By Laura Moore
I am terrible at writing titles.
I'm reminded of this at least once a week when I sit down to write my blog, and EVERY TIME I prepare a story for submission, but I was specifically reminded of it on Monday when I prepared to submit an essay I've poured my heart into for the last three months. The essay tells the most important story I've ever told about my life, and writing it was not only empowering, but therapeutic, liberating, and terribly important for me.
I tried to think of a title idea early on, but I hated everything I came up with, so I decided to save it until the end. When I finally finished the 200th hour of editing and sat down to prepare my document for upload, I stared at the working title--at the commonplace, uninspiring word at the top--and I realized it was horrible. It didn't, in any way, capture the power of my piece, or the depth of my journey. It failed to provide an enticing hook, to add another layer, to adorn my work with a shimmering crown.
So I brainstormed for hours. I tried on different hats. I ventured down a variety of roads. None of them fit, however. None of them suited my purpose. None of them felt right.
But the essay was due, so I settled. I left the name: "Home." Then I clicked "upload" and ultimately, "submit."
I thought the action would produce relief, but my anxiety only grew. The terrible title remained with me, punishing me for my lack of wisdom, reminding me that I really needed to get better.
I tell my students how important titles are when they name their assignments "Narrative," "Memoir," or "Literary Analysis." And I think about their importance myself when I base my decision to read or not to read on the titles I see when I look at a book, skim through a journal, or scan a list of news stories popping up on various feeds.
But no matter what I know
about their importance, I still struggle to write them, to piece together efficient, illuminating language that layers rather than summarizes my work. I still struggle to whittle ideas into a single dash, into a witty flip, into a metaphorical masterpiece. By the time I get to the end, I'm spent. I've given my all to the story, and it seems like betrayal to capture the whole thing in one, two or three words. It feels manipulating to tease the readers I want to touch, and just plain wrong to trick them or to scare them, or to over-promise the world.
But I know I need to improve. So I set out today to confront my weakness head-on, to take steps to get better. I read a dozen articles about blog post titles and as one might suspect, success in that arena relies more on marketing principles than it does poetry. Since I'm less concerned about clicks than I am about my literary pieces, I shifted my focus part way through, turning my attention instead to the art of naming short stories and novels and creative nonfiction.
In a post titled "Choosing the Right Name for Your Story
," Mississippi writer John Floyd sets out rather practical advice. He takes works that have already achieved fame, and categorizes them under identifiers such as: a popular expression (Something's Gotta Give), a play on words (Live and Let Die), a hidden meaning (Catch 22), a title that comes from an existing work (The Sound and the Fury), a person's name (Forrest Gump), a place's name (Cold Mountain), a possessive (Angela's Ashes), an association of ideas (Misery), an event or activity (Waiting to Exhale), a memorable line from a story (To Kill a Mockingbird), a phrase that has rhythm (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold), and a phrase that is simple (The Godfather).
When I read his categories and their corresponding examples, the process seems logical and straightforward. I understand why the various works fit the categories and how each of the titles themselves capture, deepen or advance the essence of the stories they name. Even more, I can see how referencing that list might help me test out my titles, but I didn't feel like the list inspired me to write my own.
So I continued digging and though I found several articles related to the topic, the one that resonated most appeared on a Quick Tips PDF listed on the University of Minnesota's Center for Writing page
. After identifying the function of a title and establishing the creation of it as a process, this page proceeds to share Richard Leahy's "Twenty Titles for the Writer" exercise (Leahy's original document
is on JStor).
I'll be honest, when I initially approached the list, I assumed it would be cheesy, cliche and impractical--just like so many I had already seen--but the minute I dug in, I realized it was exactly what I needed. Leahy provides tangible ways to generate names, and even if it might be enticing to stop with one of the prompts, he suggests that writers proceed through every step. That way, they'd be able to choose from a list of twenty possibilities.
