What’s in a Name? For Writers, More Than You’d Imagine

This is a silly post, and yet it’s true: writers think about their names more than most people do, and with good reason: our names will appear on every article and book we write. And, face it, some names are way cooler than others. Some change their names, hoping that somehow this will make it easier to draw readers–and, of course, agents and editors. The gatekeepers.

Sigurd Olson thought about his name a lot. He liked his good Swedish first and last name, but for a long time despised his middle name, Ferdinand, which belonged to a family friend. Hardly Swedish! He omitted it altogether in his earliest writings, and usually signed his articles with his nickname, Sig. But he kept wondering about it, as in this journal entry from January 20, 1933, which is included in my forthcoming collection, A Private Wilderness, due out June 1:

Thought last night of my name. Sig Olson, though alright in the woods, is not what you might call a distinctive name for this type of article that you are thinking of writing. Your full name–Sigurd Ferdinand Olson–on the other hand has a sort of a swing to it that might easily create and hold a following.

In A Private Wilderness, p. 67.

Sometimes he’d practice variations of it in handwritten signatures on a sheet of paper. Sig Olson. Sigurd Olson. Sigurd Ferdinand Olson. He even experimented with Sigurd Thorne Olson, using his mother-in-law’s maiden name. It took decades to settle on the version he’s remembered by, Sigurd F. Olson.

My Nemesis, the Hockey Star

I was just reminded of this as I signed a bunch of book plates for the University of Minnesota Press. These plates will go into copies of A Private Wilderness sold via online book events.

I discovered halfway through that I had changed from “David Backes” to “David J. Backes.” It made me laugh. Which one is the real me?

I realize I’ve followed a similar path to Sigurd through the name-choosing-and-signing process. I’ll bet it’s a common one. In many of my earliest pieces, such as articles I wrote as a reporter for the Ely Echo in 1979 and 1980, my byline said “Dave.” I’m not sure when I transitioned to “David.” Probably grad school. “David” sounds much more serious. And all six of my books to date, including this new one, say “David Backes.”

So why did I start using my middle initial? Hockey. To be specific, a particular hall of fame NHL and Olympics star named David Backes.

Do a search on “David Backes” and you will find all kinds of things about the hockey player. And he deserves it! But you won’t find anything related to me unless you combine me with other terms, such as “Sigurd Olson” or “professor” or a variety of others.

I used to like that! I liked the relative anonymity bestowed on me by the famous hockey star. I’m an introvert, after all. But when I finally took the advice of writers and other people in the book world to set up my own website and other social media accounts, I couldn’t create anything using just my first and last name. That hockey star takes up a lot of Internet landscape!

So I added my middle initial. But now I’m not quite sure what to do when it comes to future books. Go with my social media moniker of necessity? Or stay with the tried and true?

Like I said. Writers think a lot about their names.

And Don’t Get Me Going About Signatures!

And then, yes, there’s the matter of how we make our names look. There are not only cool names, but cool signatures. Here, for example, are photos of my three Sigurd-Olson-autographed books:

Listening Point, 1958
The Lonely Land, 1961 (with Francis Lee Jaques!)
Limited edition of Wilderness Days, 1972

As you can see, he’s very consistent across the years in how he wrote his last name. There’s a little variation elsewhere. Most notable is that first one, with its sharp, angular first name.

I thought about that signature today and laughed. He signed around three thousand of those special sheets bound into the Minnesota Centennial edition of Listening Point! He complained about how sore it made his hand. Surely it affected his signature.

My Signatures Are Like Snowflakes

I can’t even imagine signing that many copies. I have a hard enough time writing my name as it is! My handwriting is lousy. Today, signing dozens of book plates, I signed each one with good intentions, but here’s an example of the variability. The first one I signed looks pretty normal:

Shows me signing my name on a book plate

But after that…..well….

My “D” and “B” generally are pretty consistent, but God only knows what happens with the rest. In the first of that set of three, the final “d” either became an “e” or merged with the first letter of my last name. Meet “Davie Backes.” In the middle photo, all went well until the final letter of my last name. Apparently I am now “David Backer.”

Then there’s that final one. I smiled and said “Yes!” because I got all the letters down in a reasonably legible manner. But suddenly I realized I had added my middle initial, something I’ve never done when I’ve signed books. When I looked at the growing pile, I saw I had done the same to the previous dozen book plates.

All I could do was laugh. I cannot for the life of me sign my own name in a consistent manner. My signatures are like snowflakes: no two are the same.

After I stopped laughing, I thought about it for a moment. When I sign official documents I always use my middle initial, with the sole exception, so far, of book contracts. Maybe it’s time to admit that I have just gotten used to it, and give in. Maybe I’ll even use the initial in future books.

Like I said, writers think about this stuff a lot, compared to most sane people!

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  1. I laughed so hard! This was awesome!! And your hand, with the first signature!!! I’m still laughing.

    Thank you for this. Have a great Father’s Day. Don’t forget: say hi to Judi.

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