December 8th, 2009

Not by any other: on names and naming

I have stolen a rose. It is in a glass water on my kitchen table, and I look at it as I eat breakfast. It’s pretty and I like looking at it, but I also feel a little guilty. I’m pretty sure no one misses it, but it was still not my rose to take.

Except there is a part of me that feels that all roses are mine. Because of my name, you see: when I see a rose, a tiny part of my brain says “mine” or, sometimes, “me.”

I identify very very strongly with my name. I have a strong interest in all the other Rosenblums in the world, of which there are not that many. There are more Rebeccas, and I always enquire after them if I hear the name mentioned–I want to make sure they are upstanding women and not doing anything under the aegis of Rebeccaness that might sully our reputations.

But I am willing to admit that their ways of being Rebecca, whatever they are, become the definition of Rebeccaness in their context. Names are tautological–whoever you are, that’s you! For that reason, as soon as I know a person slightly, I have no trouble keeping him/her straight from other people with the same name: the personality hooks into whatever the person is called (at one point I knew 13 Jasons). I have never met a person whose name didn’t seem to me to suit him or her; everyone simply becomes the embodiment of that name to me.

The only people whose names aren’t a simply tautology to me are, ironically, my parents, because I don’t know them by their names (although of course I know what they are). I have been known to obliviously introduce them as simply “my mom and dad,” and leave them to give their proper names themselves, which in fact sound strange to me, though I don’t honestly expect people to address my mom as “Rebecca’s Mom”–I just forget that that’s not actually her name.

I have known people who changed their names when they married, when they immigrated, when they broke away from their families, or when they began writing. They seem just fine with the change, learning to identify fully under the new rubric. I imagine that must be a huge transformation of self, a serious mental and emotional change. It’s enough for me to even remember to call them what they now want to be called.

So I am not one of those authors who takes great joy in researching names, keeping lists of cool names, or matching the meaning of the name with a character (my name means “bound”–not even close). To me that’s not how names work: the person inflates the name with his or her being, not the other way round. Because real people come to me with names in place, in my mind so do characters. I generally think of an appropriate name within the first few paragraphs of writing about someone, and then that’s it–it becomes who they are. I almost never alter the names of characters once I’ve been writing about them for a while, and though maybe I can fiddle with a minor character’s name if she’s only on the page briefly, the characters I know well would disturb me greatly by another name. It would be as if my mom suddenly demanded I call her Barbara.

So the fact that I now need to change a character’s name is making me bonkers. It’s a coincidental reality/fiction overlap, and since I have no wish to edit reality, it’s fiction that’s going to have to take the hit, so as to avoid confusion. I thought I would avoid upsetting myself by writing the story with the original name in place and then search’n’replace it right before submitting the piece for publication–I wouldn’t even have to see this alien name on the page for very long.

But my attempt to pull this clever trick on my own brain isn’t working: now that I know this guy isn’t keeping his name, he’s shifty on the page whenever I try to write about him. “Who are you?” seems to be my question for him, although I thought I already knew. It’s really slowing down the writing, as I stare at the paragraph where he drinks the soda and think, “As Paul took a sip of his soda,” “As Nick took a…” “As Dave took…” We can’t spend 20 minutes on the soda-drinking paragraph!! It’s only two lines long! This problem remains unsolved, and in progress.

I love my brain–it is a very interesting place to live, but sometimes I wish it were just a little more flexible. Even my father, who has been living under the Rosenblum rubric the longest, is baffled by my enthusiasm, and claims to “not really think about it.” He does sometimes give me roses, though.


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