Privacy Is a Moving Target.


From public phone books to hummingbird drones.

For most of my life, my phone number and address could be found in the fat public phone book everyone received once a year. When I was a kid, we even had a “party line”—two short rings for our phone, one for the neighbors’. We didn’t listen in, but if we’d wanted to, nothing would have stopped us.

Before we had the internet, most of us didn’t worry about our privacy. Our lives were just naturally private enough. If we wanted to keep something to ourselves, we just kept our mouths shut.

shoesEven now, most of the intrusions are not too bad. I bought a pair of shoes online a couple months ago, and now I get emails from the company every few days. I could unsubscribe, but … you know … I like their shoes. Maybe I’ll buy a pair of boots for winter. Or some slippers. Mine are looking worn. I really don’t mind those ads from the shoemaker. In fact, I’m glad they keep track of me and alert me to their sales.

I might have a different opinion, though, if someone sent a drone disguised as a hummingbird over my patio. Sounds like science fiction, right? Nope. AeroVironment has already produced one. (For more fun facts about other frontiers in surveillance, take a look at Matthew Hutson’s article in The Atlantic,Even Bugs Will Be Bugged.”)

Elena Ferrante’s Loss of Privacy

Elena Ferrante

Last month the New York Review of Books published an article about an Italian author whose real name was made public against her will. Ever since, I’ve been thinking about the tightrope authors walk and the contradiction they live.

In my blog of October 16th, I wrote about one small aspect of the outing of the author known as Elena Ferrante. I was interested then in the problem of authors writing about people different from themselves. Most people, on the other hand, were concerned about the author’s loss of privacy. Why, they asked, shouldn’t she be allowed to hide behind her pseudonym if that was her desire?

Indeed. Why shouldn’t we all be able to choose what to keep private and what to make public?

We writers are a strange bunch. Many of us are introverts, at least to some extent. You may not notice it because we also like to spend time with friends and family. We may even enjoy crowds on occasion. But you can’t be a writer unless you have the ability to spend lots of time alone, thinking and writing, just you and your laptop or pen and paper.

It can be frightening for a writer to show words to the world that were written in private. And yet, if the writer doesn’t publish, all that work will have been in vain. It’s like cooking dinner only to find out that everyone has already eaten and all your work was a big waste of time.

I understand why Anita Raja, who now is assumed to be the real Elena Ferrante, would want to use a pseudonym. Many writers would like to do the same, if only we could.

Or could we?

*    *    *

Here are some quotes from Elena Ferrante from an article in The Guardian. They compiled the quotes from various sources before the events of last month.

“I don’t protect my private life. I protect my writing.”

“I’m still very interested in testifying against the self-promotion ­obsessively ­imposed by the media. This demand for self-promotion diminishes the ­actual work of art …”

“The fact that Jane Austen, in the course of her short life, published her books anonymously made a great impression on me as a girl of 15.”

“…what counts most for me is to preserve a creative space that seems full of possibilities, including technical ones. The structural absence of the author affects the writing in a way that I’d like to continue to explore.”


Do you have privacy concerns?

my signature

You may be interested in these related posts:

Fame and Invisibility,

Secrets and Revelation,

Elena Ferrante Isn’t Who I Thought She Was.

P.S.- Maybe I should be more concerned about my privacy. Even though my phone calls and emails are pretty innocuous, I suppose a way could be found to twist my words. If I learned anything from the campaign of the past few months, it is to choose my words carefully and beware of hackers.

About Nicki Chen

About Nicki Chen Nicki Chen is a writer living in Edmonds, WA. Her first novel, Tiger Tail Soup, is set in China during the Japanese invasion and occupation, 1937-1945. She's working on a second novel set in Vanuatu, a South Pacific nation where she and her late husband lived in the early '90s.
books, historical fiction, writing , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Privacy concerns as a writer and then as a person is one interesting topic. When I write, I certainly like to be left alone, apart from listening to some music. When someone interrupts me, I’d get annoyed because that would make me lose my train of thought and all of a sudden someone else’s words comes into my head and that confuses me as to what I’m writing on paper or typing on computer. Being alone is completely okay with me. In fact, I find comfort in that, not just in writing but reflecting too.