As one who is often stiffed by the process, having Leahy's exercise at my fingertips felt invigorating, and I knew--the moment I read thought the list--that it would not only edge its way into my writing life, it would land in my classroom as well. Students also struggle with titles and I frequently feel ill-equipt to help them. Now, I can offer a process, a way in, a way to explore possibilities and discover something they might not have otherwise considered. And--as I continue to muddle through it all myself--I can add to the list. I can think of new angles. I can imagine new layers.
Instead of dreading the act of titling, when I finished sifting through the materials this afternoon, I felt empowered. I felt inspired to embark on the process. I felt prepared to dive in, to swim around, to overcome.
By Laura Moore
The thing I love most about teaching has nothing to do with my subject matter. While I enjoy discussing rhetorical devices, narrative voice and characterization, I cherish my life conversations above and beyond anything imbedded in the curriculum.
This year, I'm taking a year off of teaching and devoting myself to writing. Unfortunately, that means I will miss out on the privileged opportunity to engage with a new group of kids and play some small part in their growth as human beings. Since I won't be there to pass along my advice, I wanted to share it with you.
Here are my top nine tips for cultivating happy, independent and successful kids:
1. Encourage Your Child to Get Involved
Extra curricular involvement often opens a thousand new doors for students. It boosts confidence, it exposes kids to new friendships, it gives them purpose, it teaches them life skills and it often makes for happier kids. That all said, it's important for students to find balance in their lives. They shouldn't get so involved that they don't have time to fulfill their commitments, do their homework or sleep, but they need to be involved enough that they learn time management skills. If your son or daughter isn't interested in athletics, music or the arts, encourage him or her to join clubs, to volunteer in the community, to get a job or to participate in a cause he or she cares about. As an English teacher, I'd like to believe reading and writing skills will make the biggest difference in their lives, but I know that outside experiences often shake them up, fill them up and lift them up more than anything else.
2. Support Your Child as He or She Takes Risks
School is the perfect place for kids to learn how to take good risks, the kind of risks that expose them to healthy activities they never knew existed, talents they never knew they had and/or people they never knew went to school with them. Good risks are empowering because they require students to face insecurities, fear or doubt head on, and this confrontation teaches them that they are capable of overcoming challenges throughout their lives. Encourage your son or daughter to submit artwork, publish his/her writing, audition for plays, try out for teams, run for office or advocate for an important cause. Challenge him or her to push boundaries, but be sure to create a safe place for your child to retreat if plans go awry or efforts fall a bit short of success. No matter how tough teenagers might seem, they all want to know their parents are still proud of them regardless of what they do or do not achieve (I know this because I read their journals!).
3. Help Your Child Develop Responsibility
While it is important for us to support our kids, we need to make sure we are not enabling them. Now that I have my own child, I understand how tempting it is to swoop in and tidy up problems in an effort to minimize drama, but the kids who seem to be the most successful in school are the ones who have embraced some level of autonomy. These kids have learned how to advocate for themselves, and they assume responsibility for their commitments, actions and words. They know Mom and Dad will not come swooping in to fix things, so they tend to make better decisions to avoid the problems in the first place. When they do make a mistake, they own it, and because of that, many teachers tend to cut them some slack. When kids constantly get bailouts, they never learn why responsibility is important, and by persistently denying them the chance to learn, we are setting them up for failure later.
4. Ensure Your Child Honors His or Her Commitments
I try my best every year to talk to kids about the importance of honoring their commitments. If kids are part of a group they need to complete their portion of the work. If kids sign up to do something, they need to follow through. If they schedule a meeting with a teacher, it is important for them to show up. When they don't, their disregard makes every one else's life difficult. When they do, the world just seems to work a little bit better.
5. Facilitate Discussions That Promote Resourcefulness
As a society, we no longer have the patience to sit and figure things out. We want immediate gratification, and we find it easier to move on, buy something quicker, ask someone else to fix our problem, or make an excuse about why we couldn't accomplish our goal. These tendencies have trickled down to our kids. Year after year, I notice a large concentration of students who hit a wall when their Plan A goes awry. Instead of thinking through backup solutions, a lot of kids ask their parents to write notes and many times, parents write them without giving it a second thought.
