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
For the last four weeks, I've been busy creating my own world: carefully crafting characters, civically engineering neighborhoods and inventing all sorts of problems for my lovely young adults to solve.
I spent roughly 240 hours (probably more, but I rounded down) over the course of a month, swirling around in the clouds of my imagination, running my fingers through thoughts as if they were sculpting clay, turning them into sentences and paragraphs and metaphors in an effort to make something that would get my high school kids to think and talk about big things, things they've inspired me to write about, things like life and death, things like dealing with the pressure to succeed, things like being too scared to step out of boxes, things like seeing the value of slowing down, of realizing there is no finish line in life where the challenges go away and everything suddenly gets easier.
The process was awesome.
It was all of those things because the journey mimics life. The journey to create anything is about hope and then confidence and then doubt and then fear and then confidence and then hope all over again.
Sometimes the path is clear and easy and the weather is perfect; at other times, the storm clouds cluster the moment you hit the steepest part of the mountain. And as easy as it would have been to turn back and hide under the cover of shelter, I couldn't pull myself away from the challenge. I couldn't rightfully give up because deep down I knew that trudging through the mud and testing my grip was all part of the experience if I wanted to understand what I was made of.
And so I kept going.
For the first four days it was sunshine and rainbows. My fingers danced. My ideas were pouring out just like they appeared in my head, and because of that, despite hearing expert advice to the contrary, I felt like I had ample time to edit as well as write. In fact, I started each day by editing the previous day's writing. Then, several hours later, once I felt good about what I had, I launched into the new stuff.
My first draft is going to be polished, I said to myself each day as I went down for my third cup of coffee.
But then, on day five, the editing demon (and a massive headache) swarmed my body, and I found myself paralyzed with panic. Despite earlier editing efforts that added words to the word count, on that day, my three hours of revision cut out almost 320 words, which, unfortunately, meant that I now had to write 2,720 words rather than 2,400, and I had three fewer hours to do it.
Upon realizing this, I pounded the heel of my hand to my forehead, and right then and there--in the wake of a self-inflicted headache--I vowed to shut down my compulsive desire to nit-pick, to edit, to revise, to fiddle and fiddle and fiddle until my words sounded good in my ears. While other writers suggested this action as a vital mechanism for success, until I squared up with just how hard it was to move with an inner critic holding my feet in the mud, I couldn't shut him down, I couldn't bear to see what I created without him looking over my shoulder.
The minute I was at risk for failing my daily word count though, I knew that I had no choice: if I wanted to keep going, I had to rip off a strip of duct tape and slap it across his mouth.
And so I did.
"If you keep making me turn back," I told him sternly, "we are never going to get anywhere."
He struggled briefly with my retaliation, but he ultimately acquiesced, deciding to give me a chance to prove myself, deciding to give me the chance to write, to move without handcuffs and a three ton weight strapped to my back.
He stayed silent for three days, and for three whole days my fingers lifted ideas from my brain without any care or worry in the world. For three whole days I moved the story forward and I enjoyed the ride my fingers took across the keyboard. I could see the storm clouds up ahead, I could smell the rain, and I could hear the thunder, but I didn't want to believe it; I just wanted to keep going--I just wanted to keep joyriding--until I couldn't go any further, until something physically made me stop.
Maybe it'll miss me, I thought as the sky grew darker. But all along, I knew there was something brewing. All along, I knew it would eventually collapse on top of me. All along, I knew I would find myself beneath massive amounts of angry precipitation without any rain gear or shelter to dull the severity of the attack.
And just as my gut predicted, this happened on day ten.
When I sat down to write that Monday, my stomach churned the entire time my fingers pounded the keys. I kept going to see if I could fix the problem, but by the time I got to the end of my word count, I knew there was no fixing it. I hated what was happening to my characters. It didn't feel right, and even worse, the more I thought about the way my plot was unfolding, the more I realized the entire manuscript was headed toward the dreaded land of contrivedville (yes, I just made up that word).
I wanted to throw up.
In fact, the night the storm clouds dumped pounds of hail on my head, I laid in bed staring at the back of my eyelids for a good four hours before the nausea made me get up and sprawl out on the bathroom floor.
I can't keep writing something so stupid, I told myself over and over. You're 15,000 words in and this is absolutely, pathetically dumb.
Twisting and turning my ideas, I grasped for straws, hoping to figure something out so I wouldn't have to abandon my project and start over, but my mind could not move past the negative voices. I could not get the inner critic to shut up so the problem solver could swoop in and fix things. I could not stop doubt from swimming through my intestinal tract, jostling things up inside of me, and taunting me with his I-told-you-this-was-going-to-be-dumb mantra.
