I have had many nicknames in my life. They include Bellzy (my partner), Jessie (my parents and, oddly, my draconian high school band conductor), Jessitchka (the Russian side of my family), Bellamy (male friends making it clear they didn’t want to have sex with me), Bellnasty (my theatre friends), and Jess (pretty much everyone else I have ever met.)
I had a great conversation with my parents once about my choice of professional name. They said, “we named you Jessica, inspired by the fine acting of Jessica Lange, the fictional smarts of Jessica Fletcher, and Shakespeare’s finest self-hating Jewess in The Merchant of Venice, so why do you use the name ‘Jess’ out in the world as a writer? Why do your readers, clients and colleagues get access to your nickname when you may not actually know them – or LIKE THEM – at all?”
(They might not have said precisely these words, but it was a long time ago and I think I was in a bread-related food haze, so I have blurred some details.)
The more time that has gone by since they suggested this, the more I vehemently agree. Good advice, Mimma and Dids! (How do you like those nicknames?) I have since vowed to use my full name whenever I write plays, perform spoken word, or run projects.
There is a certain accessibility and familiarity expected of us in the arts. We write so personally about our lives, relationships, health and burgeoning acquisition of bike safety skills, that it can feel like your readers are your friends, too.
Don’t get me wrong: many of our readers are, of course, our friends. (Thanks for the continual support, friends.) But, many are total randoms. Many are only hate-reading your beautiful words, because you write about issues relating to feminism, and therefore you deserve to be shut up with their man-words crammed down your proverbial opinion-gullet.
There’s an autobiographical cannibalism expected of writers at the present moment: write about this moment of sickness, this difficult learning experience, this period of indecision. It draws you closer to other people who have suffered the same. But it also opens you to cruelty from people who haven’t earned that level of tenderness from you. Sometimes it feels scary, icky and dangerous to be putting your lived experiences into a big echoing world full of people who may not have good intentions. But we do it. Because we have to express ourselves. And we have to get paid.
In an arts culture where publications and websites are regularly closing, and where theatre companies are defunded and crumbling, we take the work where we can get it. We slice up and dole out parts of ourselves that, maybe, a stranger by any other name would not deserve. Because that’s what people are reading right now. Because that shit is juicy.
So, what do we hold onto throughout this period of wilful, fearful vulnerability?
For me, it’s the name. You are not my friend right now, even if, offline, you are. You are my reader. I provide you a service, which is words and ideas. You take up this offering, and you learn something, feel something, or gain inspiration. I don’t owe you any more than that. This is personal, and it is meaningful, but it is also my job.
And you can call me Jessica.