On Writing Memoir: Why You Shouldn’t Use a Pseudonym

Sari Botton of The Rumpus just released her newest installment of “Conversations With Writers Braver Than Me.” In this series, Botton interviews some of the memoirists she admires to explore the reasons why they chose to write memoir, and how they were able to find the courage and strength to do so. The most recent article is an interview with author Elisa Albert. In the article, Botton expresses her concerns with writing about people who are still alive; namely, her parents. Reading the article made me think about my own challenges in writing memoir, and got me thinking more about writing memoir under a fake name.

Several people have asked me why I don’t just write my memoir using a pseudonym. Their reasoning is that, if I used a pseudonym, no one would really know who I am. More importantly, no one would know who the people in my memoir really are. After all, the other people in my memoir are merely innocent bystanders, right? They didn’t ask to have their stories told, their secrets aired to the world. I strongly believe, however, that writing a memoir under a pseudonym is destructive for two reasons.

The first, and most important reason, is that the difference between a memoir and a novel is that a memoir is a true story. Of course, there’s no way to write a completely true story. All writers of creative nonfiction have to take creative liberties in reconstructing events. While Truman Capote boasted an impressive 96% accuracy in recalling conversations, even he couldn’t get it all right. And even if he did remember all the right words, everyone interprets events in different ways. If you videotaped a day of your life and watched it with the people who were there with you, each of you would tell the story of that day differently. But the point is that memoir is based on true events. The power in reading memoir comes from the knowledge and the belief of the reader that these things really happened to a real person.

If a writer uses a pseudonym when writing memoir, they are basically removing that element of realism and belief that makes memoir what it is. If you aren’t able to put your name on your story, you may want to consider changing some of it around and calling it a novel. Just know that even if you do call it a novel, the people in your life will still see themselves in the characters and be upset. It does provide more of a cushion, but there’s really no “safe” way to tell your story – it’s always a risk.

Secondly, even if you do choose to use a pseudonym, in this day and age, it wouldn’t take long for people to find out who you really are. Gone are the days of using a pen name and retreating to a little cottage in Cape Cod, anonymously mailing your work to publishers, denying all interviews and appearances. Even those writers got found out eventually, and that was long before the internet existed. Besides, in hiding, you would miss any opportunities you’d have to connect with the people who relate with your story. I certainly wouldn’t want to give that up, especially if I wrote a book that helped people come to terms with their own experiences.

Memoir is all about owning up to the past – your past. The idea of writing an autobiographical novel is a different issue, and one worth exploring in its own entry. I feel that a memoir is only as honest as the person writing it, and in hiding your name and your identity, you aren’t being honest with yourself or the world. As for the innocent bystanders in your story, all you can do is change their names, and hope they will understand your need to share your story. We all have a right to tell our stories, and we shouldn’t let fear or other people take that right away from us.

If you feel an urge to write your story, as Elisa Albert says in Botton’s interview, just write it. Don’t think about publication or hurting the people you’re writing about. Write it for yourself. If you decide to share it, then you can go back and choose which parts you want to share with the world.

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Comments

  1. says

    Interesting read! I haven’t considered this before (but I don’t write memoirs). My pen name is a pseudonym, but that is partly because my other name is used in a different line of work and I want to state that “this is something different”.

    • Alana says

      Thanks for the comment, M. I have no problem with pen names in general – I just think, if you’re going to write something and call it a memoir or autobiography, you should at least be okay revealing your real name. This post was more as a response to people who have been questioning my decision to use my real name on my memoir.

  2. Pamela says

    Thank-you. This is helpful. I am writing memoir and nervous about what I am putting out there. But as you say, own it. If I can’t own it, I shouldn’t put it out there.

    • Alana says

      Thanks for the comment, and I’m glad you found the post helpful. It’s natural to be nervous about putting your life out into the world for anyone to read. I’m really nervous about that too, and I think it’s just something you have to eventually decide to do despite how scary it seems. If you have a story to tell but don’t want people to know it’s your story, you can always write it as fiction.

      Good luck with your memoir!

  3. Anthony Mennitto says

    Dear Alana,

    My question is: I writing my life true history, should I use the real names of the characters? I would not change mine, but what about the other people?