So I stared up at the bathroom vent and gritted my teeth.
Then our baby cried.
Crap. Crap. Crap.
I rubbed my temples, picked up my body and made my way to his crib. I rocked him until he fell back to sleep and I lost myself in his sweet face. Ten minutes later, I leaned down to set him softly on the mattress, but the minute I let go, he woke up again and screamed. We tried the process twice more, and after the third melt down, I carried him back to the kitchen, prepared a bottle and decided to feed him. Six ounces later, he fell into such a deep sleep he didn't mind returning to the crib.
It was now three o'clock in the morning.
Now what? I thought, staring at the clock. Too frantic to sleep and too tired to write, I sifted through a pile of books beside my desk and picked up Anne Lamont. Two paragraphs in, everything clicked. I pulled out my journal, and let my mind do its thing. Jotting down a revised game plan, I made notes about how to fix what I had already written, what I needed to delete and where I needed to go next. As I wrote, the nausea faded, and once I captured my epiphany, I decided to sleep on it.
The next morning, I deleted almost 5,000 words, revised the ones that stayed, and then set out on my new course. That process eliminated 1/3 of the work I had done up to that point, but once I cut the excess, I could see the fog lifting and the problems untangling. Ideas began forming again and I let myself follow their lead. My work was venturing off of my original plan, but it was exciting to see where it went. The entire experience was sort of like an out of body movie unfolding before me, and sometimes the plot would make me gasp: Woah. I didn't know that was going to happen to HIM! I'd say to myself, shocked. Or That's what she was trying to get him to see?
When I'd explain the developments to my husband, he'd always smile at my reports. "How are you surprising yourself?" he'd ask. "Aren't you the one making it up?"
"It's magic," I would say back to him, and in a totally nerdy sort of way, that's exactly what it felt like.
This magic continued through the end, even when I realized my book still had problems, even when I realized there were plot gaps and point of view issues and two characters that needed to be merged. And I think that magic continued simply because I allowed myself to accept the fact that what I was writing could be fixed later. I think it continued because I resigned myself to just keep going, to just keep plugging away, to just get out the story so I could figure out what I had to work with when I had the time to dig in my fingers and rework the clay.
When I uploaded it to the word counter for validation, I felt good about my imperfect manuscript. It wasn't pretty, boxed up or "finished" in any sort of way that would make sense to another human being, but buried in mountains of prose that is sometimes beautiful and sometimes messy, lies the promise of an idea I brought to life, lies a world that I made, a world stuffed with questions and fears and hopes and dreams. And even if no one else sees it, that world will always be alive, that world will always change the way I see mine, that world will always be something that exists because somewhere along the line I silenced my inner doubter, my inner criticizer, my inner voice that says you can't do it, and I filled the silence with a heart that says, you can.
By Laura Moore
Glancing at my social media pages this morning, I couldn't help but be inspired as I gazed at the beaming mugs of children posing for first day pictures, showing off spiffed up threads, eager grins and signs bearing the name of their teacher and the grade they are about to enter.
Those images always wet my eyes when I consider the significance of the moment they capture, when I think about what the next 186 school days will hold for the children smiling for the camera.
As those kids stand on their front porch, or in the hallway, or on the lawn of their school, each of them is hovering on the precipice of a new beginning, a new chance, a new set of rules, a new batch of challenges and a new well of opportunities. They are poised for adventure--for the next leg of their journey--toes propped and ready to carry them forward where they will engage in work and play that will help them build, rebuild, create and recreate.
Over 186 school days, they will embrace new skills as they learn how to assign words to ideas, manipulate numbers, ask questions, create beauty, generate sounds or connect their present to the past. And their experiences will press them to widen and deepen both their minds and their hearts each time they are called to unearth their sometimes sturdy, sometimes wavering, sometimes strangled conviction to stand up for what is right. They will grow through their experiences, they will learn the bounds of their own strength, and they will discover how courageous and powerful they are each time they make themselves vulnerable.
Though they certainly arrive with the baggage of previous years: an armful of mistakes, a handful of doubters, and a stretch of road littered with bumps, the fact remains that on this day, their slate is strikingly clean. The grade card is clear, the sketchbook is blank, the pencils are full of graphite, the call lists and team rosters are empty and the possibilities are endless. When they stand for that picture, they have no idea who might cross their path, which future thoughts might fill them with wonder, or who they might become. They have no idea which adventures will shape their hearts or which challenges will make them shine.
