On the first day of fall term, I joke to my students that they can reinvent themselves.
“When I call your name, tell me if you go by something else,” I say. “If you want to go by Lucky, just say, ‘people call me Lucky.’ We’ll believe you.”
It’s only half true. If that boy with the peach-fuzz mustache says he wants to be “Zanator the Destroyer” we’ll believe him, but not in the way he wants. And that Latina girl with the gold hoops…her name is Guadalupe Monserrat de la Victoria. She shouldn’t change it to Connie even if she could convince us that’s what all her friends call her.
My name is Karelia. I never had a shorter version.
But I got thinking about pennames when I wrote my first book. It wouldn’t have been bad if I’d written something sensitive about lonely fishermen in Ireland, but it was about a serial killer with an amputee fetish, and there weren’t a lot of scenes with dildos, but I didn’t want my students to ever think about me with dildos.
I did not want to stand in front of a class and say “today we’ll be discussing accident reports” only to read in their eyes “yeah, dildo accidents!” It turned my life into that fortune cookie game where you add “in bed” to every fortune.
So I decided I’d use a pen name. I liked Riot. That’s who I wanted to be (and wasn’t) when I was twenty.
Riot Douglas. Riot Rathbone. I came up with a long list. I also liked Eulogy Brieland.
My publisher did not. He was a writer too and told me a long story about how he got sued by a crazy woman who thought all his works were about her.
“I was in court for months,” he said.
“Right,” I said. “That’s…good to know.”
“Be proud of what you’ve done,” he said. “Use your own name. They’ll always find you anyways.”
We parted ways. I found a publisher who had never been “in court for months.” But I gave up on being Riot Eulogy Brieland.
A lot of my colleagues use pen names. It is a good way to clarify brand image, especially for writers who cross genres or who write and work in publishing. Some use a pen name to stay in the closet, and there are valid fears there.
However, for myself, I’m glad to write under my own name. In this world of social media where even our own images become avatars, I want to do as much as I can under my own name. These are my students. This is my class. I could tell them that I text in complete sentences, and I don’t know who wrote those slutty books, but I don’t.
I go through the roster. Once again, they choose their own names. And the few who don’t, are not making it up. It’s clear that boy in the back is “Tank” not “Theodore” and that he’s been Tank for as long as his friends can remember.
“Don’t let me forget you,” I say. “Make me remember your name.
And we move forward into the new year, each of us trying , as best we can, to wear our own face.