Our Real Names –
adapted from Susan Goldsmith Wooldridge’s “Poem Crazy,” exercise 10

Our names say a lot about who we are. They are one of the first ways of shaping our identity. I was supposed to be a boy. Mom thought Kevin a perfect name, so when I arrived as a girl at 12:05pm, the exact hour of my mother’s favorite soap opera, she chose an actor’s name: Leslie. I am named after a soap actor. Some names seem just right: Susan in her practical shoes, holding forth with firm opinions. Others, not so much. Imagine a German boy named Falk Falk, as if that one Falk wasn’t enough.

Our culture doesn’t make changing names easy. My cousin Johnny—accident-prone, practical-joker, fast-truck-wrecking Johnny—is now soldier, paramedic, business owner, father John. I still ask Johnny to pass the deviled eggs at Thanksgiving.  

Among some tribal people, names change when character-evolving events take place. Members of an aborigine tribe take on a new name when they feel ready for one. How many of us watched Union soldier Lieut. John J. Dunbar (Kevin Costner) transform into Dances with Wolves? I imagine a beautiful friend named Randi shedding her old skin to become Anahata Lovely Day. Some people declare they’ve undergone a transformation and honor this with a name to help everyone see them in a new way.

“A name should be taken as an act of liberation, of celebration, of intention,” writes Erica Jong in Fear of Fifty. “A name should be a magical invocation to the muse. A name should be a blessing.”  

Poetry—and prose—can be about discovering and naming ourselves. And creating a name can be like writing a poem or story.  

Wooldridge shares about her experience teaching creative writing at a Juvenile Hall. She asked them to consider what their real names might be, or how they might name themselves in different situations. What is the name that truly expresses who and where you are right now?  

Many of these kids in Juvenile Hall are used to the idea of an alias. They call themselves nicknames like Pony Boy, Angel, La Vicious, Sober, Storm, and Desperado. Chao—an Asian gang leader, was pleased to hear that an “s” as the end of his name creates Chaos—a word that seemed close to his real name.

Ronnie especially felt he needed a new name. Pale, tall, blue-eyed, blond, he was ashamed of the words white power his uncle had tattooed on his shoulder when he was eight. Ronnie was about to be released into the difficult world outside the hall, where he’s seen as an illiterate delinquent with a child, a wife, and a history. This is his naming poem: 


            Let’s talk about death.
            Yesterday my name was James.
            Today it’s tossing helium dream.
            Tomorrow my name will be
            Gerald Flying off the Cliff
            Dave Mustang.
            Inside my name is
            dying heart
            and a lotta hope. 

Here’s a poem I wrote based off this exercise, which was published in Inkwell literary journal. 

            Filling the Egg Carton
                                    ~Leslie St. John 

My real name is Lucinda.
Yesterday my name was speaks with no sound.
Tomorrow my name will be centrifuge,
head pinned in a mental halo. My mother 
thinks my name is prodigal daughter
my nephew, crazy california. In dreams 
my name is whispers in gloaming
And though he knows my name is
Lago Bianco, my lover never says it. 
He wades deep in my waters, 
cautious of the undertow.
                        I’d like to rename 
every body part: fingers, apple-pickers;
back, Waipi'o Valley; heart, opal weed;
Stomach, I made you Lucinda’s urn,
filled you with shaved shale and apology
cards sent to no one. If today, I name you 
that which remains and invite a child close
to wipe her cheeks across my soft center,
will I be the arbitrator of loneliness,
one day nearer what is unnamable?   


 Using these starter first lines, try creating new names for yourself. Write for about 10 minutes.

            My real name is

            yesterday my name was

            tomorrow my name will be

            in my dream my name was

            secretly I know my name is

            my husband, mother, son, boss (etc.), thinks my name is

Try listening for the opposite. If you’re getting serious, let yourself become silly, If you’re getting silly, try a more serious tone. Pile on name after name to see what emerges. Break rules. Surprise yourself. Your new name might be breaker of green rules, surrounded by wasps. You may want more than one name for your different sides and moods as well as names to change with the seasons. Sometimes your name may be mint taking over, or mantis on the rose bush. Sometimes Manuela. Sometimes Mary.


“If I’m gonna tell a real story, I’m gonna start with my name. ”

— Kendrick Lamar


Promptsleslie stjohn