Say my Name

So, if you are reading this, you probably know me. If I write something about you (or if I already have) and I intend to publish it, would you prefer that I use your real name or a pseudonym?

One question my students often  have is, “Should I use the real names of people I write about?” I wish I had a consistent answer on this. My own practice is to sometimes use the real names, and sometimes not. I  never use first and last names both, because it is weird to refer to someone as “Nathaniel Hawthorne” if I knew him as Nate.

When I use real names:

  1. When I am 100% certain the person will never read the piece and that they would likely be shocked that would write about them. This is because a lot of the people I write about are not necessarily people I knew that well or remain in contact with, not because they cannot defend themselves, but because I use writing to work out why the memory of someone I didn’t know all that well stays with me so vividly. I want to know why someone talked the way he did or why it bothered me so much or why I found the person sitting down the row in study hall so interesting. Some people just make a lasting impression on us and it’s not immediately clear why. The process of figuring that out is the best part of writing nonfiction.
  2. When they are in my immediate family. Because I use my own name, not a pen name, and anyone can figure out who they are right away.
  3. When the person’s role is fairly peripheral, and they do nothing controversial.

When I use made-up names:

  1. When I worry that something I write might hurt someone. For instance, if I am writing about a family I babysat for in which the parenting was a bit suspect, it can only cause harm to use the real names. Sometimes this is hard, particularly when the person has an amazing name. One girl I wrote about in “Child Psychology” had the best name, but I didn’t want to use it because she had dealt with a difficult disability when we were children and I didn’t feel right about  using her actual name. It was a great name, though, and it was painful not to use it.
  2. When the person asks me to  use a made-up name. I would never say no to this, but I have to choose the name, because I need to be able to remember it. The name has to be right for the person. If  you are not sure what pen name I would use for you, ask me.
  3. If they are in my extended family. They didn’t ask for this, and we have different last names, so it’s not a problem.
  4. When I am describing a place in not-s0-flattering terms and I think that it would be better to avoid giving that place any negative publicity (for instance, the college I attended, which I do say some unflattering things about, and where I faced some challenges that were not necessarily the school’s fault.) I call the school Couer de Pierre, which translates to “Heart of Stone” , which isn’t exactly a glowing endorsement, but again, this is more about me at the time than about the school, which, to be fair, had to deal with people like me.
  5. When I don’t remember the person’s real name. This  happens a fair amount. Especially with people I dated. Sorry (not sorry), Nate.





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