    Thank you
    Regards,
    Anthony Mennitto

    • Alana says

      Hi Anthony. When I write memoir, I use the real names of the people I’m writing about (although usually just the first name unless the last is necessary). It’s really a matter of how comfortable you feel revealing their real names and what sort of things their names will be associated with. If a publisher decides names need to be changed for legal reasons, you can always go back and change them later. It’s not always necessary from a legal standpoint, but it’s an ethical gray area. Do whatever you feel comfortable with and let your editors and publishers help you decide when the time comes to publish.

      • says

        What if I’m a teacher writing about a landmark historical event… would I still use my students’ first names? I’m scared about that because of privacy laws.
        On the other hand, I feel that changing to a novel or “faction” would be to demean the reality of it.

  4. Jill M. says

    Thank you, I totally just changed my mind completely about the use of a pseudoname on my memoir.

  5. R. Samuel says

    I am writing an autobiographical work now, and I’m considering using a pseudonym for it. I would prefer to use my own name, but the reason I am considering a pseudonym is because I am covering a lot of negative experiences I had with authority figures (mainly teachers). Even though the events are true, I have been reading that if it was ever brough to court for defamation it would be your responsibility to prove it is true, and since they are isolated experiences I would have no way of proving them to be true. They had a large impact in shaping who I am, as well as the way I feel about society. I think the story would be important as a true story, not a novel, evenunder a pseudonym because of the impact that these are things that actually did happen to someone, and it doesn’t matter that it was to me personally, just that they are experiences people really do have growing up that shapes them and their relationship to society. For this reason I think the issue is more universal than personal, I am sure that many others have had similar experiences, and I think it is important to tell the story because people often have an image of teachers that they are providing a great service and forming the minds of the new generation, which is true, but that formation is not always positive.

    Do you have an opinion?

    • Alana says

      Well, even if you do use a pseudonym, you won’t necessarily be protected. Unless you publish it anonymously, I think they could still claim that your pseudonym is you, especially because that information would likely be public knowledge. My recommendation would be to change the teachers’ names and any identifying features. That way you can tell your story under your name and not risk any sort of legal ramifications. I change the names of most people in my memoir, especially doctors, nurses, authority figures, etc. If this is about a universal experience, it’s ultimately not necessary to name names or single people out, and most publishers would make you do that anyway.

  6. Kassy says

    I have a serious decision to make about writing my memoir. There are no concerns as far as my immediate family is concerned (dad was an abusive alcoholic and admits it.) Mother is bipolar and had been hospitalized several times due to her refusal to take medication. My childhood was terrible, but my family has grown from the mistakes made. We have attended therapy, created boundaries and while we aren’t “The Cosby Family,” we are loving, close and supportive of each other. My dad has also begged for our forgiveness.

    I am a happily married, mother of 2 who has been with my husband for 13 years. My mother-in-law is divorced from my father-in-law; she remarried when my husband was 2.

    I never imagined with the traumatic upbringing I endured that what would drive me to therapy would not be my own family, but would be my husband’s family.

    My mother-in-law is a clinical therapist, which is what makes this a difficult choice. She has a profitable practice where she is an original partner in. She is still practicing and I don’t want to hurt her image.

    I can prove what would be written. I have 12-13 years worth of emails and text messages, however I don’t want to “destroy” her.

    Years ago I had written about some of our issues on a message board and was contacted by a reality TV production company wanting to know if I, we (MIL and I) would be interested in doing a reality TV show. Yes, it’s that bad.

    I have read many books on in-laws, mother-in-laws, evil in-laws, etc., but nothing compares to what this woman has put my family through. Nothing.

    Everyone who I have ever told stories to just drops their mouth open in disbelief. By the 3rd – 4th story, they are saying “you need to write a book.”

    This woman is so evil that we have forgotten more things she has put us through than we will ever remember. I sit down to write a story and two more stories are recalled. I go over an old email from her and think “How did I forget she did that?”

    We do not speak to her anymore. My husband has cut her completely out of his life. We did this at the advice of more than one therapist. We don’t care if she knows this is about her or not. I can prove what is said is factual as almost all of it is documented in emails with her.

    I do not want to destroy her professional career, though. How would you recommend proceeding in this situation?

    I considered writing under my real name and changing the names of everyone else in the memoir.

    Any suggestions are welcome and appreciated. :)

    • Alana says

      I would definitely suggest changing the names of everyone mentioned in the book including, of course, your mother-in-law’s. It is a bit of a tricky situation, though, since she would still be identifiable to people who personally know you and your husband, or even just people who do a little digging.

      You’d probably want to consult a lawyer before publication (publishing houses tend to provide that service as well). A lawyer can let you know the best way to proceed legally. For now, I recommend just focusing on writing and not worrying about those issues yet.

