What's your name?

I teach creative writing for Gotham Writers in Manhattan. The hardest part of my job is not the critiquing, or the lecturing, or the reading–though that’s certainly work. But the hardest thing to do is make sure that everyone likes each other. Or at least respects each other, and after years of working on this, I’ve discovered that the best predictor of whether a class is going to go well is whether people refer to each other by their names. Now you may think that sounds easy. All you have to do is introduce people and they’ll know each other’s names. But you’d be wrong. Most of us, especially when we’re nervous, which people usually are when they’re in a writing class, are not paying attention to extraneous information, such as the name of that guy sitting in the corner. So he might tell you his name is Joseph Conrad, but if you’re like me, it goes right out of your head. What you do not want is a group of people saying, “Yes, I agree with that lady in the blue shirt.” You want people connecting, and so my job is to harangue my students into remembering names (in a polite way). The difficulty is compounded by the fact that I teach in Times Square and my students come from all over the world. I grew up with people named Susan and Robert and very occasionally Priscilla. But in my classes I am presented with a true cornucopia of names, which is fabulous, but hard to get straight. So one of the things I do is write people’s name down using my own phonetic system and then I keep saying those names over and over again. Zagreb, would you hand Sushma a piece of paper? Alice, will you help Rothschild lower the window? And so on.  Sometimes, if even my best efforts don’t work, I do one of my favorite writing exercises, which is to have people write about how they got their name. Everyone has a story about her name. One of my favorites (I won’t use her name), was a woman whose parents had agreed on the name they were going to give her. But when her mother went into labor, her father left the hospital and went to a bar. Where he stayed for 36 hours. The mother was so angry that she decided to name her daughter after a television character in a TV series she knew he didn’t like. So every time that man said his daughter’s name, it was a rebuke. My own name comes as a result of a compromise between my parents. My father was Jewish, born in the Bronx, and my mother was Christian, born in Queens. My father was truly the best-natured person in the world, and he almost never said no to my mother, but when they were talking about baby names for me, my mother said she wanted to name me Christina. My father said, “Absolutely not! No Jew from the Bronx can have a daughter named Christina.” So they settled on Susan, which is an old Hebrew and Biblical name. All of this is a long way of saying that I have been thinking about community a lot, having just returned from my first trip to Bouchercon, which is a huge gathering of mystery writers and readers that takes place once a year, this year in New Orleans. One of the most fun parts was getting to meet people whose names I knew from Facebook or Twitter. In a reverse of the usual situation, I knew the name but not the person. But more about that on my blog tomorrow. How about you? Where does your name come from?    

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