The Pseudonymous Cape
Writing under a pseudonym is more honest than writing under your real name.
Think about it. Are you more honest with your best friend? Or Google? You tell your best friend everything, sure. But do you really tell them everything? Even with our closest friends and family we find it hard to be our true selves. A quick glance at your Google history will likely reveal something more personal and private.
When I used to write under my real name I was afraid to be honest and take risks. I remember wanting to call my sister an asshole in a blog post. I felt paralyzed. My fingers hovered over the keyboard as I debated the repercussions. Is that too mean? What will Alexis say? What will my whole family say? Will they stop speaking to me? I shouldn’t say bad things about other people.
It was exhausting.
So instead, I wrote the Instagram version of myself. I dressed to impress. It was like my resume with all my shining qualities. Even when I thought I was being honest and forthcoming it was still through a filtered lens of trying not to offend anybody.
Seeking approval from the people in your life — family, friends, bosses, co-workers — sucks the fun out of writing. And when you don’t enjoy writing your audience can tell, and then it sucks the fun out of reading, too.
When I decided to write under a pseudonym over two years ago it was because I wanted the freedom to express myself. I wrote about taking MDMA, stealing adderall from my best friend, and getting fired for drinking on the job. At first I worried I would be judged, but the opposite happened. Strangers called me brave. They wrote heartfelt emails that encouraged me to dig even deeper and keep sharing my stories.
After writing for a few months, it hit me: writing under a pseudonym is a fast track for writing well. It makes writing easy and fun. It lets me connect with my audience through honesty. And most unexpectedly, I’ve learned more about myself through writing than I did after years of therapy (with a most amazing therapist, btw).
The pseudonym does act as a cape, but not to protect and hide me. It’s more like a superhero cape. When I write as Charlie Bleecker I become more confident, more real, more vulnerable.
The word vulnerability is everywhere these days. It seems like the Instagram era is on its way out and vulnerability is on the way in. It’s even plastered all over my favorite television franchise, The Bachelor. Throughout Tayshia’s season it became a drinking game every time she said, “I just want you to be vulnerable with me.” Just hearing the word vulnerability makes my eyes roll. People want vulnerability. WE GET IT.
But what does it mean to be vulnerable? What does it *actually* look like in our writing?
After publishing hundreds of essays and newsletters I’ve become more aware of the different types of vulnerability. My pseudonym lets me bring confessions, transparency, and authenticity onto the page. Each one improves my writing, resonates with readers, and leads to self-discovery.
I. Revealing your secrets is what makes you relatable.
I stole adderall from my best friend. Many times. And when she asked if I had seen her bottle anywhere I lied and told her no.
These overwhelming admissions of truth and humanness in my writing have come to be known as “Bleecker Bombs.” While writing a powerful introduction can be difficult for some, I just spill the tea.
Confessions are juicy and attention-grabbing. It’s a simple way to start an essay. Just think of a secret. Write it at the top of a blank page. Boom. You’ve just hooked your readers.
Let’s be real, we all have secrets. We all have things we’d rather other people didn’t know. They don’t all have to be bombs like stealing or lying or cheating. It could just be a tiny admission, like how I care immensely about what people think of me.
When my usually cheery neighbor doesn’t greet me with a big smile and friendly exchange I rack my brain to figure out what I did to upset her. In reality, it had nothing to do with me (shocking!) and she was just having a bad day. Do I like to admit I think the world revolves around me?? Not especially. But every person has things they don’t love about themselves. We all have things we’re hiding.
New writers struggle to make themselves the main character in their writing. They want the focus to be on the content but readers won’t be invested in the content unless they’re invested in you, too. All great writers showcase at least some elements of personal writing. A pseudonym removes the fear of revealing something too personal and allows the writer to go for it.
When a writer has the freedom to let loose and reveal her secrets, something unexpected happens.
Confessing what makes me feel embarrassed, ashamed, or guilty lifts the dark clouds that hover over my head. Until I confessed, I didn't even realize these dark clouds were there. They were running in the background. It’s like when I forget the oven fan is on and then someone shuts it off and I’m like, Oh, thank God that noise finally stopped! It was well-intentioned at first, but when it no longer serves a purpose it causes a low-level mind-numbing anxiety.
