free write your name

In ALL, WRITING EXERCISES by Stephanie Klein7 Comments

I’ve enrolled in a writing workshop because it works for me. It’s the only way I actually get writing done. I workshopped both Straight Up and Dirty and Moose. It’s just something I need. Our first class, the instructor began with a free-writing prompt. Just write for fifteen minutes, whatever comes to mind. Here’s the prompt.

Students had questions. What about our name? It’s history, how we feel about it, who we’re named after? What? “Whatever you want, whatever it means to you.”

I invite you to share your own here, remembering it’s an exercise that opens you. So, don’t judge yourself on it or spend time editing it. I think these prompts are always surprising. Don’t think too much, just go.

♠ ————————- ♠

It was freshman year, but at Barnard we didn’t say “freshman.” The preferred term was “first year.” As we avoided words implying male assumptions, we were also to be clear on this: we were girls no longer.

“Excuse me,” I asked of a woman who resembled a high-functioning addict, or librarian, “do you see that girl over there by the benches? Do you know off hand if the building to her right is Sulz—“

“What did you say?” I was startled by the prick and wave in her voice, the words lancing at me with the teeth of a hookworm. And to look at her again, I was surprised she wasn’t cloaked in robes peering at me through her monocle, clucking her cheeks into a disapproving pout.

“Is that Sulzberger or Milbank Hall to her right?”

“To her right? Wrong, dear. Wrong altogether. If you’ve matriculated to college, then you are no longer a girl. Barnard is a place of women.” Then she turned, striding onward. I like to imagine that she tripped over her imaginary train.

Got it. First year. Woman. As in, “Yes, I’m a first year woman enrolling in Acting Pompous 101.”

It was a red auditorium with a small stage, black walls, and overhead lights. The class—maybe fifteen of us, men and women, first years and sophomores—was scrabbled across theater seats, our eyes to the professor. He was a young post-grad with two small beads strung into a thin braid, all choked into his low ponytail. Once you’ve seen him pulse through rounds of butterfly stretching in running shorts, “Professor” seems like a sub/dom role-play term. He let us call him David, though we weren’t told to do so directly.

What David required of each of us was a grand performance of our name. “One at a time, three minutes to prepare, who’s first?”


“It’s a mnemonic device,” he said, “Make us all remember your name”—then with a hushed voice he added, “And you. Make us remember you.”

Debra Katz got on all fours and twitched her nose, seductress like, slinking across the stage, purring Katzzzzzzz.

Jeff lit a cigarette puffing smoke rings. “Jeff,” he said from stage left as if his name were the baseline of a song. More rings, stage right, “Jeff.” Center stage, “Jeff.”

A perky Alyssa cheered her way through a hand-slapping, leg-kicking, cheer leader fit. Today, I’m quite certain, she’s the annoying as fuck girl who continually interrupts your workout to see exactly how many more minutes you have on the elliptical.

As other students performed, I sat in my chair, half entertained, half brainstorming. Make us remember you?

I could flash everyone, certainly, which would work if I had an unfortunate last name like Fallis or Milk. But I had “Stephanie,” met with “Tara” (Yes, like the Plantation, but I can’t think about that now.), rounded off with “Klein” (as in Calvin). What could I do with that? Give a performance of a top fashion designer pulling a fall collection from Tara’s finest twigs and salvaged gourds?

I had it. I’d cut myself down to my smallest denominator, offering the class my monogram.


“You know, like steak. The one you ordered well done because you’re afraid of death. No, don’t fancy dead moo? Then may I suggest your regular? Right, the one you order ground and pounded with cheese because you’re happy to slaughter a bloody mother while lapping up her milk. Cheers, it’s all Kosher to me. That is until you order me. Order me to come sit my sweet bottom right here, on your lap? Well done indeed, though if you’re set on ordering me, you’d better start with a please and a fat tip.”

