The Title. Titles. Titling.

I wrote at least a thousand essays in the course of my high school career, not to mention college. To this day, I have frantic dreams about trying to submit long hand-written papers, where I’m desperately running around the school, looking for what I wrote and never finding it, becoming later and later for class as I search. Each one swells as thick as a textbook and I know I brought them all with me, but my locker is locked and I can’t remember the combination, and my class schedule is inside so I can’t even figure out which class I’m missing to explain it all to the teacher and then I’m jolted awake because in real life, my legs decide to try to make the jump down the stairs that I attempted in my dream.

My days overflowed with classes like Composition, Comparative Writing, Critical Writing and Becoming an Essayist. I took courses on Dickens, Hemingway, Melville and Joyce, courses for which the homework consisted of daily comparisons, contrasts and discussions of themes. Even my history classes required copious writing, as we discussed images of man through European and American history, Western Civilization and Ancient Greece.

Four solid years of straight non-fiction writing. My coming-of-age, formative years were built on a base of serious and critical writing, and then frosted with a large handful of pressure-blasted crucial college application essays. I compared, contrasted, discussed, argued, clarified, debated, disputed and postulated. I learned how to convey thoughts, ideas, opinions and facts in a clear, concise manner and how to present myself and my conclusions with authority and conviction.

What I didn’t learn was how to create a title.

All those essays and papers came with their own titles. “The Effects of Dante’s Inferno on Modern Culture,” “Colonialism vs. Imperialism in post-Revolutionary Europe,” “Thematic Comparison of  Catcher in the Rye and A Separate Peace.” The assignment was the title. Simple and easy, as we used to say, a “no-brainer.” Now, I did take a couple of creative writing classes as well in those four years, and I wrote for the school literary magazine – stereotypical maudlin teenage-angst-ridden poetry, mostly, with the occasional short story, and most of them came from a class assignment, where, yes – the title came from the assignment.

So, when I started my public writing career, posting a short vignette weekly, I had a challenge on my hands, or rather, in my head. I was horrible with titles. In fact, I didn’t even title my first few posts. It was only under duress of the publisher that I did it at all. To me, there was so much involved in each of my pieces that I froze trying to dilute one down to a few descriptive words. My mentor asked me, “What is it about? Let the title tell the reader what it’s about.” That didn’t help. I felt that each reader should get out of it whatever they wanted, and it was ridiculous for me to tell them what they should glean from my words. I wanted to call each one, “Another Enjoyable Piece that I Humbly Hope You Enjoy,” or something like that, so the readers would simply know how I wanted them to feel going into it. I longed for the old days, when titles had colons and semi-colons in them, followed by a longer description. I was so happy when I discovered, a la Wikipedia, that “Robinson Crusoe,” was originally titled “The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner: Who lived Eight and Twenty Years, all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself. With An Account how he was at last as strangely deliver’d by Pirates.” Daniel Defoe knew how to write a title.

Creating simple, intriguing titles is part of my journey as a writer. I hold tightly to the slight comfort that if I’m going to get any kind of block, title block is the best. As long as the words of the story flow, as long as my fingers  release the ideas from my brain onto the screen or paper without hestitation, I’m in good shape. I will continue to write enjoyable pieces that I hope other people will enjoy as well, and keep a small part of my brain on alert for phrases that neatly sum things up and deliver the point. It’s a process, right? Maybe that should be the title…


7 thoughts on “The Title. Titles. Titling.

  1. I love creating pithy titles. I wrote a paper once in college – I can’t remember the book or the theme, but the title was “Kissing with Onions”.

  2. Kim, reflection of one’s weaknesses is the first part of resolution. You’re going to find your way to titles the way you found your way to writing – with skill, effort, and talent, all of which you have in such abundance that you make the process look easy. And yes, not a bad title.

  3. Titles are one of those things in writing with which I have a love-hate relationship. Sometimes I write a story and have no clue what to use as a title, in which case I will borrow from a line somewhere in the story to make the title. Other times, I have a title that pops into my head… with no idea of what the story is or will be. I like titles to be part of the story in a way, not just an afterthought… so it is a struggle sometimes for me to not get hung up on the quality of or lack of a title.

  4. I’ve worked so hard at creating great titles I’ve started teaching my students how to do it. I can’t stand to read their boring titles now that I know they Right Way.

  5. Urgghh! I hate having to put a title on work…Great article!

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