I began a trip around the world. As I did, I invented a new category of writing: I began something called a journal. Yes, yes, I know. I was not the first young man with literary pretentions to have penned a journal, but my advancement of the medium was profound. I was like the Steve Jobs of journaling. I had read Armies of the Night by Norman Mailer and heavily under that influence I began to write about myself in the third person.
How did I manage those awkward journaling moments that arose, for example, when the narrator was talking to a third person and to maintain coherence it was necessary to identify the narrator by a name? A lesser journalist might have floundered, but not me. Skilled as I had become in the art of the pen name, I just gave my protagonist his own nom de plume. I called him Viajero, the Spanish word for traveller. I liked that literary name because if you said it fast in Spanish it sounded like: Be-A-Hero and that suggested that traveling was heroic in some fashion. I frequently considered myself heroic in some fashion and while I couldn’t come right out and say that, a good pen name can do that type of heavy lifting.
When I returned from my world travels, I needed a new pen name, one that reflected the maturation in my world view and sensibilities. Those one-word pen names of my youth were but frippery. I needed a real pen name. Thus I became “J.B.” The pen name J.B. was succinct and I liked the way it sounded when spoken aloud. However on the naked page it looked as if something were missing or, worse, that I was a pornographer.
It took many tries and many years of writing prose before I settled on the name “Jay Duret”. Short but memorable. Easy but slightly exotic. A comfortable, serviceable nom de plume. Every writer should have one.
But be warned! Choosing a proper pen name today is not as simple a task as it was when Samuel Clements chose Mark Twain or Charles Dodgson chose Lewis Carroll. A pen name is a brand. A pen name doesn’t just grace the byline of a story or the cover of a book, it is a Facebook page, a Twitter handle, a domain name. A brand must represent on Tumblr and Digg and Reddit and StumbleUpon. What good is a pen name – even one as mellifluous as Jay Duret – if the closest available URL is www.jayduretauthor.com or the best obtainable email address firstname.lastname@example.org? What if a Google search of Jay Duret turns up a teen singing sensation from Estonia who has lit up the Internet with hundreds of thousands of news articles and postings? Would you condemn your brand to that confusion?
Yes, a pen name has to be chosen carefully, but fortunately writers are onomasticians – that is, people who study names. Indeed, few professions are so frequently called upon to choose names for the people around them. Most parents only select a handful of names in a lifetime; even those with 5 or 6 or 10 kids hardly have a chance to become skilled in the art before their breeding days have passed. But an author, a novelist, may name 50 characters in a single book. Onomastics is in an author’s sweet spot.
For all the benefits of pen names, there are awkward issues. When I wrote Nine Digits I wanted to dedicate it to my four children, but how to do that? If I were to list them by their actual names, I would be breaching the tight curtain of anonymity that I have enjoyed for these many years. On the other hand, I didn’t want a generic reference “To my children” or “To my kids”. That felt confusingly imprecise; if I were to have more kids, those late arrivals might think they were in on the dedication even though they made none of the sacrifices that earned their siblings a seat at the table.
To solve this dilemma I reached into my bag of literary tricks and brought forth the brilliant idea of giving the four of them their own pen names! Thus Nine Digits is dedicated to Delilah, Eli, Ajax and Emmy Duret. One hopes they’ll be able to figure out who is who.
A pen name is also a liability in the places where the craft of writing intersects with the business of writing – in other words, wherever money is involved. I have never met a publisher who wanted its publishing contract to be signed with a fictitious name. Similarly, when I get a check for royalties or an honorarium, that check best be made out to Yours Truly or there’ll be mischief upon deposit. And the problems of booking a flight under a pen name! Don’t do it! They’ll think you are Al Qaeda. You do not want your nom de plume mistaken for a nom de guerre.
As fine as a pen name may be in literary cyber life, confusion can be created in more physical space. At a reading, particularly one with other authors, how does one introduce oneself? Am I Jay, the suave reader of the next short story, or am I that actual flesh and blood person who labored to produce that story under the name his parents settled on those many years ago? And what if at that very same reading there should be readers who know me as Jay and friends and family members that use my, well, actual name. How awkward to stand in a cluster of chardonnay sippers from each camp and see my different identities crash into each other.
There is no doubt that writers from an earlier era had an easier time with their noms de plume than we who write in the cyber age. Among the issues they did not have to worry about was the problem of photography. They had daguerreotypes when Mark Twain was writing, not Instagrams, not Snapchat. Whenever you publish today you need an author photo. It is standard. What are you supposed to do when you write under a pen name? Don a fake nose before sitting for a photo session?
Fortunately, this is a problem that I have solved.
All those who post their words on the Internet in any form are familiar with the idea of an avatar. The word comes from Hinduism and describes the manifestation of a god in human form. An avatar on the Internet is a photo or image or likeness of the author that appears with the author’s posting and becomes something of trademark for that author.
Every author must have an avatar, but choosing one is no easier than choosing a proper pen name. A picture tells a thousand stories and the avatar must represent those author’s stories in many media. My first avatar expressed my desire to project gravitas:
But that was so wrong. Too Einsteiny, too threadbare, too old. That was not Jay Duret, no way.
My second try was a bit better, but still not right:
My third try was an utter failure:
But finally inspiration arrived:
Jay Duret, in cyber flesh. Good looking. Deep. Clearly a poet, a lyricist, a writer of critically acclaimed bestsellers: Jay Duret.
Not just another scribbler with a nom de plume; this is an author with an image de plume as well.
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Jay Duret is a San Francisco writer and illustrator. He blogs at www.jayduret.com. His first novel, Nine Digits, is being published this year by Second Wind Publishing. Jay welcomes feedback at email@example.com.