My True Name

By

I’m going to tell you a secret. This is one of those details of the writing process that feels so intimate I’m almost embarrassed to share it.

When I did not yet know my heroine’s name would be Persimmony Smudge, for much of the first draft of The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic I called her “Joy.” I knew that would not be her name in the book; it was a bit of shorthand, a placeholder. My early notebooks are filled with it. I named her that while she was still lost, grumpy, prone to temper tantrums and pouting—in fact, rather (in the first draft) a little brat—anything but joyful. She certainly did not Embody an Idea. I called her that, in part, because even though I didn’t know exactly how the story was going to go, I had already glimpsed the ending—one moment in particular, one scene, in which something profoundly true and good would burst out of her in messy ecstasy.

And so, underneath and deeper than the name of Persimmony, there was Joy, and in giving her that word to wear at the beginning of our journey together, I gave her an arc and a climax.

To be named is to be set upon the path of an adventure.

“No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.”

“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”

“There was a boy named Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.”

For it is naming that marks you as part of creation. You are not nothing. You are unique in all the cosmos. You are loved. You are.

Jennifer Trafton

My favorite story about naming is Madeleine L’Engle’s book A Wind in the Door, the sequel to A Wrinkle in Time. Evil forces of hatred, dissension, and annihilation are ripping holes in the universe, and Meg Murry learns that she, along with her new cherubim partner Proginoskes (a singular cherubim; he is most certainly not a cherub), is a Namer. Proginoskes has learned the names of all the stars in all the galaxies “to help them each to be more particularly the particular star each one was supposed to be,” and Meg must similarly reach out with love, seeing in even the most despised of characters the seed of what they are meant to become, telling them their true names, their true selves. For it is naming that marks you as part of creation. You are not nothing. You are unique in all the cosmos. You are loved. You are.

To be named is to be known.

This is why, as an author, it’s so vitally important to me to get the names of my characters right. Persimmony, when I eventually settled on it, was meaningful to me—like persimmon, the bitter fruit that ripens to sweetness. Smudge—unheroic, unimportant, ironic. And even though Persimmony Smudge exists only in my imagination and the imaginations of those who read the story, she will always exist—she can’t un-exist now, can’t undo her own story. Though she is not matter, she matters (to use L’Engle’s pun) because she is named and known. I created her. I named her (twice!) She is.

I have a friend who, more than anyone else I’ve known, is a Namer.

She has named me Beautiful, Playful, Fierce, Bold, or my favorite, recorded in my “encouragement” file, Giant Walking Womb of Creation.

That is her special gift: to find the broken people and remind them of their names, or give them new ones. “This is the word that defines you,” she seems to be saying, “not the false words you’ve been calling yourself or others less loving have called you.” And because she is a poet, she is uniquely able to craft words that make people seem like the most epic versions of themselves. I imagine her like Adam sitting on a stone in Eden as the creatures pass by, laying a hand on each and saying gently, “You are…”

There’s a beautiful audacity to this kind of naming. It’s one thing to say to a frightened person, “Hey, I know you’re scared, but try to be braver. You can do it.” It’s quite another to say, “Your name is Brave. I love you for it. Go and be who you are.”

There are a number of people in my life who love me far better than I love myself and who remind me, daily, of the names I am too afraid to accept. I want to say, “Don’t name me Artist when I’m not. Don’t name me Gentle when I’m not. Don’t name me Lovely when I’m not.” I know how far removed my real nature is from these words.

It was precisely this discomfort that made me think recently of Persimmony squirming in the audacious, misfitting first draft I stuck her into. I imagine her stomping her foot and saying, “Don’t name me Joy when that is nothing like me.”

I have a feeling that if God bent down today and whispered my true name, the name written on a white stone, the name he gave me before the world began, it would not be an immediate comfort to me. There would be no warm fuzzies. I would not say, “Of course! I always knew it would be that!” I expect I wouldn’t recognize it at all or understand what it had to do with the person I see inside myself. There would be a baffling sense of disconnect.

Perhaps it is best that we not know our name too early in the story. It might terrify us. Imagine going to a timid little girl who gets spooked by her own shadow and telling her, “Actually, your real name is Deadly-Dragon-Piercer.” The implication of the plot to come, no matter what the resolution, might be too much for her. The poor girl would never come out of her bedroom. If I must someday be known as Excruciating-Torture-Chamber-Survivor, I’d rather not know it ahead of time, thank you anyway.

