Saturday, December 21, 2013

The New Anonymity

"Brain Print" / Chicago IL / 2013
On a flight back to Madison recently, I ran into one of my online writing students, a woman I had not seen in person for a few years. I knew she'd be coming to town, but I hadn't realized it was at the same time as me. In fact, the night before, I had emailed her asking when we could see each other. Then, at the gate, laying over from another location than mine, there she was.

Hey! I cried out and we both leaped up and hugged one another. It's not surprising that we got to talking about memoir, since she has written one and is shopping it around, and since I have been running an in person memoir critique group for over a year now. I asked her if the publisher she had mentioned a few months before had gotten back to her, and she admitted to dropping the ball herself. I sensed some ambivalence. I asked a bit more about it.

"The thing is, the memoir is about a really dark time in my life. All the people who have read it say it needs to get out - and I agree. But..." Eventually what we came to discuss was her fear, which is legitimate: what would happen if now, in her public life in another realm, the story did well enough to drawn attention to her. What then? How could she bring her two lives together?

"I don't want to, you know? I mean, I'd be happy to travel around and talk to people about the book, help at support groups and the like. But I don't want the people in my life now to be asking me those things." I asked if she'd thought of using a pseudonym - she had, but that seemed so complex. "And in the age of the Internet, people could put two and two together so quickly."

Only if they want to.

I now know two authors, both well-known in the areas they published their memoirs in, who used pseudonyms. One, in particular, used her middle name as first name and made up a new last name. She did this to protect her family - of origin and of choice - and it stuck, because now she does activist work around the subjects if her first books, in the made up name. She works in a similar field, but without anyone connecting her, in her original name.

I focused on her experience, specifically, in talking to my student.

"She is a public person in both lives, not living a lie, but no one wants to see the connection, so they don't."
My student looked both alarmed and also excited.
"They don't?!"
"Natalie Goldberg often says that people are actually less likely to figure things out than you would think. You know the old joke in writing memoir, about giving an ex-lover a smaller penis so he would never admit that that's him in your memoir?"
We both laughed.
"It's a bit like that. If you do it right, no one would sue you, or even feel betrayed. You aren't hiding, just keeping a separate face. It can work, and be really fruitful, actually."

My student was stunned. Here it was - her answer. I advised her to ask her agent about the legalities and call that publisher back ASAP.

Here are some more complex aspects of this question:

We are all afraid of publishing personal things. If you are not wary of that vulnerability, then your exhibitionism may one day be your downfall. Resistance to sharing is natural, but, in most cases, so long as we don't surprise our best friends with revelations in publication that we haven't discussed in person, the publication will go off without much notice. It is usually sufficient to change names and identifying factors enough so that people can ignore who they are, even with your real name attached to the final book, or how you depict them.

However, if you really are in need of a pseudonym, the internet can allow for a new level of anonymity that likely no one thought possible, even if you use photos of yourself for both identities. It's almost like there is too much information for people to put it together.

Mind you, my student will still need to play it safe:
it is, as she said, complex. I don't recommend doing it if you are self-publishing or don't have professional assistance.

As well, it is important to note that just changing your name doesn't mean you can slander people. I know this student won't do that - that's not what she is trying to protect. Neither anonymity nor pseudonymity should replace respect. While it is true that most of us would write more candidly if we knew it no one would know it was us, if we keep things anonymous, we can also lose perspective and ownership. Never publish anything - even anonymously - that you wouldn't want to get back to you.

Finally, we should never overlook the benefits of changing autobiographical material into a novel. Not that they are the same beast - you cannot simply take a memoir and change it to fictional names and call it a novel - but if you are really sure that you cannot express something, even anonymously or pseudonymously, in a form that's related to fact, fiction might be the right way to go.

The moral of the story is: if it is important to you to try and get what you have out there in the form of fact - memoir or personal non-fiction - then make sure you explore all of your options before deciding it's too risky to publish.

And always, always, always, keep writing no matter what. If you are still in the early stages of writing, don't worry your pretty head about what the publication complications could look like. Focus on getting the words out, written and clear and precise. The rest will figure itself out once you have it all written down and edited. Don't, as Natalie also says, put that cart before the horse.

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