MWD 20 - On Choosing

Less hodge-podge, more story. Here's what happens when you get to choose your own name.

Welcome to Midweek Dinner. If this is your first time here, feel free to poke around and ask questions (Careful with the bathroom door. It sticks a little.) Perhaps you’d be interested in seeing the very first edition? If you like the look of the place, stick around! You can sign up here to receive a new issue every Wednesday, delivered piping hot, right to your doorstep.

This newsletter started as a paean to the unplanned meal, when you manage to make something delicious out of an odd assortment of ingredients. As such, it was a hodgepodge of ideas, musings, and reflections on things I’ve been engaging with - mostly short pieces, journalism, of-the-moment work.

It’s a model used by several of my favorite writers, thinkers, and artists. I have been enriched in countless ways just by clicking a link provided by admirable minds. I cover a fair amount of ground in my reading life, hopping between politics and art and history and religion, and I love it when other people cast a wide net for me, helping me to new, as yet unexplored corners of thinking.

Maybe it’s just because summer is in full shine, but here’s what I keep thinking about: the raw, unpredictable goodness of a just-ripe tomato, pulled still damp and sun-flushed from the garden and eaten right there, the fresh of it mingling with the sweat from your upper lip and the crush of basil scent lingering on your fingers.

That’s a whole meal. Sometimes, there’s no need for a bunch of different ingredients.

So, I offer you a single story this week: How I chose my name.

When I decided to leave teaching and library work, many of my colleagues wanted to know what was next for me, and my answers mostly centered around family. The kids needed more, and I wanted to be more available to my parents, and other very true and very easily accepted reasons. But they weren’t the whole story. One day, I was talking with an artist friend in the hallway outside the library, and for once I didn’t hedge. I told her I was going to write.

And then two years passed, and though I read and thought and discussed big ideas and came up with fifty story starts a week, I hardly wrote a thing. So perhaps the full-time job wasn’t what was keeping me from getting the work done. Perhaps it was always just me.

This past fall, I decided that if I was ever going to take this work seriously, I needed to pretend.

I’ve used this trick with students before. Not quite able to transition to academic voice? Pretend you’re the snootiest professor in the fanciest university. Write in that person’s voice for a few sentences. Not sure you can sing that note with a rich, sonorous tone? Pretend you’re the acclaimed opera star, complete with fan and fake mole. Sing in her voice for a few lines. It might feel overdone, but most of the time it’s just the thing you need to see your way past an obstacle. Especially when that obstacle is you.

Want to be a writer? Pretend you’re already a writer. So I decided to establish a platform for my writing. A professional presence that expects to be taken seriously. Good design. Thoughtful work. A website with its own domain. But what should the domain name be? Who exactly am I in this new role? I had to choose.

First, an act of reclamation. I was born Sara Beth. Sara is my first name, and Beth is my middle name, and until I was in middle school, I was always Sara Beth. Along the way, I decided Sara was more mature and dropped the double name. But I have always been thrilled when old friends or family would use both names. It has always been my truest name, and when I realized I could choose how to present myself to the world, I reclaimed it.

Second, an act of construction. West is a family name, my grandmother’s maiden name. It is not, however, my legal name. But my grandmother was a remarkable woman, full of intelligence, humor, spitfire, and hard work. I chose her name because I liked the shape and the sound of it and because I wanted her strength set like a rod in my spine.

And in so doing, Sara Beth West was born, and I made myself a writer.

Of course, there’s so much more to it than just building a website. From querying agents, submitting to editors, and juggling multiple projects, there is plenty of work to be done, and I am still just getting started. In the following weeks, I may share more of the process and the path. If you know a fellow writer who might find this interesting, consider sending this missive their way. I’d love to have more emerging writers in the conversation!

Just in case you’re craving a few choice links, here you go:

This Washington Post story on the conviction and subsequent pardon of 1st Platoon commander Clint Lorance is a heartbreaking read/watch but an important part of understanding the U.S. military and the danger in holding soldiers beyond reproach.

This letter from poet Tracy K. Smith - “Dear Black America” - is both a love song and a lament and manages perfect lines like this: “Look what we do with our voices. Look what we build with our hands. Look what we hold together with just our arms.”

And this from Isabel Wilkerson, is a preview of her forthcoming book (Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent) and the most cogent discussion I have yet encountered of the ways race is entangled in issues of class and status.

My review of Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Gilbert is what’s new on the site this week, and if you have young people in your life, please trust me when I tell you this is a very, very good teen novel. It tackles art, suicide, family, immigration, faith, love, friendship, and sacrifice, and it is now one of my favorite YA novels.

Thanks as always for reading and thinking with me. Have comments, suggestions, or questions? Reply to this email, and I promise a response.