The Fear Chronicles: In Pursuit of a Title

Before graduate school, I didn’t give much thought to titling my poems. I titled them, but haphazardly, almost as an afterthought. But once in graduate school, one of my poetry teachers stressed the importance of our titles, and suggested that after we’d written a poem, that we start listing as many possible titles as we could think of at the top of the page, just before the poem began. She said to list them indiscriminately. Initially this exercise in titling should be something like freewriting, my teacher said: just get the ideas out, and make sense of them later. At first, I found the process tiresome, and annoying, if I’m honest. I figured the poem was done, so why did I have to spend all this time with titles?

But I persisted, and what I realized as I listed title possibilities was that what I was actually doing was asking myself what the point of the poem was. I was asking what the crux of it was, what the main message was.  And sometimes if I couldn’t boil it down, or come up with more than a couple of ideas, the poem was bad. Not unsalvageable, but not quite right: in need of revision. The process of titling became part of my process of revision.

I soon learned that titles are important. Whether you write novels, poetry, plays, or short stories, the title of your piece is the first thing the reader will see. The title is often the determining factor as to whether the potential reader will read further. Sure, the cover may have something to do with propelling the reader onward, but often it’s the title you judge a book by.

Shakespeare wrote: “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” but this logic does not apply to titling your creative work. A title by any other name does not smell as sweet. Or to put it another way: a bad title does not coax a reader onward. A bad title is the equivalent to a bleach smell at a restaurant: off-putting and uninviting.

The title is the entry point, the way into the piece. With poetry, the title is often the key to unlock the mystery of the poem, the last puzzle piece that completes the picture. The title might be a single word that pinpoints the topic of the poem. The title might be a line from the poem itself; maybe even the first line, as is often seen with Emily Dickinson’s poetry. The title might be a few key words found sprinkled throughout the poem. The title may, seemingly, have nothing to do with the poem at all. The title might lead into an epigraph: a quote that inspired the poem in some way. The title might lead directly into the first line of the poem by starting a sentence that the next line finishes. There are many ways to skin a cat, as they say, and of course, as with any other aspect of writing, this engenders a certain amount of self-doubt. With all these possibilities, how can you possibly choose the best one?

Despite the self-doubt, lately I’m in favor of one word titles. I never much liked this strategy before, seeing it as somewhat lazy. But in the ever-constant pursuit of clarity and economy in my writing (keeping poets like Kay Ryan and Louise Gluck at the forefront of my mind), I am playing around with this approach. I’m keeping in mind this idea of the title being a key to unlock the heart of the poem, and that the key can be simple: one groove, one tooth.

Of course, choosing just one word can be daunting. What if that word doesn’t do it for the reader, both in terms of beckoning the reader onward or in terms of unlocking the message? Wouldn’t more words result in better odds?

Still, the one word title is a worthy challenge. I suppose it’s an exercise in sparseness, but in vulnerability, too. Sometimes those extra words give too much padding, too much obfuscation. Sometimes, it’s interesting to see if you can boil all your other words down to one, to see if it beckons, to see if it’s sweet enough.

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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…