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
I tried really hard to make my story fiction.
I wrote down what I knew to be true and then I let my imagination sprinkle it with details.
I changed the setting.
I stretched out the timeline of the characters's relationship.
I imagined a dramatic fall at the end, where the stranger reached out and caught the protagonist, uttering a poetically perfect phrase that wrapped up the tale with a tightly looped ribbon.
And in the end--despite the story being 75% real--everything about it felt false, forced, fake. It felt overly convenient and unrealistic. It felt all pie-in-the-sky, all naive, all sickeningly sweet.
When I pictured it in the hands of a reader, I could imagine someone snickering. "That would never happen," the guy would say. Or "now, now, you unsavvy, little optimist. Do you really think someone is going to buy this [insert eye roll] little tale?"
Each time I imagined the story's reception, I returned to the piece and revised the living daylights out of it, spending hours word-smithing sentences, altering images, deepening my characterization, heightening the drama, searching for ways to resolve the issues, before tucking it into a drawer and starting the process again a month later.
But no matter how many times I did this, no matter how many active and inactive months I spent, every time I read the story out loud, something always felt off.
Having been nose deep in writing books and articles and workshop notes, I wondered if perhaps this piece was hopeless. "Sometimes a story just isn't salvageable," a small press editor said in a workshop. "Before you invest a significant amount of time on a project, you need to decide if it's really worth it."
If the story had been 100% fiction, I think I would have said it wasn't worth it. I think I would have pegged it as a troublesome pest. I'd have chalked it up to a learning experience, a part of the process, a step along the path to getting better.
But the story--the true story--was real and because I knew it was a good one, I couldn't let it go. It happened five years ago, and yet time didn't render it any less significant in my life. Even more, each time I told it aloud to friends or to strangers sitting around a table, people were moved, stunned, silent, as they listened to each detail.
I knew there was something to it. There just was, and so no matter how immature or optimistic the story sounded, I couldn't bring myself to toss it into a slush pile of experimentation. I couldn't accept that it was an unsalvageable beast. I couldn't close out the document for good.
So I kept revising.
For seven months.
I kept trying to figure out what was wrong. I kept trying to figure out how to fix it. And the more I worked on the story, the better it got. The sentences were certainly crisper, the images were definitely more evocative and the story fit more snuggly into the plot arc.
But despite all of that, it still sunk flat on the page. It still didn't sound right. It still wasn't fixed it, and I couldn't figure out why....
Until two nights ago.
I printed out my latest round of revisions and gave the story to my husband. He offered me his feedback and then we discussed it. As we talked, something clicked and I realized what was wrong. I had been spending the majority of my revision effort trying to make the unbelievably real (although very much real) things in a fake story actually sound like they could happen.
I was making excuses for coincidences. I was building a case for strange exceptions. I was ignoring what made the story good to begin with. By attempting to fictionalize it, I was standing behind a curtain with my hands and toes and head peaking beyond the edges. "I am real. I am here. Let me out," the veiled version of me was saying. And I was too focused on my mission to listen.
My story didn't need to be fictionalized or exaggerated or drawn out. It didn't need to be tidied up and I didn't need to make excuses for it.
I just needed to tell it. Honestly. In the form that best suited the purpose.
I just needed to let it be what it was.
How true is this about life? About ourselves? About every small thing we force fit into places it was never meant to fit?
The minute I went back and erased the falsities--the minute I accepted the truths--the seemingly insurmountable barriers, the unsalvageable sentences, the naive images, they all fell away. And while I have no idea whether or not this story will ever get published, I do know that I fixed the problem. I do know that it no longer sounds naive. And I do know--without a shadow of a doubt--that it was certainly worth the effort to save it.
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
It's easy to say it out loud: to look into someone's eyes and own what I daydream about every single day of my life. It's easy to think what if
and someday I will
when my dreams hover like white puffs swarming in mid-December air, visible as long as I keep talking, fleeting the moment my lips close.
It's easy to say because in the deepest bowels of my existence, it turns out that I do
want every last thing I dream about. I do
want to pour myself on paper and toss it out to the world and reach some distant soul who needed to read what I had to say at some particular moment in time. I do
want to make something that lasts, that captures our lives, today, and add it to the enormous time capsule of contemporary history. I do
want to drill into my brain, set up a rig, and shuttle my imaginative musings out of hibernation and into my fingers so I can come alive. I do
want to open a package, find a book with my name on it, hold it up to my nose, shut my eyes, and breathe it in.