    With social media, privacy certainly has become hard to keep and even define. As a writer, having an online presence is a chance to connect with readers and make your mark as an artist. The more down-to-earth you are online – like sharing personal anecdotes – the more relatable you might be. As an introvert and private person, this is hard for me.

    I think any author who wants to write under a pseudonym should be able to. Art is art, and it can speak for itself. But at the end of the day, I think many want to find a connection with authors and see how they came to writing their stories, and want to put words to a name and a name to a face.

    • Your reflections, Mabel, touch on both sides of the issue–A writer should be able to use a pseudonym, and yet, readers want to make a connection with the authors whose stories they read. It’s hard to know which way to go, and I certainly wouldn’t criticize any author who chooses one way or the other. Personally, I decided to use photos of myself on my blog because I enjoy seeing the faces of the bloggers whose posts I read. On the other hand, I’ve never seen photos of some of my favorite bloggers, and I still enjoy their writing.

  2. I thought what happened to Anita Raja was awful. Why couldn’t she write under a pen name? I’m using a pen name. Though I don’t really care if people know my name, I established my pen name because my fiction is different from the nonfiction I’ve had published.

    Many authors, like Lemony Snicket, for instance, write under pen names. It’s hard these days to be private, as you said.

    • I don’t know whether to think that what happened to Anita Raja was awful or just inevitable. Her use of a pseudonym was more extreme than your use or Lemony Snicket’s, aka Daniel Handler. She wanted to keep her identity totally hidden, and I suppose no one would have cared if she hadn’t become so famous. She had a good run, though. I hope her lack of anonymity since her name was revealed won’t affect her future ability to write or her pleasure in writing.

  3. Interesting post. I follow a blogger who writes under a pseudo name. She writes about family and it’s hilarious. I often wish I had used a pseudo name because my best stories may hurt someone’s feelings or offend someone I care about. So in the end it’s not so much about me but how my writings may affect someone else. I think that anyone should be able to write anonymously until their writing is truly hurtful or inflammatory. If you are a political blogger you should openly stand behind your words.

    • It’s true Kate. Without a pseudonym, we have to censor ourselves in many ways, leaving by the wayside lots of good stories we’d like to write. I’m currently reading Ann Patchett’s new novel, Commonwealth, in which one of the characters tells her lover her life story, which includes the story of her extended family. Her lover changes the names and professions of the family members and turns it into a novel. Even though the woman is not the author, her family still recognizes their story, and they’re not happy to read it. In the case of this fictional story, even a pseudonym wouldn’t have helped. I guess you might say, a pen name is useful not only for the author but also for anyone whose stories the author knows. And still it’s dangerous to be or know an author.

      • Amen to that. I have been at parties where something really funny is going on when someone turns to me and says “You’re not to blog about this are you?” My stock answer is “Of course I am!” Even if is use a family story I work hard to camouflage the identities. Family may figure it out but maybe not friends.

  4. Corina

    People are naturally curious about others. Some are more than others. One lose one’s privacy when one chose to follow a blog and comment on it. However, if done well, one can exercise the option of how much one is willing to reveal without being brash.

    • It’s a tricky thing. Throughout our lives we make choices about how open we want to be with others. Which things do we want to reveal and which things do we want to keep private? Many of us come to writing because we like to read and reflect. We like language and books. When we started writing, we may not have realized how much openness is required … even for people who use a pseudonym. As Mabel said in her comment, “The more down-to-earth you are online – like sharing personal anecdotes – the more relatable you might be.” And yet, she added, “As an introvert and private person, this is hard for me.” I feel the same way.

  5. Ha, my only worry is that my in-laws will find my blog. That happened to the Ruby Ronin and now she can’t write about any of the traits she finds so maddening about them. 🙂

    My siblings found me, but they haven’t blown my pseudonym. Yet. Probably I’m such small potatoes no one should care.

