Painful, Beautiful Individuality

by Kathryn Craft, author of The Art of Falling

ArtOfFallingSmallI was fifteen, and I had a legal problem. I stood facing an official representative of the Department of Motor Vehicles, whose role was to fill out my learner’s permit application.

“Last name.”

“Graham.”

“First name.”

“K-a-t-h-r-y-n.”

“Middle name.”

“I don’t have one.”

The woman peered at me over her half-glasses and spoke with the tired expression of one who has heard it all. “No one likes their middle name, but you have to tell me. It’s the law.”

Apparently it hadn’t been illegal for my parents to fail to give me one. How did they know they wouldn’t get their desired boy until child five? They’d run out of girl names they liked.

I shrugged. “Sorry.”

She started to write in the space. I read upside down, hoping not to see the word “Sorry.” She wrote: NONE. This made me feel like a ZERO.

I had a good long heart-to-heart on this matter with my best friend, Ellen, the next day. We were on the upper deck of our neighborhood swimming pool, making fudgies. We’d opened a pack of brownies from the vending machine and rendered plucked-off sections pliable by rolling them between our hands. I was fashioning the body for a little fudgie pig while Ellen and I tried to think up a middle name for me.

I needed something that would make me fit in with all the other three-named people in the country, but at the same time distinctive enough to stand out. When I’d told my mother what had happened she’d been unconcerned; she figured her daughters could use their maiden name in the middle once we get married.

I did not think I should count on that.

It was as if this portion of my identity remained elusive. If I could rename myself by the time I got my real license, it could be official. So I sought Ellen’s advice. But she said, “I don’t know, Kath, you’re the only person I’ve ever met who didn’t get a middle name. It’s kind of exotic.”

“What do you think of Margaret? Kathryn Margaret. I like it better than Ann Margaret, don’t you?”

Ellen thought it over as she lined up her fudge art on the deck railing. I expected Ellen would like the name, because she liked me, and was not the type to lash out with the God’s-honest-truth like members of my family. “Too Catholic. Makes you sound like a nun.”

“Oh.” I realized the huge mistake I could make by renaming myself. If I made a bad decision, I’d have no one to blame but me.

“My dad’s middle name is Weist.”

“Kathryn Weist Graham.” Ellen Patricia tried it on. She didn’t like her own middle name, and never used it. She wouldn’t need one for long—she was beautiful and tan and classy and already had a boyfriend who was nuts about her. “I like that one.”

“But it’s a family name,” I said. “It seems like it should be bestowed, not claimed.” I pressed a little tail to my pig’s behind. “I guess I could just use Nonnie.”

“Nonnie? Where’d that come from?”

“The lady put it on my permit form yesterday: N-O-N-E. You could pronounce that Nonnie, right?”

We laughed. I added my pig fudgie with its drooping tail to Ellen’s svelt snake on the deck railing. The forecasted storm would wash them away, but concerns about fitting in and distinguishing oneself would be themes I’d revisit again in my life.

My artistic aptitude would not end up expressing itself in the realm of edible sculpture—the very next year I discovered dance, then later, writing. But in my choreography and in my debut novel, The Art of Falling, I would continue to explore what defines our individual contribution as an artist—how to be enough like others to fit into the market, and how to be individual enough to be distinctive.

My protagonist, Penelope Sparrow, struggles with this theme in regard to body image. When the strong and resilient body she blames for ruining her dance career saves her life after what should have been a deadly fall, giving her an extraordinary chance to reinvent herself, can she fight her obsessive need to fit in and embrace her individuality boldly enough to leave a distinctive mark on the Philadelphia dance world? Join her, and see!

Kathryn Graham Williams Craft ended up with plenty of names, thank you, but that’s a whole different story. She isCraft_small_photo the author of two novels from Sourcebooks: The Art of Falling, which was released on January 28 and has already gone back for a second printing, and While the Leaves Stood Still (due Spring 2015). Her work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she now serves on the board of the Philadelphia Writers Conference and as book club liaison for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association. She hosts lakeside writing retreats for women in northern New York State, leads Craftwriting workshops, and speaks often about writing. She lives with her husband in Bucks County, PA.

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Published in: on February 13, 2014 at 6:54 am  Comments (13)  
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13 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Lovely memory, Kathryn! And I feel so honored now that I’ve met Ellen, a long voice from your past.

    This stays with me: how to be enough like others to fit into the market, and how to be individual enough to be distinctive.

    And by the way, my mother never had a middle name either. And to be even more unique her parents created her first name as a combination of a man’s and a woman’s name to be: Suneil Cooper. She had to spell it for everyone all her life – and now I wished I’d asked her what it was like to not have a middle name. I carried on her last name in my son’s middle name: Joshua Cooper.

    Thanks for the reflection. :)

    • Actually, my mother didn’t either–she was born in Germany and I think it wasn’t the custom to do so.

      • Heidi—while my mother has German roots, she grew up in southern Illinois, where everyone was called by two names! She was “Phyllis Ann.”

    • Hey Donna, thanks for stopping by to read. For some reason the comments didn’t show for me at first—I blame all this crazy East Coast weather and an internet that can’t keep up! As a “K-a-t-h-r-y-n,” I feel for your poor mother! People look right at my name and spell it Catherine! I can only imagine her challenge.

  2. I don’t have a middle name either. As a child I wanted one, so I chose “Jane”. My mother had two middle names and a rather long first name, so she’d wanted to give her child one short name that would make filling in forms a lot quicker and easier. Unfortunately I hated my first name and had no middle name to switch with. It took me 30 years to find a name that fitted me.

    • Elle, the first middle name I chose as a child was “Pippi”—guess it’s a good thing my parents didn’t bestow renaming power on me then! Interesting to note though that our literary Pippi claims that her full name is “Pippilotta Delicatessa Windowshade Mackrelmint Ephraim’s Daughter Longstocking.”

      • Wow, Pippi had a long handle for sure!!
        Kathryn, I knew that people in the “south” use two names a lot, didn’t know southern Illinois did that too! Interesting discussion. I don’t know if my German relatives have middle names or not. I should find out!

      • Ha! I’d forgotten that about Pippi’s name.

        My mother asked me at sixteen, when it was time for me to apply for an ID book, whether I wanted to officially add the “Jane” to my name since I’d been using it for a while. I was horrified at the thought. Jane?! I’d really liked the name “Jane”?! Luckily I realised that my tastes were constantly changing at that stage and decided to leave it as it was until I was a bit older. LOL Now “Carter” is my middle name – though it probably reads as a surname.

  3. Heidi when I went out to research my first novel I was shocked at how “southern” southern Illinois was. Folks migrated there from NC through Kentucky—considering the flip side of the state borders a Great Lake, it’s all biscuits and sausage gravy! To my northeastern ear, the accents were quite thick.

    • Interesting–I certainly never thought of Illinois as being southern! We learn something new every day!!

  4. My dad doesn’t have a middle name. His forms said Jack NMI Carter. NMI=No Middle Initial. Never bothered him. I don’t give too many of my characters middle names–not unless it’s important to the plot. I have enough trouble coming up with first and last names for everyone

    • Kind of funny–when I worked as a 9-1-1 dispatcher way back when, we would put down FNU or LNU for First (or Last) Name Unknown. The joke was that the suspect would be named Fanu Lanu.

    • Terri that’s exactly what my mother said to us, lol. My parents had a first and middle name picked out for a boy, but when their first was a girl, she got a first and middle name. Then the next three girls had “NMI,” then my long-desired brother finally got his names.


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