Names are a subject of great importance to memoir writers. I would go further and say names are important for us all.
Paul Eakin, states in his article Breaking the Rules: The Consequences of Self Narration that we learn from our parents at an early age the rules for the telling of life narratives. We all tell life narratives, every day, but very few people write them. The three rules he describes are 1) tell the truth 2) maintain the privacy of others 3) “to display a normative model of personhood”. I am still getting my head around number 3 but it is to do with relating stories with a person who is not in a normal state to remember eg a person with Alzheimer’s.
It is rule 2 that we get stuck on. Maintain the privacy of others as the very nature of writing memoir is also writing someone else’s biography. So how do you get around this. Some people change the names. I have great difficulty with this for a number of reasons. I have recently taken up doing Charli’s 99 word flash fiction challenge. I have noticed that I have immense problems giving my characters names. So much so that often I haven’t named them at all. I had been pondering this problem for awhile and eventually concluded that by naming them they become real, yet as I am writing fiction they aren’t real.
I have also tried changing names in my memoir and that is equally as disastrous. The flow of the writing dries and the person shrivells and dies until I give them their identity back. Some identities in the story cannot be made anonymous even if I did change the name. Lejeune put forward that if the author’s name is the same as the ‘I’ character in the book, you are reading an autobiographical text and that a pact is made with the reader that the writer is telling the truth and the reader accepts that. So as my name is on the book my husband is identifiable as my husband no matter what I call him.
Josie Arnold says about a character she renamed in her memoir Mother Superior, Woman Inferior “I continue to regret it as it seems to me to dishonour the truth and the woman concerned.” I feel likewise. In fact I have found that many people want their name used. They are happy to be featured. We once named a pig and a friend on asking what was the pig’s name, was told the pig was named after her. She was horrified. She ranted and raved. Inwardly she was thrilled. She lived on the tale at countless dinner parties and now admits that she was pleased we had thought of her when we named the pig.
Another way is to keep your characters nameless and faceless. Peter Mayle does this in his Provence series of memoirs and so does a great blogger Tangental. This technique works well for him as it did for Peter Mayle.
Your name is the first thing you own and the last thing you lose when it comes to identity. What comes first memoir or identity? Do you make yourself from the story of your family? Do you readjust unintentionally memories to fit with the identity memoir has given you? Is this why adopted children have so many torments as they haven’t been given a memoir by right of birth? Is this why nations struggle when their history is rewritten and their national identity tampered with such as in Japan recently with the rewriting of history regarding World War II?
Shakespeare intimated in Romeo and Juliet that names do not affect the way things are:
O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.
[Aside] Shall I hear more, or shall I speak at this?
‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.
I take thee at thy word:
Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptized;
Henceforth I never will be Romeo.
but I don’t go along with this. My family name is going to die with my brother. All his children have their mother’s surname. His wives weren’t prepared to change their name. This is the modern way. Strangely I was saddened deeply by the thought of our name dying. A bit like our heritage the Mathers castle on the coast of Scotland which is falling into the sea.
“The writer of memoir makes a pact with her reader that what she writes is the truth as best she can tell it. But the original pact, the real deal, is with herself. Be honest, dig deep, or don’t bother.”
Abigail Thomas “Thinking about Memoir”
What do you think about names?