It is enough for me to know that the name is there, underneath and deeper than the name Jennifer—that the Author gave it to me even before he wrote life into my bones, that it will shine out of me in the climactic scene when I finally grow into its meaning, and it will be the name that defines me as a character in the Great Story.

Someday I’ll be told, gently, just as if I were to put my arm around Persimmony at the end of her story and say to her, “In the beginning, before you were born on paper, when I dreamed you into being and set your feet upon a journey, I named you Joy. And now, finally, you know why.”

 

Profile photo of Jennifer Trafton

Jennifer Trafton served as the managing editor of Christian History magazine before returning to her first love, children’s literature. Her first novel, The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic, was a nominee for Tennessee’s 2012 Volunteer State Book Award. Jennifer lives with her husband, Pete, and teaches creative writing to children in Nashville. She’s currently working on several delightful new books such as Henry and the Chalk Dragon (to be released in 2017 from Rabbit Room Press)


22 Comments

  1. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Beautiful post, Jennifer. I especially like that you point out we are named before we ever see the manifestation of the name in our lives.

    I’ve spent a lot of time lately thinking about names I have accepted that aren’t mine – names from childhood and onward – and reversing the curses of those names by meditating on my true names (really we all have a single but very long name, like Treebeard’s).

    Michael Wells says we grow up as insane people who don’t know who we are, trying to find out who we are from other insane people. It’s good to have those (few, or even sole) people in our lives who really see us, deep down, and name us with our true names.

    In order to see those names shown forth in our lives, we must begin to believe them. Faith comes first, as the substance of things hoped for (hope in the sense of deep inner knowing); faith is always first, then the manifestation.

    It’s that way when we create – when you write a story, when I write a song. First there is Nothing. Then we desire. Then we believe. Then we speak, and the creation comes into being. It’s not any different with God, except that his creations are sentient and have will, and can choose unbelief.

  2. Profile photo of Brenda Branson

    Brenda Branson

    @bren1756

    Ah, Jennifer, this is wonderful! One of my dear friends gave me a name that continues to encourage me, and although I certainly haven’t lived up to it or totally believed it, I know he believes it and that’s enough for me. It’s “Beautiful Treasure.” I love all the names attributed to you. May I add one more? Graceful.

  3. Profile photo of Ron Block

    Ron Block

    @ronblock

    More thoughts – when Eustace tells Puzzle, “If you’d spent less time saying you weren’t clever and more time trying to be as clever as you could…”

    When we believe a false name, “I AM: Not Clever,” we manifest it.

    But it’s equally true in most cases that we waste a lot of effort and thought and time trying to disprove the false name.

    I think we have to displace the false name and then replace it with a true name – intentionally. A good friend can help us do that. Also a good pastor (a legalistic pastor will name us with bad names and tell us in so many words to try hard to be better – in other words, be named with a false name and then try to disprove it).

  4. John Moody

    Excellent article, Jennifer.  It reminds me of two of my favorite moments in literature: That moment in Perelandra when the Voice says “it is not for nothing that you are named Ransom”, and the moment at the climax of The Warden and the Wolf King when Gnag learns he isn’t quite as nameless as he thought.

  5. Sooki Christensen

    Ahh, I love this. I literally just finished reading A Wind in the Door to my boys two nights ago. I’m adding your words to L’Engle’s as I ponder this idea of naming.

  6. Profile photo of Helena Sorensen Aman

    Helena Sorensen Aman

    @helena

    Jennifer, this is miraculous. I just finished reading A Wind in the Door to my kids, and they very much connected with the idea of Namers and X-ers.
    It makes me think of the line from the old hymn “At the Cross,” which talks about God’s enormous sacrifice “for such a worm as I.” I remember being offended, as a young teenager, that some Christians were trying to change that line of the hymn. I thought they were shying away from a hard truth. Turns out the Gospel is not a bitter pill to swallow, yet so many in the Church struggle under the burden of the false names given to them by other believers. The Christian life is not about pretending to be what we are not. It is about knowing who we are and acting accordingly. Thank you for this gorgeous reminder!