      • Kassy says

        Thank you. Definitely need legal advise when putting in writing that she was supposed to be my caregiver after a major surgery and neglected to follow the surgeon’s orders. She outright lied about the printed instructions she was given and caused MAJOR complications after a surgery.

        Family members on both her side and step-father-in-law’s family gave her Christmas gifts, maternity gifts, first born child’s gifts, first Mother’s Day gifts and she never told us she was holding them. We were on speaking terms. She was seeing us on a regular basis. I invited her to my ultrasounds. She was at the hospital the day I gave birth.

        I don’t want to put too much out there, but these are a few…

        The most recent has stung the worst. My husband’s great-grandmother who was in her 90’s passed away and no one notified us until 3 1/2 hours before the funeral. Mother-in-law’s sister sent me a text message informing me. She claimed MIL had been trying to reach us for 6 weeks to let us know great-grandmother was ill, but “just couldn’t reach us.”

        Lies.

        You know, normal things that mother-in-laws do!

  7. says

    I am writing a memoir about my life and the places of employment that have harmed me. Is it OK to use false names to cover up the real names? People tell me its OK. I just wanted to know your thoughts!
    Thank you.

    • Alana says

      As long as you change their names and the company names, there shouldn’t be a problem. But it’s not something I’d worry too much about until it gets to the publication stage, in which case your publisher (or a lawyer if you’re self pubbing) will advise.

  8. K. Leah says

    Hi,
    I really appreciate this post. I scoured the internet about this issue and just got a lot of vague answers. This really helps, thank you!

  9. says

    Hi Alana,

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing your opinion about this! I have been struggling with this, as I prepare to write my memoir. I knew it in my gut, but really needed to hear it! I’m just waiting for some of the elders of my story to pass along before I put it out there.

    Forever me,

    Gail Coleman

  10. Freda says

    I’ve never written before but last Christmas I decided I would start to document my life events or at least the ones that stand out. My goal was to have it completed next Christmas. I wanted about my life for my children & grandchildren to have after I’m gone. Maybe to answer some unanswered questions they may have. The more I write the more comes forward in my mind. I know that I don’t have to write about everything in my life. But from what I’m starting to understand is that one should write about, among other things, painful events & how they lived through some of these. I feel like I’m being lead to write about a very traumatic time when I was raped & betrayed by someone I thought was a friend. I don’t mind outing myself. It’s been so long and ive done so much inner I feel like I’ve healed & free of the guilt that was attached to the whole incident but I don’t want to hurt my family. Any advise?

    • Alana says

      Since it doesn’t involve them, I’m not really sure how writing about your traumatic experience will hurt your family. The first step would be to talk to them and see how they feel about it. If you’re really concerned that this will negatively affect those relationships, a pseudonym is always an option. But since you’re a new writer so early on in the process, this really isn’t something that should worry you right now. It’s an issue you could discuss with a publisher or agent down the line.

  11. Lucas says

    Thank you for this post (from 6 years ago). It has helped me clarify my plans.

    The memoir I want to write will be a hard sell because it’s about suburban white kids and that subject isn’t in vogue at the moment. I sent a query and first 10 pages to one agent and it was ignored. I don’t have the time to track down agents, only to be rejected with silence, because that is too damaging right now.

    I know how to get an agent. I wrote a nonfiction book proposal that attracted three agents and I went with one of them. My agent left New York for a summer vacation and we had plans to get together when he returned. I made a note to contact him a couple of days after he got back to New York, on September 13.

    That was September 13, 2001. We know what happened two days earlier, and the tumult from that day scuttled my project. “No one is publishing anything right now,” is how the agent put it.

    When the dust cleared, I was no longer interested in writing a travel book based on horror and the supernatural. We saw travel and horror played out in real life.

    But I digress. It’s possible my memoir isn’t compelling. I plan on blogging the first draft to see if it generates any interest.

    My plan is to use a pseudonym while writing the blog. The way I see it, there’s no point having my name associated with private details of my life if the blog only gets 10 hits a day, or people who read it don’t like it. Anyone Googling me for business purposes would have access to the information, and the negative impact to me would be greater than the payoff.

    If a publisher approached me (there will be an email address or contact form on the blog) and offered to turn the blog into a book, I would probably not have a problem using my name. At that point, I would become an author, and not some random guy who disclosed information on the internet about his life. In this scenario, the payoff would be greater than the risk.

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