One of my choicest fictional heroes, Agatha Christie’s obsessive-compulsive Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, was heard to say many times that conversation is the eventual downfall of most people who have something to hide.
Boy, did I realize the truth of that statement this past weekend.
I went to a writers conference…under my pen name. With a friend. It was quite a good conference, if you wanted to learn about the writing markets, which we did in part.
I signed up online for the event, using my pen-name credit card (a business card account for which I requested a couple of “employee” cards) and email address, with not a lick of difficulty. Showed up bright and early the first day with pen name firmly in mind as I sauntered up to the registration desk.
No ID required - they happily handed over my shiny new name badge. Woohoo! They believed me! I am who I say I am! I even get to wear a name tag with my invented alter-ego name on it! I’m incognito, a new and improved me-but-better! Piece of cake! I’m an Outlaw now!
Oh my, the things that turn me on.
At first, it wasn’t a chatty environment, so I had an easy time of it. Seminars, hanging out with my friend at lunch, watching the crowd and thinking about our respective books. It was a lovely day, and we sat on the steps outside with our box lunches. One man sat down nearby and chatted, and I had fun introducing myself under my new name. At this point, my friend wasn’t yet in an expansive talkative mood, but remained more in the background as the man and I talked about what kinds of writing we focused on. Then he got up to make a phone call and we didn’t see him again.
After lunch, my friend and I both managed to land brief chats with literary agents to run our story ideas past them for feedback. We were shaky nervous. Especially my friend, who was going to be seeing the tougher agent (from what we’d seen that morning).
When my time came, I approached the agent and introduced myself confidently using the pen name. She immediately commented that it was an interesting name. Grin again! I chose the name deliberately to include a memorable first name, and a last name that’s not too common, but easy to spell when you hear it. My plan worked! I thanked her and told her the meaning of the first name I’d chosen, which elicited a further comment from her. Cool. She’s going to remember that – and me -because I was able to add that mental anchor. (And she was very encouraging about my novel synopsis, too, and gave some excellent advice – so I will be contacting her in future, and I think she’ll remember me – er, the other me - when I do.)
Later on, we did make the acquaintance of one lady, with whom we talked for some time before we actually introduced ourselves. By this time, my friend B. was much more at ease, and he was the one to give her my name – except that he started to pronounce my real name. He caught himself in time, but it was close.
His near-slip, and the strong urges I noticed in myself to talk about my own (real) background, reminded me about how much on her guard an Outlaw needs to be if she wants to keep that air of mystery about her. Yeesh. Now, if he had slipped up, I had a plan ready - I would have said that he knew me by my middle name from when we were younger. A backup plan is always a good thing.
It’s not easy! I almost told total strangers what I do for a living (besides writing!), nearly gave away the show by being my normally friendly self. It wouldn’t have been a bad thing in this case, but I needed the practice in being more than I’m used to being.
Chattiness served up its second lesson of the weekend for me over at The Claire Files. A poster under multiple names, who tended to be very wordy and name-dropping, made a fatal mistake. He mentioned the name of a woman and then added “no relation!” But the woman’s last name didn’t match the one he was posting under. It DID, however, correspond to the name of an apparently infamous internet troll, who’d already been banned from this and other forums for all sorts of weird behavior.
So the fellow was busted by his own urge to talk, to make himself important, to speak his piece. He gave the show away because he couldn't keep his fingers from walking the keyboard. And you know what? It could happen to any of us. It’s human nature.
That was Poirot’s (and Christie’s) genius – understanding the reality of motivation behind human actions. And it’s why Christie’s writing endures and entertains still today.
Come to think of it, she used a pen name (Mary Westmacott) for some of her writing, too.