By Laura Moore
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.