What’s in a Name?
I thought a good place to begin this writers’ blog was to wonder about names. Our own birth names, the author names we might give ourselves, the names of our characters. What difference does it make what we call ourselves? What difference does it make what we call our characters? Was Shakespeare right in saying a “rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” If you have one of those names that is frequently mispronounced, like I do, then maybe you aren’t so eager to agree with Shakespeare.
People are always asking about my name (or mispronouncing it). They want to know why I only have one name. This has gotten me thinking about how names affect us as writers and how our relationship to our own names affect the names we give to our characters. Charles Dickens rising from obscurity into prominence once told his children something to the effect of, “Your name (the one he had created by becoming a renowned author) is all you have.” The implication being they had to present themselves in a certain way because of the name he’d given them. And that works for some people–having a family name that they are proud of and need to live up to. I suspect, though, that the family name thing is less important to most Americans than other nationalities. Except maybe those Mayflower folks, but I’ve never met any of them.
Some writers choose pseudonyms that, I guess, make them feel more like themselves, names which express their identity. A popular example would be Samuel L. Clemens who became Mark Twain. Under what circumstances he took this name is not completely clear, but when you boil down all the possible reasons you’re really left with the fact that the phrase “mark twain” had to do with the way River Boat Captains measured the depth of water. By choosing the name “Mark Twain” Mark Twain was communicating an important aspect of his identity to the world. And isn’t that what a name does? It communicates a certain something about our identity. Some people achieve distinctiveness by including their middle name in their writer’s name. Others just use initials for their first and middle name: P.D. Wodehouse, R.K. Rollins. Often this is done by women to hide that they are women with the hope that this will up their chances of being published. Joanne Rowling is a good example again. She used her pen name to publish the Henry Potter series because her publisher thought that young boys wouldn’t read a book by a woman (www.jkrowling.com).
Recently, Leonard Jacobs, founder of The Clyde Fitch Report, a popular on-line journal of culture and politics, asked me:
Can you touch on the roots of your single-name identity?
I don’t know how long ago I started with that, but I’ve only used one name for quite some time. Edward Albee calls me “the playwright with one name.” I just don’t feel that any last name suits me. I guess I feel self-created and therefore I feel that Vanda describes me just fine and I don’t need anything more.
It gives me lots of trouble, though. I’m always amazed at how many uncreative, inflexible people there are in the theater. Once I wrote to a director who I’d never met. I may have been commenting on a book he wrote. I don’t think I was asking him to read my work, but he wrote back to say that he would never work with anyone who used only one name. I found that hysterically funny, but also sad. Computers won’t accept my one name approach to life, but I guess I expect more from a human being, especially one who purports to be in a field requiring imagination and flights of fancy. I never wrote back to him, but in truth, I would never work with him either. I couldn’t work with a rigid rule monger masquerading as a director. I wonder if Sapphire has these problems. Or Mo’nique. What about the British writer Saki? Madonna? Cher?
That brings me to the problems of being a one-name writer confronting the computer. A computer wants you to fill in all the little boxes; it won’t accept a form with the last name left out. I finally found a way around this dilemma. In the box where it says “Last Name” I now write “Neveruseit.” I’ve actually gone to writers’ conferences where the organizers have printed “Vanda Neveruseit” on my name-tag. They attempt some really strange pronunciations and want to know if it’s German. Or perhaps French? (http://www.clydefitchreport.com/2015/06/playwright-vanda-newplay-cabaret-theater)
What about character names?
My relationship to my own name occasionally shows up in my work. When I first started writing back in eighth grade I would look at Names for Babies books and choose a character name that was unusual, distinctive and less likely to be pronounced correctly and give that name to my main character. Even now I sometimes forget to give characters last names. Lately I have developed a character who is known by one name, a cabaret singer, Juliana. Her last name is only introduced later in the novel. I’ve always found the naming of my characters to be an exciting process. Often, the name pops off the page and when that happens I know the character has just chosen their own name. Other times, thankfully much less often, I have to struggle to find the name. I try out different ones and it takes awhile before the character is satisfied with what has been chosen.
Character names are important. Some literary characters come to be like a part of our family and certainly a part of of our souls. Memorable characters like: Heathcliff, Anna Karenina, Peter Pan, Huckleberry Finn. I know you can come up with your own list of characters who have taken up residence in your heart.
So how do you feel about names? Your own name? Your writer’s name? Your characters’ names? I’d love to hear from you about this.