Yesterday I attended a memorial service for an acquaintance from church. While it was a sad occasion, it was also the celebration of a life well lived with the sure hope of living in the presence of her Savior. During the service, several of her friends shared meaningful verses and quotes, and I found it interesting that at least half of the quotes were attributed to 'anonymous' or 'author unknown.' The quotes weren't especially stellar prose, but listeners were touched, just the same. I'm sure the authors would have been pleased to know the encouragement their words afforded to the grieving friends and family in attendance, but they never will.
So I began to wonder why a person would write anonymously. How many of us would continue to write if we received no compensation or credit for our hard work, and would we write any differently knowing that our identities would remain secret?
The internet provides anonymity to writers every day, for good or ill. Did you follow the Bronx Zoo Cobra on Twitter? Whoever tweeted for 'her' had a ball while she was on the loose, and it was all in good fun. But anonymity should never be an excuse for abuse or become someone's 'super power'. With anonymity should come responsibility.
Writing without a byline could offer such freedom, if responsibility were present. A reader may argue that there is nothing she couldn't say without affixing her name to it, but it's easier said than done. I know of a few topics I would write about or different styles I might try if I were assured secrecy, and you might know some, too. Maybe those are the things that should make their way into our stories in one form or another.
It is becoming more common to hear about people writing anonymously from places of political unrest or other potentially dangerous situations. But some just have a heavy burden and need the promise of a shadowy corner and a voice changer to get the words out. A writer friend of mine once wrote anonymously about passing a young female hitchhiker on a California highway. He and his wife were advanced in years and had felt vulnerable to crime, so they didn't stop and they always regretted their inaction. They never knew what happened to the girl, but she haunted them. Writing the story was a form of confession and penance, and was also a charge to the reader not to overlook opportunities to help others where we could. It allowed him to be truthful about a situation that was painful and shameful to him, and while editors would not normally prefer it, the magazine editor was more willing to print it anonymously.
As for how many of us would continue to write without some sort of recognition, I suppose it depends on our motivation for writing and how we see ourselves as stewards of what God has invested in us. It would take true humility to do one's best work and not yearn for a byline. Thankfully, God doesn't usually demand that of us.
By the way, apparently, all writers have literary fingerprints - their own unique patterns of phrases, punctuation and combinations that can give their identities away to folks like literary super sleuth Don Foster, author of 'Author Unknown: On the Trail of Anonymous'. As an expert in attributional theory, he has been able to attribute a new poem written by 'W.S.' to William Shakespeare, uncover the anonymous author of 'Primary Colors' (a fictionalized look inside the Clinton political campaign) and help to convict the Unabomber. He says, "Give anonymous offenders enough verbal rope and column inches, and they will hang themselves for you, every time."
It makes me wonder what my literary fingerprints look like. Don't you wonder the same?
If, years later, someone like Mr. Foster discovered something you'd written anonymously, what would it be? I think for me it would be poetry, because it's something I'm not very good at but I admire. What about you?