  7. Profile photo of Daniel Rechlin

    Daniel Rechlin

    @danrechlin

    Ah yes, and this reminds me of one of my favorite written moments.  It is from Book of the Dun Cow, when Chaunticleer, to tend to his demoralized army, walks among them speaking each one’s name when he reaches them.  Thus he brings them through their darkest night, and gives each and every one a place in their assembly.  It is so powerful, and so resoundingly true.  Thanks for the Reminder!

  8. Profile photo of Amy Baik Lee

    Amy Baik Lee

    @sunsteepeddays

    I’m stuck in the troubling position of wanting to say how deeply this piece astounded and comforted me… and emptying my pockets in vain for the proper words to express it. I’m also glad that I don’t know my true name yet, but you’ve made me gladder than ever that it exists, and that all the harrowing chapters involving that name aren’t scattered shots in the dark. Thank you, Jennifer; I wish I could fit this entire article in my own encouragement file.

  9. Profile photo of Athena Williams

    Athena Williams

    @athenaz317

    I was named after a friend of my mother’s, and I have often pondered the possibility of changing my name.  After all, the name of a pagan goddess  hardly seems suitable for a woman devoted to Christ!  Yet, God has reminded me that my temporary name doesn’t really matter – it doesn’t define me. However, several months ago He gave me a glimpse of my true name.  I have overcome a lot in my life, and without going into detail here, Jesus has given me miraculous victory over my past.  When God speaks to my heart, he calls me Victoria.  It’s a name that speaks comfort and strength to me.

  10. Profile photo of Nathan

    Nathan

    @nathan

    Jennifer, please, please, PLEASE do not stop sharing!  I agree with Amy above.  You have no way of knowing how your words impact others.  Thank you for being a Lighthouse and a Truth-teller.

  11. Profile photo of Joni

    Joni

    @jonielizabeth

    To be honest, I’ve claimed a lot of names for myself over the years that have been… not nice. While some may have notes of truth, I would agree that Naming has a power. It SAYS something, creating response, action, and way of existence. More than being a title, those hurtful names can almost be condemning. They can seem very final and resolute. They might stick to me for a while like a stubborn prickle-burr, jabbing sharply so I don’t forget… They can be wounding.

    But I’m so grateful that we have Truth. I’m so grateful for the words of the Author. While my New Name is yet coming, the subtext and foreshadowing He offers is such a rescue. Again and again, He calls me by how He knows me. His words gently (or sometimes, not so gently) remove the lies I’ve claimed, tossing them away, for they don’t belong. Each time He replaces the condemning with encouragement, a calling-forth, promises of hope, and a kind, kind Love.

    This was beautiful, Jennifer. Thank you for sharing with us.

    Also, I LOVE “The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic”! The way you weave Truth into your writing is not only moving and enjoyable, but something I hope I can grow in my own stories. Your work is inspiring to me and I can’t wait to read your new book!

  12. Profile photo of JulieWitmer

    JulieWitmer

    @juliewitmer

    I loved this, Jennifer. I’ve thought of it many times this week. May we all be brave enough to be grace-filled namers!

    As Ann Voskamp says, “Use only words that make hearts strong.”

  13. Profile photo of Thea Rosenburg

    Thea Rosenburg

    @thearosenburg

    This is so beautiful! Persimmony’s name is so satisfyingly perfect–I think I even sighed happily over this with my daughters when we read your book–and it’s a delight to hear the story behind her naming. So lovely. And that scene from A Wind in the Door forever shaped my thoughts on names as well!

  14. Profile photo of Kelley Hall

    Kelley Hall

    @kelley

    What a thought, to ponder one day knowing the name God has for me, the one that embodies the vision He had for me when I was formed. And in the meantime, to consider the names I collect as I walk through this life, that define who I am, and give direction for who I can be.

    Thank you, Jennifer, for your insight.

  15. Profile photo of Kelley Hall

    Kelley Hall

    @kelley

    What a thought, to one day know the true name God has for me, the one He had as the vision for who I am made to be. And to think also, of the “single but very long name” –  @ronblock – I collect as I walk through this life, and of how that grows and is refined as I take on new endeavors and new roles.

    Thank you, Jennifer, for this insight.

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