  6. I enjoyed this post, Nicki. Very thought provoking on the privacy front and in other ways.

    One thing you said surprised me ~> “And yet, if the writer doesn’t publish, all that work will have been in vain. It’s like cooking dinner only to find out that everyone has already eaten and all your work was a big waste of time.”

    I’m not that concerned with publishing or finding an audience for my efforts . . . but I do enjoy the act of writing. If we enjoy what we’re doing, whether it’s writing or cooking or singing or dancing or painting or playing the piano, the time we spend is never “wasted time” or “in vain” . . . it’s FUN!

    • P.S. I love that photo of you . . . rocking around the Christmas Tree!

    • You’re right. I went too far by calling it a waste of time. I’ve spent many happy hours writing in a journal that no one else will ever see.

      The thing about blogging, though, is that, even though one may have only a small number of readers, it’s not the same as putting everything you write into a drawer and showing it to no one.

      For most of us, singing, dancing, playing the piano, and painting are just for fun. But serious, hardworking artists usually want to do more with their art. Choirs give concerts, many of them around this time of year; ballet dancers perform The Nutcracker; pianists have recitals; and professional artists hang their work in galleries. Art is meant to be shared, if only in a small way. That’s why I compared it to cooking. When a cook prepares a meal for a group, she hopes they’ll eat it and enjoy it, even though, from a practical viewpoint, if they don’t show up, she has leftovers she can use for tomorrow’s meal.

      • Most of what I’ve written is stuffed into notebooks and shown to no one. If I don’t see any benefit to be gained from sharing my work with others . . . then I’m content to leave it sitting in a file.

        I’ve been published in 3 anthologies and felt better writing those essays and poems than I did seeing them in print. The books arrived, I glanced at my entries, and I stuck them on a shelf.

        I expect I would feel the same way about my novels ~ the process of writing them, delightful, the desire to share them, minimal. Acknowledgment and recognition from others is not nearly as important to me as enjoying the journey and “doing my own thing.”

        If you’re interested, my rational for keeping most of my work private is discussed here in greater detail (in the post and the comment thread):

        Here’s to anonymity and autonomy!
        And Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours, Nicki.

        • “To Share … or Not to Share,” your post from 2010 was very well reasoned. Thanks for sending it. I liked your assertion that “Life is not one-size-fits-all.” So true! You say that “Acknowledgment and recognition from others is not nearly as important to me as enjoying the journey and ‘doing my own thing.'” After reading your blog for a few years and understanding your devotion to Buddhist thought and practice, I can see that your attitude toward writing fits with your larger view of life.

          I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving.

  7. My only privacy concerns are those I wouldn’t post 🙂

  8. I think writers do walk that tightrope. We love creating in a bubble because we can be original. However, we also need to be public to have our words read (and to make a living).

    I definitely have concerns about privacy. Access to information is great, but I wonder how we can safeguard things–especially for future generations.

    • I think Anita Raja started writing during a time when there was less need for writers to go public than there is now, especially for anyone who wants to make a living by writing. The writer’s typical lament: I enjoy writing, but I don’t know anything about marketing, and don’t enjoy doing it.

      One thing I observed from the recent election is that marketing is king of the ball; knowledge and truth are the poor stepchildren no one asks to dance. Regarding the media and social media, privacy is only one of many concerns.

  9. Charleen Relyea

    The lack of privacy is difficult for me, and just understanding the technology is difficult, too. I feel like I need to go back to 1st grade again sometimes and relearn how to relate socially to the rest of the world, which is way too large for my imagination to comprehend.

    • I think I’d be more worried about the lack of privacy if I were younger. That’s why I don’t use photos of my children and grandchildren, except pictures of my daughters when they were still children.

      I agree, the technology is hard. Not only am I slower to learn than I was when I was younger, but as soon as I catch on (more or less) to something, there are other new things to learn. My publisher set up a twitter account for me, but I don’t use it. There are only so many hours in the day.

  10. I don’t worry overly about privacy. On the blog I can choose what to share and what to keep private and I certainly do so. In the wider world it’s not so easy, is it? I don’t know at all how I’d handle fame and fortune so it’s a good job it’s not coming my way any time soon, Nicki. 🙂


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