Editor's Note: In this multipart series, Biographile and Rita Jacobs, PhD, will walk you through finding the inspiration and motivation to start – and keep – a journal, and will later offer some approaches to transforming journal entries into memoir. In part thirteen of this series, Dr. Jacobs moves on to the importance of one's name. See earlier posts in the From Journal to Memoir series here.
I have rarely met a person who does not have strong feelings about his or her name, be those sentiments positive or negative, and many people can even trace the arc of their attitudes toward their names over the years. We can grow into our names or away from them, we can opt for a middle name by which to be known or we can go the route of using initials. Yet no matter how much we might fiddle with a name, the name you are given at birth is one thing you carry with you throughout a lifetime.
Of course, there are people who change their names, or adopt nicknames, but those actions, too, speak to strong feelings. Some of us flee our names or deny them or seek to grow into a name that emerges from the way we live our lives. We might even side with Bob Marley’s statement, “Bob Marley isn't my name. I don't even know my name yet.”
But even if we don’t love our names, they are ours – if we hear our name called out in a store or on a street we turn around to see who’s calling us even if we are in a strange country where we know no one. A name is an identifier to which we respond viscerally even if we have intellectually forsaken that name.
Is there destiny in a name? Perhaps. The writer Elias Canetti believed that “People's fates are simplified by their names.” Some parents may foresee or try to determine a future via a name. Certainly in choosing a name for a child, parents make many decisions, perhaps based on family history, religion, affection for friends or idols, etc. For some, browsing through a baby-naming book or looking at a movie advertisement is enough to trigger the naming of a baby. For others, the decision is steeped in family tradition. Names also can be indicative of the era in which the baby was born. You’ll find few – if any – Shirleys today and there’s hardly a Gertrude to be found, among the many Emmas and Madisons. (It’s fun to go to the Social Security website, which lists the top male and female names for every decade since the 1880s to see where your name is on the list for your birth decade.)
But I’m getting distracted. The real point I’d like to make in this post is that almost every one of us has a naming story. Why were you given the name you were given? Is there a family story behind the name? Was it a story that was told at holiday meals? Or told to everyone you brought to meet the family? And if you don’t feel there’s a real story in your naming, there’s no doubt a story in how you feel about your name.
Writing Exercise: If there is a story about the way you got your name – after a parent, aunt, uncle, or perhaps you were named after a parent’s best friend or favorite actor – try writing it down with as many details as you can remember about the first answers you got to your questions about your name. In fact, incorporating your questions into this narrative is a good idea. When did you first ask about your name? Was there a story involved? If not, did you feel the need to make one up? (I wasn’t really named after Rita Hayworth, but I sometimes say I was.) Create a narrative and then transition into the way your name does or does not define you. By the end of this writing exercise, you will have a piece of your memoir, perhaps even its starting point.