Literary writing is no longer the middle-class occupation it once was during the 20th century. An Authors Guild survey revealed that the median pay for full-time writers in 2017 was $20,300 and including part-time writers, $6,080 (NYT, 2019). These figures represent a 42 percent drop since 2009, and also reflect declines in journalism. Today most writers’ salary is supplemented by a partner or another occupation. This need to subsidize income, according to the Guardian (2019) experts say, is directly linked to the survey data indicating a 94 percent Caucasian demographic.
Do genders still play a prominent role in society in regards to writing? Or, with the epoch of gender fluidity and diminishing pronouns upon us, has society finally moved on from pigeon-holing genders and genres? There have been countless arguments, articles, and papers written on the subject, so I’m going to focus on my experience and what advice I would give now to someone who may be choosing their own pseudonym.
Seven years ago, my first short story was published in a controversial magazine. The editor informed me that there were cases of hate mail addressed to the contributors, so I decided a pseudonym would be best to make it harder for the crazies to track me down, should they feel so inclined. Choosing a pseudonym is a big commitment. It’s your new identity, your alter-ego, your brand. I could be anything. Anyone. Total anonymity. So, I thought long and hard. I researched. I asked other authors. The advice I received was that genre, audience, and expectations mattered. Women wrote romance. Sci-fi and fantasy genres were predominantly male readers and authors. So were horror, crime, and graphic novels.
Fantasy writers used initials, like J.R.R. Tolkein. You would think, “Well, initials are not gender-specific. That seems safe. The gender isn’t important. It’s just initials and a surname.” I think so, too. But people still assume that the author is male when presented with a pseudonym consisting of initials. That’s on them. You just need to be aware.
Joanne Murray (J.K. Rowling) was influenced in choosing her pseudonym. She spoke about it in an interview with CNN. “Oh, because my publisher, who published Harry Potter, they said to me, ‘we think this is a book that will appeal to boys and girls.’ And I said, oh, great. And they said, ‘so could we use your initials?’ Because, basically they were trying to disguise my gender.” She even went on to write a crime novel under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.
After looking at the genres I was interested in (horror, fantasy, sci-fi, Bizarro), I decided on what I thought was a gender-neutral pseudonym, leaning toward the masculine. I chose Berti Walker. Berti (could be short for Robert or Roberta) and was a nod to P.G. Wodehouse’s character, Berti Wooster. Walker, in recognition of my first published short story, Zombie Lovers Anonymous. As to be expected, most people did believe I was a male. I was, however, using my own photo on social media profiles for Berti and in book bios. So I didn’t hide my gender, necessarily, though I did use intentional deception in hopes of better sales and more publications – as I was operating under the assumption that more people still preferred male writers in those fields.
I mean, take a look at the Hugo Awards winners. Once again, last year, its organizers were in the spotlight due to controversy surrounding the gender imbalance. James Davis Nicoll was kind enough to do the numbers for us, tallied over the last 65 years of Hugo Awards in his Tor article Gender and the Hugo Awards, By the Numbers. These were his findings:
Mental illness is more likely to be suffered by females than males. And despite the fact that one billion worldwide or one in seven people (11-18%) will experience it at some point or another in their lives, it remains a taboo subject (University of Oxford, 2019).
In light of statistics such as the 86 percent increase in child-suicide (U.S. News, 2019), or the 38 percent of American adults battling substance abuse issues (NSDUH, 2017) for example, the impact of mental illness is becoming more apparent. Yet, so many still live with shame and fear that compound the symptoms of their disease.
Women are at greater risk for poor mental health, which is most often linked to societal pressures. One in five women currently live with a mental illness (WomensHealth.gov, 2020), often in the forms of depression and anxiety, and are twice as likely to experience anxiety over men. “Approximately one in nine women 18 and older have had at least one major depressive episode in the past year (American Psychiatric Association, 2017).”
I am going to share the stories of two young women both diagnosed with a mental illness. Each will describe how they survived the dating scene, the way they have viewed themselves during their lifespan, and the maintenance of their current partnerships. It may be interesting to note that both women pursued their partner as opposed to the other way around.
Bear in mind; these are real accounts from two distinct individuals with different stories. To protect the privacy of each person, their names will remain anonymous, being addressed as “Elizabeth” and “Sandra.”
What have been the biggest barriers for you while having a mental illness?
Anxiety, doubting self. I constantly question my own abilities and interests.
When dating someone, I ask myself, “Are they
gonna ghost me? I think it translates from my fear of abandonment. Especially
being left by my father. I saw how it crushed my mom. My dad didn’t/couldn’t
spend time with me.
There’s also the struggle that I’m not good enough.
When I get ghosted, I think,” What’s wrong with me?” I question my
worth. I forget who I am. It takes longer for me to get over these things.
Trying to cope. I think, “Am I just overreacting? Should I be upset? Is this just my mental health talking, or is it just an issue?”
Have you ever felt discriminated against for your mental illness?
