On Pen Names and Cuddle Sluttery

A Guest Post by Tamsen Parker

I used to be a hugger.

I used to be a snuggle bunny.

I used to be a cuddle slut.

I went to an all-girls boarding school and we would link arms when we walked across campus, pile up like kittens when watching TV in the common room and sleep in each other’s narrow twin beds without a second thought. Looking back, the amount of physical affection I enjoyed was downright decadent, snuggle hedonism run amok. But then it seemed ordinary, an undercurrent of friendly physical contact that flirted with romantic, serving as a backdrop for adolescent life’s more major events: that guy from the dance who was so cute, that French exam I totally bombed, and dear god, please let me get into college. Any college.

When I got to said college, that all changed. Every affectionate gesture meant something. Like, sex things. I blame it on a few factors:

First on the hormone-addled heads of teenagers who are out from under adult supervision for the first time and so desperate to use that freedom to get laid that a “thank-you-for-killing-that-spider-in-my-shitty-dorm-room-who-would’ve-otherwise-eaten-me-in-my-sleep” hug turns into an awkward “oh-god-my-boobs-just-squished-against-his-chest-and-oh-my-god-is-that-his-oh-god-he-totally-just-squeezed-my-ass” awkward grope fest.

Second, on having boys at my school. The horror I initially felt at this and the freaked out phone calls with my father that ensued are the stuff of family legend, to be covered in another post.

And third, on being so uncomfortable in my own skin that I didn’t want to be that girl who went around campus linking arms with her friends: weird. And a lesbian. Although that I could live with. So, mostly weird.

And that stuck. Through my first craptacular post-college job, through graduate school, through my second far more fulfilling job and now through my life as a stay-at-home mom.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m affectionate with my husband and my daughter in the safety and expectedness of hugs and kisses within a family unit, but outside of that… the friends I met as a new mom think of me as Not A Hugger. And that makes me sad. I miss the human contact, I miss another way of saying I value you, I see you and I love you. Why would you not want to tell the people you care about these things?

This past weekend I had the opportunity to fly to Chicago (because what says getaway more than going to the only place colder than Boston in the middle of January?) to visit with some of my smut writer friends, two of whom I was meeting for the very first time. And guess what? I hugged the shit out of them, oh yes I did. I leaned my head on their shoulders when I was laughing so hard I almost cried at the bar and I shared a blanket on the couch as we talked about orgies. As you do. And it wasn’t because I wanted to get in their pants, although come on—sexy romance writers? How you doin’? Ahem. Anyway.

As many of us do, I write under a pen name. When I go to writerly functions, like my RWA chapter meetings, meals with my local smut writer pals and weekends like this, that’s how I introduce myself. Hi, I’m Tamsen. I hadn’t thought much about it until someone who genuinely wanted to know asked me why.

It’s partially a privacy thing, although I have no illusions about the power of the internet. If/when I get published, it won’t be hard for anyone who really wants to know to figure out my secret identity (to make it easy on anyone who cared enough to read this far down this post in hopes that I’d spill the beans, I’m Lois Lane.).

But in the meantime and more so, I wanted the opportunity to establish myself as a writer without the thoughts and impressions of a lifetime bearing down on me. Without the weight of my family and friends and former colleagues’ expectations of who I am. Without fear of the funny/disgusted/disappointed/perplexed looks I will no doubt be on the receiving end of when I fess up to the people outside of my wonderful little smut-writer bubble about what I really do while my kid is napping, because it’s clearly not cleaning my house. Without, in short, my story.

No one I meet as Tamsen is shocked that I write kinky erotic romance. Or that I can down six drinks over the course of an evening (or afternoon as the case may be). Or that I swear a lot and talk about things like zombie apocalypse ménage, pervertables and stick-figure-four-ways with a totally straight face. Because as far as they’re concerned, that’s who I’ve always been and they like me precisely the way I am.

My yoga teacher frequently asks at the end of class, “Who would you be without your story?” That particular rhetorical has always struck an uncomfortably twangy chord with me, but never more since I’ve come into this lovely little world. I’ve been thinking about it a lot and here’s what I’ve come up with:

I would be a joyful writer of books that mean something to me and that I hope mean something to other people.