Living with my adderall secret for six years felt painful and lonely. Every time I remembered the shameful memory I shuddered and tried to distract myself. Then one day, after I’d been writing as Charlie for a while, I listened to a podcast with Dax Shepherd. He admitted to his audience that he started abusing prescription drugs after 16 years of sobriety and had this message for his listeners:
“The outcome wasn’t anything like I feared it would be. The secrets are so much more painful than whatever the fallout from owning my secrets was.”
As I listened to Dax I knew I could no longer keep my secret a secret. First I told my husband, then I told my best friend, and then I wrote about the experience and hit publish. Once it was out there for the world to know, I could finally move on from it. It was something I did but it wasn’t who I was.
I used to be embarrassed about my struggles. I didn’t want to openly admit them to anyone. But now I love talking about my problems because each time I do I grow and become a better person.
So not only do confessions punch up my writing and hook the reader, they also feel really damn good.
II. The details of your life are obvious and refreshing.
My husband and I signed a prenup. He had a lot of money coming into our marriage while I had a lot of debt. Signing a prenuptial agreement was the practical and obvious thing to do.
Transparency in your writing is to simply share your whole self with details and specificity. It’s less about your secret thoughts and controversial opinions and more about the facts of your life. It’s about showing a level of detail that your readers typically don’t see in another person.
Sometimes that means sharing details that many people don’t typically share, like signing a prenup. But sometimes it’s simply painting a picture with vivid imagery.
You may have heard the old adage, Show don’t tell. When you’re transparent, it removes all the general and vague statements. By putting everything out there and being an open book, I avoid deathly boring statements, like this one:
I love my life. I’m married to a loving and supportive man who is my best friend, I have two beautiful children, and I get to write every day!
That is a true statement. But it’s the Instagram version of the truth. It’s shiny and general and so void of details that anyone could have written it. Snore!
Here’s another true statement that peels back the curtain a little more:
I love my life. I’m married to a short, bald, Lululemon-wearing man who calls me sexy when I’m nine months pregnant and edits all my essays. I have a 2-year-old son who’s got the biggest brown eyes and break-your-heart smile and will scream so loud for seemingly no reason that you’ll worry about your hearing. My 4-month-old daughter is what they call an “easy” baby and is the reason we haven’t ruled out a third kid. And I get to write every day on my laptop in my comfy blue chair with my feet up on its matching blue ottoman in our library-converted-dining room.
It took little effort to add in those details. I just took each sentence from the first excerpt and visualized the scene. Without a pseudonym, you might be hesitant to overshare private details. But transparency makes it more fun to write, and that resonates with readers.
The best compliment I receive is that reading my content feels like talking to a friend. That’s by design. Through transparency, I let the reader into my life and my mind. Reciprocity is powerful: by trusting readers with the personal details of my life, they trust me back.
When you write with transparency you basically shout from the rooftops, “This is who I am!” And when you put it all out there and lean into the details of your life without apology, you develop confidence.
I no longer shy away from the details of my life. I don’t try to sugarcoat or make things look better than they are. I just tell the truth. Plain and simple.
III. Get emotional and spill your personality onto the page.
I hate museums. There, I said it. My husband and I went to Paris and did a tour of The Louvre because that’s what people do. I had no desire to go and could not understand all the hubbub around the Mona Lisa. It’s just a drab picture of a woman! And you can’t even see it up close. It’s roped off for like 30 feet and there’s a huge crowd standing around trying to get a better look. So stupid.
When I’m fired up the sentences flow from my fingertips. I don’t have time to think about structure and syntax. It just pours out of me in the way I think it.
To write with Authenticity means to write with emotion so that your personality and voice find their way onto the page. Finding your voice in your writing is something that can take a long time, but the pseudonym allows me to put it all out there and not hold back. I get to say exactly how I’m feeling.
There’s a lot of advice out there to know your audience and target them, but when you’re too mindful of your audience you wonder, Who will see this? And that creates a block from writing not only what you say but how you say it. Let’s be real, it’s 2022. We’re not characters in Downton Abbey. We don’t need to be proper all the time. At some point or another, we’ve all been assholes. Writing under a pseudonym just allows me to admit it.
Could it turn people off? Of course. But I have yet to hear from those people. Instead, I get responses like this: “Amen!” “I’m with you.” “This made me laugh.” “Thank you for writing this!” These were the overwhelming responses I received when I wrote about my dad and it went viral on Twitter.
Why did a thread about my dad resonate with so many people?
