Tagged: English teacher

Dec 13

What’s in a Pen Name?

No, Jane is not my “real” middle name.

My adopted writing name has three parts, each gifted to me by the most important influences of my life and representing an important part of who I am:

TRACEY is the first name given to me at birth by my parents. It means brave, daring, courageous. And while I wouldn’t generally attribute any of these adjectives to myself, they seem to be the very things I most need to work on. So perhaps the words may be more of a life goal than a description, encouraging me to act despite and amid my formidable fears.

Of course, the name can also mean war-like or fighter, which my husband might only half-jokingly tell you is more fitting. And although the “e” in my variant spelling is often omitted by others, I really do like having it there. For what is the first job of a writer but to literally trace the past? Indeed, those often fuzzy, retraced paths of memories, events and human emotions form the only well from which any artist can draw.

SMITH is my last name, the one given to me by my husband. Becoming one of the millions with this common surname was a big change from my maiden name–Fink–which drew a bit more attention in grammar school. Although a writer certainly “informs against another person”, too, I opted to use my married name. It’s the least I can do to thank and honor the man who has been my biggest, unfailing supporter for more than fifteen years now.

From the old English to smite or strike, I am reminded of the hard labor, sweat and perseverance required to successfully ply any trade, writing included. My husband is hands-down the most persistent, patient person I know. Let’s just say, we complement each other well. Once again, these are great characteristics for me to improve upon.

JANE is my middle name, the one given to me in between my others. I received this new name sometime in middle school by my most beloved teacher. To describe Judith Marsh as an amazing English teacher is woefully insufficient. While I am grateful to other teachers for sharing with me a thoughtful appreciation of literature, I can fully credit Mrs. Marsh with teaching me how to write, as can hundreds more like me. Her no-nonsense southern witticism, her precise mastery of grammar, her high expectations of every student (that sometimes resulted in erasers and books being thrown across the room)–these made every pupil at our school fear and eventually love Mrs. Marsh in equal measure.

The inimitable Mrs. Marsh taught middle school English and eighth grade at St. Mark's Lutheran School in Hollywood, Florida between 1972 and 1987.

Now to be clear, I was not the only one rechristened. Many students found new tags after their names, as if a single startling word and always with an elongated question mark at their end.

JenniferAnn? Would you kindly show the class how to diagram this compound sentence?”

“Who would like to tell us why Mr. Miller might have named his character Willy Loman? BonnieSue?

TraceyJane? I KNOW you’re not talking when you should be listening.”

Why did Mrs. Marsh choose new names for some people? It could have just been her southern sense of humor and rhythmic balance. Or perhaps, it was for the same reason God chose new names for some people in the Bible. Maybe it was her was way of letting us know we were becoming something different, even if it was only more literate and articulate 12-year olds.

Whatever the reason, when it came time to decide on my pen name, I smiled at the perfect, simple answer. I heard Mrs. Marsh calling on me in her pointed, lilting voice. And although I have often felt accursed as a Jane of all trades and master of none, my new name is enough to make me feel like a slightly different person. As Tracey Jane Smith, I find myself with just enough courage to risk failure and accept rejection, as I walk down this dusty road to become a “real” writer.

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