I would be an exuberant introvert.

I would be as generous and supportive with others as the romance/erotica community, and the wonkoverse in particular, has been with me.

I would reclaim things I miss from my former life and take up the banner of things I never knew I wanted because I don’t have the box of IRL me containing my thoughts and actions.

I would be Tamsen Parker.

And, psst, you guys, Tamsen’s a hugger. So when we meet, be prepared.

Tamsen Parker is a stay-at-home mom by day, erotic romance writer by nap time, with a fondness for subway maps and monograms. You can find her on Twitter at @TamsenParker.

About Cara McKenna

Cara McKenna writes smart erotica—sexy stories with depth. Read more >
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37 Responses to On Pen Names and Cuddle Sluttery

  1. Shari Slade says:

    Oh, I feel all of this.


  2. Shelley Ann Clark says:

    There is a definite freedom to using a pen name. There’s also, I find, a level of aspiration to it. Shelley Ann Clark is a version of me that I like a little bit more than the regular version of me. She’s friendlier and less judgmental. She’s a little more fun. She’s someone I’d want to hang out at a bar with for six hours.

    And the longer I inhabit this pen name, the more like it I become, which for me, anyway, has been a very good thing. I find myself embodying the traits I admire in the persona I create, if that makes sense.

    • Cara McKenna says:

      Yes, this was totally my experience, at least for the first couple years of my authorhood. Since then Cara and civilian me have pretty much merged into the same person (which just steadily happens, when everyone in your real life knows what you do, and quite a few of them have read your filthy books.) If there’s any difference between the so-called two of us, it’s that Cara wears dresses more often than real-life Meg, and Meg is ever so slightly cagier than Cara, when meeting new people. But not by much. Even Cara can’t quite shed her frosty New England hide completely.

    • Tamsen Parker says:

      Yes! Aspiration to be… yourself. That person who, along the line, got boxed up, smudged out, hemmed in. And I find that I have to keep recreating myself as this New, Improved me. It’s an iterative process, something I have to work at, but something definitely worth fighting for.

      And it helps to remember every time I’m about to shrink from an introduction, silence my opinion about something, that Tamsen wouldn’t do that. She’s so much braver than I am! But little by little, I find her seeping into irl me as well.

      I love Shelley Ann Clark, I will shut down a bar with her anytime! xoxo

    • Sarah Wynde says:

      My author bio says that I like wind-surfing and sky-diving and something else and then fesses up to the fact that actually there is no Sarah. But for a long time I did like to imagine her as the braver side of me. In fact, I actually only started commenting on blogs when I could feel like I was pretending to be Sarah. (Who, of course, I am pretending to be right now.) But there’s definitely a joy to saying, hey, I’m pretending, and if I’m pretending, well, I can be anyone.

      • Tamsen Parker says:

        This makes me think of one of kidlet’s current favorite books. It’s a Snoopy book she got for Christmas called You Can Be Anything, and I can’t tell you how much joy it brings to my life to hear her recite in her tiny little two-and-a-half year old voice “You can be a world famous literary ace! You can be anything!”

        Pretend away my friend, and as Cara said, perhaps a pen name grants us access to a part of ourselves that we otherwise keep locked up tight and allows us to become something that we’d like to be. Like a person who would go wind-surfing or sky-diving, and if you have to sign up for lessons as Sarah, then so be it. You can be anything! : )

  3. I have so many thoughts, but my name and person is called Cherri Porter, and Cherri is a college professor by day and night and it sucks up all of her creative and emotional energies. So thoughts are hard to work into sentences.

    It’s interesting to me that your Pen name gives you some freedom. I entered this community with my real name, so that’s what everyone knows me by. I occasionally think–gee, I shouldn’t post/say that because of my day job–but mostly I feel pretty normal and pretty included in this community as I am.

    Also not a hugger.

    See what school does to me. I could barely form two short paragraphs.

