Just Call Me Troy: Names in Nonfiction
by Sherard Harrington

There is no question about whose truth gets told in creative nonfiction—it has to be the author’s, with all other truths filtered through the authorial rendering.
—Lynn Z. Bloom

I’ve always hated my name. At least twice a year my father emails me a link to a website or news article that demonstrates more unusual or insensible monikers. “See?” he says. “I could have named you Harry Bawls.” Or “See,” he says, “your name could have been Ledasha, with an actual grammatical dash.” He reminds me again that he named me “Sherard” so that I would be unique. But standing out has its drawbacks. Whenever I introduce myself to strangers, they stumble over the sounds of my uniqueness. “I’m sorry. Troy?” they ask, and I pause long enough to wonder how inappropriately I’m butchering the syllables of my own name to cause such a fluke. “Sherard,” I sound it out to them, mnemonic devices at the ready. “But for simplicity’s sake, just call me Troy.”

But to friends and family and colleagues and classmates, my name isn’t Troy or Travis or Timothy or Tommy. That’s not how they know me, or how they remember me, perhaps to my detriment. If I appear in their respective memoirs and essays, there will be no doubt and no confusion that it was indeed me, boring and exotically non-exotic Sherard.

This is the sort of thing that might make founding editor of Creative Nonfiction Lee Gutkind’s head spin. When it comes to name changes in nonfiction, he considers them to be the sugary glaze on the slope to fiction. “Once you change a name,” he states, “what else have you changed?” This allows the possibility to note that the reader then “has a right to doubt…credibility.” “Truth,” he believes, “lives in precise, right words.”

Well, what then of Bob Shacochis’ column-turned-nonfiction-collection Domesticity? He refers lovingly to his wife as “Miss F.” Perhaps this is what he calls her at home. Perhaps this is what she prefers to be called in mixed company. Perhaps this is the sobriquet he provided to give her some protection from the readers of GQ. Perhaps we will never know.

But as for the aptly named “Boring Meany, and his high-strung, vindictive French wife, Her Royal Awfulness,” who make an appearance in the Introduction, I’m willing to wager that they don’t answer to their monikers in public or otherwise. It’s at this point that Gutkind would suggest that we’re simmering towards a fiction state the likes from which we may never recover from for the rest of the collection. And, for what? To protect the innocent? Or, in this case, to protect the annoying? To protect the author from libel? Attorney Alan J. Kaufman puts it this way:

If the individual is treated as a likeable character, you are not likely to be sued for libel. However, if the individual is treated as a malevolent character who performs nefarious deeds, then the likelihood of suit becomes greater.
Even though Kaufman was referring to fiction and poetry, it’s not a stretch to see Shacochis having Kaufman’s intentions in mind when he illustrated how condescending Her Royal Awfulness was when introducing him to acquaintances at a freshman mixer.

On the other side of the table, Tara Ison invokes what she refers to as the “Small Penis” rule—“give any Character you’re basing on a real man a very small penis,” she states, “because no guy will ever come forward to claim the character is based on him.” Ison points this out because she stresses how much easier it is to perceive oneself in a negative light if one is static on the page: “Seeing one’s self made two-dimensional clarifies the issue, makes it easier to stomp around on, shrug off, indignant head held high: See? See what a false, flattened monster he made of me?” To be an evil stepmother in someone’s memoir is more bearable than to be the evil stepmother who tries her hardest to gain her children’s acceptance. “It’s the caricaturist,” Ison suggests, “who makes us uncomfortable, who uses just enough truth for us to be identified, and just enough exaggeration—distortion?—to make his point. Whatever point he chooses, in a slash of permanent marker on the page.”

And it is that exaggeration—distortion?—that troubles us the most. That’s not me, we say when we read about ourselves in someone else’s nonfiction piece. That’s not how it happened. Boring Meany and Her Royal Awfulness are perhaps not really so mean and so awful as their names suggest, and a literature aficionado would be aware of that. But, it is something about Shacochis fictionalizing them, dramatizing them, that appears slippery and manipulative, creating the disingenuous disavowal that Gutkind so readily protests.

As for me, the conundrum lies somewhere in the sour cream of the Tivoli Torte: what of Miss F., who is presented to the readers as argumentative but doting? Eccentric, but grounded? Ison points out something of an occupational hazard when it comes to nonfiction writers: “You can’t participate in a relationship you’re mining,” she says. “[Y]ou’re observing from the shoreline, crouched, watching for the bits of gold, careful not to let your feet get too wet.” One cannot write objectively about a situation that they are currently basking and basting in. Some authorial distance is required for clarity.

