Of two names

Good Morning Folks! I want to give a warm welcome to my fellow FUMFAer, Ann/AJ. Don’t forget to stop by her blog after you’re done reading and check out some of the other great stuff she has to say…

This fake front page is a farewell gift from my co-workers at The Boston Herald. The staff knew me as both Ann and A.J., and as you can see, two of the three stories on the "front page" are name-related. (In case you're wondering, that unfortunate picture was taken for some chiropractor story I was working on at the time.)

In the summer of 2000, I sat down across from one of my best friends at Fire & Ice Grill and Bar in Cambridge, Mass. and made a decision.

“I’m changing my name,” I told her.  “Well not legally. But my pen name. I’m changing that.”

“What are you changing it to?” She dipped into her freshly grilled whatever-it-was-that-she’d ordered.

“A.J. O’Connell. I’m going to write under A.J. O’Connell. Doesn’t that sound neat?”

She agreed that it did. We raised our frosty beverages and toasted the new name. And then we forgot all about it and dug into dinner.

It didn’t feel like a major decision at the time. I was still the same old Ann. I had simply chosen a pen name, but that moment turned out to be a big one. That moment reinvented me, or rather, that moment invented A.J.

I was 22 years old at the time, an editorial assistant at The Boston Herald and starting out in journalism with the sort of starry-eyed idealism that only recent college grads can muster.

The name change had been on my mind for weeks. I liked the ambiguity of it. I felt that a set of initials would make readers more likely to focus on my work, rather than my gender. As a young reader of fiction, I’d always liked reading authors represented by initials – J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis  – because I didn’t make any assumptions about them based on their names. And besides, I liked the sound of “A.J. O’Connell.” It sounded newsy. It sounded tough. It was a cool name. But it was just a pen name. It was just a byline. People would still call me Ann. I’d just be A.J. to my readers.

A couple weeks later, my union rep called me A.J. in a room filled with colleagues. I wondered who A.J. was. When I realized he was talking to me, I corrected him: “Call me Ann.”

“But your name is A.J.,” he said.

He was right. It was on my union card.

At my next job, I gave up trying to go by two names and interviewed as A.J. I figured, fine. All the people I work with will call me A.J. and all my friends will call me Ann. Somehow I failed to account for the fact that co-workers tend to become friends. After a decade, I now have very close friends who know me as A.J. They’ve occasionally, at family functions, attempted to refer to me as Ann. It always sounds funny.

It’s a strange thing to go by two names. It makes you realize that Shakespeare had no idea what he was talking about when he wrote his famous lines about names and roses.

I found that people who called me A.J. treated me differently than the people who called me Ann, and I responded to them differently.

I got tougher, smarter, ruthless, ambitious. A.J. was the kind of person who liked to yell things like “I’m the one asking the questions.” A.J. was always wearing her game face. A.J. did some things that Ann could not have done.

Ann was a person to whom things happened. A.J. was a person who made things happen.

Maybe a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but an A.J. by any other name would not be a very good reporter.

My decision, 11 years ago, to assume a pen name has had all sorts of unintended consequences. When I was reporting, sometimes readers (obviously deeply unfamiliar with the state of the industry) assumed I was my own secretary: “Sweetheart, can you tell me if Mr. O’Connell is in? I tell ya, I’m gonna give that guy a piece of my mind about that story he wrote.”*

My pen name was also part of the reason I didn’t change my last name when I got married. If I kept my byline, but changed my last name, I’d have two completely different names: A.J. O’Connell and Ann Davis. That was a little too Superman/Clark Kent for me, so I kept my name. Things were confusing enough.

When I quit my job as a reporter last June to finish my MFA and write my novel, I didn’t know what to do with A.J. I didn’t know how to introduce myself to people at my MFA program’s residencies. Am I Ann? I’m not here as a reporter. Am I A.J.? I’m here as a writer.

It also took me some time to reconcile the two different parts of my personalities that I’d been thinking of as Ann and A.J. The schism between the two had gotten a little ridiculous. Each was turning into a way of evading responsibility for certain things. For example, Ann has a hard time being proactive. Compassion ain’t A.J.’s strong suit.

It took a few months of going through life without my reporting job, and with friends who both knew me as Ann and as A.J., to start bringing the two halves together.

The rift between the two may never be completely resolved. Recently I started freelancing for a local paper. When I got to my first assignment, pen and notebook in hand, I found myself in top A.J. form. It was like I’d let A.J. off a leash. I joyfully reported and photographed for two hours. Then I went home, called my mom and was calmly Ann.

*Although it was tempting, I never once pretended to be my own secretary.



  1. erin says:

    Thanks for stopping by Brooke. I try to mix her name up. Some days I call her Ann, other days AJ. Just kidding actually, I don’t really plan it out, but I do find myself mixing it up throughout the course of the residency.

  2. Tina DeMarco says:

    “Ann was a person to whom things happened. A.J. was a person who made things happen.”

    I love this line! I also have two names. Christine is my legal name while Tina is the name that most identifies me. Sometimes I want to be more formal, but it just doesn’t work. However, publishing will always see me as Christine. I think…

    I also call A.J. by both names. When we met at her first residency, I asked what to call her and she told me either worked. Sometimes it’s confusing, though Ann/A.J. is awesome by any name!

  3. Donna says:

    On the other side, I have never had a different name or a nickname. I’ve always been Donna. I know what I’d like to be called if I was going to change my name . . . but there never seemed to be a reason to seriously consider it. Thanks for the guest post today.

  4. Reuben says:

    Great story! The name/gender aspect is really fascinating. One summer in undergrad I went by the name Elizabeth, or Liz for short, and some people really did treat me differently.

  5. Elizabeth Hilts says:

    Great post and I can so identify. When I was about 25 I decided to start introducing myself as Elizabeth rather than as Liz (a name I’ve never liked). It completely changed how people responded to me because, I think, of the formality of Elizabeth. Which is exactly what I wanted.

    More important, it changed how I thought of myself; though it took a few more years, I started to take myself more seriously.

    My brothers and some friends still call me Lizzie, which I love for a lot of reasons. Now, over a quarter of a century later, I have become Elizabeth so completely that I won’t even respond to Liz. The only person who I allow to use that name is my mother—for some reason it works when she says it.

  6. A.J. says:

    Wow guys, thank you for all the kind words. I’ve been interested to see comments from other writers who, like Hilts and Tina, go by or have gone by two names. I didn’t even know that about you all. And I especially didn’t know that Reuben’s secret code name was Elizabeth. I think we’re going to have to bring that back during the summer MFA residency.
    Thank you all for reading, and thanks to Erin for hosting such a cool series of guest blogs. I’m tempted to start asking people to guest blog over at my site!

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