While working on a story for National Review about ten years ago, I called an old acquaintance for an interview. His secretary picked up and I gave her my name. When he came on the line, we chit-chatted about our families. Then I went into questioning. At some point — maybe five minutes into the conversation — he stopped talking. An awkward silence descended upon us. “Wait a second,” he said. “You’re that John Miller.”
This happens to me more often than you might imagine. Most people seem to know a John Miller or two: You might say that every Tom, Dick, and Harry has a John Miller for a friend. In the case of my acquaintance, he was thinking of a John Miller at the Department of State, a fellow who monitored human trafficking as an ambassador at large. I’ve never met the guy, but I’ve known about him for my entire professional life.
When I moved to Washington in 1992, fresh out of college and eager to make a name for myself, he was a member of Congress. His existence came as no surprise: Back in my dorm at the University of Michigan, I was one of two John Millers in the building.
The front desk loved us.
Our name is legion, for we are many. Search it on Wikipedia: People with my name currently command the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf and serve as the archbishop of Vancouver. We invented a key component for roller coasters. Tom Hanks played one of us in Saving Private Ryan. We’ve been in the news lately, too. On Election Day, a John Miller lost the race for attorney general in Massachusetts.
There’s even another John Miller who was in the world of journalism: In 1998, he interviewed Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan for ABC News. (He now works in counterterrorism for the New York City Police Department.) I could go on, and I have a friend who does. When he spots a reference to a John Miller in a newspaper or magazine, he clips the article and mails it to me. For a while, this was amusing. The joke began to wear thin when I read the profile of the guy who dresses up as a Klingon for Star Trek conventions.
My problem is hardly unique. For every two John Millers, there are probably three John Smiths. Dr. Seuss once published an amusing short story, “Too Many Daves.” (“Did I ever tell you that Mrs. McCave / Had twenty-three sons and she named them all Dave?”) That’s my brother’s problem: He’s Dave Miller, just like the Dave Miller I worked with at one of my early jobs. The folks called Bob Jones have embraced their ubiquity. Every year, they gather for the Bobby Jones Open, a charity golf tournament. Since 1979, more than 350 Bobs have played in it, according to the event’s website. Golf, incidentally, first made me aware that I have a common name. On weekend afternoons in the 1970s, it was easy to turn on the television and hear of Johnny Miller, the prominent golfer.
“A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches,” says the Book of Proverbs. This may be true, but it’s also true that most of us are stuck with the names on our birth certificates. There are exceptions, of course. Many women take the surnames of their husbands, though some don’t, especially if they have professional reputations when they marry. Immigrants, too, commonly adopt Americanized names. At some point in the 19th century, the Muellers of Germany became the Millers of Michigan. Writers also can pick their names, or at least their pen names. And so Samuel Clemens became Mark Twain and Eric Blair became George Orwell.
A byline is a brand — and one of the main goals of branding is to distinguish companies or products from competitors. So when you’re a writer named John Miller, you begin with a problem. It’s not insurmountable: Acclaim for the early-20th-century novelist Thomas Wolfe didn’t stop Tom Wolfe from becoming one of the great writers of our own time. Most of us ink-stained wretches eventually realize that we lack the talents of either Wolfe. We just want names that will stick in the minds of readers who buy books and of editors who give assignments.
#page#One advantage of a common name such as “John Miller” is the spelling. Most people know how to do it, though sometimes they ask if there’s an “H” in “John,” perhaps because they’re thinking of Jon Miller, the baseball broadcaster. When that happens, I wonder if I’m dealing with a fellow journalist: We’re trained to check the proper spelling of names, including the ones that we think we know from their mere sound. The differences can be tricky. Just ask the actors Colin Farrell and Will Ferrell. You also never know when you’re going to run into Jhonny Peralta, a shortstop from the Dominican Republic, where his oddly spelled name is apparently less than unusual. At any rate, I’m pretty sure which incoming Republican senator will suffer from more misspellings than any other: Thom Tillis of North Carolina.
Worse than the hard-to-spell names are the unfortunate names. “A good name is better than precious ointment,” says the Book of Ecclesiastes. Here’s the lesser-known corollary: A bad name can stink to high heaven. Children always laugh when they learn of the fictional Ben Dover. But there are Ben Dovers in real life: The longest-serving mayor in the history of Fort Wayne, Ind., was Harry Baals, pronounced just the way you were hoping it wasn’t. Although Mayor Baals retired from public life in the 1950s, he was in the news a few years ago. As Fort Wayne prepared to open a new building, it asked the locals to suggest names. The “Harry Baals Government Center” won an online poll. Today, it’s proudly known as Citizens Square.
So when it comes to names and bylines, some problems are worse than others. To cope with my own minor dilemma, I ultimately settled on a semi-solution: I deployed my middle initial, which stands for “Joseph.” (Thanks for asking.) This was what Winston S. Churchill did. When he was a young man, the future prime minister used a middle initial to distinguish himself from Winston Churchill, a popular American novelist. Today, most people don’t know that there was once a popular American novelist called “Winston Churchill” — but if you check the author’s name on the title page of My Early Life or any of the six volumes of The Second World War, you’ll see the great man’s middle initial. It’s still there, guarding against mistaken identity.
The middle initial in my byline involved a small struggle. When I first started writing for a campus publication as a college freshman, my editor had banned middle initials. He explained that they smacked of those puffed-up bylines in the New York Times, such as “B. Drummond Ayres Jr.” So for a while, I labored in the relative anonymity of being just John Miller. When I became editor, though, I changed the rule. I’ve been John J. Miller ever since. This hasn’t eliminated every difficulty. There’s a John J. Miller who writes science-fiction stories, and occasionally people e-mail to ask if I’m him. Maybe there’s a lesson in all of this: Some problems are unsolvable.
For me, it’s too late to switch to a pen name, such as “Geronimo Jones” or “Maxwell Silverhammer.” I probably could try, explaining it as a necessary rebranding, but everyone would assume I was going through a midlife crisis. Besides, who doesn’t have a sentimental attachment to the name our parents gave us? In Shakespeare’s play, Juliet utters the familiar line about names and sweet-smelling rose. She also urges Romeo to “refuse thy name.” I never felt comfortable going that far. So I’ve learned to live with the name I’ve got, even though I have to share it.
Maybe the other John Millers feel otherwise. You’d have to ask them.