Just a Word about James

The following was originally posted on December 14, 2009 on the front page of Copyblogger.com and hit major media news quickly. I invite you to visit the original post and its comment section, which make for intriguing reading.

Once upon a time, I found myself having to make some hard decisions. I’ve made several hard decisions over the course of my life, in fact, decisions that were heart-wrenching and gut-ripping. This decision was just one more in the bucket.

The welfare application was on my kitchen table. It was filled out and signed, waiting for me to bring it to the people who would decide whether I’d be able to make rent next month or put food on the table. I hated looking at it. I didn’t want to be in this situation. I’d thought that when women start over, get a clean break on their own, life was supposed to get better, right?

But here I was, out of money and out of choices.

I had two young daughters to take care of. I was single and alone, having left an unhealthy relationship, and I was living in a crappy, tiny apartment. I’d used up my savings trying to make ends meet, supplementing as best I could with the money I earned from a dangerous part-time job that gave me all of 4 hours pay a week at minimum wage. I had been looking for a better job, but there were none to be had in the low-income/high-unemployment area where I lived. I couldn’t get a full-time job anyways – I was still on the waiting list for a spot in daycare.

It was ironic. I’d once been someone respected in a corporate office. I’d had the great salary, the paid vacations, the opportunity for advancement. I had formal education, diplomas, brains and skills, and life had been good.

Now it wasn’t.

One day, one of my daughters mentioned she could look for work to help pay the bills.

She was 12.

As a last-ditch resort, I turned to the internet. There must be something I could do. There must be jobs out there… maybe in writing. I was a good writer. And sure enough, there was writing work for me on the ‘net, work I could do from home that paid quickly. I signed up with the company, thinking I was so lucky to have this chance to pull myself out of the mess.

I hustled as best I could to get gigs – there was tough competition from sly hustlers more experienced than I, and I didn’t always have work. When I did manage to grab the jobs before someone else could, I worked hard and wrote well. I wanted to do my best.

I earned $1.50 an article. I averaged $8 a week.

I was treated like crap, too. Bossed around, degraded, condescended to, with jibes made about my having to work from home. I quickly learned not to mention I had kids. I quickly learned not to mention I worked from my kitchen table.

I quickly learned that this sucked.

So I started looking for better gigs and clients, now that I knew there was writing work to be had. I scoured Craigslist and job sites and gig auctions and sent applications to all sorts of people. It worked. I landed new clients for better pay. I was earning more, feeling good. I even began hiring people to work with me as a team.

And yet… something was wrong.

I had high-quality skills and a good education. I was fast on turnaround and very professional. I hustled and I was on the ball. I delivered on my promises, every single time. I worked hard and built the business, putting in long hours and reinvesting a lot of the money I made to improve it. I really, really wanted to make this work.

But I was still having a hard time to land jobs I should’ve won, and I was being turned down on gigs I should’ve gotten for reasons I couldn’t put a finger on. My pay rate had hit a plateau, too, though I knew I should be earning more. Others were, and I soaked up everything they could teach me, but still… It wasn’t my skills, it wasn’t my work, so what were those others doing that I wasn’t?

One day, I tossed out a pen name, because I didn’t want to be associated with my current business, the one that was doing okay but still struggling to grow. I picked a name that sounded to me like it might convey a good business image. Like it might command respect.

My life changed that day.

Jobs were suddenly easier to get. There was no haggling. There were compliments, there was respect. Clients hired me quickly, and when they received their work, they liked it just as quickly. There were less requests for revisions – often none at all. Customer satisfaction shot through the roof. So did my pay rate.

And I was thankful. I had two girls I cared for, and I finally stopped worrying about how I’d feed them. We were warm. Well fed. Safe. No one at school would ever tease my kids that they were in the “poor” crowd.

I was still bringing in work with the other business, the one I ran under my real name. I was still marketing it. I was still applying for jobs – sometimes for the same jobs that I applied for using my pen name.

And under either name, I landed clients and got work, but it was much easier to do when I used my pen name. Why? I hadn’t advertised more effectively or used social media – I hadn’t figured that part out yet. I was applying in the same places. I was using the same methods. Even the work was the same.

In fact, everything was the same.

Except for the name.

The answer was plain. To make sure that pen name was distinct from my own, I’d made only one change:

That pen name was a man’s.