Like me, there are millions of people busy wanting and wishing and wondering. We are all trapped in a cobweb of hope, our fingers and toes stuck, tangled in strings of fear, doubt, duty, and insecurity. All of us dangle there, hanging, our past behind us, our dreams playing out across the room. We can see them vividly. We can even see the people who have already achieved them: those who overcame adversity, those who hit it big on YouTube or Twitter or Instagram, those who just so happened to catch the right person's attention through a forward of a forward of a forward.
Those who simply took a risk and managed to break free.
They're all there.
And I envy them.
I waste a gajillion minutes every single day envying them, wishing I could pull myself loose string by string, and join the conversation, wishing my dream didn't seem so faint and real life didn't seem so comfortable.
But then, a few days ago, in the midst of my comfort, I came across a video of Shonda Rhimes delivering her 2014 commencement address to Dartmouth College
. Several of my classmates from Dartmouth posted the video on Facebook, and curious, I took a moment to watch.
"When people give these kinds of speeches, they usually tell you all kinds of wise and heartfelt things" Rhimes said a few minutes in, after explaining to the audience that she doesn't like giving speeches and she is afraid she is going to "pass out" or "die" or "poop her pants."
"They tell you: Follow your dreams. Listen to you spirit. Change the world. Make your mark. Find your inner voice and make it sing. Embrace failure. Dream. Dream and dream big. As a matter of fact, dream and don't stop dreaming until all of your dreams come true."
She paused. Then, she said, "I think that's crap."
As she spoke, the videographer panned the graduate section, showcasing an array of black gowns adorned in yellow and orange and red and white hoods. Just behind them, we could see a few rows of undergraduates, some in the traditional black garb, others sitting on top of their split-open gown, shoulders bared, presumably hoping to snag a few rays as they float in time, lost in limbo between everything they knew and everything they dreamed.
I remember being one of them. I remember wanting to stop and greet honorary graduates Hank Aaron and J.K. Rowling as I made my way to President Wright's outstretched hand. I remember the weight of my degree. I remember leaving the stage, full of pride, full of sadness, full of grief. I remember wallowing in the strange reality that everything I worked for my entire life was ending, and I was now free to fly.
I remember feeling lost. I remember being scared. I remember wondering where my path would go. That
girl needed to hear what Rhimes was saying.
girl still needs to hear what she is saying.
I leaned closer to the screen.
"I think a lot of people dream," Rhimes began again. "And while they are busy dreaming, the really happy people, the really successful people, the really interesting, engaged, powerful people, are busy doing....
Dreams are lovely. But they are just dreams. Fleeting, ephemeral, pretty. But dreams do not come true just because you dream them. It's hard work that makes things happen. It's hard work that creates change."
I paused the video. I felt the words on my tongue: dreaming without doing is
I know that. As the girl who threw a hundred pitches rain or shine every single day of her life until the last day of her softball career, I knew it. As the girl who wrote ten page papers instead of five page papers, I knew it. As the girl who stayed up late to grade her essays in one week's time rather than two or three weeks time, I knew it.
I absolutely knew it.
I've always known it.
Anyone who has ever pursued anything worthwhile knows it.
I sat in my seat fully convicted. As much as I live it in every other area of my life, I don't live it with my dreams anymore, and I'm not sure how I ended up here as a non-doer or a partial doer or a when-I-have-time doer: as a dreamer.
That wasn't who I was when I sat on those white chairs littering the Dartmouth Green. It wasn't who I was when my starry eyes led me to New York City or my heavy heart propelled me to graduate school or my free spirit flew me to Florence, Italy.
who I was and it is not
who I want
I no longer want to continue living in my brain and floating in the sky.
I want to push my words to the edge of the airplane and let them dive face first into a vat of ink, tumble onto parchment, and nestle into a piece of paper anchored to the earth.
I want to put myself out there. I no longer want to sit back, overwhelmed, unsure where to start.
I want to write.
And so I must write.
If I want my dreams to become real, I need to chase after them. I need to own them, dissect them, explore them, understand them and pursue them.
I need to stop theorizing and fantasizing, and instead, discover the gold nugget postulate that explains how someone like me can defy gravity. I need to sharpen my voice, find my path, understand my market, surrender my inhibitions and write.
I need to make a schedule, sign my name to it and work hard. String, by string, I need to pull myself down, steady my feet and find my way. It's about time I get off of my butt and stop making excuses for letting my writing dream trail further and further away as I focused on my students, or on moving or on my wedding or on becoming a mom or on any of the other thousands of things that simply make up real life.
Shonda Rhimes is right: dreaming without doing is crap.
And so, after a year long break, I'm back in the blogging sphere. I'm jumping in headfirst. I'm ready to learn. I'm ready to work. I'm ready to get reacquainted with the person I want to be.
I'm ready to do