I was thinking, for some reason, of the words we used to chant when we were kids playing games–things like, Red Rover! Red Rover: Let Sheila come over! That was Sheila’s invitation into the rough and tumble of the game. She’d loose her grip on the hands that held hers and fling herself into the fray.
Or when we jumped rope: there was a cadence that the rope-spinners would trill as a soon-to-be-ejected player jumped:
Pom, pom, pompadour Joanie!
Showing Pammie to the door!
Joanie’s the one
who’s gonna have some fun,
and we don’t need Pammie any more.
Shut the door!
And out Pammie would go, with grace, she hoped, and not tangled or tripping, as Joanie got her two solo minutes to dance in the swinging rhythm of the jump rope.
Clear, inviting, satisfying: the words of those games drew us in, and the words of those games ushered us out. In between, there was a robust and satisfying interlude, and we’d usually want to go back and do it all over again.
That, I thought, is just like writing.
Our titles have a big job. No pressure, of course. They just have to connect with potential readers, and intrigue or perplex or interest them enough that they find our work and read it. Like a wonderfully designed book cover, an irresistible storefront sign, or an outfit that makes you think, “I HAVE to meet that person,” a title is the compelling opening gambit.
If the title is dull, ordinary, or uninviting, the treasures behind it it might never be fully discovered. And that would be a shame.
I’m looking at one of my bookshelves, and I see Molly O’Neill’s Mostly True, which is a memoir. I was drawn to that book for multiple reasons: It’s about food, by an expert; gotta love that. O’Neill is originally from Columbus, my adopted nearest-‘big’-city. And–she grew up as the only girl in a baseball family, and I know about that. So I was inclined to the book, anyway, but the title sealed the deal. Mostly true, indeed–when you write a memoir, your truth is definitely subject to the judgement and memories of others. Sometimes, even, you exaggerate on PURPOSE. And I wanted to read a book by a writer who was honest enough to admit that, up front.
The book followed through, with wit and humor, warmth, and adventure. And baseball. And food.
A wry statement that sets the tone is a great way to title a work.
There’s The Small Rain, a Madeleine L’Engle novel, nestled nearby O’Neill’s book on the shelf. It was L’Engle’s first novel; I tracked it down after reading her Wrinkle in Time series again, as a grown-up who’d loved them as a kid. Then I traveled through her memoirs and dabbled in her writing on spirituality, and finally, I decided to find her early fiction. The title of The Small Rain comes from a snippet of poem L’Engle quotes in the beginning of the book:
Western wind, when wilt thou blow,
The small rain down can rain?
Christ if love were in my arms
And I in my bed again!
Well, THAT’S intriguing, isn’t it? It certainly gives me an idea that the book is about a passionate physical love and wrenching separation, and a resolution that slakes some sort of thirst. And yes, indeedy: I want to know more about THAT.
Taking a bit of a quote, maybe one that others recognize, or maybe one that just resonates perfectly with the content of your writing, is a wonderful way to title a work. (Include the whole, fully-formed quote at the beginning or the end; center it and put it into italics. Then those unfamiliar will get your connection.)
A quote is a great source for a title.
So is a saying we all know, used in a fresh way. One of my favorite practical-philosophical books is by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin; it’s called Your Money or Your Life. That’s a famous saying from old cowboy movies, or films with scenes of varlets in the English countryside stopping the fancy coach and stealing the gold and jewels. It implies danger, an act of theft, loss, and a sudden impoverishment.
So it’s interesting that this book deals with our own modern relationships to money–and what our societies tell us about that relationship. Who, in this version, is the thief? Or–could we be robbing ourselves?
Taking those familiar words and using them in a totally unexpected, but totally applicable, way, makes for a great title. Could I do the same, maybe, with, say, my mother’s famous line: Let me make a short story long?
What pre-packaged sayings populate your lexicon and might just title your work?
Or–could you take something very familiar, words we all hear over and over, and morph them slightly to match your meaning? Can you change them just enough that they tantalize and lure?
One of my favorite books is The Persian Pickle Club, by Sandra Dallas; I think it’s one of the mostly deftly woven mysteries of modern times. But I was first drawn to it, when I saw it on the library shelf, because of its title. What the heck, I had to know, is a Persian Pickle?
Turns out it’s a name for a particular paisley pattern. The book is about a group of small-town quilting women in Dust Bowl, USA, during the Great Depression. Like their description, they seem ordinary and unremarkable. Like the title, there’s something a little more exotic, a little more daring, about the ladies in the group.
So a unique or unusual way of phrasing the familiar or the tame might be a very intriguing way to title a work. If you’re writing about cooking spaghetti and how that has been a part of your life since way back when, for instance, why not title the work with the name your little brother used to call the dish? I would have to read an essay titled “Bizgetti and Beatmalls.”
A title that surprises and delights, but is directly connected to meaning, is a great front door to your work.
And then, oh Lordie, there’s the ending. Sometimes I get to the end of an essay, and I have said everything I want to say, and, oh, man: my work is just hanging there. Stopping at that point would be like leaving a house where I’m visiting and not closing the door behind me–kind of rude, kind of awkward, and maybe the rain comes in and ruins the memory of a wonderful visit. I need to wrap things up in a way that makes sense and satisfies.
Mostly True ends with a quote from an important presence in the book. The last line is this, something O’Neill’s mother said: “My Gawd, Molly, maybe it was all worthwhile.”
(Did O’Neill’s mother really say just those words? I don’t know–remember, this is MOSTLY true. But the author surely captured the essence of her mother’s persona, and surely chose a perfect phrase to wrap up her work with a satisfying entry.
The Small Rain ends with a person on the beach, watching a departure.
The last line in Your Money or Your Life, the end line in the epilogue, is the point of the whole book: There is more to life than nine-to-five.
And The Persian Pickle Club ends with a challenging puzzle, with an acknowledgement that some accounts and some appearances can’t quite be trusted. It ends by letting us know, surely and definitively, that we will never know for sure–but it requires that we ruminate. (Saying more than that could ruin the ending of a very crafty book.)
So–looking for a conclusion, we could end our writing with a quote that sums it all up. We could end it by describing some sort of fitting act of farewell. We could slap what we English teachers LOVE to call the thesis statement at the END, the very end, instead of the beginning. We could, if appropriate, end with a quandary, with the puzzle we want our readers to walk away pondering.
Or–we could revert to the classical five-paragraph essay form, a disciplined (sometimes overly so) kind of work–but one that, in a pinch, usually works. And we could end our work, our writing that threatens to dangle and bleach out into nothingness, by tying it up nicely and referring back to the way we began.
Just like a game we played as children, we can exit our reader as neatly as we drew them in.
Our topic is done;
there’s surely no more fun.
We do not want to write much more.
Shut the door.