By Marcy Kennedy (@MarcyKennedy)
Welcome back to the third part in my in-depth exploration of why I decided to launch a secret pen name.
If you missed the other parts, you can find them here:
Today I’m diving in to reason #3. I saved it for last because it was the single most important reason behind my decision. It’s also the post that scares me the most because I’m going to be honest and vulnerable about things I’ve never shared publicly before. I’m sharing because I hope it will help others who are feeling the same way.
REASON #3 – I WANTED MY CRAYONS BACK
What I’m calling my third reason was inspired by a quote from an artist named Cinnamon Cooney. She has an excellent YouTube channel where she teaches acrylic painting in a way that’s meant to allow people to explore their creativity and have fun. It’s a no-judgment zone. She says she’s trying to give people their crayons back.
What does any of that have to do with writing and why I chose to launch a secret pen name?
When I first started writing fiction, I wrote for the sheer joy of it. I was like a kid with crayons. Kids don’t draw and color for any reason except that it’s fun. They experiment without fear of someone criticizing what they do. They’re free to learn by failure and to try again and to love the entire process.
Then somewhere along the way, the weight of expectation crushes us. It’s no longer good enough to create because we love the act of creation and to create what we love. Now we have to make sure that what we create meets the expectations of everyone watching us, judging us, waiting to see if we’ll succeed…or fail.
The weight of those expectations was killing me creatively.
I’d had a few people tell me that, when I released a novel, there would be those who would criticize it more harshly because I’m also an editor and a writing instructor. I’d also had people suggest that if my books weren’t excellent, they wouldn’t trust my editing or non-fiction teaching. I knew there was going to be a certain level of expectation for my work that might not be there if I wasn’t an editor and writing instructor.
The fear built from there. What if I published a novel and it tanked? Would that hurt the other side of my business? At the time, the income from my editing, teaching, and Busy Writer’s Guides was what paid my bills. I couldn’t afford to jeopardize it.
On top of that, due to a series of circumstance a few years ago, I’d lost my confidence in myself as a fiction writer. I knew I’d once had the skills—I had the competition wins to prove it—but I was scared I’d lost them.
As if those fears weren’t enough, I was afraid I’d lost my voice too. I’d spent four years co-writing, tamping down on my voice to meld it with someone else’s, and more years than that mimicking other writers’ voices in my editing. I wasn’t even sure I could find my voice again and find my way back to who I was as a writer.
To me, the bar felt like someone had perched it on top of the moon and my rocket-booster boots were all out of fuel.
I had confidence in my abilities as an editor and a teacher, but what I knew (and many people forget) is that a good editor or teacher isn’t necessarily a good writer and a good writer isn’t necessarily a good editor or teacher. The skill sets involved are different. I was terrified I was one and not the other.
Worse, the one I knew I was good at wasn’t my dream. Editing was something I started doing a decade or so ago because it came easily to me, I liked helping people, and I liked paying my bills and eating. I just didn’t want to spend my whole life doing it, and I started to fear that I’d wake up one day thirty years from now to find that my life had passed me by and I’d never done the things I’d dreamed of.
See, I’d been promising myself for a lot of years that “next year” I’d start slowing down on my editing load so that I could spend more time writing my personal work. It never happened. There was always some reason why I had to keep packing my editing schedule so full that, at the end of the day, I didn’t have any creative energy left. I’d given it all away to everyone else. My mind was filled with stories that weren’t my own.
I felt trapped. And I seriously considered walking away entirely from writing and from editing. The past few years had been so difficult on a behind-the-scenes personal level that a day job with set hours, a dependable pay check, and health benefits was starting to look better to me than spending the next thirty years editing, watching from the sidelines as other people achieved my dream. I’m pretty sure I could have walked away and never looked back. I was tired deep down in my soul.
I’d finally reached my breaking point. I either had to make a major step toward my goal of being a full-time fiction author or I had to quit and make my life better some other way. But I was frightened that taking that step would hurt us financially in a way we couldn’t afford if it turned out I wasn’t a good writer.
In the movie The Avengers, there’s an exchange between Captain America and Tony Stark. Captain America accuses Stark of not being the guy who’d lie down on the wire and let others crawl over him. Stark says, “No, I’d cut the wire.”
I had to find a way to cut the wire.
If you’re in a similar place, how you cut your particular wire will be different. For me, it meant creating a secret pen name. Here’s why:
(1) Having a secret pen name made writing fun again.
A large part of my struggle was that people had expectations of me and those expectations made writing harder than it should have been. I was tied up into knots trying to create a book that wouldn’t disappoint anyone. (Those of you who’ve been publishing for years are laughing now. A book that everyone loves doesn’t exist.) Writing under a secret pen name meant no expectations. I could write what I wanted to write, how I wanted to write it, simply because it was fun to do. Because no one expected anything at all of Pen Name.
(2) Failure had to be an option.
In one of his posts, Dean Wesley Smith wrote, “Remember, quitting is not an option. Failing is fine and you will do that a lot, but the moment you find a reason to quit and stay away, you and your art are finished.” I didn’t feel like failure was an option under my real name. With a secret pen name, I could take risks, make mistakes, and fail spectacularly because I could walk away from it. I could start all over again with a new pen name if I wanted to. What I wrote wouldn’t continue to follow me for the rest of my career.
Starting a pen name gave me my crayons back.
I hadn’t written any new fiction since 2014, maybe longer. After I created my pen name, I wrote and edited three novels and a novella in around five months (despite everything else happening in my life). And then I published them in a short span of time, and I didn’t look back.
They’re doing well enough that I’d be thrilled to admit they’re mine. But I’m not going to. Right now, I want to keep the pen name for me. It’s my place to play and to fall back in love with writing. I don’t need anyone else to know that she is me to feel good about those books. I know that I succeeded.
And, for now at least, that’s what I need it to be.
I’d love to hear your stories. Have you ever gone through a period of time where you lost your confidence? How did you overcome it? Is fear getting in the way of achieving your dreams? Have I changed any minds about launching a pen name?
Image Credit: Darren Hester/freeimages.com