    • Tamsen Parker says:

      My pen name gives me a *temporary* freedom. Some day, I expect that my parents/friends/etc are going to know what I’ve been up to all this time and they are going to skim through my twitter, they are going to find this blog post and some of them will read my books.

      Some of them will freak and some of them won’t blink, but whatever happens I will have established this community. *This* is not the community I worry about.

      It’s great that you feel comfortable being who you are in all parts of your life, this certainly wasn’t meant to be prescriptive, more an appreciation of what my choices have afforded me.

      • Cherri Porter says:

        I do worry about some things, and I think pen names are great and have spent much time thinking of them. When I consider publishing under a pen name I get super pissed that the men in my department can put sex scenes in thei “lit fic” and that’s ok, but if I write sex sceens in books with HEAs I am expected to hide it. I appreciate the privacy aspect, and think it is a totally valid choice, one I may end up making, but for now I am me.

  4. Audra North says:

    Oh, pen names. Yes. My pen name makes me pen-name-greedy. I want to reinvent myself constantly because I’ve managed to do it once already. But then, on the other hand, I want my pen name to be all those awesome things that I’ve never been able to be on my own, like “If I want to write crazy-ass erotica as Audra AND flirty contemporary, then I WILL SO HELP ME GOD!”

    It’s funny, in a way, to see pen names take on lives of their own, and then I end up making choices as Audra, instead of as myself. Like Russian nesting dolls, except it’s all just a tiny me at the center, and versions of me on the outside, too, even though they might have different names.

    Sigh. Sometimes, I wish I could be named Unicorn McGlitter.

    • Tamsen Parker says:

      Dear Ms. McGlitter,

      The topic of multiple pen names is another post entirely, best left to people who know far more about this than I do. But assigning magical powers to your pen name persona, I am all about this! It reminds me of a Goethe quotation of all things: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

      It’s important to keep in mind that it is in fact, all you, though. So take your bad self and be bold! xoxo

    • McGlitter. Yes. I can be of this clan, too.

  5. leftcoaster says:

    Interesting. It actually bothers me that so many women have to use pen names to write in the romance/erotica genre.

    I totally get why they do (hello, pot here, and I just hang around blogs) but I’ll admit that as a reader/consumer/comments participant, I hold the people that don’t have a pen name and write romance in a different, more admired for their kick-ass ownership space. I haven’t finished thinking about it all, but it’s rife with implications for sure.

    And just for the record, I don’t buy that whole “you need a name that fits the genre to be marketable” explanation that I’ve heard, it’s very insulting to the reader, and I think there is something else going on. Your explanation about freedom is interesting. I would like to see data on the prevalence of pen names in many kinds of genres, and see what correlates to gender.

    • Shelley Ann Clark says:

      A big part of the reason I use a pen name is that, sadly, we live in a misogynistic culture where women aren’t supposed to like sex. We aren’t supposed to think about sex. To do so is to be deviant. And if I made a living solely from my writing, I’d say, “Screw that,” and write under my given name, but I don’t.

      I work with children in my day job. And that means that my job, the one that pays my rent and keeps me in health insurance, could be in jeopardy because of that misogyny. And I’m not willing to risk it. If I were financially secure independent of my other career, then I’d have the freedom to fight the power, but I’m not. I have to choose my battles. I’m fighting by writing the books I want to write in the first place.

    • Cara McKenna says:

      Wow, I’ve never heard the explanation about needing to choose a name to fit the genre! In my experience, talking to fellow authors, it feels like most of us make the choice for professional reasons. My need isn’t as dire as Shelley’s, as I have no plans to work with children, but when I began writing I was still a full-time designer, and I simply didn’t want potential employers Googling me, finding someone by the same name, suspiciously living in the same area, with a ton of racy books to her name. Not even a modesty thing necessarily—it just seemed wise to keep it quiet to said potential employers that I was eagerly pursuing another career entirely, so they wouldn’t question my commitment to my erstwhile field. (Which they should have, as I totally had one foot out the door, waiting for some sign that I should pursue writing full-time.)

