June 8, 2015 § 6 Comments
At the Creative Nonfiction Writers Conference last month, my name tag read “Irene Smith Hisname.” My married name, my professional name, the name I’ve used for almost three decades. It’s a perfectly nice name (I maintain it’s Yiddish for “homeboy”) but it’s not the one I use for writing.
Did I say that CNFWC15 was fabulous? That it made the terrors of pitching and platform and publication feel like an expanded conversation with people I really like? The conversation began with a Facebook page where I found useful tips about what to bring to the conference. Besides layers and comfy shoes, bring copies of your book. (I don’t have a book.) Bring postcards and bookmarks with your book cover on them. (Still no book.) Bring business cards. Yes! I do have cards, and I brought them to Pittsburgh.
My card is for my day job, and reads “Irene Smith Hisname, Psychologist.” Whenever I had a chance to give my card to someone I had to write “Irene Hoge Smith” on it, and explain that I was born with that name, and that I write using that name. That’s the name that would let someone find the things I write now. Personal things. Sometimes funny things, often really not. Things that I don’t want my patients to trip over accidentally.
The irony is that I couldn’t wait to give up the name I was born with, along with almost everything about my first twenty years. “Irene” was a grown-ups’ joke (“I’ll see you in my dreams!”) but the Lindas and Marys and Debbies I went to school with couldn’t even spell it. And don’t get me started about Hoge. Somehow my parents thought my grandmother’s maiden name would be a good middle name for a little girl. I wasn’t sure if they hated me or were just crazy (there is a book in that). My grandma was Ida Mae Hoge back in Texas. A family story said somewhere along the line the name had been changed from Hogg, and maybe we were related to Governor Hogg. You know, the one who named his daughter Ima? That part’s true. The other daughter named Ura? Never happened. Are we related? Almost certainly not, and even if we had been I didn’t want the name. The H is for Helen, I said once I started school. I did have an Aunt Helen, after all, and anyway I had my fingers crossed.
Smith was at least simple and there was something reassuring about it being so ordinary.
I had been anxious to re-invent myself, leave behind the scared and scruffy little girl, with last week’s clothes and hair in her eyes and a baby sister on her hip. I wanted to get what I have now, a different name, a degree and a profession, accumulated reassurances that I have a right to exist on the planet.
And now that profession is the reason I need another name. I’m in a writing program with other therapists here in D.C. and you would not believe how crazy (pardon the expression) we make ourselves over this stuff. Is it okay to write about patients? Should we tell them or not? How to disguise the details and keep the story? Writing about ourselves is even trickier and I’m not sure if we’re more anxious to hide our most personal sides from our patients or from each other.
I’m not the only one here who started out thinking I’d write about my work and ended up writing about my mother. Writing about her meant remembering a lot of pain and confusion that I thought, once upon a time, I could just leave behind. I wouldn’t have it any other way now, and if it means I need another name—well, I have a spare, don’t I? Easy. Except not.
Donald Winnicott, the analyst who told us about the good-enough mother (surprisingly rare, in my experience), the transitional object (that’s the teddy bear), and the false self (I wouldn’t know anything about that) wrote that artists are caught in a conflict between the wish to hide and the wish to be known. I do wish to be known. I want to tell my stories. But maybe I also want to be able to hide. Hide behind Hisname, behind my degree, behind my profession.
So what name do I bring to the next conference? How confusing is it to wear a name tag with Hisname and remind people to look for my other name, my born-into name, the name my mother gave me along with so much baggage. Without the baggage, of course, there wouldn’t be a book.
Another thing Winnicott wrote was “it is a joy to be hidden, and disaster not to be found.”
Irene Hoge Smith is writing a memoir about her lost-and-found mother, the poet FrancEyE (also known, in the early 1960s, as Charles Bukowski’s mistress and muse). She has studied with Rebecca McClanahan and Dinty W. Moore (at Kenyon Review Summer Writing Workshop) and Mark Doty (at the Blue Flower Arts Winter Writing Workshop). Her essays have appeared in the New Directions Journal and Amsterdam Quarterly. She lives, writes and practices psychotherapy near Washington, D.C.