By certain people. When I was 21, people saw my intense anxiety, and I had no direction, especially when I was dating older people who had a career. I just wanted to be where these people were at.
No, because I keep it very private. There are sometimes comments, “Oooh you’re bipolar, that’s why you’re angry.” It takes away the validity of your feelings. It’s a double-edged sword, people treat you like a baby, or that you are not capable of much.
Have you felt any social pressures to be in a relationship?
Oh yea, definitely. Friends around me were in relationships. Personally, I just wanted to have someone to bounce ideas off of and to love on. Personal things mostly, rather than social. It stemmed from my internal insecurities. I felt like my parents gave a lot of hints.
Back [in] high school, more from peers than anyone else. They made it seem like something was wrong with me because I couldn’t get a boyfriend.
Have you met most of your partners online or in-person?
Online, yes. On Tinder, Bumble, Badoo. I haven’t met many folks in person, although maybe one person?
I have only dated in person.
Has dating online changed for you in any way?
Yea, I’m not the type who likes confrontation. Dating online took the face away, as well as the intimidation factor.
Never have dated online.
Have you been in a toxic relationship? If yes, do you think your mental illness had any impact?
Yes. He would ask constantly, “Why don’t you know these things?” in a serious tone. He made me question myself. This guy wanted all the benefits of a relationship, even after all of the questions.
It took me six months to get back up on the horse. It was a blessing he told me no; I realized I had some issues. In the end, it was a catalysis to go to counseling. I had issues I needed to work on, like my self-esteem, trust issues, and fear of abandonment.
Yes, for sure. You wind up wanting to mask it, and you overcompensate. When some of my former friends found out, they would take advantage of my behavior. I had a friend who was using me to clean their house and then suddenly, they would stop talking to me. Basically, people take advantage of me, because I try too hard to please them when they don’t know me well.
What’s your current relationship status?
Engaged. He’s my fiance. I like to call him my partner, better than calling it a relationship.
Married. I call him my husband
How did the relationship start?
Tinder. I messaged first. Our first date was at a brewery and I got drunk. In the beginning, we were both unsure why we stayed together, considering we were both at the thick of emotional healing. I think it was a gut feeling to stay together. It wasn’t tiring for me and we worked on our problems together.
Like every other one. With me pursuing him and getting set up by his friend.
Did you tell your partner [about the mental illness]? Did you tell them straight away, or did you wait until you felt comfortable with them? How did they respond?
Yes, first thing. I told him when my mom was
threatening suicide. That was 4 weeks after we started dating. He stayed and
that’s when I told him about my anxiety.
He was empathetic when I told him. He was also in
the middle of his own healing, and we bonded over that.
Right off the bat. We had been together for a couple of months. I told him about my bipolar disorder – and ‘if my feelings take a downturn, or if I overreact, it isn’t because of you.’ I told him as a precaution and as an explanation for how I might act sometimes.
He responded positively. If he didn’t or treated me differently because of it, I wouldn’t have continued with the relationship.
Has your mental illness had any impact on your sex life?
Yes. 100 percent. Whenever I am anxious about life, the consistency decreases. My sex drive is directly correlated with anxiety. I can’t get myself going. I get stuck in the anxiety whirlpool: life, feelings, and everything else. Sex is the last thing on my mind. I start thinking he will cheat on me.
Yes, totally. When you go into a downward cycle, you don’t have sex, but sometimes I’m the opposite. It ebbs and flows. My libido just slows down for no particular reason. It’s just part of the cycle.
What has been the biggest challenge in your relationship in terms of mental health?
Self-doubt. I doubt myself, ability, and then it causes doubt for my relationship. The biggest thing was when I was struggling in school and in developing my personal direction. I would shut down and wouldn’t communicate with him, and this would create tension between us. My direction in life has been the biggest point of tension in our relationship.
Trying to reason with yourself and talk yourself out of irrational feelings, “Is this rational?” But in reality, it’s not. You learn to deal with the patterns.
What do you think a key component is in maintaining a healthy relationship?
Communication, openness, asking questions about who they are as a person, consistency. Are your love languages the same? We never go to bed, angry. We give compliments. Use your emotional intelligence, read their physical body language. Pay attention to their nonverbal more than what they say.
Trust is also key. Communication complicates trust. If you can’t talk, how can you trust?
Open communication and trust. The ability to reason with yourself, take a step back and think it might not be your partner’s fault. It’s maybe you. You have to communicate and love each other. You have to let the other person come to terms with your cycles, just like how you would want them to be patient with you.
What advice can you offer someone who might be struggling with a mental illness?
Go to therapy and stick with it. 6 months to a year is not enough. You don’t need to rely on drugs all of your life. You can use it to get over a hump. If you are relying on it, are you truly healing?
Take time to get to know yourself and your mental illness to avoid triggers and bad people.
Mental illness is a severe challenge for people seeking partnerships and these stories are emotionally raw for both women. It took a large amount of bravery to share these intimate experiences. If you know anyone who struggles with mental illness, remember they are just as human as you and deserve all the same kindness and respect one would grant to anyone else.