A few years ago I wrote a piece called “Becoming Levi Asher” to explain why I began to use a pen name in 1994. (Short version: I was about to publish my first short story, a satire about my job, and I didn’t want to get caught.)
Today, after using the pen name for 21 and a half years, and making a nice little space for myself in the world as Levi Asher, that freaky book blogger from Queens … I have come to the conclusion that I don’t want to carry the pseudonym around anymore. The pen name has become a barrier to me, and maybe even a symbol of a certain psychological duality that once felt important to me but no longer does. I”ve come to realize that life is too short for two names.
Here’s what’s been the problem all along: to the people I interact with on a daily basis, to my older friends and relatives and co-workers, I’m not Levi Asher. I’m Marc Eliot Stein — just a regular “that guy” kinda guy, a proud father, a highly accomplished web developer, a bad karaoke singer.
I never got rid of the first name when I chose the second, and I guess that was my big mistake. I pulled off a transformation back in 1994, but it was an incomplete transformation, like when Jeff Goldblum became half a fly. I became Levi Asher but I never stopped being Marc Stein. This caused me to spend the last 21 years balancing a sort of Jekyll and Hyde identity, which was never something I wished to do. (I still never figured out if Levi or Marc was Jekyll or Hyde.)
21 years later, I’m sick to death of juggling two identities. I also feel that I’ve reached a point as a writer where I am dealing with more serious and more worldly topics than I have dealt with before — North Korea, gun violence, terrorism in the Middle East. I feel a need to “get over myself” when I write about these topics, and somehow the vanity and duplicity of a literary pseudonym feels misplaced at times like this.
I’m not sure exactly why, but even though it feels perfectly fine to write about, say, David Bowie as Levi Asher (after all, David Bowie was born David Jones), it doesn’t feel appropriate to write about genocide and violence and nuclear crisis under a presumed identity. I’m dealing with some super-real shit on Pacifism21.org, and I need to make sure I am super-real myself when I deal with this stuff.
On a more practical level, the new project that is currently obsessing me is intended to be not just a website and a writing outlet but actually an entire organization called Pacifism for the 21st Century. This is based on a very challenging and ambitious business plan built entirely upon the extremely controversial concept that pacifism is still relevant in the world today. This business plan is the farthest thing in the world from a sure thing. Pacifism for the 21st Century could easily fail, or crash and burn, or die of discouragement (and believe me, as I go around talking to everybody I know about world peace, I get a lot of discouragement). I need to give this project everything I’ve got. If I don’t, the project will fail.
It happens that I have a lot of impressive experience as an independent businessperson and advanced software developer named Marc Eliot Stein, including major projects for Pearl Jam, Words Without Borders, Bob Dylan, iVillage, Center for Disease Control, History Channel, Foreign Policy magazine and many others. I absolutely need to leverage my technology/business experience and reputation in order to give Pacifism for the 21st Century its best shot at success, and in order to get the grants and major donations that will be necessary to help this organization grow.
So that’s the most urgent reason I’m finally merging my two identities today, but I’ve dreamed of doing this for years. The fact is, it’s really a pain in the ass managing a double identity in the Internet age. I don’t recommend it to anyone. I’ve had to deal with a lot of aggravation over the years.
Imagine me at the Forest Hills, New York post office trying to explain to the impatient lady behind the bulletproof glass why my Post Office box has to have two names on it. There’s a long line of customers waiting behind the rope, but the lady keeps putting me through the same Abbott and Costello routine, because she really doesn’t understand what I’m trying to explain.
“Who are you?”, she demands.
“I’m Marc Stein.”
“You’re Marc Stein.”
“Then who is Levi Asher.”
“That’s also me.”
Crickets. A long stare. A sense of rustling anger from the line of waiting customers behind me.
“That’s also you.”
“Yes. It’s a pen name. I’m a writer.” (At this, at least one impatient person waiting in line behind me loudly coughs in derision.)
My decision today to simplify my name game is not only a practical one, but also an emotional and personal one. The birth of Pacifism21.org has been difficult, and has taken place during a convulsive period of my life. I have made the decision to devote myself to this new project because the mission of advocating for inner and outer peace feels right to me in a time when I myself am in need of both inner and outer peace.
I went through a few major life changes in 2015, and these are the changes that bring me to the place I am in today. During this exciting but tumultuous year, there have been times when I felt despair, and when I felt seriously alone.
But those moments have been short, and every time I felt a moment of despair in 2015 I was thrilled to discover that there were people in the world who cared for me, who loved me, who sincerely wanted to help pick me up and get me back on track. And here’s the miraculous thing: when I think of the people who helped me a lot in 2015, I find that many of them were friends I made on Literary Kicks. Friends who know me not as Marc Eliot Stein but as Levi Asher. (You know who you are. Yes, you.) These friends saved my life in 2015, and helped me save my own soul.
That’s why it feels frightening to let go of the name that these true and important friends know me by. And that’s why I’m writing this article to explain that I’m only changing the name so I can keep the friendships. In January 2016, I am drawing myself in to become a simpler and more straightforward person. That person’s name is Marc Eliot Stein.
But I’m going to keep doing Literary Kicks, and I’m going to keep every single friend I’ve ever made as Levi Asher — because you people are the best in the world — and I want these friends to get to know Marc Stein. If you have always known me as Levi, I’ll let you decide whether you want to call me Levi or Marc. I’ll happily answer to either one. The fact is, I’m so used to answering to either name that I probably won’t even notice the difference.
“Marc Eliot Stein”. I don’t love the sound of the name myself. Never did. It sounds strange to me. “Levi Asher” is a much more melodic and beautiful name, which is why I chose it. But it’s not the name I was born with, and it’s time for me to face the fact that I really can’t choose my name, just like I can’t choose my face. I guess the face I was born with isn’t that bad, and I guess the name i was born with isn’t either.
Let’s take this out with a Jim Croce tune. Thanks for listening, friends.