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A Question of Identity

Happy new year! The kooks who made stuff up about the Mayans were wrong, the world didn’t end, and we have now rolled into 2013. I for one am happy that 2012 is over, since it was in many ways a tough year for my family, and I am looking forward to a far better 2013.

One of the developments I face in 2013 is the fact that I’ll be publishing a weekly column/blog over at Amazing Stories. With that, comes the necessity of choosing the name under which those posts will be published. Identity has always been a fraught choice for writers: whether they adopted a pen name to appeal to their audience’s higher ideals (Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay writing as Publius), to prevent confusion (Winston Churchill writing as Winston S. Churchill), to increase the prospective audience of their works (Alice Sheldon writing as James Tiptree, Jr.), or to keep different facets of their life compartmentalized (Charles Dodgson writing as Lewis Carroll), each of us who picks a pen name does so for personal, often idiosyncratic reasons.

The Modern Identity Crisis

We have our professional lives, the part of our day when most of us put on respectable clothes, harden our professional smiles, and step out of our doors to interact with the world within the boundaries of our chosen profession. Then we come home, shut the door, turn the lock, put on our fluffy slippers, and reveal our private, personal selves.

We perform our daily life, both in our public roles and in private. If you think this is duplicitous, then I’m sorry, but would you go to a job interview dressed in your PJs? Of course not. We are part of a society, and that society accepts certain behaviors in certain contexts and condemns others. For most of us, our private, personal passions are reserved for exactly that: for the private spheres of our lives, to be shared with those closest to us.

The more roles we play – husband, father, friend, child, boss, volunteer, employee – the more varied our presentation. That’s only natural, only human. But today, identity has become a difficult, mutable beast. Where twenty years ago, we could leave work at the office and have our private passions at home, now social media and the 24/7 work culture has eroded those once-firm borders. The compartmentalization we all take for granted, that we all rely on, has become fluid.

Navigating these waters can be exhausting. And when a personal passion begins to shade into a professional presentation (like when, oh, I don’t know, one starts getting one’s personal, passion-driven work published) the way in which we construct our identity begins to have consequences.

Who Am I?

When I first started writing about speculative fiction, I chose to do so semi-anonymously. I didn’t reveal my full name, and instead just opted to go by my first name of Chris. As I wrote in my first post here, I did this to keep my day job separate from my writing. My professional career, and the circles I move in to maintain and develop that career, would neither understand nor accept my creative passions. People would – out of ignorance or small-mindedness – question my professionalism, my maturity, my seriousness. Never mind that I’ve been building multinational businesses since my late teens. Too many people have difficulty accepting that many of us are complex creatures, built of myriad and wonderful parts.

This fact is tragic and painful.

But it remains a fact, and one which must be faced. I could choose to say screw it, and to wear my love of speculative fiction proudly. At this point in my professional career, and with my creative work now starting to show up in more places, I am tempted to do exactly that. But before I start publishing my work (non-fiction or fiction) under my real name, there is another factor to consider: the commercial implications of that name.

Supposedly, when Harry Turtledove first started publishing novels, his publisher told him that no one would believe a name like Turtledove (despite the fact that it is his real name). He initially adopted the pen name Turtletaub as a result.

When Jo Rowling published the first Harry Potter book, her publisher in the UK demanded that she merely use two initials to better appeal to middle-grade boys.

When Julie Woodcock publishes her romance novels, she does so under the name Angela Knight because otherwise the double entendre of her surname might harm her sales.

Pearl Zane Gray chose to publish his classic westerns as “Zane Grey” because many of his readers wouldn’t have bought a western written by a man named Pearl.

The quality of our work, the genres we publish in, and the names we publish under are the brand we develop as writers. Yes, that sounds marketing-ese, but it remains true. And in today’s writing world, we have to shoulder so much of the burden of our own marketing, our own publicity, that if we want to actually write professionally, I think it behooves us to think strategically about how we do so.

My full name is a fine name. It’s a long, Polish name, with all of the consonants, syllables and difficulties that comes with it. My mother, who came to this country as an adult in the late ’60s, insists that if she had to learn to pronounce “Smith” then everyone else should learn how to pronounce “Modzelewski”. I think she has a point.

But as a writer hoping to build a name for myself, and as a writer hoping to one day sell books, I need to consider more than just the Honor of the Family Name (for the record, I think that would be a great mainstream literary title). Here are some of the questions I’ve been asking myself:

How will a difficult-to-pronounce name affect word-of-mouth recommendations? How will a hard-to-spell name affect search-driven sales on Amazon? How will a tough name affect the likelihood of bloggers and online reviewers writing up my books? Will a tough name diminish booksellers’ propensity to hand-sell my titles? Will signing my super-long name on stock give me carpal tunnel syndrome?

A difficult name is not, of course, a deal-breaker for any of these concerns. An editor friend once laughed and told me “We know how to deal with those kinds of issues.” That is no doubt true, and of course these are all absolutely manageable. But there’s a way to forestall any and all of these concerns, and that is to adopt a pen name.

That’s why, to ring in the new year, I’ve decided to drop my half-maintained veneer of anonymity. Instead, I’m going to actively try to promote and develop a new identity for myself. It might be a silly strategic choice on my part, and maybe in the future it might change, but for the time being I’ve chosen to write under the name Chris Gerwel (That’s my first and middle name, in case anyone was wondering. Gerwel is my late grandfather’s name, and I’m sure my mom’ll be thrilled that I’m using it.).

