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The Joy of Blank

What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet

William Shakespeare

This favourite quote comes from Romeo and Juliet; young Juliet reasons that Romeo’s surname has no significance. However, her mature deliberation demonstrates that names do influence human affairs, whether we want them to or not. The line is repeated in one of my stories, The Suit, which has just been published in Jupiter, the British science fiction magazine. Quoting Shakespeare prompts one of my characters to take a new name, calling herself ‘Rose’. The words on the page establish her new name, and mine also. This is the first time that one of my science fiction stories has been published, and so is the christening of my pen name. Step aside Eric, son of Priezkalns, and make room for Ray Blank, author. The technology of printing ink upon paper gave substance to that name, confirming the metaphysical connection between the label and that which is being labelled, even when it obscures the identity. Ray Blank can now be listed with George Eliot, George Orwell, Mark Twain and Voltaire, though I admit he belongs at the bottom of that list, appended only through my own scribbly handwriting.

Any of us might have been called by any name; custom guides us, but people can challenge and change customs. Names often do change over time, as the child becomes an adult, and as the adult explores life’s many narratives. Nothing prohibits us from having many names at once, except the decreasing utility of each new name we employ, though spies might beg to differ. Whilst a name might seem like our most constant, most static of verbal companions, they have no matter, and so may be manipulated like every word or thought. Names can be changed, or more precisely, they can be supplanted by alternatives. They gain meaning through use, and by association with what we do. Each use of a name extends who we are; the utterance also tells us we are loved, or wanted, or feared, or despised. Every time a name is published, it is augmented. I am proud that some people might come to know me as Ray Blank, through a story I wrote.

Not all my friends have liked my choice of pen name. I comfort myself with the realization that this was inevitable. People initially judge a name by its sound, which will evoke all sorts of irrational associations that I could never anticipate, and they may not be conscious of. I am reminded of this each time I give a name to a character, not least because I would prefer the character to be judged by his or her actions, and not by their label. Naming characters is a practical necessity, as well as an aesthetic choice, but it is not a fair approximation of reality. It is possible to experience the company of many people for many hours, without knowing or remembering any of their names. During that time, we might become intimate with them. However, in written stories, an aversion to labels is a liability, that increasingly strains both author and reader as the number of characters rises. And so readers perceive meaning in the character’s name, even when the character does not. If I gave the name of Romeo to one of my characters, you would attach an importance to this decision, although we can imagine places – in the past, future, or faraway – where Romeo, and everybody around him, are ignorant of Shakespeare. And so, for all my deliberation, I must shrug my shoulders when evaluating the merits of various pen names, and must settle on the selfish choice that is most meaningful for me. Others may have preferred a different series of syllables, like A.N. Altman, or Eric Capulet. Ray Blank will only be a true success when the sound of his name has been forgotten, replaced by the recollection of what he has written.

There were many reasons I chose Ray Blank as my pen name. A surfeit of associations causes some to slip from my mind too. A friend, on hearing my good news, jogged my memory with another quote, from another writer.

A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. He has no master except his own soul, and that, I am sure, is why he does it

Roald Dahl

There is something frightening, and equally thrilling, about the metaphorical blank page. At some time, all of us have imagined rewriting the story of our lives, to see what adventures we might have had, what terrors might have plagued us, and who we may have become, if events had taken a different course. The expanse of the unwritten page is like the life of a newborn child. It is full of potential, foreshadowed by hopes and fears. The limits are defined by imagination more than any other factor. To write about different characters is to be different characters. It is not possible for me to write about someone who is not, in some sense, me. I am my characters, and they are me, and so they allow me to be a little bit more than I was before I gave birth to them. And so I have become not only Ray Blank, but also Rose, and many other characters too. Like Juliet, I wish identity to be transcendent. Shakespeare had his stage, and I my blank page. Its vacuum draws the world out of me.

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