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Some thoughts on the importance of owning what you write

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Every once in a while, the Matador team receives a request from a writer to use a pseudonym. A few months ago, the request was being made with enough regularity that we decided to establish a policy:

No pseudonyms unless someone’s life depended on it.

I was the editor who laid the policy down because if there’s one single belief in life that I’m totally clear about and which I hold dear, it’s this:

Words matter.

And because they matter, we need to own them. If you can’t put your name to your ideas and opinions (especially living in a democratic society where freedom of the press is a protected right), then I’m not too sure you have the prerogative to share them with anyone other than yourself.

I consider it an insult to the writers (bloggers, journalists, what have you– I personally don’t think the distinction is that important) who do put their lives on the line in order to be able to say what needs to be said when someone who is comparatively privileged decides to hide behind a pseudonym for no apparently good reason.

Not everyone agrees with me, as you can see in the exchange of comments in response to an article Leigh Shulman wrote a few weeks ago on MatadorLife.

This week, I’m working on a couple of essays that have significant personal stakes, so all of this is on my mind. I’m not sure what else I want to say about the subject now, other than this: Every day, when I wake up and start writing, I do so knowing that I won’t put any words to paper (or to screen, in this case) that I don’t believe in.

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8 responses »

  1. Well, fundamentally I agree with you and we recently put contributor profiles on PocketCultures for this reason. But I think it’s important to appreciate too that not every country has got to the stage of the USA on this (and that writing certain things about certain countries can get you in trouble even as a traveller).

    On PocketCultures we want to hear what people in other parts of the world have to say, and I think I’d rather someone uses a pseudonym if the alternative is we don’t hear their voice at all. Even if that’s for social reasons.

    Also, what do you think about people who don’t make a living from writing? If what they write can affect their employment prospects, are you saying they shouldn’t write?

    Reply
    • Liz- Thanks for your response. I agree with you that the concerns I expressed may be especially applicable in the US. It’s dangerous to be a writer in many countries around the world. But that’s all the more reason, I think, why those of us who live in countries with relative freedom of expression have an obligation to really consider whether our requests for anonymity are reasonable, and I’d argue that that’s as true of people who make their living writing as those who are blogging for leisure. Eileen’s articulation of this argument is perhaps more elegant than mine was, and it reflects my own opinion on the matter. 99% of the requests we’ve received at Matador are from people who don’t seem to have any justifiable reason to request a pseudonym. If they have a justifiable reason, I do want to consider their writing because, as you stated, I want to hear their voice; I don’t want to contribute to silencing them.

      Reply
  2. Debating the criteria for deserving anonymity aside, I absolutely agree that being willing to stand by your writing is a powerful gesture. It can sometimes lend a power to the statement you are making that it could never have if you weren’t willing to stand right there behind it.

    I was arguing with someone just last night about the difference between protesters who go out onto the streets and face their agressors vs those who sit quietly and tweet about how shocking things are in place X or with issue Y. A real life protest, simply by virtue of someone presenting themselves behind their views, will always carry a weight that anonymous words alone – no matter how well composed – will never match.

    Reply
    • Richard-
      Thanks for your comment (and for some reason, I’m realizing your blog isn’t in my reader, which has to be corrected!). You raise a really interesting issue related to Twitter- it offers even more anonymity than a blog and may have a wider reach. I’m as passionate about being transparent on Twitter as anywhere else–after all, even a 140 character tweet is writing, isn’t it?

      Reply
  3. I’m so glad you’re discussing this topic. I get the feeling that people have this sense that they should “protect the source” even when the source is themself. About this I disagree. There are reasons to voice and not voice your opinion, which may be related to how important it was to you to say it, and what you fear the repercussions may be. When you take the possible repercussions away, you change the equation, and you muck up my ability to know how important it was to you to say it.

    I also need to know if it’s you speaking, or if it’s someone else speaking. It’s not the same to hear a story in the first person as it is to hear it in the third.

    I guess what I’m saying is, if you don’t want those words to be attached to you, then maybe you aren’t ready to say them. And if you aren’t ready to say them, then maybe you shouldn’t.

    I’ll be interested to hear what others have to say.

    Reply
  4. I tend to disagree with this. Yes, you should own every single word you jot down, especially the bad ones, but pseudonyms serve their purpose. In a sick, God complex, kind of way, you want them to become bigger than you and your biases and fears. You want to be bigger than yourself when you write.

    How many great American novelists wrote under pen names? You can tell a lot more about a person by reading their words, then years of conversations. You tend to be more honest in your writing, more honest then you are as a person.

    Reply
  5. I guess I already made my opinion pretty clear in the whole Men With Pens flap. And it’s all been said here as well.

    I simply don’t believe sources that I cannot verify. I don’t think anyone MUST show a true face to the world, but otherwise, to me it may as well be fiction.

    And when talking about real world issues — what’s going on in Iran, what’s happening on the ground in Haiti as examples — that sort of fiction is a waste of my time.

    Thanks, Julie, for this article and also for stepping into that debate on Matador.

    Reply

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