The way I see it, the name is shorter and easier to spell than my “proper” surname. It remains a little unusual, which hopefully helps make it memorable. And it won’t get confused with my professional day-job world, letting me maintain – at least to some degree – a little compartmentalization between the spheres of my life.

Others might have made a different choice, and I might yet reconsider this one (I expect that either an agent or an editor might want to weigh in on such matters at some point). But as I wrap up a difficult 2012, I’m looking forward to starting 2013 with a name.

With that, I am off to celebrate the holiday with my family. Happy New Year, everybody! May your 2013 be better than all the years that came before.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. My given first name is a simple variation on the most common spelling of “Marilyn,” and not even my immediate family and closest friends get it right. It is never spelled correctly on important documents.

    Three times, I’ve had to tell my publisher that my name was spelled incorrectly on a book cover. I won a major book award and not only was my name spelled incorrectly, the title of the book was, as well, so no one was able to find it at Amazon or anywhere else. Other awards don’t feel like they are mine, even if they are on my shelves, because my name isn’t right.

    If I could do it over again, I would choose another first name to write under. Probably the family name, as well, with the total lack of privacy and the inability to hide from stalkers who can now print out a map to your home address and know the name of your kids and dogs in five minutes.

    But, your name is your name so all hail, Chris Gerwel!

    January 1, 2013
  2. Marilynn – Thanks for the comment! It was exactly concerns about issues like that which weighed in on selecting an easier name to write under. Your experiences make me feel all the more confident that my decision to write as “Chris Gerwel” is likely the right one. If nothing else, it makes for less of a mouthful than “Chris Modzelewski” (incidentally, at a party earlier today, someone tried to guess how to spell my given last name…FWIW, they got it eventually. I think it only needed five corrections. 🙂

    January 1, 2013
  3. Well, in the Speculativ Fiction sector, there’s Joan Slonczewski who at least is not completely unknow. But I confess to having to look up her name every time I use it because I just can’t remember her as anything but “Joan Slonsomethingorotherratherpolishsounding” or else “the author who wrote Door Into Ocean“. And I’m German, so not completely unfamiliar with words containing a lot of consonants.

    January 7, 2013
    • Ha! Yeah, I love Polish names (I’m rather sentimental when it comes to my own) but it’s exactly that inconvenience factor that’s got me concerned. Perhaps it has only a marginal impact, but for a new author just starting out, I figure why add any more challenges?

      January 7, 2013
  4. Hi Chris
    Thanks for the blog, really interesting.
    I loved your thoughts about the different roles we play. As a teacher I find myself in any number of roles just in one day. However, having said that, a training session I went on a few years ago left me with, amongst a number of other great tidbits, the idea that as a teacher you should only be acting when you tell someone off. Otherwise, be yourself.
    I think I feel that way about writing as well. Unless I’m doing something that just isn’t me, or doesn’t come naturally, I guess being myself is essential. As I’m hoping to never write something that doesn’t come from my heart, (or the weird geeky voices in my head), I would always want to use my own name.
    I do entirely understand your perspective though. Identity for creatives of any sort is a huge subject I think and not one I’ve really read anything about, so thanks for getting me thinking!

    January 7, 2013
    • Hi Mike – Thanks for the comment! Glad you’re enjoying the blog.

      That’s great advice from that training session: there’s a world of difference between “acting out” a role, and simply being yourself. I generally try to be myself in every situation – I might tone down or amp up various facets of my nature (e.g. be more or less diplomatic, use different language, etc.), but if I were to ever not be true to myself, I’d be asking for trouble. That goes for my professional life, my writing life, my writing itself, and even my personal life – in each of these activities, I think being ourselves is vitally important. We’re vast; we contain multitudes. And I think our adult responsibility is to consciously choose how we perform our roles, and therefore which facets of ourselves we amplify and tone down in particular situations.

      January 7, 2013
  5. Cindy Niespodzianski #

    I always thought I would write under my maiden name, but I’ve grown quite fond of my married name over the years. I have now been married longer than I haven’t, so Niespodzianski is who I am. It’s unique here in the US, and I like how it sounds and what it means. It’s even longer than yours, Chris, so I worry it would be discouraging to people who might want to find me. Most people tell me to use my maiden name, but part of me wants to fight the good fight.

    I am so glad I found your blog, and I appreciate what you have to say on this. It doesn’t make it easier to choose to write under another name, but it does provide some consolation.

    January 20, 2013
    • Hi Cindy! Thanks for the comment. Niespodzianski is a great name, and I love it’s rather surprising meaning (sorry, I couldn’t resist – how often can one make bad wordplay jokes about the Polish language?). I can absolutely understand the desire to fight the good fight and to run with it, and ultimately I think it’s the kind of decision each of us with complex names must make for ourselves. It’s the type of issue where there are no right or wrong answers.

      January 21, 2013
  6. My given name is Mandy Mikulencak. I’ve wondered what an agent (or editor) would think of such a long Czech name. Also wondered if Mandy is not serious enough! (I’m not an Amanda). Actually thought about writing under my two cats’ names: Lily Hobbes. So much to ponder.

    January 24, 2013

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