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Am I My Pen Name?
Thoughts on hiding and letting go
“Hey, are you Guy?” was never a question I felt comfortable answering. The obvious response was yes. Especially when I was currently at a book event, where I had been on stage reading something I wrote and published under my pen name, Guy New York. Yet my response was typically along the lines of, “Yes, that’s me, but please call me Ben.”
A pen name is a strange thing.
It’s a shield, it’s a personality, it’s a disguise, it’s freedom, it’s a limitation, and it’s a character. At times it’s all of those and none of them. In my case, it let me write erotica without worrying about someone from the rest of my life finding out about it and asking awkward questions. It also let my family avoid the same awkward situations.
When I began sharing my work in 2013, my pen name felt like a necessity. It was the thin protective layer between my desire for privacy and my willingness to splash the most intimate parts of my life on a page. It was unlikely that someone thinking of hiring me for a job would google my name and find something titled, “Teasing Daddy’s Friends” or “My Wife Shows Me Where He Came.”
With that protection came freedom: the freedom to write the stories I wanted to write and the freedom to publish personal anecdotes while maintaining some plausible deniability. I could write my little heart out, send my thoughts out to the world, and never have to field questions about sex, kink, or my relationship style from people I’d rather not discuss any of those topics with.
The more I wrote, the more I published, and the longer time I spent in sex-positive spaces surrounded by sex-positive people, the easier it became. As I immersed myself in a life that embodied my writing, I let myself slip deeper into the name until I began to feel like someone else. And I liked that someone else! He was more free than I was. More spontaneous and, let’s face it, hotter than me. When I was Guy, I could do anything.
But moving into a name isn’t the same thing as becoming a whole person. While it often felt like myself, my pseudonym was still a name that let me hold up a barrier between me and my work. It left me with an escape hatch in case things went sideways and I needed to pretend that all the messy porn I had written wasn’t me.
That is not what I meant at all!
For many authors, I suspect the question of a pen name is not an overly existential one. It’s a tool for work to let them publish books, articles, and stories under a name that allows them freedom in the rest of their life. At the end of the day, they can put that work in the drawer with the laptop and go to sleep in their own bed with their own name.
The struggle for me was that using Guy New York instead of my real name wasn’t just about writing. I dove into crafting stories about sex parties and going to sex parties at the same time. I was writing about open relationships because I was in them, and I was writing about kinky sex, messy breakups, and sinful fantasies because those things were deeply embedded in my life. And my entry point to those events was always Guy New York.
If I wrote stories about rock climbing I might have named myself Cliff. If I decided to sink my teeth into food writing maybe I’d have used Oyster Ben or Gormandizing Gary. But alas, I was stuck with Guy New York, a noir sex detective with a nose for whiskey and bad habits.
If you find yourself at a sex party, you might discover that nearly everyone there has at least two names as well. When it comes to sex, most of us find it easier to explore under the guise of someone else. Someone not quite us but not entirely another person. Maybe someone who lives next to us, a shadow of sorts.
It might take a few months or even years to discover those layers. I’ve had friends for many years without knowing their given names, and don’t get me started on last names. Who needs them? But you can only spend so much time in a make-believe world before some amount of exhaustion and feeling blasé take over, leaving you just as you are. A real person sitting on a couch after the orgy, too tired to sleep, mildly hungry, surrounded by people you know intimately even if you don’t know which boroughs they live in.
At that point, maybe at the diner at four am, another layer of truth comes out. The woman you’ve called Mary for six months might turn to you over disco fries and a milkshake and say, “Oh, by the way, my real name is Stacy.” You might smile and nod and say something like, “It’s nice to meet you, Stacy. I can see why you changed it. Bloody Stacy just doesn’t have the same ring to it.”
“Yeah, Ben New York isn’t quite the same either,” she’d say as you sunk into the vinyl booths too exhausted to pretend.
Of course the guy named Spider was given that name at birth and the woman named Holly Water got it from her grandmother. Truth is always stranger than fiction, and some folks are lucky enough to be who they are no matter where they go.
I’ve never been quite so lucky. I’ve found myself donning a new mask for every social setting I find myself in, whether it’s work– or sex-related. The struggle to fit in requires an attempt to act the right way, look the right way, and speak the right way. As I lost myself in these costumes, I became less certain of who was doing the pretending.
I’m a writer, I’d say to one person. I do freelance graphic design, I’d say to another. I make porn, I’d declare if the circumstances were right. But most often I’d mumble something in between as I attempted to balance too many shifting parts. They’d all be true answers. Incomplete for sure, but true nevertheless. But that truth isn’t the same thing as being whole, and that was never something I allowed myself to be.
Shedding my pen name has not been some great reveal. Back at the end of April when I decided to put down the mantle of Guy and pick up something else, something yet unknown, it was not an unveiling. It felt much more like a funeral.
In the ten years since I published my first collection of stories (taken from my Tumblr), I’ve put out almost exactly 100 titles. Most of them are collections of short stories, but they also include at least fifteen novellas and five novels. Most of them under the name Guy New York. While I can pat myself on the back and say job well done, I can also recognize that it’s time to move on.
For that to happen, though, Guy New York had to die. Not a grisly death (and certainly not a sexy one) but a death all the same. I had to let go of a mask that no longer served a purpose and hopefully awaken to something more integrated into my sense of self. In order to let go, I had to announce it, mourn it, and then move on from it.
Which brings me here, to Ben Goodwin, a writer in Brooklyn with a taste for oysters, NYC politics, and other dirty things. Guy New York isn’t buried, but he is on a high shelf where he can be what he was without having to be what’s next.
There are good reasons to hide and good reasons to don a mask. There is liberation in anonymity and freedom in stepping back from oneself to see what else resides within.
But at least for me, there is also a time to let go of that protective layer and settle into something more transparent and authentic. Ideally with less fear and worry. Ideally in a way that no longer requires the mask because I no longer have something to hide. I no longer need the safety of distance to explore the parts within me that I’m not certain I like.
Pen names are a funny thing. Which leaves me with one final question to myself: Will Ben Goodwin be a pen name too or can he be something else?
I suppose there’s only one way to find out.
Ben Goodwin is an author, designer, and publisher in Brooklyn. He was born in New Jersey, went to college in Indiana, traveled to Japan, and finally settled back in NYC where he rediscovered his love of writing. When he is not writing he enjoys thinking about what he should be writing.
He’s the author of three novels, Portraits of Alice, The Island on the Edge of Normal, and The Beertown Twins. Until recently he wrote and published erotica under the name Guy New York.
He lives in Brooklyn with his dog Zelda and his partner Veronika.
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