Trick or Treat?

This Week In Writing, we talk about pen names and whether they make sense for writers.

Trick or Treat?
Photo by Jan Valečka / Unsplash

How would you react if I told you Justin Cox was actually a pen name? It's obviously not the case (or is it?), and if it were (it's not?), it'd be one very long con. After all, I shared a few weeks ago that I registered about two decades ago.

Since it's Halloween, it feels like a good time to broach the pen name subject. Many writers put on an anonymous or pseudonymous persona when writing online. While I'm not one of them, I get the appeal of a pen name.

A few weeks ago, My Writing Community member Liz asked the following:

I'd like to see something on pen names addressed in a future newsletter! ... I'm debating between a realistic pen name or a brand name. I'd be curious to read your thoughts.

I worked with teenagers for fifteen years, though I never wrote about the absolutely insane things I witnessed. It was a ripe storytelling environment, but sharing them under my name never felt right.

There were times I contemplated a pen name, but the idea of maintaining multiple personas (Justin Cox and something else) and managing multiple audiences just seemed far too daunting. Instead, I shelved everything that happened into some dark recess of my brain, and many ideas were left unexplored.

Only in the last few months have some of those ideas started bubbling back to the surface. I've got a particularly amazing story sitting in draft, just waiting to be told. But now, all these years later, I'm afraid I won't be able to do it justice. We'll see.

Anyway, pen names. There are benefits to using one. Besides anonymity, pen names offer a "nuke option," as Zulie Rane puts it.

Zulie, fellow My Writing Community teammate, did play the long game and created a pen name at 10 years old (in case you're wondering, it's Zulie). As Zulie puts it, "Posting stuff online about your life requires a lot of vulnerability — it sounds weird writing this but being someone else made it easier to be myself."

Many times throughout my writing career, I've felt like I was leaving things back out of fear of how people might react. Even now, in my more mature stage, I still wonder how things might be different if I wasn't always writing as me. There's a weight that comes with being "known" online. Then again, based on Zulie's experience, that weight can show up regardless of the name you use. The difference? Zulie has that nucular option:

And it gives me an ace in my sleeve: if I should ever get sick of being an extremely minor internet celebrity, if I should ever want to go back to my corporate job life, or retire to a goat farm in the northern regions of Spain, I can simply drop off the face of the Earth. Zulie is real, but she’s also a facade, someone I created. I love my life, but I love the option of leaving it all behind one day, too.

I don't know about you, but the northern regions of Spain sound lovely!

Zulie operates with a pseudo-anonymous persona. It's obviously her face on those YouTube videos and chats. Though, her name is unknown.

As we fully move into the age of AI, it's possible to create an entirely anonymous persona, complete with AI video. Zulie could, in theory, create her own digital likeness and be completely anonymous.

Frankly, the quality isn't great right now, but that option will exist for creators in the near future. For me? It honestly sounds like a lot of work to maintain. I have trouble enough being me let alone a digital version of me.

What do you think? Do you write with a pen name? Are you fully or pseudo-anonymous? Hit reply and let me know your reasoning.

Would you pay for a search engine?

I've been playing around with Kagi, the new search engine with a monthly fee. Frankly, I've been impressed. There are no ads, it's super fast, it finds what I'm looking for, and it's completely private. In other words, they're collecting money instead of selling your information.

As of this writing, Kagi has a bit over 15,000 members. In other words, it's still really new to the market. I only started playing with it over the weekend and am still in my free trial period, but I intend to upgrade when the trial ends. I'm curious how it will hold up after a few weeks/months of regular use, but so far, I'm intrigued.

Celebrating the Small Web

Speaking of Kagi, they have a fun tab called "Small Web." It's a nod back to the Stumble Upons of old, which were always a lot of fun.

For you young folks, Stumble Upon (and Kagi Small Web) collects independent sites and blogs and knits them together into a randomized, endless stream of creativity. Similarly, there's the Ooh Directory, a categorized blog collection.

As we (hopefully) continue to move into the decentralized future of the web, these collections will not only provide a whimsical look at the internet but also a vital place of discovery for writers. Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to browse the Small Web for some new blogs to read.

Justin Cox Justin Cox

Justin Cox is a donut-loving, word-writing, nonprofit consultant based in Orlando. He also runs The Writing Cooperative on Medium. Come say hello!