The Practice of Creativity

On Naming and Writing: Part 1

Posted on: April 6, 2015

Dear You,

I rarely miss a post, but the last two weeks of travel, dealing with illness (myself and my dog’s), has kept me from you. Forgive me. I’ve missed you. I’m over my cold and Ginger, the pug, is on the road to recovery, too. Hope you enjoy this post.



When we write we have to bring our whole selves to the page and not wish we had someone else’s life. We have to sweep away fantasies that don’t serve us. I’ve been thinking recently about my name and the names I’ve assumed at different stages on the writing path.

In my late teens, I chose the name ‘Aja Pennybone’, as a name that I would write under. This name seemed magical, bold and something that could house my deep desire to write. Now, I may one day still use this name, as I like it very much (and it is common for writers who write in multiple genres to assume different names). But, when I first came up with this name, it was to make up for a sense of lack about my own name. I used to look at my first and last name on the page, ‘Michele Berger’ and see it as inert, common, and definitely the opposite of magical. My name is not a writer’s name, I used to think. Aja Pennybone, now there’s a name! An intriguing famous writer’s name.

Later in graduate school I chose the name ‘Michele Instar’ for my creative work. At the time I was obsessed with transformation and the stages of butterfly development. An ‘instar’ is a developmental stage for an insect, a movement through a larval phase to sexual maturity. For some time, I sent out stories with this pen name.

When my mother was alive she often said that she predicted my personality and named me accordingly. She named me ‘Michele’ for the supposedly “lady-like part of me” and ‘Tracy’ for the “mischievous and wild child side.” She felt that by naming both those sides of me, it gave me some hope of living with the tension those two sides produced. As a budding feminist, I used to resent her emphasis on ‘lady-like’ as connected to my first name, as it struck me as a message about control and docility. And, I felt kind of neutral about Tracy. However, now, I see things a bit differently. I am seen as diplomatic (which feels much more gender neutral and generative than ‘lady-like), and I do have a great respect for good manners (a rapidly disappearing social commodity), and graciousness. And, I do now like Tracy and honor my rebellious spirit that keeps my creative fuel and curiosity stoked. Maybe my mother was on to something about my personality.

And, what about my last name, Berger? It was an enigma for me. I didn’t know my father well and didn’t know how to feel about his last name. Berger has German and Jewish roots and I still don’t know much about the genealogical history of my father’s peoples. Growing up, however, I often liked the surprise on some people’s faces when meeting me for the first time (especially in job interviews). They were not usually expecting an African American woman to show up with my name and it showed. My father’s legal name was William Creel Berger, but everybody called him ‘Troy’. Creel is an unusual name and has its origins in the 18th century as connected to baskets for catching fish. I still have no idea why people nicknamed my father ‘Troy’. Another mystery that I hope to uncover as I get to know his extended family.

By the end of graduate school, I started using my full name ‘Michele Tracy Berger’ for both academic and creative work. I don’t remember all the details, but somewhere during this time, I became quite impressed with the work of Linda Goodman, a famed astrologer. In one of her books, she ruminated on numerology and names. She talked about how there can be a type of power in using all of one’s given name. She offered codes to unlock the relationship between numbers and letters. I know that all sounds a bit hokey and ‘New-Agey’, but for some reason, when I played with writing my full name, it felt right. For months after, I looked for opportunities to sign my full name. Doing so gave me a strong sense of purpose and authority. I also noticed famous writers that I admired who had the ‘triple name’ thing going on including Jean Shindoa Bolen and Clarissa Pinkola Estes. As I started finishing work and seeing it in print, I enjoyed seeing my full name.

As writers, when we sit down to write, we often feel inadequate. We often believe that there are perfect writers and writing lives out there. Sometimes we believe that having a different name will make us a better writer, or somehow get us past the nitty-gritty cycle of work that includes writing, evaluating, revising, puttering, incubating, polishing, submitting, getting rejected, getting published and repeating. There are, however, no shortcuts in this cycle.

For me, coming home to my name and cherishing it was one of my first steps to casting off unhelpful ideas about the perfect writing life. I once believed that the name made the writer. Those assumed names though did power me with enough creative juice and fantasy to keep writing. That was a good thing. They served their purpose, but now I no longer need to hide behind them. I embrace all of who I am when I sit down to create and that means using my full given name. It’s good enough and so am I.

I’d love to hear about your use of pen names and imagined writing names. Have you tried them? If so, how do they make you feel? What do they do for you? How have you claimed your writing name?


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Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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