When working on memoir essays, I frequently change names to protect people’s privacy. Except my own, of course, which if I did, would probably mean that I was turning my essay into fiction. I’m sure that many of you change names as well.
How do you pick your names? When I was first writing, I thought it would be easy. Choose a name I think the person is like. What? I mean if someone looks like a Devon, for example, I would name him Devon. But is that how you spell Devon? What difference does it make? I’M MAKING UP THE NAME. But now I’m obsessing about how to spell Devon. A made-up name. I don’t even know anyone named Devon. A friend of mine’s son is named Devon but I haven’t seen him in years and I don’t remember how she spells his name. And was Devon a name someone that age would have?
Concern over which name to pick definitely ruins my stride.
Popular names change. Take mine, for instance. Barbara used to be a common name for girls my age. In my second grade class I think there were five Barbara’s out of 25 or 30 students. I was named for an aunt, but Barbara was also a common name in her generation. There were a few famous actresses named Barbara as well, which added to the popularity of the name.
Now it’s unheard of. Last week a student of mine said “That’s a grandmother’s name.” Well, I am a grandmother, so there’s some truth there.
Recently, for a memoir that I’m working on, I chose to pick different names for some people in my life, realizing that specific names, like Barbara, are very specific to different decades.
I was stumped. The important thing about the memoir was telling my truth, my story, and here I was taking an inordinate amount of time changing names.
Here’s an example. I changed a college friend’s name to Paul. But I knew a lot of Paul’s and have cousins named Paul. So changing a name to Paul would just mean that anyone I knew named Paul would think it was him.
Then there are nicknames. Richard’s were often Rich, Rick, Dick or Ricky. Were boys born in the 70’s called Rick or Ricky? Now I have to research popular names and nicknames by decades that aren’t names of actual people I am writing about.
Really? It became a monumental task.
An editor was reading some chapters I had written and said that I had done a good job of fleshing out Tommy. Who’s Tommy? Okay, now I have to keep a spreadsheet of real people and the new names I have given them.
But the most difficult task of all was writing about my early childhood in Washington, DC. There weren’t kids in our neighborhood to play with and I wasn’t yet in kindergarten. The most important young person in my life was my imaginary friend, Deenie.
Wait. Was it Deanie or Deenie or Deeny or Deany?
When my imaginary friend Deenie entered my life, I didn’t know how to read yet. Why was writing about her a problem?
She was my best friend before I knew how to spell.