I'm getting official about this
I'll be writing under my full name, Rachel, from now on
I have been thinking a lot about names recently. I’ve got my second child on the way, and naming a person (potentially forever!) can be a really daunting task. It’s a project that brings up many topics for me: identity, heritage, values and aesthetic. If I’m honest, which I really try to be, it also elicits self-consciousness. It is well known that parents typically name children based on how we want to be perceived; our children’s names communicate the values and aesthetic that we want to project into the world. As a result, cohorts of people tend to gravitate towards similar names, across generations, for example, or between liberals and conservatives. Many parents-to-be are thinking, consciously or subconsciously: what will this name say about me? For someone who likes words, and given that names are a very special type of words, this project can be a pretty overwhelming.
What I didn’t expect is that this particular round of baby naming would bring up a whole bunch of thoughts and feelings about my own name and how it informs my identity, in particular my writing name and my writing identity. Let me explain.
Character creation in nonfiction
I adore the personal essay. It is a form that dates back to Seneca, a stoic philosopher born in 3 AD (what a year to be alive), whose letters are often cited as the first of the genre. These short, nonfiction works possess a certain set of qualities: they paint a portrait of a particular Seneca character, someone who is observant and also quirky in all kinds of specific ways, and they simultaneously explore a theme, promote a philosophy or deliver a message.
These foundational characteristics: a philosophical exploration combined with a unique personal portrait, have come to define the personal essay genre. For whatever reason, since the first time I was introduced to this form, this particular combination has just worked for me. I love it as a reader—the view into another person, witnessing the struggle on the page, benefitting from the lessons that person draws from their inquiry. Being not quite an avid reader myself (shame, shame), personal essays are some of the works that most engross me, a tall task. I equally love them as a writer. Personal essays, especially those that are crafted over long periods, offer the opportunity for me to go back through my experiences, good and bad, and look for the themes, to work with them and sculpt them and form something meaningful out of them. I have found this to be the most fulfilling creative process in my life.
While personal essays are decidedly nonfiction, it is also understood that the character portrayed on the page is not actually the exact same person as the one doing the writing. The author and the character are similar, but not the same. In any kind of personal nonfiction writing, the author has to choose which information about ourselves, out of all possible details, to place in the work, and in doing so we necessarily create a character who is like us, but who is not us. We highlight and therefore exaggerate the parts of ourselves that support the theme; we choose scenes that work within the narrative. This is not stretching the truth but part of the art. The godfather of the modern personal essay, Philip Lopate, identifies this craft element as one of the most important of the genre:
First of all, you need to have—or acquire—some distance from yourself. If you are so panicked by your flaws that all you can do is sputter defensively when you feel yourself attacked, you are not going to get very far in the writing of personal essays…A good place to start is your quirks. These are the idiosyncracies, stubborn tics, antisocial mannerisms and so on that set you apart from the majority of your fellowmen.
In other words, personal essayists are the OGs of the personal brand, but with a unique goal in mind: using ones quirks and foibles to pursue universal truths. I love this. In personal essay and memoir writing workshops, people carefully refer to “the author,” “the narrator,” and “the character.” We do not talk to a writer and refer to their character as “you” (e.g. “when you went to the IVF clinic I got confused about…" THIS IS A NO-NO!) It is not you on the page, it will always be a characterization of you.
The creation of Rae Katz
When I started writing on the internet a little over a year ago, I was in inventing a new self in more ways than one. I had worked for over a decade in high-powered business environments, including starting and selling a company. I also had a stack of precious personal writing about how that experience ruined me in so many ways, about mental and physical health, about infertility…a lot of topics that I could not imagine sharing in the context of my former world. What, was I going to come out guns blazing and write on the internet in the most personal terms about my OCD and infertility? Was I really going to turn a critical eye on people who had entrusted me with millions of dollars? Yikes.
And yet, I wanted to. I wanted to because I had things to say. I wanted to because I felt I was getting more skilled at saying those things, and because a lot of other people seem to be thinking about similar things. I wanted to because I hoped I could add to the conversation. I wanted to because, as my idol Jia Tolentino wrote, “It’s so much easier, when we gain agency, to use it to adapt rather than to oppose.” And that didn’t seem like the right move to me.