All they know is that today is the beginning. The scary, exciting, highly anticipated beginning. The line in the sand, the start of the race, the dawn of a new chapter. The date on the calendar they don't want to think about until it is finally here, waiting for them, begging for them to arrive.
But once it comes, they do too.
And so should we.
See, in my opinion, we should all arrive--figuratively, of course--and celebrate on the first day of school. Regardless of how many years have passed since we stood smiling on our front porch, once a year, we should all dig down deep and discover the same courage we ask our kids to find. In honor of them, we should open our arms and embrace our fears. We should hype up our hopes and wonder what's possible. We should set new goals, anticipate new joys, meet new people, inspire new dreams, explore new opportunities, defend justice, reset, re-begin and re-imagine.
Today, we should bare our teeth, hold up our chins, dance to our own little tune, swim within a fresh wave of optimism, and tell our feet to march forward, onward, upward toward a renewed, reinvigorated version of ourselves. Today, we should try--just like them--to learn how we can make the world just a little bit better, how we can sift through the injustice and sadness, the oppression, violence and despair, and push through to the other side. How we can crack open our hearts, steady our voice, and brace our legs to stand up, to reach out, and to reach in.
Happy first day of school, everyone. Go get 'em.
By Laura Moore
After what seemed like ten straight days of rain, I finally decided to venture outside with the sole purpose of assessing the weed situation. Shovel in hand, yard waste bag at foot, I stood at the base of our walkway and immediately began laughing: clovers strategically assumed residence in nearly every vacant patch of unoccupied dirt.
The idea of removal seemed unappealing at first, but once I kneeled down and began to dig, I found the process strangely enjoyable. I looked forward to each new cluster of clover: the dainty ones, the hefty ones and everything in-between. Unable to suppress my childish urge to pause before I yanked, with each new patch, I allowed my eyes the guilty pleasure of scanning for a prized anomaly: the four leaf clover.
I continued plucking for an hour and a half, clearing the dirt of undesirable impostors, and as the crisp flowerbeds reemerged, I found myself thinking about weeds. Stuck on the moving boundaries of my definition, I decided to pause my effort, pull out my phone, and look up the word: "a herbaceous plant not valued for use or beauty, growing wild and rank, and regarded as cumbering the ground or hindering the growth of superior vegetation...an unprofitable, troublesome or noxious growth."
In other words, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, a weed is a worthless, ugly, toxic, wild and/or rank entity that gets in the way of things that are far more valuable.
After I swindled a few moments pondering the idea of vegetative hierarchy, I returned back to the clovers, back to the life form that had aggressively overtaken my hostas. The weed definition certainly seemed to fit the description of most clovers, but I couldn't help but wonder why it didn't fit the four leaf clover, a plant that is admired, used for good fortune, and profitable when pressed and sold. I couldn't help but wonder why a society who despises a particular plant would enshrine a deviant variety of that same life form. If we are truly committed to the elimination of anything that might crowd our illustrious landscaping, why would we worship a mutation that takes up more space?
This seems particularly odd given the fact that mainstream society tends to gravitate toward what's expected. We love our norms. We are comforted by our norms. We spend our lives learning how to navigate our norms, how to declutter our lives in pursuit of them. When something doesn't follow a consistent, predictable pattern, we are often stymied. When someone or something looks different or acts differently, we grow uneasy, and in extreme situations, because the anomaly feels threatening, we are often compelled to reject it, remove it, weed it from our lives.
For some reason, this is not true when it comes to four leaf clovers. When we see a four leaf clover, we cast aside our concern for prized landscaping. We abandon our mission to protect superior plant borders. We drop our adherence to norms and treasure the symmetrical imperfection pinched between our fingers. We raise it on a pedestal and revere it. Unlike its clover peers, we gaze at it, cherish it and even preserve it. Crowds gather to admire the vegetative spectacle, and good luck is bestowed upon any individual fortunate enough to sift through a patch of homogeny and find the oddball.
This thought delighted me as I foraged through the clovers in my yard. If we can cast aside our concerns about infringing weeds, we can certainly do it with people. If we can find the time to comb a yard in search of something that occurs 1/10,000 times, then maybe we can find the time to look closer, gaze wider and learn more about the people around us. If we can drop our guard and reexamine our perspective on vegetative intruders, maybe we can do the same with our neighbors. Maybe we, as a mainstream society, can carve out time each day to appreciate the four leaf clovers in our lives: the beautiful, useful and uniquely crafted people who just might enhance, rather than hinder, our growth.
