A Good Title Is Hard to Find

When the Kardashian sisters announced on their website that they were writing a novel, publisher William Morrow described the book as the story of “three gorgeous celebrity sisters, their complicated relationships with Hollywood, each other and the glamorous lives they lead in front of the cameras and behind the scenes.” I know, not much of a stretch. However, the sisters were apparently having trouble coming up with a good title, and so they decided to sponsor a contest for their novel-in-progress. On their website Kimmy Kardashian explained: “We thought it would be super fun if we asked our fans to name the book! We couldn’t decide on a title, and we know how creative you guys are.”

This contest was certainly a publicity stunt to generate interest in a ghost-written celebrity book event (eventually called Dollhouse) that was designed to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Still, the Sisters K (now that might have been a good title) were on to something. Writing a book is hard, but sometimes coming up with the right title is harder.

Often, the words of the title are the last words a writer commits to in a short story, essay or a novel, and they can arrive only after some brain busting contemplation. Even the greatest writers have had to develop their titling instincts. Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace was originally All’s Well That Ends Well. And John Steinbeck’s original try for Of Mice and Men sounds as though he was ready to give it all up: Something That Happened. It’s hard to imagine anyone would be willing to crack the cover of a book with such a wan, decaffeinated title.

Other great books took quite a circuitous route before arriving at the moniker with which we’re all familiar. For example, The Great Gatsby had eight working titles, none of them very promising:

Incident at West Egg
Among the Ash Heaps and Millionaires
Trimalchio in West Egg
On the Road to West Egg
Gold-hatted Gatsby
The High-bouncing Lover
Under the Red White and Blue

In retrospect, it’s easy to laugh at early title drafts because the final choice is so apt it’s hard to entertain any alternate. And yet, all authors have to finally arrive at that perfect title, and sometimes the ones we jettison along the way help get us there. Eric Puchner, writing in The Rumpus, says “when it comes to the writing process, sometimes a bad title can help you more than a good one . . . I’ve heard students tell me they come up with their titles first, before they have the slightest notion of a plot. I see nothing wrong with this, so long as they’re willing to give up their ‘creative title’ when it no longer serves the story.”

In other words, even an inadequate title can lead you into the mysterious territory of the as yet unwritten. Eventually, as an initial title’s power weakens, and grows dim, this is the sign to search for another, or to patiently wait for a new one to appear out of the ongoing writing. The title isn’t merely a billboard advertising your product, it is inextricably linked to the ongoing creation of your story or essay.

So why do titles seem to be the neglected stepchild of workshop discussions? Rarely is the efficacy of a title examined at length in writing workshops. In all my years of teaching, I can recall just a few really detailed discussions of the title of the work in question. Most often, the title isn’t mentioned at all. Yet titles often pull far more than their weight in a reader’s experience and understanding of a literary work, and in myriad ways they can give depth and, for prose writers, come the closest we ever get to writing poetry. An apt title can be an x-ray of your story’s hidden heart, expanding the possibilities of all that remains unsaid.

I think one reason why few people bring up this issue in workshop is that, since we’ve all been through the agonies of drawing out a title that refuses to be found, we understand how personal the process is. I wonder if other writers feel on some unconscious level that finding a title is a conversation best kept between a writer and her story or essay or novel. In some ways, it’s like the intimate process of naming a child. Naming a child might actually be easier, though every parent probably remembers poring for days, even weeks through one of those How To Name Your Child books. Though this may be one of the most important acts of titling you’ll ever do in your life, when all is said and done, as a last resort you can always name your unborn son after Uncle Bob. Try doing that with a novel: Bob. Not so catchy.

As with naming our children, we’re uncomfortable if a work of art goes too long without a title; something seems wrong, incomplete. I remember the horror I felt when friends of mine told me that, two weeks later, they still hadn’t named their infant daughter. To me, it seemed as if the child was still waiting to be born.

Similar to naming a child, with a title you’re naming a work of art that is at the same time a part of yourself, offering that hitherto unknown territory within you some definition, a sly definition that has built within it more than one interpretation, so that this title, this work of art, will find a place outside you.

The great Brazilian writer, Clarisse Lispector, had so much trouble coming up with the title of her last novel that she listed, on the frontispiece, the thirteen possibilities she had entertained while writing.

(Click to enlarge image)

Some of these are clearly working titles, ideas about the book she was writing, about a sickly and naïve working class shop girl in northern Brazil. In some, the author seems to be recording her despair about the writing process itself. And yet, in the end, she chose a title that captures the attention with its poetry, and yet explains nothing—for that, you have to read the book: The Hour of the Star. It’s typical of Lispector to share her frustration about the process of finding a title. In this novel in particular she comments on the proceedings, including a wonderful passage in which she tries for several pages to decide whether or not she should let one of the characters, who has been hit by a car, die or not. So in a sense, that title page is true to the book’s spirit, which is in many ways about authorial creation and indecision.

