Saturday, January 10, 2009

What's in a name?

Iona Rohan is not my given name. Iona is a relatively new pen name that I'm having an on-off relationship with, and Rohan is my husband's last name.

I was christened Ethel Celine Catherine McDonnell. At confirmation, good Irish Catholic that I was, I picked the name Mary. Hence, until very recently, my name was Ethel Celine Catherine Mary McDonnell. With the exception of "Catherine" and "McDonnell" I have never liked my other names. What's a girl to do? At seveval junctures over the years, I've toyed with legally changing "Ethel." I just don't feel like an "Ethel." With rare exception, most everyone tells me I'm not an "Ethel." What is an "Ethel" you ask? I think almost everyone would agree that the name "Ethel" conjures a stereotypical image of someone older, uptight, stuck-up, and matronly. Help!!!

We live once, and life is all too short, so why stick with a name I don't like and never wanted? Right? Not exactly.

What would I change my name to? How to narrow down the choices? How do I tell people--my husband, daughters, parents, siblings, and friends whom I've known forever and even those I haven't known for quite so long--that my entire life I was Ethel, but today I am .....

So I reached a compromise with myself. I'd take a pen name. How exciting, I imagined, how liberating. But again what pen name? Something Irish, I decided. I contemplated "Ashling" and "Alanna" and "Riona" and countless others. Surprisingly quickly, Iona surfaced as a strong possibity. I had attended Iona Elementary School in Ireland and had, overall, very good memories of my time there. It was during those years that my love of reading and writing were first nurtured and encouraged by my teachers. Iona is also believed to be the island where the Book of Kells was conceived and gotten underway. No small thing to be named after the home of arguably one of the most famous books in the world! The name felt more and more right.

However, Iona McDonnell didn't ring quite right enough. I felt strongly about keeping my maiden name of "McDonnell" as homage to my family and country of origin. Around the same time, however, as my husband grieved loss after loss of family members and close friends who left this world all too soon, I realized how deeply I loved him and how much I was finally ready to claim his last name (we have been together eighteen years, after all, and are the proud parents of two wonderful daughters). Thus I decided to use my first two initials and Rohan: E.C. Rohan (it didn't seem like such a big leap from Ethel as Iona did). That phase didn't last too long. I imagined interviews and readings in my future where people were addressing me as E.C. and it made me cringe. So I reverted to Iona and decided on Iona Rohan. I loved the name, and most importantly, started to enjoy some small successes in the last couple of months where four of my short stories were accepted by online literary magazines. I felt like my stars had aligned at last and it all centered on my new, chosen name.

I liked "Iona Rohan" so much I lay awake at night rehearsing how I'd break it to my nearest and dearest, and even my furthest, that I would like to fully, legally, and ever after until death did us part take the name "Iona Rohan." I wanted to fully own it. I wanted to be "me" at last. That's when it hit me. I had never felt myself. Throughout my life, for a myriad of reasons, I have never felt allowed to be my true self. I had never fully embraced not just what my name was, but who I was. The quandry thickened.

In the end, I found I couldn't bring myself to ask people to call me "Iona." It would just be too complicated and weird, I fretted. A fellow writer, Mimi O'Connor, whom I had the great pleasure of meeting for the first time over the Holidays, assured me that people would support the name change, and those who didn't? Who needed them? I wasn't so sure, and my resolve quickly flagged. Again, I returned to the earlier compromise of remaining "Ethel" in my everyday life, and using "Iona" for my writing. Great, right? Not exactly.

As my short stories appeared online under "Iona Rohan" I was seized with more doubts. It felt terrifying for me to read my fiction post-publication! I had put myself out there, naked. Nothing made me panic so much as when someone asked me for the links to read my work. I think that's because I felt they wouldn't be able to put who they knew as "Ethel" with the writer "Iona." At times like that I wished I was writing under a totally invented name, one that no one would remotely recognize me by. I began to think that if I were anonymous I would be truly "free" to write whatever it was I needed to write, without apology. Should I change my name again? Start over, anew, and run away from Iona Rohan and those published stories that I suddenly felt afraid to own?

More, the Ethel/Iona dichotomy gave me a dogged sense of "fracture." I all too soon realized that going by two names only further compounded my struggles with "who am I really?" and "why don't I have the courage to be fully myself and own my work?" I knew dabbling in any more name changing would, ultimately, be damaging for me.

But I was still stuck with the name/identity issues. I wasn't just dealing with two names. I was dealing with identity issues: Irish and American, writer and "regular person," wife and mom, and on and on and on.

What most rankled me was why couldn't I fully own my work under whatever name and say with pride to everyone and anyone "yeah, I wrote that?" Was I writing under "Iona" because I liked the name so much, or because I, "Ethel," wanted to hide behind it? Both. So I'm back to asking myself why do I feel like I'm constantly hiding as a person? I'm playing the role of wife, mom, and good citizen while needing to feel safe and anonymous and, well, "ordinary." But I'm also inescapably, agonizingly, and gratefully a writer, a writer who writes raw, brave, and unflinchingly honest stories. That's when I had another realization. I am most honest in my work, not in my life. I was back to wanting to be fully "Iona Rohan" because that name and identity felt most true to who I am. But wait ....