Maybe this is why Shacochis chose to refer to his wife, spouse, and domestic partner in crime as Miss F. Maybe he was searching for clarity in the abstraction that is a relationship.

But what of, for example, the relationship between Patricia Hampl and her mother, who had her formerly private epileptic seizures portrayed in Hampl’s poem, “Mother/Daughter Dance”?

Here, and with Shacochis, it all boils down to truth. As Philip Gerard states, nonfiction consists of “stories that carry both literal truthfulness and a larger Truth, told in a clear voice, with grace, and out of a passionate curiosity about the world.” What is the larger Truth for Shacochis and Hampl? Are the feelings and the actions still the same if Her Royal Awfulness was given an actual name in the narration? Would the love affair Shacochis carries on with Miss F. have more or less impact if he gave us her given name, the nickname she chose, or the nickname given to her? What if Hampl cut that poem from her collection—the strongest, she argued, out of all of them?

Patricia Hampl, as far as I know, has only one mother. Be her name Mary, Susan, or Yolanda, by stating that it is her mother, we know precisely who is being referred to; there is no argument for namesake here. But in telling her mother’s secret, and telling it well, Hampl brings up a further complication in the name game: what if the piece is well written? Calvin Trillian in the New York Times admits that he recycles parts of his life for his fiction and nonfiction. He suggests that:

a writer’s obligation to his art and to his family depends on the quality of the art—it’s OK if you’re a Dostoyevsky, or a budding Dostoyevsky. So, we’re back to the slippery desire and need to qualify Art, to justify it as the noble End. That it isn’t worth devastating a friend, parent, lover, child for a bad poem, novel, story…but it is OK for a brilliant one.
Could we excuse an invasion of privacy for the betterment of art, for the complexity of the larger Truth? For the betterment of a literary society?

Again, we find ourselves in a bit of a sticky mess, but this one is at least easy to clean up. The answer is a frightening yes. Even for the bad poem, novel, story. Because, “[t]here is no question about whose truth gets told in creative nonfiction—it has to be the author’s, with all other truths filtered through the authorial rendering.” We unravel our stories as our stories; they are our perceptions of the world, and our world is intrinsically connected to other people’s worlds, other people’s lives. Bill Roorbach, in Writing Life Stories, says that his:

vote is to tell whatever story you have to tell exactly and truly…If you have half a conscience, there will be the urge to protect people in your life. They never asked to be put on the page. You’re not a journalist, exploiting others for their stories. But listen: It’s your story too.
The distinction here is the “too,” is the “also.” A secret, it appears—a story—does not exist until it is revealed or shared with some other person. With no readers, there are no books. The biggest insult, then, is not to be given an obscure or unappealing nickname, but rather to not be named at all. To not exist; to be left an apparition in the piece; to have the lines of your character so blurred that it’s almost as if the caricaturist didn’t draw you at all. To have the secrets and stories forgotten is the greater travesty here.

From this perspective, perhaps all that is being argued here is semantics: do Bob Shacochis and others like him have the right to take liberties with factual attributes, such as names? “A rose by any other name,” some argue, but others point to a multi-billion dollar advertising industry that have been selling colognes, not chemicals; veal, not calf. Because I have always despised the sound of my own name—shouted too loudly and too frequently as an electronic fence, dog whistle, and spray bottle—I have grown exceptionally warm to nicknames. My undergraduate friends call me Iowa. For my closest friends from high school, my name is Andy. A woman—a former tennis partner of mine with an amazing lob—calls me Farmer Brown, and refuses to allow anyone else rights to that nickname for me. To complete strangers, I’m Troy. To my older cousin, now incarcerated, I will always be Rardy. While none of these people have professed interest in writing memoir or essays, had they have chosen that path, those would be the names that I would appear under. Each name carries a different connotation, and a different meaning, but each nickname is equally valid. I could be Mister F. in one, and His Royal Awfulness in another. None of those realities would be any less True.

Packingtown Review – Vol.5, Fall 2013

Sherard (SURE-ard) Harrington received his MFA from the University of Central Florida and then quickly fled to Boston, where he is snowballing nicknames and sweaters. His current favorites include: Sherarizard, Gregory, Hernando, and a puffy cream colored number he pulled out of a bargain bin at a second hand shop in Cambridge.

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