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Don’t be yourself. How pseudonyms can help you be who you really want to be.

Updated: Nov 14, 2018

What do Marilyn Monroe, Man Ray, George Eliot and Mark Twain all have in common? That's right! They are all pseudonyms.

Actress Norma Jean Baker, artist/photographer Emmanuel Radnitzky, authors Mary Ann Evans, and Samuel Clemens were known and adored by their public by their pseudonyms, and having a pseudonym helped them to be the person they really wanted to be whether that was to hide their gender, their background, or simply to be someone else.

‘Just be yourself’

This is the advice we are often given by our friends and family on how to be in the world, how to interact with others, how to make our way. We must be true to ourselves. We tell ourselves that: “I am not that kind of person” or “I’m a shy person” etc. We exist within a carefully constructed code of behaviours that corresponds to our own sense of who we are as an individual human. We live our life accordingly, making decisions, developing friendships, doing jobs, having relationships all based on our internal sense of our ‘self’.

The trouble is there is no ‘self’.

There is no such thing as ‘I’

As famously proposed by Scottish philosopher David Hume in the middle of the Eighteenth Century if you try to find the ‘you’ inside your consciousness then all you will find will be a mass of fleeting perceptions and impressions. There is no consistent ‘self’ that exists within us. There is no ‘person’ that remains over time. This is why we change. This is why we may think differently now to how we may have thought before. We may look back at a younger ‘self’ and think ‘how could I have I believed that?’.

So, how can pseudonyms help us NOT be ourselves, be someone else, act differently, be different? How many of us are actually convinced that we are the person we want to be? American psychologist William James suggested that: “If you want a quality, act as if you already had it.” This ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ philosophy is taken up by popular psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman in his book Rip It Up. (The book would be better entitled Act As If as that is his main message).

In any profession that calls for you to have a public persona, to present yourself or your work to the public, such as being an author, or an artist, an actor or even an architect (think Le Corbusier, father of modernist architecture) it can be difficult to separate the ‘you’ from the work that are showing to an audience. Many artists, of all persuasions, can feel intensely self-conscious and insecure about their art yet also feel somewhat compelled to make it and show it. Receiving negative criticism about one’s art or performance can be devastating and, although it is to be expected if you are working in the public realm, artists’ can take it very badly, unless they have a particularly thick skin. Serge Rachmaninoff stopped composing for three years after his first symphony was savaged by critics. The painter RB Kitaj was devastated by the barrage of criticism that his 1994 Tate show in London drew and blamed the critics for the death of wife shortly after the show.

Adopting a pseudonym allows the ‘wearer’ to create a small distance between their own sense of themselves (this self that doesn’t exist as you will remember…), and their public persona. When Man Ray presented his work to the public he was shielded, both against the sharp edges of critical attack from without, but also against the potential for his own insecurity, self-doubt and self-criticism to stop him before he had even begun. In the case of Banksy and other graffiti artists the pseudonym can protect them from running foul of the law. A pseudonym takes away the pressure of this being ‘my’ work on public show, reduces the risk of exposing work that may be highly personal, and allows the pseudonym to absorb the responsibility. Fernando Pessoa took this a stage further, creating and working with, over his lifetime, over eighty (what he termed) heteronyms, fully formed characters with unique identities that he wrote from within, writing as if he was that person:

“Each of us is several, is many, is a profusion of selves” (From The Book of Disquiet, Pessoa)

Consider the difference between promoting someone or something else and promoting yourself: “Jane X is a highly talented artist. Her work is highly valued, greatly respected and in demand internationally” as opposed to “I am a highly talented artist. My work is highly valued, greatly respected and in demand internationally.” Certainly in the UK it would not be considered acceptable to describe oneself in such glowing terms, even if it was even partly true. But saying it of someone else is much easier. The same is true of describing a company. “Brand X associates is incredibly successful. It has commissions for work all over the world and their work is in great demand” rather than “My work is incredibly successful. I have commissions for work all over the world and my work is in great demand.” Perhaps we should have no problem or resistance in blowing our own trumpet, but the fact remains that it is very difficult to get away with such chutzpah.

Adopting a pseudonym or indeed a company profile can create the necessary emotional distance from whoever or what ever we are inside. Play with the idea of a pseudonym. Create yourself an alternative persona. How would this person act and behave? How would this be different to how you are normally? What kind of work would this alternative person do? Even if you don't go public with your pseudonym, or reveal your alternative personality to anyone else it can still help you gain valuable creative distance from your work. And remember, if you act as if you are a successful international artist you are more likely to become one.


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