      Then again, having read some of the other comments, I wonder if maybe another reason to use a pen name is to access that other self to begin with. That alter ego who’s just a little more daring than everyday-us, the one capable of writing a three-way or a vampire romance or any other wonderfully deviant thing. Kind of like how we create characters who do things many of us wouldn’t ever do in real life, we create personas for ourselves for that same reason. As that psuedo-character, we allow ourselves to explore and write about things we might otherwise not. A little taste of the anonymity that people access to unleash their creativity via gaming, or role playing, or even internet commenting, as you point out! Maybe? Question mark? I’m not sure, but Audra’s comment got me thinking about it that way.

    • Sarah Wynde says:

      People use pen names for really practical reasons, too, though. When I first decided to publish, I took a look at the google listings for my real name and thought, ugh, I’m too lazy to SEO my way to the top of that list. So I spent a long while trying to find a name that was mostly unused. It turned out I very much like having a pen name, but deciding to have one was just a business decision, nothing about hiding.

      I admit, though, it was really weird to have family members talking to me about my book and I write the mildest of mild sex scenes. But it was super-inhibiting–my first book has one sex scene, my second firmly closes the bedroom door, and in my third, they don’t even get close. Straight to an HEA, no passing sex along the way. If I ever do decide to get adventurous, I’m either waiting until I’m the oldest surviving member of my family, or doing it under a secret pen name, just to avoid those conversations. (Direct descent from the Puritans lingers more than you’d expect.)

      • Tamsen Parker says:

        Ah yes, the importance of googling your intended publishing name before you set your heart on it. I’d considered a different pen name, but immediately changed my mind when a quick search came up with someone who had committed a really horrible crime. I did *not* want a piece of that, so back to the drawing board.

        I’m not looking forward to having those conversations with whichever of my family members decide to read my books. Not only is there sex, but it’s (gasp!) kinky sex. I thought about making a “clean” version of my first ms for them to read, but there’s no way that would work with my second ms. I’m just going to have to invest in some super heavy duty foundation to cover up my tomato red face and hope they don’t want to talk about the more, ahem, graphic aspects of my work.

        Puritan hug (through a bundling board)!

        • Ruthie Knox says:

          Yeah, my reason is also practical. My last name is one that, when people encounter it, they can’t pronounce or spell it. It seemed likely to get in the way of easy book recommendations and/or remembering the name of the author whose book you wanted to buy.

  6. AJ Cousins says:

    Fantastic post, Tamsen! I love it.

    I wince to admit it, but when I decided to use a pen name before my first book came out more than ten years ago, it was because I thought I would reserve my “real” name for the literary novels I imagined I would write some day. *hangs head* Yes, I was still suffering genre shame and thinking that the romance novels I was writing weren’t “real” books. They were fluff.

    If I could go back in time and stop thirty year old me on the street, I’d be hard pressed not to smack her. Ugh. So much English Literature brainwashing to shake off…

    I’m in a completely different mindset these days. Turns out that I LOVE my genre and I think it’s a brilliant vehicle both to entertain for the sheer joy of it and to promote the kind of sex positive, strong women-focused books I enjoy reading myself. However I’m still glad that I write under a pen name, because my last name is rare. Pretty much anyone who has it is related to my family. And since my nine year old is at the age where school is now teaching them how to research topics online, I think he’ll be tremendously grateful that when his friends inevitably put his name into Google, his mother’s romances and erotica don’t show up at the top of the list.

    The line between my pen name and my real name is pretty blurry though. :) I don’t hide my pen name from anyone who knows me, so a couple hundred people at least have both names. And I’m in the process of deciding whether I should use Amy Jo for my contemporary romances and A.J. for my erotica & lgbtq books. There is a degree to which I think it would be useful for readers to know that if they pick up a book by Amy Jo, it’s a pretty straightforward contemporary romance. Get one by A.J. though, and it’s a little more NSFW. :) But maybe that’s just confusing? I’m still trying to figure this out.

    It’s fun either way and all I hope is that I can remember the names everyone likes best when I meet them in person. And hug them to pieces!

