Nom de Plume: A User's Guide
When I was in my early twenties, I approached Rav Shimon Schwab zt"l, and told him I aspired to be a writer but worried over the possibility of being attacked for any controversial opinion I might have. His response was simple: Use a pen name. He told me that he had done so himself early in his career.
The recent controversy embroiling a certain respected rav and posek is saddening, but also instructive to anyone who has—as I have—used a pen name. Like many areas of life, there's good anonymity and bad anonymity. Good anonymity includes the desire to be left alone in shul, to avoid having your employer question your commitment to politically correct social beliefs, to keep your children from being thrown out of your yeshiva of choice. Bad anonymity is a tree to hide behind, so that no one can trace the mud you're slinging.
The following is a guide to writing under a name that (so far) no one knows is you. These simple rules should help you stay out of trouble.
1. The views expressed herein are your own. The anonymous author can remain anonymous as long as his views are a true reflection of his thinking and beliefs. Never write anything that you wouldn't own up to if (or, more likely, when) it catches up with you. There are many valid reasons for expressing views anonymously. Not truly holding those views is not one of them.
2. Nothing personal. The anonymous author cannot attack others. Ad hominem attacks must be sacrificed on the altar of the pen name. It's only fair. A man (or woman) has a right to be confronted by his (or her) accuser. In fact, I would argue, even to simply comment on someone else's behavior from behind the veil of anonymity is inappropriate. The best use of a pen name is to stick to issues and stay away from people. The only exceptions, perhaps, are public figures (the president, the prime minister, Donald Trump).
3. I.D., please. It should be made clear, as much as possible, that you are using a pen name. I originally began commenting and blogging under the name ClooJew. When I started publishing articles—some of which made their way into print—a request was made for my handle to "grow up." So I abbreviated ClooJew to CJ and added a last name. I have never hidden the fact that I use a pen name. Only once has it been the subject of controversy—when I had a piece published on Cross-Currents, whose policy it is to not accept pieces from anonymous authors (which I didn't know at the time). I emailed the editor to "remind" him that I use a pen name, and he was—how to put it delicately—not happy. The piece was already set to run, and so it did. I apologized, but was still banned from further publishing on that site (though only as an author; I have commented many times on that site since then).
4. Historical accuracy. If you don't want to share details of your life, don't. But if you do, then they ought to be details of your life—not the "life" of your fictitious alter ego. For example, I am an actual Phillies fan; that's not simply my blog's favorite team while the "real me" roots for the Mets. Or, Heaven forfend, the Yankees. The above story about Rav Schwab is true. It happened to me. When I was in my early twenties.
Again, the simple rule of thumb is this: If someone were to flip a switch and suddenly everything you published would appear under your true name, viewed by friends and family, neighbors and colleagues, would you stand by every word as truthful and representative of your opinion? If the answer is yes, you're good to go.
If the answer is no, maybe you have a good novel in you. I'm sure the fiction section at your local library would love to have you.