In my life and work, I want to bring more light into the world. Yet my stories, particularly those recent works under "Iona Rohan", tend toward the dark. How do I reconcile that? It's the dark in those stories that I don't want to own. I'm not a dark person, but I do have my demons and they are most alive in my stories. Is the truth in those dark stories the light I can bring to the world? I don't know. Not yet, at least. I do know that I will be most happy, most at peace, when I can at last fully claim my name, my work, and my true identity as my own and stand up tall and proud and say to the world with confidence and gratitude: this is me. This is who I am and this is what I do. Will that metamorphosis begin or end with the name I finally decide on? Again, I don't know yet.

I do know that currently my mother is in the advanced stages of Alzheimers. She is frail, pneumonic, horribly thin, and a shell of her former self: vacant. My mother and I have always had a very complicated relationship, but despite our shared pain and suffering, our truth is that we love each other very much. I don't need her to recognize me again or for her to be able to speak again to know that that is and always has been the way between us. Long before the onset of Alzheimers, my mother suffered. From her eyesight to her mental health, she was stripped of so much. Now Alzhimers has fully erased her.

My mother gave me the name Ethel because she liked it and, bless her, considered it her gift to me. After everything she's been through, after all we've been through together, how can I now take my name away from her? My dilemma deepens .....

What's in a name? So much.


  1. I think you'd be surprised how many people have wrestled with their names -- the one given them versus one(s) they choose. Between high school and college, I ditched the "nickname" that had been my name at school. I admit, I wanted to shed that person, or who I thought that person was. I wanted to be more who I was, my real name, my fully Welsh name, and I, too, first started using that name on my writing. That "real" name is, in its way, no less complex that the one I got rid of -- peculiar here in the States, ubiquitous in the UK (and on the web), constantly mispronounced, and often mistaken for a man's name until I speak up. But it's the name the fits my writing -- well, my literary writing. I'm working on an awesome pseudonym for my genre writing. And then there's the name I wear on the web -- one more self for me to stretch into.

    Lovely writing, Rohan! Open and honest. See, you do know what to write about!

  2. Thanks, Seren. I love "one more self for me to stretch into."

  3. So lovely to see you--and so lovely to read your writing again! I agree with Seren, so many of us struggle with our names. I would say that our names are our parents gifts, but they don't always know the best for us. How could they possibly?

    I was chuckling, as I wrote a post with the very same title when I was early in the experience. My thoughts have changed, but it's fun to look back.

    I hope you keep writing! I'll keep reading. Deal, okay?:-)

  4. That's when it hit me. I had never felt myself. Throughout my life, for a myriad of reasons, I have never felt allowed to be my true self. I had never fully embraced not just what my name was, but who I was.

    Weird, weird, weird -- I was just having some of these same thoughts on the plane back today. Sometimes it just stresses me out not actually being able to put my finger on who I am. Being a different person in each of two places has made the schizophrenia even better. I so want to branch out and do all kinds of writing, and I was considering using a pen name and trying to write some children's fantasy or science fiction (I'm an hour away from where JK Rowling made her start, after all), and someone in publishing told me not to give up what I'd worked so hard for -- making a name in the publishing business. And then I thought, "is that what I've been working for!?"

    No conclusions here, just empathizing deeply with the thought process...

  5. Tadmack, so glad you made it back safely. Thanks for reading and posting. If you're feeling the need to branch out as a writer I say go for it. I know the industry can tend to box writers in, but isn't our very existence as writers about living and writing fully, without fear or censor? As much as I'm struggling with the feelings of exposure my published stories are giving me, at least I know I'm alive. Nothing like fear to make us conscious of our breath!!!

  6. Good to see you, and I hope that you can enjoy at least one or two of the pictures from the weekend!

  7. DaviMack,

    So good to see and chat with you too! I truly appreciated your photography efforts, but you know the saying not even someone as talented as you could "make a ...." no I'm not even going there. How great that we could get together. Perhaps next time it will be in Glasgow for Thai and wine and more discussion of what the data from our grocery club cards reveal about us!!!!

  8. I've always had ambivalence about my names, much having to do with identity. One reason why I was so quick to change my last name upon getting married was because I've never gotten along well with my father and had been eager since childhood to disassociate myself somewhat from him. Yet I kept my middle name, which was his sister's name, because I like it. I think that confused him a bit!

    I also wrestle with the pen name issue. Do I go by initials? Do I go by my full written-out name? I feel like it depends on what type of writing it is, and how much anonymity I want to have. But I haven't quite faced that choice yet, having only published articles. :)

  9. a.fortis, thanks so much for visiting and commenting. It's amazing how much just writing the post helped me sort through the whole dilemma. I feel like I've come full circle and am sticking with, and embracing, my given first name. I'm just going to continue to bust the stereotype :-)There IS so much in names, isn't there?

  10. Ethel conjures up the image of the most graceful and delicate human being I have ever known and while your pen name is catchy and sounds appealing, maybe it is also less of a mouthful to say - your given name, Ethel is one I would have liked to have had been given. Not because its beautiful, but becasue I remeber my great gram and she was beautiful and if some piece of her could have rubbed off on me - I would have welcomed it with open arms.

    Whatever you choose, stay tru to yourself. Your writing is lovely. I found you from 6S.


  11. Cat,

    Thanks so much for stopping by, and for your wonderful comments, which mean so much. I think that's what I love most about writing, we send our efforts into the world, don't know where they'll travel, and always hope for the best.

    All my very best to you.