We all have busy lives, and I realize it is so much faster for adults to fix problems rather than facilitate discussions, but when we persistently solve dilemmas ourselves, we deny our children the opportunity to learn how to problem solve on their own. With a little bit of prodding, most students can easily develop perfectly acceptable Plans B, C or D. And figuring out how to navigate game-time, adrenaline pumping moments when they're faced with an impending consequence teaches them how to respond and improvise under pressure. This will not only benefit them throughout their school years, it will come in handy when they're out in the work force and have a boss who will not find a parent note laden with excuses as an acceptable substitute for a job well done.
6. Choose Positive Positive Language
This is hard. No matter how good any of us try to be, we are bound to run into people who like to pick fights, who are passionately against our beliefs, or who respond to situations in ways that do not mesh with how we think human beings should respond. We need to remember that the same is true for our kids.
It is easy to bad mouth those who have wronged us or our kids, those who are unnecessarily difficult, or those who have created obstacles, but negative words tend to stick around a lot longer than positive ones. Kids learn how to talk to others, and how to talk about others, by listening to people they respect. If they hear loved ones badmouthing bosses, neighbors, relatives, teachers, classmates or coaches, they will feel entitled to do the same. While venting can sometimes be therapeutic, doing it in front of kids--even if those kids are in high school--carries long term consequences: kids learn that they only need to be respectful to some people. As hard as it might be, the more we can model appropriate ways to respond to difficult people, the easier it will be for our children to learn language that will help them overcome and not exacerbate problems in their lives.
7. Encourage Your Child to Embrace Kindness and Respect
It is easy to get caught up in gossip and drama, but the kids who rise above it seem to be the happiest. They respect adults, they empathize with peers and they see the best in people. They consistently treat others with respect and they generally err on the side of kindness. When life ushers in a challenge, they are level-headed in their analysis, they are proactive in finding solutions, and regardless of the temptation to do otherwise, they are unwavering in their determination to maintain integrity. This tends to inspire less regret, and often helps to avoid he-said/she-said banter intended to cast them in the center of an enormous controversy. High school drama is inevitable, but learning how to rise above the pettiness tends to make that drama much less destructive.
8. Look for Opportunities to Learn
No matter how boring a teacher might seem or how pointless a class might appear, students have the opportunity to learn every time they take a seat, every time they open a book, and every time they put their thoughts on paper. School, just like life, is as interesting as we decide to make it. While teachers try to light their subject matter on fire, even the most engaging educators have off days, or days when they must tackle curriculum that is not quite as exciting. When this happens, challenge kids to find some nugget in the blob of boringness. In an ideal world, the school day would teem with excitement, but even if we could pull that off, eventually, our kids would enter the real world, a space where they will have to do things they don't want to do, and endure interactions they don't want to have. At some point, successful people decide to bare down, make the most of their situation and do what they need to do so they can have the opportunity to do what they want to do later.
9. Get to Know Your Teacher
Encourage your child to get to know his or her teacher. Despite the fact that educators have a variety of methods for gauging where are kids are academically, emotionally and socially, they can sometimes miss the discreet struggles that hover beneath the surface. It is much harder to know the student who dashes toward his seat the second the starting bell rings, or runs out of the room the moment the ending bell sounds. The students who engage with us between classes, during office hours, before or after school or during lunch tend to get much more out of our classes than the kids we track down during our planning period every couple of weeks when we have a few spare minutes. Teachers love helping kids, so encourage your sons and daughters to take advantage of the opportunity to get extra help, advice or support.
The same goes for parents. If you ever have a concern about your child, please reach out and communicate with teachers. After all, we have the same goal: to help your son or daughter grow into the best human being he or she can be.