Currer Bell, and Other Bomb Pen-Names

I decided long ago that if I ever made it big as a writer, (which will happen around the time pigs start flying), that I would pull a Jean Rhys (real name Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams, the most feminine name ever), and conceal my identity. The trouble is, I’m lucky enough to live in a time when a woman trying to “make it big” in anything is as common as a TV show about 20-something singles trying to “make it big” in the heart of Manhattan. Translation: it seems that pen-names, nowadays, are pretty much pointless, given the increasing amount of women writers.

HOWEVER. There’s something romantic about the idea of concealing who you truly are from an adoring audience. Can you imagine how those snobby, mustachioed male authors reacted when it came out that Currer Bell, the author of Jane Eyre, was actually Charlotte Bronte, and that his equally-respected brother, Ellis Bell, (the author of Wuthering Heights), was actually Emily Bronte? I can almost smell the sweat dripping off the abnormally-large male authors’ noses when they realized, “Oh man, things are gonna change”. Now, take it a step further and imagine how the average downtrodden woman felt when SHE found out. It’s a pretty amazing image.

By adopting a pen-name and concealing your identity, you’re basically getting people to like you based solely off of your talent, which, for ten-year-old me, sounded pretty bomb. I imagined myself coming forward as the brilliant author behind brilliant best-selling novels with brilliant titles like “Understanding the Yeti”, “Never Throw Baloney”, and “Saturday Morning Creamed Corning” (I swear these are real). I look back on this now with a slightly-embarrassed grin, but I can’t deny that part of me still yearns for the romance of it all.

I’d say that the whole concept of a “pen name” is what initially got me into writing stories. I thought that the fact that Dr. Seuss was also Theodor Geisel  was hella mysterious, and I SO wanted to be mysterious. Because I was a twin, the idea that I could somehow NOT stick out in a crowd really appealed to me. I was small and shy, and wanted  badly to distinguish myself not only from my sister, but from my other classmates. The fact that I could do that, and have only ME know about it, was like a dream come true.

I made up my first pen name when I was ten. Everything I wrote from age ten to age thirteen, I signed with Madeline Peterson; Madeline, because I loved the name, and Peterson because it sounds similar to my actual last name. When I turned thirteen, my love of writing really began to flourish. I joined several writing websites, and self-published (not really) some of my short stories, using the name EJ Peterson (my initials, and again the fake last name). I wrote my first “novel” (68 pages on Microsoft word-I was so proud) with a main character named Madeline, and signed my name as EJP.

I realize now that part of my fascination with pen-names was rooted in my self-consciousness as a writer. I didn’t think I was any good at ten years old, and to be honest, part of me still believes that I’m not any good. As I’ve worked on my writing and gotten more experienced, I’ve also gotten more confident as a writer, which has given me the motivation to do something I thought I’d never do: write my full name-the one I was given at birth-atop one of my short stories, and show it to the world (or, uh, my creative writing class). Hopefully, Jean Rhys would have been proud.

And I gotta admit: trying to “make it big” using my own name feels pretty great-in fact, it feels pretty darn bomb.


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