What’s in a Name?

Identities are interesting things.

My name is Catherine. Interestingly, many aspiring authors are named Catherine or some variation thereof. It so happens that at at least two workshops (Taos, Paradise Lost) I was/will be at the workshop with someone else named K(C)atherine. You can’t throw a stick at Wiscon without hitting a Catherine. Heck, there have been times at the Broad Universe Reading at ConVergence where I read with no one but Catherine’s.

This surfeit of Catherine’s has led to a couple of interesting identity shifts. BUT perhaps I should start at the beginning.

I am named for my two grandmothers. My mother’s mother was named Catherine. My father’s mother was Frieda Marie. No one wanted a little girl named Catherine Frieda, so I lucked out and became Catherine Marie. In the end, it was my mother who saved me. My father thought Cheryl Rae might be a good option. Nothing wrong with that name, but the chances of me becoming an author? Well, see above…

i went to school in a tiny, tiny town, and from Kindergarten on up, my name was Cathy. I made a few attempts at Catherine, but it was another way for me to get made fun of, and besides, everyone called me Cathy. My younger brother and my uncles still call me Cathy. There’s nothing wrong with that variation either, but given my background, I sort of cringe when I’m called Cathy. That’s a name from a past time in my life when I was living most of my days in crisis.

And…off to college, where my friends would call me Cathy, Catherine, or Cath, and I didn’t have much preference. However, when I started teaching as a TA, I was only three years older than most of my freshmen students, and Catherine was a bit more professional, a way to get them to take me seriously.

So, Catherine became my professional name. In my social life, most people called me Catherine or Cath. One friend even tried Cat, and I was okay with that. But no one called me Cathy anymore.

Then there was major identity shift number one. I became in charge of ELA, and I told my students that they were welcome to use the American college tradition and call me by my first name. One of my students from Puerto Rico talked to her father, who told her that she was absolutely forbidden to call me Catherine. She knew I had a doctorate, and her father thought it would be the epitome of bad taste for her not to acknowledge that. I thought for a moment about how I could marry exposure to US culture with the respect teachers were shown in her culture, and thus was Dr. Catherine born.

Dr. Catherine is the ELA Coordinator. Her name invokes a certain kind of respect among teachers and students. She’s that woman who sits behind a big desk, who makes things happen, who mediates, who solves problems and gets things done. She’s not Catherine, who is a professor working with students, or a friend, or a colleague. No, Dr. Catherine is like a power elemental among ELA students. She’s certainly not me. She’s a role I take on when I’m in the office, in the hall. She’s a constructed identity. She has benefits and drawbacks, but her identity is distinct.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve had another identity shift. And that’s my author identity.

I write under my name: Catherine Schaff-Stump (my last name is another story, but the short version is that I married in the 80s, and the hyphen was what all the liberated girls were doing back then.) Most people in the author community now seem to think of me as Cath. There are a couple of reasons for that. One is that typing catherineschaffstump for a forum name is crazy long, and it shortens quite nicely to cathschaffstump, which is kind of snappy, actually. That started it, and then at Taos, when I decided to go as Cath all summer, to differentiate between myself and the wonderful Catherine Evelschin, that clinched it.

My very intimate friends have always called me Cath. When I bring my family of choice together, I’d say about 70 percent of them think of me as Cath. My family from Kirkwood has always thought of me as Catherine, and I have always thought of the author me as Catherine.

But she’s not. Apparently, Cath Schaff-Stump is the author me. She signs her name Cath, and that seems natural to her. She feels confident in forums and friendly with her writing colleagues in a way that Catherine doesn’t. It differentiates her a little bit more, albeit not a lot more, than Catherine does, but you know, author me likes being Cath. It seems to her that the accessible author is who she wants to be.

I don’t know if this means that I will change my author byline to Cath Schaff-Stump, and I’d love to get an opinion on that, frankly. Does Cath make me sound too breezy to prospective agents and editors? My current decision is to keep my byline the professional Catherine and use Cath as the name I use on forums, in discussions, on social media, and at cons. I like that identity.

Here’s how it’ll work: People will see my serious byline, Catherine Schaff-Stump and say, “Oh yeah. I know Cath Schaff-Stump,” signaling people who know me, rather than those that have bought my books. (Books? Please notice my rich fantasy life!) And perhaps some day I would make the switch completely, and you’ll see books by Cath Schaff-Stump.

But I find it fascinating how my name has evolved along with my sense of identity. And I wonder why those of you out there use the names you use, and if you use multiple variants, and even if you seem to have this split personality thing I have going on. Truly fascinating are those of you who use pen names. What’s that about? And what about if you have the same name as an existing author (I’m looking at you, Matt Hughes!) or what if you’ve decided to use your nickname (since I can’t ask Spider Robinson, I’m looking at you, Ferrett Steinmetz!)

So, these are just some questions for Monday, after book group, before settling in to do some writing. To be more concise:

1. What names do you go by and why?
2. Do you use different variations of your name for different roles in your life?
3. How and/or why did you decide on your byline name?

And…thanks for playing!

Author: Catherine Schaff-Stump

Catherine Schaff-Stump writes fiction for children and young adults. Her most recent book, The Vessel of Ra, is the first book in the Klaereon Scroll series. She is currently working on its sequel, as well as penning the middle grade adventures of Abigail Rath, monster hunter.

One thought on “What’s in a Name?”

  1. It is funny how names evolve. I used Chris for years, until I arrived at a new job a while back and everyone was calling me Christopher for whatever reason. (Probably because that was how I filled out the application?) It sounded a bit strange and formal for a while, but I grew to like it. Chris is such a common nickname; at least two or three of us are guaranteed to show up at any gathering. Christopher reduces that pool by half (no longer unisex) and also distinguishes me from the grunge rock star in terms of press. (He is also an impostor using the name as a pseudonym, which is even worse!) Now I answer to both, and am fine with both, but I will use Christopher as a byline.

    I like Cath Schaff-Stump. It sounds like it might be onomatopoeic!

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