#215: On Naming

#215: On Naming
West Village, Detroit, MI

I’ve been trying to teach Matisse to shake hands. I don’t know if we’ve made any progress whatsoever. He’s responding better to treats now, which is why I’m even attempting this endeavor in the first place. I say “shake” and take his paw in mine, then give him a treat. Shake, paw, treat. Over and over.

He recognizes a few other phrases, but only in certain contexts. When I sit next to him with his leash and say, “Wanna go outside?” his tail bounces and he lowers his head to let me put on the collar. He doesn’t quite poop on command, but sometimes when we’re outside words are the extra encouragement he needs to do his business. Slowly, and just barely perceptible to me, he’s starting to learn the names for things.

Something I’ve heard authors – and other creative people – say is that you shouldn’t talk about a book or idea while it’s in progress. Talking about it saps the energy from it. Naming – not merely titling but naming, talking about its plot, characters, and themes – often becomes a substitute for actually working on it.

I don’t disagree. But I think there are also times when that discharge of energy is necessary. When it puts the story at enough of a distance that you can see it more clearly. Outlining is one way of naming, and sometimes that outline happens verbally, told to close friends over gyro biryani at a take-out Bengali restaurant. To put it another way: naming is vessel-making. We mold a cup to hold the water of the story – the water in which we’ve been swimming for so long.

John Tarrant, writing in The Light Inside the Dark:

When we give names we devise an intimate link with what is named; we incur obligations that serve to establish us more steadfastly in the daylight realm. Adam named the animals on parade before him, and the biologist in the highlands of Papua New Guinea says to herself, ‘This, not this,’ again and again, until she comes up with a name for the blue butterfly, as large as her hand adrift before her …
Later what has been separated out may come to seem too solid and will need to be dissolved again in a union of spirit and soul. But for now, this is just what we need: the delicious predictability of the otherness of things, the beginning of consciousness.