by Jay E. Tria
I see a few of the previous #romanceclass articles featured confessions. So here is mine: I’m using a pen name.
That won’t come off as a shock, I am sure, since I’ve been fairly open about it. When I first decided to venture into self-publishing, the next decision to make wasn’t even if I was going to use a pen name, but what pen name to use.
I told myself I was doing it to separate my identities. I wanted my author self to be in this box, while the rest of me—the corporate girl, the teacher—to be in this box. Separate and distinct. Organized. I wanted Google searches for my real given name—and I know HR people at the very least do this—to pull up results linking to my daily 9-to-5 life, and just that. It was done to prevent confusion. To maintain some semblance of order.
But when I am being honest, I know I did it because I wasn’t ready to be found out as writer, and a writer of romance.
Growing up, my parents surrounded me with books and not Barbies, but much as they didn’t mind the fiction, they did push the Math and Science books toward me with more urgency. For the most part their efforts worked, if my academic and present career would show. But I also had my Sweet Valley Highs, and my Unicorn Clubs, and eventually Sophie Kinsellas and Meg Cabots. And as early as elementary school, reading romance wasn’t enough. My imagination was wider than that. So I wrote romance in notebooks with a ballpoint pen, about girls and boys and kisses.
I hid and protected these notebooks with my life. My parents would be shocked if they knew. I was groomed to work in a cubicle, in a building with an elevator. There was no space for writing about kisses there. But beyond that anxiety was another, more pressing one. One that was best encapsulated by every other writer’s favorite question—is this story about you?
I wrote my first New Adult romance novella Songs of Our Breakup without a thought of publishing it, just because the story was there in my head and it wanted out. And yes, because the process of writing it gave me kilig and feels. It’s about a girl in a band fresh out of the dissolution of a seven-year relationship, and her Japanese celebrity friend who was there for her when she was picking up the pieces of her broken heart. When it was finished, and I’d decided to publish it, I feared that ultimate question.
“Is this story about you?”
It wasn’t an imagined anxiety. Friends, colleagues, people who knew me eventually found me out and the book (I wasn’t very vigilant in my hiding). A good handful of them took one look at the title and those were the first words out of their mouths. Someone even actually said, I didn’t know you were in a band!
I giggle at the memory of that quip now, but ask me that question again and you would get a different reply depending on my mood, or the phase of the moon. It could be teeth bared in a wide smile, a blank stare, or a squinted look, a head-on straight-up denial, or the worst, an awkward, looping explanation of why no, it really isn’t about me. No, I wasn’t in a band, ever. And no, I don’t have a Shinta right now. I wish.
It pays to have a sense of humor about this though, because I don’t think this is the kind of question that would ever go away. These characters do live in my head, the story did come from me. Thus the assumption that the story is about me, and the characters are in fact, me as well, isn’t really borne out of baseless logic. Besides, some writers actually do declare, loud and proud, that their stories are about them. I am just not one of them.
A friend of mine who has known me for decades read the book and said it best. I know this book is you. It came from you, and you are in every page. But I also know it isn’t about you. There is a difference.
I may have paraphrased a bit, but that was the basic gist.
I know not all readers would get the difference, especially those who have known me prior to my ‘coming out.’ Those who know me as the nerd, as the one who watched too much Japanese dramas and anime and collected manga. The one who likes bands and guitars but never really learned to play. The one who knows a bit about heartbreak.
I also know it isn’t really their problem. It’s mine. Because of my knowledge that it is my heart right there, carried by each word on the page, and once I’ve released the story into the wild, there it is. The story, my heart with it. In the wild and free to be consumed, devoured and torn apart. Maybe that’s the whole business of it, really. So much for separating identities.
When my parents finally found out about my books (via a newspaper interview that a tita told them about, hehe), both seemed happy for me. My father was smug (“You’ve been scribbling on notebooks for as long as I could remember”), while my mother was curious. She saw my book Songs to Get Over You and blanched when she read the title.
“What kind of title is that? How dramatic.”
I may have paraphrased a bit, but that was the basic gist. Maybe she worried that it was a story about me. Maybe she couldn’t separate my identity from that of my characters. But I should have told her that if she truly believed that, there really was no need to worry. Because after all, all romance stories have a happy ending. ☁