The pen name opened up a new world. It helped me earn double and triple the income of my true name, through the same work and service. No hassles, higher acceptance, and enormous respect for my great talents and round-the-clock work ethics. Business opportunities fell into my lap. People asked for my advice, and they thanked me for it, too.

Hell, I said goodbye to promoting my true name.

And one day, I had earned enough that I had the credibility needed to get a mortgage, and I bought a tiny, modest house for me and my kids in a quiet town near my mum – it was the first home of my life I could truly call my own, paid for by the long hours and the hard work. Paid for by my own sweat and tears.

I was 37.

Using a male pseudonym when you’re a woman isn’t anything new. Writers and authors have been doing it for centuries. If you think about it, it’s pretty medieval stuff, very 19th century. George Eliot, George Sand, Isak Dinesen… Even the Brontë sisters, championed today, wrote as Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell back in their time.

Why did they do it? To have their work accepted, because women weren’t supposed to be writers. Those women knew their work had a much better chance if their audience didn’t have to get over the initial skepticism that a woman could write and make sense at all, much less do so well.

Since then, we’ve had women’s liberation, we have the right to vote, to own property, to be members of Parliament, to get a job and even be the main breadwinner of the family. And yet apparently we haven’t gotten past those 19th century stigmas. The evidence was right there in front of me.

Now, I don’t want to be out there fighting for women’s rights, and I’m not interested in clawing my way up a ladder to a glass ceiling – life’s too short for that. I just want to earn a living and be respected for my skills. I want my kids to be happy and well cared for. I want them to go to university and have good opportunities in life.

The name I use really doesn’t matter – I’m the same person, either way. And if certain people can’t see that, if they value me more as a man than as a woman, so be it. Let them. It doesn’t bother me. I know I’m equally valuable no matter what my name is.

I really didn’t think any of this would ever happen, to be honest. I never thought things would take off like they did. I didn’t even see it coming. The blog I had started to get some clients and show off my skills? For a long time, so few people read it that weeks would go by without a single comment.

But things happened fast. There were more comments on the blog, and more again. I didn’t think – I just answered them and kept on blogging to earn clients. Then my blog hit the top ten list of the Top Ten Blogs for Writers. The flood of people who came to visit was overwhelming.

And they liked what I wrote.

And I thought to myself, “Oh shit. What do I do now?”

In too deep to back down, too survival-minded to do anything but go forward and quite honestly, too scared I’d lose everything I’d worked so hard to build, I didn’t do anything at all. I didn’t really know what to do. I thought it over a long, long time, though. And logic told me that the loss of use of my true name was a small concession for the ability to be able to support my family and ensure their financial security for years to come.

Truth be told, if just a name and perception of gender creates such different levels of respect and income for a person, it says a lot more about the world and the people in it than it does about me.

Why am I telling my story now?

Well, people talk.

For three years, I’d kept my true name and gender pretty tightly under wraps and only confided in a tiny handful of people I trusted. But there was always that risk that someone, someday, would end up spilling the beans, and for years I sat braced for that moment.

And sure enough, someone I trusted got mad and decided to be indiscreet. (Someone who incidentally was using a male pen name too. Go figure.)

Here’s the thing: My life, my terms. I weathered the rough times without much complaint, I took my knocks privately and paid for them in silence, I supported other people and tried to help them out of the goodness of my heart, and I helped bear the burdens and shouldered the weight.

I’ve made many sacrifices to be here – emotionally, financially, physically. I’ve worked damned hard for this. I took care of myself and my family, and I’ve given the best of my creativity and knowledge to each of my clients and my readers.

I’d like to keep doing that.

And I use a pen name, and it’s a man’s.

P.S. Oh, my real name? Well, I never really wanted that revealed and linked to Men with Pens. Some people took that decision away from me, but that doesn’t mean I have to follow suit and splatter my name all over the ‘net. I know better than most how quickly and profoundly revealing just a tiny bit of personal information can affect (and even destroy) people’s lives.

It’s one reason you’re reading this page.

Also, I have kids. I earn a living online. My work is read by thousands of people. I’m not interested in making myself vulnerable in that way.

So please, just call me James.

Thanks to Kelly, who wrote the original draft of this essay in my defense. Her kindness made a difficult task so much easier.

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