Tuesday, June 30, 2020

That's Not My Name

I'm not sure what I should call you. What is your name this week?

Someone said this to me recently and it made me take pause.

When it comes to my name (or names), I'm the reason for the confusion behind it (them).

While David-Matthew Barnes is my given name (and the name most of what I've written over the last 35 years is published and produced under), it's neither my preferred name nor the name I identify with.

When I was born, I was named David Matthew Barnes (I was brought into this world by nuns at a Catholic hospital, but that's a story for another time). The hyphen between David and Matthew was added later.

Around the age of 12, I saw the brilliant New Wave/punk film Smithereens (Susan Seidelman is a cinema-making genius). As I was entering the most rebellious period of my young life, I more than identified with the female main character in the film, I wanted to embody her ruthless, street smart, savvy persona (bravo to actress Susan Berman for her masterful performance). Thus, I adopted the name Wren (not to be confused with the character of Ren from Footloose, released around the same time). The name stuck and it was how I was known through the rest of my teen years and through my early 20's. It's also the name I think of as my own. When referring to self, it is the name I think of/call myself.

I've been obsessed with classic films since seeing Lady from Shanghai at the age of 13 (thank you to Elizabeth Warren for taking me with you to a film class that night - it changed my life ). Likewise, my adoration for Rudolph Valentino blossomed around that same time. Therefore, I grouped the two names together and created a classic film loving, New Wave/punk listening persona for my young self: Wren Valentino. While Valentino is not my true last name, I love the sound of it and the imagery it conjures. I also have a secret theory that my real family is living somewhere in Italy and have yet to find me (this is a joke just in case my twisted wit is not coming through). I have suspected this since the first time I saw Cinema Paradiso and fell in love with the Italian language, Italian cinema, and Italy in general. I'm an Italophile, capisci? I'm determined to live there someday. If I ever go missing, check Disneyland first and then Italy (specifically San Bendetto del Tronto).

As I reached adulthood, I was encouraged by many to drop the nickname of Wren and do the mature thing and use my now-hyphenated given name of David-Matthew Barnes. I reluctantly agreed to this, secretly resisting the conforming that was happening. Why shouldn't I be able to call myself whatever I want? Ah, if life were only that simple. Adulting really does suck, especially when you can't be asked to be called by your name of choice without a lecture or, at the minimum, a slight roll of the eyes.

As luck would have it, I started publishing my work as a writer. For years (until recently), everything I wrote and published was done so under David-Matthew Barnes. This might sound strange, but even though the name was what I was given at birth, I've always felt this weird disconnect with it - like it's the name of a character/role I once played in a play, but it isn't me. Hard to explain, but I've never felt it reflected who I am.

Flash forward and now more than 50 titles of books and plays are published under that name. It's been good to me. It's served me well. I don't resent the name at all. Many people prefer it, often shortening my double first name to DM. They will probably continue to call me DM for years to come. And I will continue to respond to it.

A couple of years ago, I really started to miss Wren Valentino. Call it misplaced nostalgia, but I wanted the vitality and fearlessness I associated with the name to find its way back into my life (let's be honest: I'm sure all of this can be chalked up to a midlife crisis). I longed for the name to be mine again.

Easier said than done.

As I started to use Wren as a new preferred first name, there was a strange resistance to the shift. Most thought it was a silly request (even those closest to me). It was fodder for jokes at my expense ("you have a name for every day of the week!") A few people even flat out rejected it and insisted on still calling me DM (that's okay - change isn't easy for everyone). And many thought I'd finally lost my mind (they probably still think this and, on a good day, they might be right). To make matters more complicated, there are people who have been in my life for many years who only know me as Wren. So David-Matthew is as foreign to them as Wren is to others. I live somewhere in the middle of these two identities.

As my writing career started to reach a new level of success, I started to write outside of my (up until then) known genres. Thus, pen names were created, including the now-retired Dylan Madrid and Declan Mayfair. As these names disappeared from my life (along with the projects I wrote under them), I saw a need to create a new pen name to use specifically for all of the horror scripts I write. This was purely a marketing decision. As a result, Matthew Macola was picked. It seemed like a good compromise. Matthew is my given middle name. Macola speaks to my love for Italian (and that secret family who has yet to find me). Since then, I've used that name for the horror-writing side of my life.

As I stepped into the world of writing contemporary romance and realized that it would be the genre I would write in primarily for the rest of my career, Wren Valentino seemed like the perfect choice of a pen name. I went with it. Yet, the more I used it, the more it felt like the right fit for me, for my life, for everything.

But here's what accidentally happened: I created three different writing careers (and, in effect, personas) for myself. Each were/are very different from the other. No wonder why people are confused.

So here's a quick break down of how these names are used in my literary life.

Under David-Matthew Barnes, I've written novels (mostly young adult), stage plays, poetry, and screenplays. As I write this, tomorrow morning marks the beginning of a long break from writing and/or publishing anything new under this name (except for titles already scheduled for release). Why, you ask? Because I plan to retire this name/brand/persona in the near future. My reason? Because I can. And because I want to. In more practical terms, I've told the stories I've wanted to tell under this name (35 years is a long time). It's time to move on, move forward. A new version of life beckons - one that won't include the level of writing I've done for most of my life. Yes, I'm taking a break for many reasons (see the previous post), and the break might turn into a permanent one. If it doesn't, the return to writing (if there is one) won't include this name.

Under Wren Valentino, I write contemporary romance, usually with an international setting. I also write poetry under this name, mostly poems that explore the themes of lust and love.

Under Matthew Macola, I write horror films, including Dummy, which has earned me many awards without even being produced (yet).

Three names. Three different moods, worlds, genres. The perfect blend for confusion beyond explanation - mostly for others, very little for me.

I know this all seems like a very trivial problem to have. While the world is falling apart, I'm sitting here writing about the plight of having three names - two of which I created. Yeah, life is tough.

So, then, why am I sharing this? The main purpose is to acknowledge the sheer frustration I've caused many by not having a single name. I take full responsibility for this - and for the self-indulgence I am guilty of. For the last ten years, I've been all over the place - emotionally, professionally, and personally. I know a part of the new name syndrome I've experienced was a coping mechanism. Wanting to recreate/reinvent or even rewrite history holds an appeal all its own. Or, at least it did. Do I think I'm that important that I need three names? No, not at all. What started out as an identity crisis blurred into the marketing of my projects/scripts. Wouldn't it be easier just to write everything under one name? In hindsight, this is exactly what I should have done. In the future, this might be a plausible solution (by the way, if this happens, it's Wren Valentino for the win). In the meantime, I plan to do my best to ease the discomfort, confusion, frustration.

So...what should you call me?

Wren is and has been my preferred first name since that fateful day I saw Smithereens in a now torn down art house cinema in Sacramento.

Yet, most days I answer to anything, even if it's not really my name.

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