The website Better Book Titles offers the snarky literary equivalent of Monday morning quarterbacking. At this website, people can post alternate, more “accurate” titles for famous books.

Instead of The Picture of Dorian Grey, by Oscar Wilde, this novel is now Never Stab a Magic Painting

Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca becomes So I Married a Definite Wife-Murderer

Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: This Fate Could Have Been Avoided If She had a Sassy Gay Friend

Melville’s Billy Budd: Jesus Would Not Last Long in the Navy

Ian McEwen’s Atonement: Kids Say the Darndest Things

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day: Butlers Can’t Share Their Feelings

Dicken’s A Christmas Carol: Rich People Deserve Second Chances

There’s a truth that can be learned from this very incomplete list. These alternate titles are actually terrible (which is why they’re so funny) because they sum up the contents too well. They give too much away, like those trailers for movies we immediately know we’ll never see.

The best title serves as an ambiguous invitation. It should offer something true about your book that at the same time can’t quite be said. What We Talk about When We Talk about Love, by Raymond Carver, is perhaps one of the more classic titles in recent American fiction. It has such an elegant structure, those two, nearly identical halves

What we talk about
When we talk about

culminating in the word love.

Nine words, and all but two (the repeated “about”) are monosyllables. The simplicity of the language echoes the short story collection’s aesthetic too, for this is of course a work of minimalist fiction. And yet that last word, love, complicates everything, maximalizes the title. “Love” is a big subject, and what we talk about, when we talk about it, is not clear from the title. You have to read the book to find out, and you can be sure that there won’t be only one “what,” connected to this bottomless subject. One way to get a better sense of the power of Carver’s title is to contemplate the variations you can find nearly anywhere.

“What We Talk about When We Talk about Flow” is the title for an excellent essay on the subject of prose rhythm by David Jauss, from his craft book Alone with All that Could Happen. But you can also find, with a quick Google search, What We Talk about When We Talk about

Raising taxes
The weather
Not having kids

These variations are all homages to the classic original, but they have little or none of the poetry (with the exception of the Jauss title); instead, they are informational, as they were intended to be. They narrow the focus of attention. Carver’s title in contrast opens it up, with an implied promise of multiple revelation. Carver, remember, was also a fine poet.

But titling fiction, nonfiction or poetry contains as infinitude of approaches, as well as dangers. An indifferent title can be your essay’s tombstone. An overly flashy title can be a garish neon sign that distracts from the goods in the window. And of course there is no single path to lead you to a final decision.

Sometimes, a title can also set up an anticipation that may or may not be met, which may ironically encourage the reader to see the complexities that can’t be contained by the title. A short story recently published by John Warner in the literary/arts magazine Ninth Letter has a mouthful of a title: “Return to Sensibility Problems After Penetrating Captive Bolt Stunning of Cattle in Commercial Beef Slaughter Plant #5867: Confidential Report.” The dry, reportorial nature of this title is undermined by the voice of the narrator, an inspector who slowly becomes undone by the realities and ambiguities of dealing out death in the slaughterhouse–by the end, it becomes increasingly unlikely that this very official-sounding report will ever be submitted.

Gloria Sawai, in her collection The Song of Nettie Johnson, has another great stem-winder of a title, though its effects are quite different from the Warner story: “The Day I Sat with Jesus on the Sundeck and a Wind Came Up and Blew My Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts.” This is a title that will capture your attention, and sets up a number of questions before you read the first sentence of the story. Is the narrator joking, or seriously delusional? Are we as readers meant to believe in this spiritual event? And if so, what the hell then happens after that wind arrives? Will Jesus behave like a gentleman?

Titles can be so elusive, so frustrating to pin down because they are a concentrated form of the originality and revelation we seek in our writing, the fragile creatures of our imagination that must be named, but not reduced. They must be named in a way that allows them to breathe, and to breathe in tandem with a reader. Sad to say, you’re not likely to be able to rely on your workshop mates for much help. Only you the author know just what secrets lie embedded in your text, just what distillation of words, in the guise of a title, might give those secrets voice, what might best represent the complicated freedom of your book’s irreducible self.

This post is an abridged version of a craft lecture (titled “To Kill a Great Gatsby in Cold Blood or, A Good Title Is Hard to Find”) that I first delivered at the Vermont College of Fine Arts on June 29, 2011. During the lecture, the audience and I collaborated on an entry for the Kardashian contest. We came up with Beyond Spanx, which, unfortunately, was not chosen.

For a personal account of an author struggling to find just the right title, see Erika Dreifus’ thoughtful essay “What’s in a Title?” at The Center for Fiction.