    • Tamsen Parker says:

      I like that you’ve acknowledged that you aren’t just making this call for yourself, but also for your son. I may be cool fighting the good fight, but I don’t feel great about making that call for my kid, or my spouse or the rest of my family.

      I’m sure the lines will blur further as this journey goes on, but for now I’ll keep my boundaries ; ) xoxo

    • rube says:

      Ha, AJ Cousins! I picked out a pretty, pretty pen name because I thought romance readers would be weirded out by my lit fic. Maybe we underestimate the readerships and overlaps.

      Anyway, still waiting for that romance writing career to materialize.

      Loved this essay. Much to think about.

      • AJ Cousins says:

        I actually picked out a different pen name (AJ McKinley, which is a family name, though not mine) but there was already another Harlequin author with McKinley or McKinney and they nixed it. I took the call from them about this while walking in downtown Chicago & when they asked me what my second choice was, I *should* have said, “Let me think about it.”

        Instead, all I could remember was the crowd of female friends & relatives at the surprise 30th birthday party my mom had just thrown me. My mom bought me cabernet red leather boots and invited all my favorite women. At the party, the topic of pen names came up & they all decided that I should be Ruby Cousins. Ruby for the boots and Cousins for all of them.

        I thought Ruby Cousins sounded like a stripper from Kentucky.

        But when my editor was on the phone with me, and I was trying not to bump into people in the crowd on the sidewalk, all I could think of when she asked for another pen name was “Ruby Cousins.”

        Thank god, I didn’t say the Ruby part out loud. But I’m Amy Jo Cousins (or AJ, that part is still up for debate) to this day because of that 30th birthday party and my awesome, amazing cousins. :)

  7. Jessi Gage says:

    I read a cool post once by Kristen Lamb titled: It’s a pen name, not witness protection. Just the title really hit home for me because some people in my family and church have strongly negative feelings about romance. It was a temptation to hide behind my pen name. “What? No. I don’t write romance. You must be thinking of someone else.”

    I chose to use a pen name for a lot of the same reasons mentioned here, but after reading Kristen’s article, I decided not to keep my writing secret from people just to make things go smoother for me. Though it’s caused some waves in otherwise peaceful waters, I’m glad I’m “out” as a romance writer and that I don’t HAVE to hide behind the name Jessi Gage.

    I especially liked the point about the kids… I CAN hide if I want to, and I choose to hide from my kid’s principal, for example. Somehow I just don’t think he’d care what I do when my daughter’s at school.

    I definitely talk about writing and whatever I’m reading with my writing crew, and I have a few non-writers in my support system, but there are always going to be those people who I just don’t talk to about it. They either don’t get it or don’t care or don’t approve. I make no secret about being a romance writer, but having a pen name does help me pick and choose who to share that side of me with.

    Thanks for getting this discussion started, Cara. It’s a good one.

    • Cara McKenna says:

      Lovely thoughts—but all credit to Tamsen for the topic. I just posted it!

    • Tamsen Parker says:

      Thanks for the heads up on that Kristen Lamb article (for anyone curious, here’s the link: http://tinyurl.com/mc2goyv). I’d be interested to know what she would have to say about romance/erotica writers in particular using pen names. I take her point, but I think I’d still answer Yes, I want a pen name.

      I like the idea of a pen name enabling choice. If there are waves that I don’t need to make (ie, other parents at my kid’s preschool, very religious people in my extended family), I can choose whether or not to make them. I’m looking forward to “coming out” partly for the convenience and partly because I’m proud of what I’ve made (See this manuscript? I *wrote* this! Yes, I did!) but I’d like to build up my soft feather bed of awesome supportive people before I take that leap.

      Thanks for sharing your perspective and experience!

  8. faith says:

    from someone else who went to an all girls high school (complete with the hugging) and so on, yes yes a thousand times yes. I remember one day during college thinking, “what happened to all the hugging? There is definitely something missing here.” And now as a mom to two (almost 3) toddlers, yeah the hugging is great. You never know what you miss till it’s gone.

    looking forward to reading more from you.

