Writers often hide behind a pen name or keep the very act of writing a secret from colleagues, friends or family. But what is it about writing that makes writers want to hide from view? Chris Smith investigates…
Pick up the pen (name)
It wasn’t until the publication of his first novel Call for the Dead in 1961 that David John Moore Cornwell became better known as John Le Carré – but not to his colleagues at British secret service agencies MI5 and MI6 where he worked at the time.
Cornwell took the pen name Le Carré (Le Carré is French for ‘the square’) because serving officers were forbidden to write under their own names – a relief possibly for Cornwell as interviews suggest a certain reluctance to expose his hobby anyway. Le Carré says that most of his early writing was done on his 90-minute daily commute between London and his home. Whilst the later electrification of the line made the journey far quicker, the result was “a great loss to literature” according to the former spook.
Le Carré also wrote secretly during his lunch hour and grabbed any time he could during the working day to plot out his novels. “I was always very careful to give my country second best,” he said in an interview with the Paris Review in 1996. Le Carré left the secret service to concentrate on his writing soon after the success of his 1963 novel The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.
From commercials to couplets – the copywriting poet
Another writer who invested rather more in writing than the day job was American poet and novelist James Dickey. After being unable to find his job of choice – a lecturing position – Dickey was forced to take a copywriting role at New York advertising firm McCann-Erickson. Something that involved him having to grind out endless perky radio ads for the likes of Coca-Cola. Unbeknownst to his fellow mad men, Dickey used each morning to dash off his commercials and the afternoons to write poetry and prose – courtesy of the company typewriter.
According to his biographer, Dickey used to keep his office door locked and write on a desk scattered with poetry manuscripts and books. When colleagues came knocking he’d hurriedly hide his notes and pretend to be engrossed in Coke’s latest ad campaign. Things caught up with Dickey after he started making a name for himself as a writer and his bosses suspected his poetry was taking priority over his promotions – which of course it was. Dickey was fired from the ad company in 1961.
Jane Austen’s furtive habits
Furtive writing was also a character trait of Jane Austen – author of Pride and Prejudice and other literary classics. Austin lived surrounded by her family in a large busy bustling household. She used to write in the family sitting room and whilst she expected constant interruptions, she didn’t want anyone outside her immediate family – such as servants or visitors – finding out about her writing.
To make sure she could quickly stash away her work, Austin used to write on tiny scraps of paper that could be easily brushed under a large piece of blotting paper she kept with her at all times. She also wrote with a box of sewing material nearby so she could pretend to be engrossed in needlework should an unwanted visitor come snooping around.
Using a pen name
Whilst writers like Le Carré and Dickey might have been delighted to escape the confines of the office in order to concentrate on their writerly endevours, Henry Green – an English author best remembered for novels Party Going and Loving – embraced his day job and gained emotional stability from it.
‘Henry Green’ was the pen name of wealthy industrialist and aristocrat Henry Yorke who ran his family’s manufacturing plant in the Midlands by day and wrote his novels by night. Yorke found solace in the structure of the everyday and found that it fuelled rather than stifled his creativity. He used a pen name because he never wanted any of his business associates to know about his work – although they did in time as his fame grew.
Sue Townsend’s secret
British comic novelist and playwright Sue Townsend spent years writing in secret whilst she raised her family and worked a string of jobs in factories and shops.
Indeed, it was only in her thirties, after her fourth child was born and with large doses of coaxing from her husband that she started attending a writers’ group at Leicester’s old Phoenix Theatre. Initially too shy to speak, she didn’t write anything for six weeks. Then she was then given a fortnight to write a play. This became the thirty-minute drama Womberang (1979), set in the waiting room of a gynecology department – after that, there was no stopping her.
Townsend didn’t adopt a pen name like Yorke or Cornwell. She didn’t conceal her writing for fear of colleagues or servants finding out nor to gain inspiration or emotional stability. Rather more likely is that she didn’t reveal her writing for the most human of reasons. She didn’t think her work was any good.
In interviews, Townsend says that as an unknown writer, she used to store up ideas for characters and stories. She always thought she’d have a use for them later on. Perhaps no wonder then that her most famous work is The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole.
Are you an undercover writer?
The team at Write Trackwrit reckon that for whatever reason, lots of writers write in secret. They have day jobs, families and chores that take all their time and much of their energy – but they still find the time to write.
Do you hide your writing from your colleagues, friends and family (or like Jane Austen from your servants)? When and where do you secretly write? Why do you keep it a secret? Tell us your furtive writing habits by visiting the website and getting in touch. We promise that your secret is safe with us!
About the author of this post
Chris Smith is a writer, blogger, former philosophy lecturer and now co-founder at Prolifiko, a tech startup making digital productivity tools for writers of all types. His most recent side project is a new blog called Founders and Philosophers, where he’s aiming to write about what entrepreneurs can learn from history’s greatest thinkers. He tweets at @SwarmComms.