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January 29th, 2012 by admin

The Life We Learn to Lead as Writers

After my last post, on the units of structure Shakespeare employed in his plays, scenes arranged as diptychs and triptychs, I thought I’d continue my thoughts on structure in writing by quoting a prose poem by the poet David Ignatow, titled “The Life They Lead”:

“I wonder whether two trees standing side by side really need each other. How then do they spring up so close together? Look how their branches touch and sway in each other’s path. Notice how at the very top, though, they keep the space between them clear, which is to say that each still does its thinking but there is the sun that warms them together.

“Do their roots entangle down there? Do they compete for nourishment in that fixed space they have to share between them, and if so, is it reflected in their stance towards one another, both standing straight and tall, touching only with their branches. Neither tree leans towards or away from the other. It could be a social device to keep decorum between them in public. Perhaps their culture requires it and perhaps also this touching of branches is to further deceive their friends and associates as to the relationship between them—while what goes on beneath the surface is dreadful, indeed, roots gnarled and twisted or cut off from their source by the other and shrunken into lifelessness, with new roots flung out desperately in a direction from the entanglement, seeking their own private, independent sources. As these two trees stand together, they present to the eye a picture of benign harmony, and that may be so, with both dedicated to the life they lead.”

What does this have to do with structure? This prose poem offers us visually two trees, standing side by side in a symmetrical arrangement, the view we have of trees day by day. But there is another symmetry, a secret diptych: the branching system above ground is echoed by the branching root system below ground. The two systems roughly mirror each other, and it is instructive to remember that every tree we see as we go about our daily lives is really only half that tree.

So, we have the benign pairing of trees above ground, the more fearful symmetry of the trees below ground, their roots competing for sustenance. Two seemingly peaceful and yet warring trees can of course be seen as a statement on the tug and pull of human relationships, on how psychological tension balances collaboration. But this seems to me to also be a good model for structure. Writers try to build, through chapters, stanzas, and sections of a short story or essay (every imaginable variation on Frost’s tennis net, really), something of tensile strength that will hold a work of the imagination together. But because it is a work of imagination, such an endeavor is not so simple. Held within the parts we fit together is a world of human ambiguity and conflict, a root system of potential chaos and entropy. The tension between the two is the life we learn to lead as writers.

We all know how messy writing can be, how guessing and chance, in addition to simple due diligence through an intractable problem, gets us to where we need to go. But through the mess of creation, structure somehow does get its say. Just as, in Ignatow’s prose poem, those chaotic, competing roots below the surface eventually grow a graceful tree. Patterns do begin to emerge. Yet the structures you choose should be as individual as your own creative vision. I’d like to emphasize this point by turning to our little friends, the ants.

There’s a myrmecologist named Walter Tschinkel of the University of Florida who has developed a peculiar specialty: He pours a gooey mixture that resembles dental plaster into ant nests; when the mixture fills all the passageways of the nest and then hardens, he digs away the surrounding dirt and is left with the architecture of the ant colony. It’s an ingenious way to study the structure of ant societies, though perhaps we shouldn’t dwell too much on all those drowned ants preserved within his plaster-like pastes.

What Tschinkel discovered is that every ant species builds a different shaped nest. They each have “a specific nest design, and each builds from a particular set of rules,” as Jack McClintock states in a Discover magazine article. A particular set of rules that build a specific design . . . sounds a lot like Shakespeare’s manipulation of scenes into combinations of diptychs and triptychs.

Each ant colony is a formal, planned shape, built to contain the teeming life within. This particular ant nest resembles an underground tornado, a seeming chaos of design slimming down to a narrow base:

This nest, in contrast, resembles a far more staid series of steps going down:

It reminds me of the chart Italo Calvino worked up for his novel If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler—but only after he had written the book.

All structure leans toward elegance, I believe, even when it might at first seem a little lop-sided. Examining closely a book’s architecture will reveal much of its meaning as well. One example is the structure of Yann Martel’s first novel, Self, which I mentioned in my previous post. Another example is the story collection A Song for Nettie Johnson, by Gloria Sawai (winner of Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award), which is dominated by the novella-length title story (and by the way, how can anyone not love a book that ends with a story titled “The Day I Sat with Jesus on the Sundeck and a Wind Came Up and Blew My Kimono Open and He Saw My Breasts”?).

Sawai’s novella that begins the collection (and clocking in at ninety pages it’s nearly a third of the entire book) is a tale of two damaged people who somehow manage to create a working relationship, as if their two separate internal limps balance each other out (two trees, anyone?). Religion and art and the imagination also figure largely in this title story, and it seems as if Sawai at first sets forth the grand themes of her work in this novella so that the eight shorter stories that follow become variations, as if we’ve left the larger lake and are now making our way through the winding tributaries.

We build our books in much the way different species of ants construct their underground homes, with an astonishing variety of invention. And so the shape of our stories and poems and essays become personal mirrors that reflect our secret selves.

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March 23rd, 2011 by admin