You Asked For It: J. Johnson Higgins

Indies Unlimited reader J. Johnson Higgins asks, “If you are an author and your writing is different from your other professional work, what are some best practices for keeping your identities under control so that they don’t harm one another? Fun examples: It’s cool if you’re a forensic psychologist that writes murder mysteries (everybody loves that) but if you’re a school guidance counselor that wrote a fiction novel titled “I Slept with Your Mom then Killed Her!” I imagine it gets really strange when it comes time to promote.”

Or there’s the recent example of a Los Angeles teacher who wrote a memoir about moonlighting as a dominatrix.

The dual-identity problem isn’t limited to authors, of course. Back when I was on the radio, I had a friend and co-worker who took a job as a TV news anchor. She told me one of her worst realizations was that she could no longer go to the mall in sweatpants, with no makeup, because someone might recognize her “out of uniform.”

For a writer, probably the easiest solution to this dilemma is the time-honored tradition of using a different name. Historically, authors have used pen names for a variety of reasons. Lewis Carroll’s real name was Charles Dodgson; Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens. Women often published under pseudonyms to hide the fact that they weren’t men. Anne, Emily and Charlotte Bronte were first published as Acton, Ellis and Currer Bell. More recently, some of Stephen King’s books were published under the name Richard Bachmann because King’s publisher didn’t think readers would buy more than one book a year from the same author. Pen names are rife in the erotica genre. For example, Anne Rice published erotica under the names Anne Rampling and A. N. Roquelaure.

In terms of promoting your work, the anonymity of the Internet can work in your favor. In most instances, including on Facebook and Twitter, you can use your book cover, or some other picture, as your avatar. Eventually, someone will probably ask you for a head shot, but you don’t have to give them one. Even if you’re doing a personal appearance, you may never run into someone from work – but you can minimize the possibility by limiting your activities to groups like book clubs, and by scheduling your appearances several miles away from your co-workers’ stomping grounds.

If you’re desperate to keep your work life separate from your extracurricular activities, there are some other things to consider besides just putting a different name on the cover of your books. For one thing, don’t talk about your writing at work. Just as you wouldn’t tell your boss point-blank how much you hate your job (I mean, unless you wanted to get fired), it’s smart not to discuss your plans for world publishing domination with your co-workers. It’s highly likely that they’ll simply think you’re crazy for believing you’ll ever be a famous author, regardless of whether they’ve ever read anything you’ve written. But there’s always some scummy guy who will tattle to the boss that you’re planning to leave, even if you have no plans to do so right away – and the boss may use it as an excuse to help you out the door.

Which leads to a corollary rule: if you do start to make a name for yourself, be prepared for the backlash. The Internet makes it easy for a determined person to trace your pen name back to you. Have your exit strategy ready – just in case.

Author: Lynne Cantwell

Lynne Cantwell grew up on the shores of Lake Michigan. She worked as a broadcast journalist for many years; she has written for CNN, the late lamented Mutual/NBC Radio News, and a bunch of radio and TV news outlets you have probably never heard of, including a defunct wire service called Zapnews. But she began as a fantasy writer (in the second grade), and is back at it today. She currently lives near Washington, DC. Learn more about Lynne at her blog and at her Amazon author page.

9 thoughts on “You Asked For It: J. Johnson Higgins”

  1. I’m very fortunate in that my bosses know that I write and are very supportive of my efforts. (providing I don’t write at work of course)

    Hopefully I’ll be able to make a living at it soon. They’ll be sad for me to leave (I think), but happy for my success.

  2. Great post Lynne,
    There was also the teacher that was outed for writing erotica; think the state was Missouri and I felt so bad for her. I had a great boss. He thought it was great and bought a copy for his wife (its a contemporary romance). All the other men in the office bought a copy for their wives, and one of the single men read it himself. Anyway, my boss even provided the paper and printer so I could print out bookmarkers I created and since they owned the building we worked in, they allowed me to set up an area outside on the sidewalk to sell my books to the tourists. They said they were sad to see me go, so I lucked out with where I worked.

  3. I like your response Lynne, and you mentioned some of the most important things. I agree with you. The internet absolutely helps with anonymity. I find that having a separate author profile on Facebook that uses my pen name helps quite a bit. It allows my activities as an author to stand alone and at the same time informs the audience that is actually interested in my writing regardless of if they know me personally. Same with Twitter. But LinkedIn…? Hmm. That’s an area I won’t touch no matter how many times I try to talk myself into it because I’m convinced that one personality will ultimately eat the other there. But that’s a personal view. I’d rather them stay out of each other’s way. It’s all about professional connections on LinkedIn and in both worlds my connections are just very different people looking for very different things. Thanks again!

    1. You’re very welcome. My LinkedIn profile is pretty schizoid — I’ve billed myself there as a fantasy author, but I’ve also posted my resume, complete with the career change I made about 13 years ago. I’m not sure how LinkedIn feels about a user having multiple profiles, but it might be worth a try.

  4. You’re right, Lynne, some of the most influential writers in the history of literature have used pseudonyms.

    My personal take: write what you like and ‘print and be damned!’ I say.

  5. Great article! I don’t have this kind of issue, but a writers group that I’m in has bandied the pros and cons of the issue about for some time. I’ve passed the article along to them. Thanks for the great info!

  6. I use a pseudonym and keep my real identity secret. No one at work knows I’ve written a book. I have a very professional job that requires ethics, licencing, and a full background check with fingerprints. The person I am today is so different then the person I used to be that I bet I could look my boss and colleagues right in the eye and say, “I used to be a heroin addict drug dealer” and I don’t think they would believe me, but lets not find out.

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