By Laura Moore
It didn't happen right away.
Inspiration didn't swoon down from the gods. The tiny opening in the trees didn't issue an invitation to enter its domain. My fingers didn't feel an irresistible urge to pull out a pen and scribble on the notepad I tucked into the cup holder tray on my stroller.
Of course, those were the things I was hoping would happen when I packed up my baby and ambled down the sidewalk. With a thousand ideas curling around the margins in my jot pad and a million more pin balling around in my brain, I took a walk to find direction, clarity, focus. I took a walk so I could breathe, so I could observe, so I could grant my brain an opportunity to sort through ideas and give the more important ones a chance to clench my throat, climb up my esophagus and demand to be heard.
Of course none of this happened right away. Inspiration tends to be a tricky, little shape shifter. He rarely appears in predictable garb; she rarely arrives when you summon her. I knew this. And so I waited. Aiming to be present in the moment, I spoke to my baby in silly voices, giving him a tour of his neighborhood park, and I made him giggle by venturing into the bumpy domain of grass.
I also turned my iPhone to picture mode, frequently pausing to look around. Scanning the same scenery my husband and I pass on our evening walks, I looked for anomalies in the landscape. I investigated a low hanging leaf, burdened by the weight of raindrops clinging like climbers on the edge of a cliff. I indulged my curiosity, squatting to capture tarry footprints freshly imbedded in concrete. And I drew myself to gaps in the brush lining the creek, spotting a smattering of white wildflowers bursting like pinwheels against the lush vegetation.
I took note of jagged barriers in the grass, where portions had been cut, prepared for picnicking or play, and portions had been preserved, a matted labyrinth presumably left for nature. I relished my encounter with forked paths, marked trees and skittish squirrels. And I pondered the necessity of a 50 foot split rail fence that seemed to begin and end in a spot that appeared more appropriate for trees.
Somewhere along the way, my feet clipped the edge of a puddle sitting alone on a briefly barren stretch of asphalt. The unexpected jolt of wetness startled me, and I hopped backwards, pulling myself from the rainwater tickling my toes. I locked the wheels on my stroller, and turned to face the water which sparsely coated three thin feet of bike path. Leaning forward, I saw my shadow gaze back at me, dark and hazy, stirring back and forth across minuscule ripples, failing to settle into any state of stillness the entire time I looked.
I snapped a photograph of the faceless woman peering up at me, and then I continued further into the wooded area, where I encountered a deeper, larger pool, at least ten feet wide and six inches deep. I leaned over again, this time, hoping my reflection would be clearer. No matter how far I leaned though, my face did not appear. Leaves, caked in mud, lay matted along the bed, while trees climbed and cuddled above me. I switched positions, attempting to catch the sun at different angles. I crouched low to the ground and balanced my foot on a fallen branch bridging the water. Still, I could not see my face. I could not even see the shadow of my face. I saw nothing but clear water gazing back up at me.
In the absence of my reflection--in the caked leaves, the pooled water, the over-saturated sticks stretching from one space to another--a dull buzz of disappointment rose within me. When I saw the long, deep puddle, my creativity surged, and with all of the urgency of a person in pursuit of something terribly important, I wanted to see my face: clearer than hazy ripples, lighter than dark shadows. I wanted to capture my reflection in a prettier pool than the shallow asphalt one I encountered earlier. I wanted to snap what I perceived--in that moment--to be the inspiration I set out to find, the perfect image, the muse I needed to begin my latest project.
But I failed to manufacture such a shot. I failed to insert my face into a moment that wasn't meant to hold it. I failed to cast my reflection upon a collection of water already decorated with slivers of life. And I failed, because I didn't fit. I failed because my place was not in the pool of water, or in the symbolic mirroring I aimed to capture. My face wasn't meant to compete with the reflection of sunlight descending through the cracks in the canopy above me, or in the mosaic of muddy leaves layered like plush feathers in the clay. My face wasn't meant to cross over water-logged sticks or mingle with the grass.
My face was meant to observe, to listen, to breathe.
I walked away that morning without my prized shot, but as I pondered its absence during my journey home, I realized something far more important. We don't have to be part of everything in order for everything to be perfect. We don't have to have a place in the center of a landscape in order for us to belong. Our plans don't need to unravel cleanly in order for us to succeed. Sometimes our inspiration is less about what we see and more about what we imagine, less about what we want and more about what we get. Perhaps sometimes life doesn't intend for us to jump in; it just means for us to open our hearts and be moved.