Lots of us have complicated relationships with our parents. We love them but they drive us crazy. To put it simply, people could see themselves in this thread. While their relationship with their parents might be wildly different from my relationship with my dad, there’s a shared disconnect between the way our generation lives compared to our parents. Sometimes we just can’t understand them.
The only way I was able to write a viral thread about my dad was to give myself permission to complain about him first. Anger tends to be my go-to emotion. Whenever I start with anger I know I need to work on myself. Strong emotions are excellent indicators of things that matter deeply to us. Writing with anger allowed me to work through that anger and arrive somewhere else with a much clearer head.
Here was my process:
First draft: A vent session. Shit on my dad and complain about the way he lives.
Second draft: A satire. What advice would my dad have for others? I’ll call it “counter-intuitive wisdom.”
Third draft: An epiphany. There’s real wisdom here. I have a newfound appreciation and respect for my dad.
I never could have arrived at empathy and respect without first allowing myself to write negatively about my dad. What started as a judgmental rant ended as an enlightened view of his life and happiness.
The only way to write in my authentic voice is to be authentic. The pseudonym allows me to be more authentic in my writing, which is what then allows me to be more real with myself.
Before I wrote under a pseudonym, I wasn’t able to admit to myself that I hated museums because that implied I was uneducated and didn’t appreciate art. But guess what? A LOT of people hate museums. Seriously! And actually, it’s part of what makes me me!
If my husband and I return to Paris we’ll do what we want to do. We’ll sit outside at a sidewalk cafe, order Gruyere and Bordeaux, and watch all the people go by. We’ll act like we’re hip to the fashion scene when we know nothing about fashion. And I’ll practice speaking my broken French to the server even though he speaks perfect English and would probably prefer it if I didn’t butcher his language.
It’ll be fan-tas-teek.
The Unfair Advantage
There’s a trend towards vulnerability that can’t be ignored. We all used to love Abercrombie & Fitch because we wanted to fit in. It was a brand that represented the All-American dream of popularity and exclusivity.
But that’s not what people want anymore. People want inclusion and acceptance. They want to be seen for who they really are, and that includes all our flaws and insecurities. Presenting the best version of yourself is not presenting your true self. Nobody has only great qualities.
When I first started writing under a pseudonym, I thought I would only try it out for a year and eventually reveal my true identity. Now, 2.5 years later, I don’t want to stop being Charlie. Confessions, transparency, and authenticity give me my edge. My pseudonym has allowed me to grow as a writer and person at 10x speed.
Is it possible to fully embrace vulnerability under your real name?
I couldn’t. I could dip my toe into that pool but I couldn’t cannonball in and do underwater flips and handstands. Under my real name, I lay in a lounger and work on my tan and keep checking to make sure my bathing suit is covering any sign of fat sticking out on my stomach. As Charlie, I’ve got on goggles and I’m playing Marco Polo with the kids.
Charlie is me. She’s the best and worst of me. She’s all of me.
Michael Dean is the reason this essay was written. When I applied to the Writing Studio I had to submit a topic. I was dead set on “Sleep Training Your Baby” (still am). Michael reached out and was like, Um, sleep training your baby is great, it’s awesome, but how about a reflection of your journey writing under a pseudonym?
We spent over a month on weekly Zoom calls where I spent half the time venting about my life/parenting, and the other half either super pumped about the content of the essay or in the total depths of despair that the whole thing was a mess and I had no idea what I wanted to say.
So is my writing process.
Michael’s real genius didn’t come until the editing phase when he pointed out glaring problems I was unable to see but as soon as he said them I was like, OMG you’re so right, how did I not realize? How can I even call myself a writer??
Everyone would be so lucky to have Michael Dean guiding them through an essay.
I’d also like to thank my husband, Sam. (No, of course that’s not his real name, people.) Whenever I felt stressed out or down about this piece, Sam put aside whatever he was doing, which most times was nothing important, just providing for our family financially. He genuinely enjoys brainstorming with me and loves to read everything I write. Without Sam there is no Charlie.
And finally, a quick shoutout to David Perell who didn’t help me at all with this essay but has provided immense inspiration, motivation, and support since Charlie’s inception during his online program, Write of Passage, back in 2020. When pseudonymous writing wasn’t as popular as it is now, David encouraged me to go for it and has been cheering me on ever since. I once said to him, “I wonder how long I’ll write under a pseudonym.”
He responded, “I think for a really long time.”