In 2014 I went to Oxford to go to summer school and study playwriting. It was one of those sweet experiences you only get by privilege and severely misunderstanding how HECS debt works (turns out the loan to travel the UK was harder to shake than the STIs I skirted fate with on that trip). It was also a stimulating 2-week glimpse into writing on the international level.
I could go into detail about the pros and cons of university education, but creative fields have always felt separate to the wider university experience and severely lacking in that respect. There is a push-and-pull between the “follow your heart” mentality that leads you to study writing, and the harsher realities of living in the (capitalist) world. Marketability, “selling yourself”, how to make a living from writing–these were the things largely ignored at uni in favour of “the history of the printing press”.
So you sort of make that bit up as you go along. There’s a fair amount of guesswork involved, most of it informed by what you think a marketable writer needs to do. Business cards, websites (like this one! Hi! Hello!), a strong social media presence (actually that last one is legit).
On that summer Oxford trip though, I decided the one thing I’d do to really stand out would be a new name.
“Callum” always struck me as a critically unsexy name. I remember once telling my Dad I wanted to change my name to Eric because… I think I read it in a book once about three kids who go to a magical land through a rainbow staircase in the basement. God I just got a *massive* nostalgia rush. I gotta go find that book.
“Callum” was not cool, or fun, or remotely-writerly to my twenty-year-old brain (20!?! What the fuck. I didn’t know anything. Who let me leave the house??). I hated the way it sounded in my mouth, a great thwumping name with the Scottish-y “McLean” to follow it up. (On that, the other thing I remember about that trip was repeatedly having people who’d read my name on sign-up lists and such before meeting me doing a double take when they heard my Australian accent. One even said straight up “Eugh that’s wrong”. Which, y’know, harsh.)
So a new name it was. One that was cool, and fun, and writerly in its detached genderless way. CJ McLean was born.
For a few years “Callum” really was gone and everybody I knew called me “CJ”, which was distinctly uncool–no one with a shred of “coolness” has forced their friends to call them a nickname they picked out themselves. But it worked for me, for a while. A long while.
But here’s the thing about past versions of yourself–they don’t have the nostalgia built into them. People and places and things carry the warmth of memory because of how they affected you. You can slip into the driver’s seat of that past self and forget the years between you. You don’t moon over past versions of yourself until much, much later. Mostly you look back with feint embarrassment, and focus on the things not worth nostalgia–the mistakes, namely.
Reader, I’m afraid “CJ” was one of those mistakes. A misguided past version of myself, who holds a whopping amount of my late formative memories but with whom I am happy to leave parked in the garage (don’t worry this wankfest is nearly over).
So it’s Callum now. Just Callum. And I like Callum. It completes a strong Scottish name (how did I not notice that? Fuck there really is nothing more divinely humourless than a 20-year-old who thinks they know everything). It’s the name my parents chose for me, for a character from All Creatures Great and Small. It’s my name.
Before I say goodbye to CJ though, one last story. On that Oxford trip I decided the other thing that would complete my transformation into “well-paid-and-respected-writer” would be a leather bound notebook, to carry with me throughout my days. There was a stationers down the street from the college, and I paid a fair bit for a brown leather book with my name stamped in gold letters on the top.
It reads “C.J. McLean” and I’ve never written in it once. Here’s to you CJ, you dumb bastard.
Love Callum x