Which in its own deranged forced way got the laugh, though that might’ve been to do with my impromptu decision to recite my lines with a British accent. Still, I got that laugh, which made it a memorable first year for me. It was then that I decided to pursue the stage, promising myself never to use a stage name. Stephanie Tara Klein would be someone to remember.


  1. That is so pretentious. I don’t want anyone, man or woman, telling me to refer to myself as a woman rather than a girl. If I’m grownup enough for you to consider me a woman, then I am old enough to decide how I will refer to myself.

    This must be a common warmup thing – when I took Comp 102 at Nassau Comm. College we were given the same assignment. Still remember my teacher telling us how there were 7 or 8 kids in his family and they were named in alphabetical order and his name was Eugene. Hey look at that – he made me remember his name!

  2. So – does a name matter? A fascinating question.

    I am named after two amazing women – my grandmothers. My first name is my mom’s mom’s – middle name is my dad’s mom’s. Does that make a person? Did it define me as a gentle, strong, capable, independent woman? Actually, I would like to say, yes.

    I think about my namesakes. My mom’s mom was the daughter of a pioneer. A girl who was raised to be pretty and idle and beautiful (and to play the piano well) and was brought to the west and found herself at age 16 married to a railroad man who turned into a hard-bitten man and a mean drunk. She also found herself to be the mother of 7 children…one after another. She went from pretty and pampered to one tough little cookie who baked bread every day, canned, scrimped, sacrificed and made do. My memories of her consist of sitting at her knee, listening to her play the organ and then opening her little pink coin purse and give me coins for all the spelling words I could perform. She died of a sudden cardiac arrest at age 74 – 12 months after grand father (of whom I have very few memories).

    My other gramma (dad’s mom) – was born in 1905. She was one tough cookie as well. Born a firey red-head, she exploded into life. She was a flapper in the 20’s…married first husband who ended up beating her after his regular visits to the bar…and she left the rat-bastard. Divorced him in like 1928…who did that? No one. After a long time she met my grandpa – an Army officer. They tucked into love and a little house in Texas and my dad was conceived.

    When dad was 7 – grandpa left for work and on the way – had a massive cardiac arrest and died…leaving my gram and dad alone. So – gram did what we do and moved to the ‘village’ of her family and raised my dad solo.

    This grandmother I knew well – I have a million memories of her. But what I really take from her life is that she lived graciously – she took all her lumps – she was tough as hell – but everyone loved her. She retired gracefully. When it was time she gave up her car and moved into assisted living gracefully. When we needed to move her from Texas to be near to us to care for her- she did it gracefully.

    The night she died…Christmas eve…gosh, about 7 or 8 years ago now. The darlings were with their dad and I was with my cute parents. Mom needed to go to the candlelight service at her church…it was a courage and strength thing. Dad went with mom because that’s how they are…yep – they still hold hands and adore each other every day (married 52 years this June).

    I volunteered to sit with Gram that night. I remember going to her room at the ‘home’ and sat in the quiet, still time with her. She had fallen earlier in the week and was confined to her bed…and this night she was in and out of lucidity. It didn’t matter. She murmured…I crooned. It was one of those times that words aren’t relevant. It is love.

    That night – holding her hand – time stretched beyond hours spent. It stretched beyond my life or my childrens’ lives…it became an encapsulated moment of grace.

    As she started slipping from this life, a nun came in to wish her a merry Christmas. Sister Mary knew the time was short, and I’ll never forget (though I’m an card-carrying atheist) the magical moment when she leaned in to kiss Gram on the cheek and whispered that Gram would celebrate this Christmas in heaven with her Jesus.

    Gram smiled…and then she started to go. I was there when she died.

    She was 2 weeks shy of 99 years old.

    Oh gosh – I’ve gone on and on.

    I guess the point is that family, and names, and traditions are important. They ground us. They give us gut-checks and reality moments. I’m proud beyond words to carry the names of my grandmothers. Oh – to be half as strong of each of them…

  3. And now all I can think of is a nice, juicy medium-rare bone-in ribeye from, where else, STK. ;-)

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