It might surprise you to learn that I changed my name when I wrote Vagabond Dreams.
No, I didn’t trudge down to the courthouse and get myself a new legal alias.
I changed my name in the manuscript.
I was reading a lot of Henry Miller back then, and I was intrigued by the idea of “fictional autobiography” — a book that held true to the events of my life, but with a little creative license and a few fictional flourishes thrown in.
I wanted to give my characters — in this case, real people I met — cool Jack Kerouac sounding names. Who could forget a handle like Dean Moriarty or Sal Paradise?
And so I chose the name “Ray Palmere”. I was looking for a first name that wasn’t too far from Ryan. And the meaning of “Palmere” is associated with “pilgrim”, especially of the Middle Ages. Someone who travels in search of something. It seemed to fit.
The name Zachary Peoples is an alias too. My good friend was also a Kerouac fan. In fact, he’s the one who introduced me to On The Road. And when I told him about my idea, he wanted to choose his own name too.
Long story short, I wrote and rewrote that manuscript over 7 or 8 years. And then I sent it to a developmental editor for feedback on my narrative. I needed to know if there were holes in my story, and whether or not the whole thing worked.
One of her first comments was, “Who is Ray Palmere? I thought this was a book about you?”
I told her about the inspiration behind the names. And she suggested I change it back, because it would create too much dissonance for the reader. So that’s what I did, with a couple clicks of the mouse and a simple “Find / Replace”.
Sounds pretty straightforward, right? But there’s a catch…
When I read through the entire manuscript again — this time with my own name in the starring role — I experienced a sudden flash of realization.
Changing my name had freed up my writing.
It allowed me to write about myself at one remove. To tell a story about a character rather than me. To see those events from afar. And to say everything.
When I first started writing about these events back in 2001, I struggled to drill down into deeper and deeper layers of honesty. In those first two or three drafts I presented myself the way I wanted to be: too cool, too composed, too adventure story hero. Too good to be true.
But a story like this requires scathing honesty, or it isn’t worth anything.
So much of my high school identity was tied to martial arts. Did I really want all my old friends to know I was scared? Did I want everyone to read about how vulnerable I felt, or about the times I messed up, or the times I said something stupid?
Yeah, there was that. And I’m sure you can relate.
But I’m not the sort of person who cares very much about how others judge me. It was much harder to face up to those things about myself. But when it came out, it was all right there in the harsh light of a white page.
Looking back, changing my name had freed me from all that. I could move ahead with the story without really identifying that character as me. I could paint my experience as though I were talking about someone else. And what I found often surprised me.
So yeah, that’s the trick. Step one: choose a cool name for yourself. Step two: tell the story and don’t hold back. Step three: find/replace that character’s name with your own.
Try it the next time you have to write about yourself. You can even use it for your own personal journal. I guarantee you’ll be surprised by what you discover.