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
"This is a ball, and it is blue," I told Z conclusively, before realizing, seconds later, it was a lighter blue than the other one several balls away.
"Oh! This one is also blue, but it's dark blue," I added, trying to figure out why the toy company had to use the same color on a toy that only needed five total options.
"Darker means it has more pigment. So this is a dark blue because they put more blue color in it, and this is a light blue because they put less color in it. Does that make sense?"
Our nine month old just kept babbling and grabbing at objects. Of course it didn't make sense. He can say three words and he doesn't know what any of them mean.
"And, well, ummm," I started again, thinking about where I wanted to take this, "we should call this a bead and not a ball. It has a hole in the center and it's moving on a wire bar, whereas an actual ball bounces and rolls. Mommy should not have called it a ball. I'm sorry if that confused you. It's a bead, a dark blue bead, and this one is orange, this one is yellow, this one is red, and this one is light blue..."
Shoot, maybe we should call the blues their actual colors so he doesn't get confused.
I promptly Googled shades of blue and held my computer close to the bead/balls.
"Okay, buddy. This bead is sapphire and this bead is baby blue."
But what about the cup? We've been telling him the cup is blue. Should we figure out its shade or should we just keep calling it blue? Which is more confusing? Will they have to know shades in preschool?
Mid-thought, Z decided to abandon the beads, and his fingers began caressing a panel of doors.
"Look at this buddy," I said rotating one them on its hinges.
"Open, shut, open, shut, open, shut."
He reached for the knob and began to swivel it on his own.
"Open, shut, open, shut, open, shut," I continued, and after six swings of the door, he finally decided to stop and hold it open.
"Look inside," I told him, pointing to the image staring up from wood. "There's a zebra, and here is the word zebra. Zebra-Zebra. I know it's confusing, but this word says what this picture shows," I explained moving my finger back and forth between the image and the word. "They both symbolize a real zebra."
He looked up at me and then reached for the knob.
"Hold on a minute," I told him, pressing my finger against the door. "Let's talk about colors too. This is black and this is white," I said, pointing to the stripes, but Z pushed away my hand, reached up, grabbed the wire bars, and dove head first into the side of the wood.
I couldn't blame him.
Mommy went totally and completely overboard.
"I'm so sorry buddy," I said kissing his head and squeezing him tight. "I know it is so hard. Is it a zebra or is it black and white? Is it a frog or is it green? Is it a bead or a ball? Is it dark blue or sapphire? Oh my gosh. I have totally confused you."
I tried to keep comforting him, but after seven seconds of cuddling, Z squirmed away, totally healed.
"Mommy will make it clearer next time," I promised, and then I bowed on my knees and worshiped the ground upon which early childhood educators walked. As a high school English teacher, I teach kids how to write literary analyses, how to create believable characters, and how to convincingly make a point, but as tough as that is sometimes, at least my kiddos have some words.
Z had none. Nada. Zilch. Zero.
He had so much ground to gain. And the distance felt overwhelming. I wondered how anyone acquired words when they started with nothing. When they had to listen to language and collect it like marbles, when they had to ascribe meaning to sounds and string those sounds together to form thoughts. When they had to move next to the page, where letters represented noises that combined to capture ideas, and brains had to follow the curve and bend of a pen as it rose and fell and dotted its i's, spewing out scribbles that melded together like the sounds did, scribbles that formed words and sentences and paragraphs that captured the essence of something real.
Life suddenly felt so heavy as I looked at him standing there, leaning against activity cube. As I thought about how much there was for him to learn, and how challenging it would be to figure out what was most important. But I had to start somewhere. I had to give him language so he could engage in the world.
Nouns and verbs, I thought, start there. The adjectives can come later.
"Okay buddy, let's look at the animals," I started to say, but in a sudden swoop, Z reached forward, tightened his fingers around the wires and darted upward with his legs. He screamed at the top of his lungs and started laughing uncontrollably. Glee leaked from every corner of his skin. Standing on his tippy toes, he stretched out his tongue, and he gurgled, and drooled, and giggled like a maniac.
And in a flash--just like that--none of my previous concerns about language seemed important. In a flash, I dismissed all thoughts of zebras and frogs and colors and shapes and actions. And I squashed any remaining urge to explain to him that he was now standing.
Instead, I scooted around beside him.
"Happy," I said, grinning from ear to ear. "You're happy."
I nuzzled my face up close so he could touch my cheeks and gaze into my eyes.
"And Mommy's happy," I said, turning him around so I could kiss his cheeks.
"Happy," I said once more for good measure, and he waved his hands and squealed. Then he reached back and took hold of the wires, held himself up on his own two feet.
And as I watched him look up at me--standing proudly on his own--I realized I wasn't saying "happy" so he could hear the sound and test it out on his tongue. I didn't say it because the parenting guides listed it as appropriate, or because one of the characters looked happy on the page.
I was saying it because that's what his father and I want him to be. I was saying it because in that moment, it felt far more important than zebras and frogs and colors and wires and beads. I was saying it because I wanted him to remember how it felt to bask in the essence of joy, to laugh and celebrate, to cuddle, and kiss and dream.