“Help! My family hates my pen name!”: The Response

Wonderful Readers! You have proven yourselves to be some of the wisest and most thoughtful people I “know.”

Yesterday I posted a comment from a Wonderful Reader struggling with her family’s objection to her pen name. She had an interesting twist on the issue – and your comments were amazing. For everyone who’s arriving late to the conversation, you can read the original post and the comments here.

I’ll post the resolution soon. But first, I thought I’d post my original response. This was my effort before I had the benefit of your feedback:

Q: I have a question. My pen name is my grandmother’s name. It took a long time and a lot of thought to chose that name, but now various members of the family (grandchildren and great-grandchildren of all things — she’s been dead for over 60 years and I never knew her) are offended that I’m publishing, even daring to blog in her name. Should I change to make them all happy? Should I write only “nice” things under that name? I’d love to know how you came to your name and what you think.

A: Oh, this is a difficult question! I haven’t faced anything like this with my own pen name, but here are my thoughts, for what they’re worth. This would be different for me if it was the name of someone who had died recently – 60 years seems like a long time for them to cling to ownership of the name. On the other hand, who are we to judge what makes others unhappy? No one wants to cause unhappiness if we can avoid doing so.

But let’s think about this strictly from the point of view of your writing: that is, does the pen name add or subtract from your efforts? Even setting aside the hurt feelings and damaged relationships, it seems to me that actively causing some friction in your family by using the pen name will also be hard on your writing. Only writing “nice” things is one way to get around it – but other people might have a different view of what’s nice and what isn’t, and you’ll wind up second-guessing yourself and maybe being frustrated by not being able to write what you really want. That’s the first path you could take.

On the other hand, if you think the pen name worth keeping because of the positive impact on your writing – maybe you find it so inspiring you can’t imagine using anything else – then you should probably make the effort to make sure the other members of your family know why you chose it and that your intention is to honor a beloved family member, not to denigrate her. That’s path number two.

Your third path is to go forward, believe in yourself, have the confidence that you’re doing the right thing, and do what you can to make sure the others are okay with it. This is a path you need to consider, and not just because of the pen name. Sometimes one complaint is a proxy for another. Is this limited to the name you’re using, or is something deeper at work? Are they bothered by the idea that you are writing at all? Maybe because they’re not comfortable with the idea that they’ll recognize themselves and your family in your stories. Or maybe that’s how their complaint makes you feel. Maybe the issue of what name to use is actually an issue of your family not taking seriously something that’s important to you. If that’s the case, their telling you not to use the pen name feels disrespectful to you. You, someone who is alive! And who is trying to be happy!

I don’t know which of these paths is the right one to take – I think it depends on how close you are to these people, how important the pen name is to you, and how you would feel about giving it up. But I would make sure you understand why you think they’re asking you and how it makes you feel before you do anything. If you think down the road you will feel like it was an act of compassion and generosity, then fine. Take the first path. But if you think you’d feel like you had surrendered, and that this is part of a pattern of giving in rather than standing up for yourself, you might want to make sure you’ve at least tested the second two.

So that was my response. What do you think, Wonderful Readers? What’d I get right? What’d I miss?


7 thoughts on ““Help! My family hates my pen name!”: The Response

  1. I have concerns about using a real persons name, living or dead. Maybe add a JR or a II or something to differentiate. I remember having conversations with my family about the use of names. A no from me.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Having once found myself in a situation which reminds me of this one, I sympathize with the author’s dilemma. Jacke, your third option tallies most with the advice I’d be inclined to give. Families can get very touchy. Independent of libel laws (not that I can see it applying here), we as authors have to try to respect others’ sense of privacy. But I can’t see where any transgressions are being made here. Your family have no more right to your grandmother’s name than you do. Have you thought about adding a further (fictive) initial between the forename and surname, or perhaps changing a letter or two in either fore/surname? I don’t think this resolves the issue of how your family feels. I don’t know how much weight you want to give to your family’s feelings. At the end of the day you are the author of your books and the final authority regarding how your work is marketed. If you feel good using your grandmother’s name, I believe you have every right.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. For me, part of the fun of a pen name is that nobody knows who you are! I would recommend twisting the name a bit (alternative spellings, adding a spurious initial as suggested above, or something else that strikes your fancy) or, in the case of your family really not supporting you, finding a really secretive and subtle way to pay tribute to your grandmother in your pen name. Adding more mystery might make it more enjoyable for you and neutralize the objections.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. In summary, I assume your suggested three options are these:

    1. Avoid family friction and change pen name; or
    2. Communicate with and reassure family over name; and/or
    3. Seek a deeper underlying reason for that friction

    If I’m right, then (1) doesn’t face up to the bullying, because that’s what it is. (2) seems to me to be more honest and courageous, but may well be a prerequisite for (3). Good advice, all of it, however.

    What I’m not clear about is the precise nature of the writer’s relationship with the grandmother. Is this a maternal or a paternal grandmother? It could matter. And is the name a very distinctive name? Say, Esmeralda Cagliostro (just a random choice, no significance intended by me) as opposed to Mary Smith?

    Because choice of names could imply degrees of offence being taken. If the relationship is paternal, then the writer would have inherited the same surname, so that’s one less degree of offence; she (I assume it’s a she, but if not that’s one degree more) can’t be taken to task over that.

    If, however, it’s a maternal grandmother involved, then the conscious choice of that surname might easily upset family sensibilities. And if the forename is a distinctive one — Esmeralda for instance — then that could be construed as a double whammy.

    I suspect that your instinctive explanation — the complaint is a proxy for another — is right; and that there may well also be an element of cultural tradition that has been transgressed. But without further details (and I can see that won’t necessarily be forthcoming) all we can do is speculate. A real conundrum, and I’m no agony aunt!


  5. I believe there is a deeper issue here for all of us as writers.
    Both criticism and support have been awarded in extensive measures to the political correctness we have grown accustomed to.
    Thus we can be affected by this mentality; critiquing our writing by attempting to second guess public opinion before publishing.
    In some ways, this is a benefit to us. We learn by expanding our knowledge of what is and what is not acceptable in our society, thus crafting our work to be socially palatable, to whatever level we wish to attain to.
    On the flip side, we can end up empowering our audience to a level of entitlement which is not theirs by right.
    I must place a caveat here; is the chosen ancestor’s surname a common, fairly common or rare one?
    If it is a rare one, then you are including your relatives in some public disclosure, are you not?
    If, however, the perceived sanctity of the name is purely familial, it could be your relatives are feeling themselves entitled to a level of control over you as a writer that they are not in any just sense deserving of.
    The line between causing offense and censorship is thin indeed, and only the author can draw it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. what a great question!! I’ve never had this situation, well, my cousin laughed at my original pen name the one I came up with when I was 14….because it wasn’t a name anyone from my race would have. I’ve never had my fam hate my pen name. however identity, one that is separate from your family is important to a lot of ppl and it’s important to me. when I walk into my mom’s friends house they like me because I am my mom’s daughter but I feel like Ihave to add a disclaimer — that I probably will NOT marry, eat, and live and decorate like her. I think you should choose a pen name that u’re comfy with. it’s you who has to deal with the consequences of your own actions. what a great post idea jackie!! what types of fiction do you write?


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