    • Tamsen Parker says:

      Thanks, Faith. I’m a little embarrassed that it’s taken me so long to reclaim this part of myself, the one who wants this kind of connection with other people, but as my husband’s pointed out, the romance/erotica community is an awful lot like my high school: a group of smart as hell, funny as anything, articulate and affectionate women. It’s no wonder I feel so at home here and comfortable enough to put my foot down and say “You know what I’d really like? More hugging!”

  9. As often happens when I read a wonko post, I find my brain-goo reshaped and articulated in such a fine way. Today is no exception.

    I was wondering just the other day when I quit being a hugger. Because I’m not. (I think the first time I initiated a hug with my Dallas bestie was right after she told me she was pregnant.)

    I think it was once I left the exuberance of drama school for the quiet of grad school in a new city that I quit hugging. Pair “adulthood” with “career” and, well, hugs and casual affection just didn’t fit in.

    My best friends were flung across the globe, my family still rooted in west Texas. And we all know that making friends as an adult is a weird and sometimes difficult process.

    But I do remember hugging Shelley when I walked up to her at RWA last summer. And you bet I’ll be amenable to a squeeze from you Miz Tamsen during conference season. Perhaps this fabulous community of writers is like the safe, exuberant plains of my childhood and adolescence.

    Maybe Alexandra Haughton is a hugger, too. There’s only one way to find out. :)

    • AJ Cousins says:

      I think I hugged Tamsen about two seconds after finally meeting her in person. Ditto Shelley. I really ought to learn to ask, “Want a handshake or CAN I SQUEEZE YOU?” before grabbing people. :)

    • Tamsen Parker says:

      You’re the sweetest. I think the no-hugging is something that happens to a lot of us and sadly, I feel like it’s a lot easier to get trained out of it than back into it. I still hesitate, even when it’s in a safe space. But eventually, I just man up and hug a bitch! That’s right, I said it.

      Conference season is going to be like hugging boot camp, and I can’t wait : )

    • Shelley Ann Clark says:

      Yes! Because I hugged you and then apologized because I remembered you weren’t a hugger AFTER I’d already hugged you, but you didn’t seem to mind. It’s tough to navigate, since I don’t want to violate anyone’s personal boundaries, but I kind of tend to. . .bound right in like a golden retriever and stop just short of licking the face of people I like and am happy to see. I’m working on reeling it back so that I don’t traumatize anyone who would prefer a more sedate introduction. (Though I’m assuming we’re past the hug barrier now.)

  10. Cara McKenna says:

    Privacy, professionalism, and genre championing aside, I bet for a lot of writers, a pen name is just a straight-up FUN thing you get to do, as an author! Like a stage name. Like a jaunty new hat you get to design and wear and feel good in. Not a disguise, more like an accessory. Just wanted to toss that in there.

    • Tamsen Parker says:

      This is possibly how I’ve been thinking on my most recent shopping trips. Is it wrong to purchase things you wouldn’t normally because you’re going to look darling in it come San Antonio?

      And I give you a lot of credit, Cara, for telling me “A pen name is not something you have to earn.” That really stuck with me and I think it’s a wonderful little bit of advice for new writers.

  11. Serena Bell says:

    I think I *did* choose my pen name initially as a way to feel like a romance writer, or somehow “fit in.” And I definitely think for a while Serena was a free-er soul than the original me. Or, maybe it’s that the original was hiding behind Serena–not sure. But things shifted again when I had stuff out in the world, and I got kind of quiet and introverted and self-protective all over, and now I’m going through yet another phase of feeling like there IS no difference between my “selves” and anything Serena can do, I can do. :-) I do love that quote that Jessi’s got above, about the witness protection program, which I’ve definitely heard and repeated. In fact, maybe it was Jessi who said it to me. :-) Ultimately, I think it’s too exhausting for me to be in the world without embracing my actual real self, so that’s this year’s project: Be Me (including the Serena me). There’s a narcissistic New Year’s resolution for you. :-)

    My actual real self is a WARY hugger, but once I warm up, I am quite serious with the hugs. I also suck at remembering who does and doesn’t want hugs so apologize in advance for screwing this up.