I came across a blog post in my Twitter feed the other day that asked one’s opinion on pen names. When I first got started online back in the early aughts, the mere thought of using my own name was verboten. OMG, went the reasoned analysis, what if they don’t like what I’m saying about the newest Bond movie and find out where I live? And it wasn’t even like I was trolling or otherwise comporting myself like an ass and inviting that kind of retribution. My name was a part of my identity I didn’t want to give up to the nebulous strangers on the other side of the AOL dial-up connection (yep, I’m that much of a fossil). Even when I started my first, short-lived blog in 2006, it was under the pretext of absolute anonymity. I wasn’t in the greatest of places emotionally at the time and it seems, reflecting on it now, that I wanted somewhere I could vent without thought of consequence. To tell the world what to go do with itself and flee, like deliberately passing gas in an elevator and hopping off at the very next floor. In retrospect, a paper diary would have been preferable. Unfortunately I have long lost the ability to log into that old site, and it still lurks online like a scrawl of graffiti on the last lingering pockmarked concrete wall of a long-demolished building (link not included for obvious reasons). It’s a good reminder to me, though, of the misguided approach I once had. If you are reaching out and hoping for connection, you have to provide something tangible for the other to connect back to. An open hand won’t embrace a forbidding fist.
Interacting online, even under our own name and image, is still much like creating a character for an audience, and it is fascinating to see how quickly impressions become entrenched based only on a few facts. Moreover, it is equally as compelling to see the level of trust that is offered through those impressions, which speaks fondly to those who keep faith in an innate human goodness. Because we have no reason to believe, at all, that the character we’re seeing is genuine, that it isn’t a flight of someone’s fancy. Who is Graham Milne, truly? For many of you, he’s just the words and images that appear here and on Twitter and The Huffington Post. He is only knowable to a certain degree, that degree being what he chooses to share or, perhaps more importantly, not share. And yet, he is still me. I didn’t make him up. WYSIWYG, as the tech guys put it. You can trust me on this one. It’s simply easier to be truthful online because I’ve never been good at lying. It’s easier to be empathetic to others because I don’t fancy putting those others down, nor being thought of as a bastard. It’s easier to be me because that’s the role I was made for and I already know all the lines.
At the same time, there is a curiosity, morbid perhaps, as to what it would feel like to cut loose and lash out, to playact as one of those people who trashes everyone and everything that doesn’t align with his narrow worldview. We all have those moments where we want to break the self-imposed identity bonds and run the @#$@ away, not that more than a few of us ever do. One can see the appeal of authors who have been pigeonholed in one genre choosing to write under assumed names to jettison the preconceptions of their fans; of why J.K. Rowling had to become Robert Galbraith to write The Cuckoo’s Calling. I certainly don’t enjoy the idea of being boxed in. My first novel is a fantasy, but as much as I enjoy playing in that sandbox, I don’t necessarily want to write fantasy my entire life. Assuming (hopefully – queries are ongoing) it gets published and garners some admirers, will they want to follow me when I venture into sci-fi, or political thrillers, or YA love stories, or musicals about beings made of cotton candy who just want to eat root vegetables? What is the nature and what are the limits of the contract with my projected image of myself that I offer in exchange for a few moments of your time? Am I expected to always be the same old Graham, and how far along the rickety, windblown tree limb can I expect you to follow me? Will you hold onto me when it snaps and we both fall down?
It is not to suggest that there is an element of bravery to using your real name in your writing and your online interactions somehow lacking in those who prefer to remain anonymous when they publish. Instead, it goes back to that question of what part we want in the play, if all the world is indeed a stage. I suspect most of us are comfortable with what we’ve got because we don’t need to Method Act ourselves into someone else’s skin. When we allow ourselves to show, when we expose our vulnerable spot, it’s a risk, absolutely – but the connections we’ll find as a result will be more lasting. We won’t even question clinging to each other when that bough breaks. We’ll find, to our delight, that we’re both wearing parachutes.