So I decided to go for it—scary as hell. But in order to take the leap, I needed to really create the author-character distance that Lopate described. I decided to write under my nickname, Rae, a name that a handful of family members have always called me, but no one else. No one in my former business world ever called me Rae, or knew about this nickname. None of my former life had been recorded under this name. Searching for it on the internet yields nothing about that other person. And in this way, the name provided me a little bit of distance, a sort of in-print reminder to myself that there was a new person taking shape, and she was different from the former, and she could be whatever she wanted to be. It wasn’t a pseudonym exactly—anyone paying attention could connect the two people—but it provided me some psychological distance that allowed me to write with just a bit more freedom.
Moreover, I’ve always loved the nickname Rae, which reminds me of rays of light coming through leaves in the morning. It is playful and unserious and is also the middle name of my wonderful uncle Tim. It is comfy: the name some of my closest people call me in the closest moments.
Coming back to Rachel Katz
In the last month or so, though, I have had the sudden, surging urge to write once again under my “real” name—the name that connects me to all my former selves, the name that I use in daily life, the one I don’t have to think about because it has always been mine: Rachel Katz. This name strikes me as more serious, less unique, less artsy. A year ago I needed a boost in all those areas: I needed a dose of playfulness and individuality, I needed to boost my sense of being a creative, I needed to feel a little safer, and I was able to do this all with a little nickname.
As I’ve thought about this name thing over the past few weeks, my knee-jerk reaction is obviously shame, (I’m still the same reliable character here!) My inner critic track is predictable: what was I thinking…so stupid…fell for personal branding…this is so confusing….
But actually, with a little self-generosity, I can see it this way: Rae Katz has been really useful to me. She helped me take the first bold steps, and her use has now faded, and that is a really great sign. I am ready to reunite my writer self with my other self, the one that did all those other things before. I am ready to be known to everyone as just one person. In other words, I am ready to get serious about this, I am fine being less unique, and I’ll show you that I’m artsy or whatever through my work. There will still be Rachel Katz the character and Rachel Katz the author, and they still won’t be exactly the same—that is mandated by the personal essay form—but they will be closer.
For me, if I let myself be a bit grandiose, this move fundamentally signifies a new level of commitment I feel to writing, to this newsletter, to my craft, to going the distance on this writer path. Thanks for joining me and letting me mark this moment.
I’ll inconvenience you now
Ok one other thing. My last name—Katz—it’s pronounced "Kates,” as in multiple women named “Kate”; as in rhymes with “Gates.” This is not how most Katz’s pronounce it—it’s almost always “Cats." And there are a LOT of Katz’s. So anyone reading my name in their head will almost certainly be reading “Cats.”
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve increasingly given in to this. I usually don’t correct people. As a result, I’ve had friends who have known me for years before they hear me pronounce my last name correctly, a moment that usually elicits some mild shock and bewilderment. When I’m on the phone with the doctor’s office or someone similar, I’ll often just say “Cats” to make it easier.
But as I think about names this month, I feel a sudden determination to try not to do that anymore. When, actually, did I decide that I will mispronounce my name for everyone else’s convenience? It’s time to stop that.
My name is Rachel Katz, pronounced Rachel “Kates,” and, for the first time ever, I am willing to inconvenience and confuse you in order to make this known. (And honestly, who here is really that inconvenienced or confused?)
I’m doing this for me
At the end of the day, something like slightly altering my public name is an act that really no one cares about but me. I know many Substack authors who have agonized over changing the name of their publication, only to change it and find that the only person stressed about it is them, everyone else is too busy being stressed about their own stuff.
That is most certainly the case here—I care more about this than all of you combined—and I’m glad to say I haven’t really agonized over it, I’ve only felt a surprising and sudden clarity. But I did want to share this story because I think it’s an arc that many writers go through, and that most people go through many times over in our lives: these periods when we get over some former blockers and come back to ourselves just a little bit more than before. These are beautiful times and worth marking.
I would also like to credit this moment in part to this irreverent, celebratory song by Sammy Rae & The Friends, which I listened to at exactly the perfect moment in this little journey. (Also Sammy RAE lol it’s a SIGN!)
If you’re in the mood for a “DO YOUR THING GIRL” anthem today, have a listen:
I’m done playing them games / you can address me by all three of my names / cuz I’m getting official about it baby / I’ve been all kids of diligent…
It’s just the thing I wanna do, it’s the thing I wanna do, I’m doing it….
No need for feedback on this 😂.