"If You Label It This, Then It Can't Be That." Tom Wolfe
For the last ten months I’ve sat down with my laptop and opened the file, AUTUMN DRAFT, to work on my novel-in-progress. Through the relentless cold and snow of this past winter to sunny summer days on the lake my book has been nameless, a crime as severe as not naming your newborn until weeks after its birth. It’s not like I haven’t tried like crazy to find that perfect mix of words that would sum up the essence of my characters and the world I put them in. I’ve read poetry for ideas and rearranged sentences from the book to see if anything clicked, but nothing stuck.
Every other month or so I’d type in a working title to see how it sounded, how it looked on the page. A couple of the unsuccessful titles were lyrically pleasing but had nothing to do with the story I was writing. And the titles that seemed to fit the story were clunky and harsh, like Us Now, Us Then. Ugh! For a while I thought Civilization of Love was the winner but that petered out after I had a dream that it was a Motown song. Was it?
“For me, titles are either a natural two-second experience or stressful enough to give you an ulcer. If they don’t pop out perfect on the first try, they can be really hard to repair. Or, worse, if the author thinks they pop out perfect, but the publishing house does not agree, it’s difficult to shift gears. And then? Then you go insane.”—Sloane Crosley, the author of I Was Told There’d Be Cake, a pretty great title for her humorous book.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by my lack of creativity with titles. As a journalist my editors thought up the headlines atop my work. Then when I started writing short stories I gave the works one-word titles: Crush, Innocence, Runaway. A one-size fits all label that doesn’t leave a lot to the imagination. For later stories in Invincible Summers I practically stole the lines from Joni Mitchell lyrics, Places to Come From is one of the stories,I Places to Go is another. Which I guess I don’t feel guilty about because Joni titled three of her songs, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, Night of the Iguana, and Midnight Cowboy after two movies and a book of essays. Titles, thank the stars, cannot be copyrighted, so maybe leaving the creative work up to others is the way to go.
My go-to best titles ever list is filled with the works of Eugene O’Neill: Long Day’s Journey into Night; The Iceman Cometh; Desire Under the Elms; Morning Becomes Electra; Strange Interlude; and my favorite, A Moon for the Misbegotten. Genius!
And then there are some of the favorites of family and friends: Gone With the Wind; Somewhere Over the Rainbow; The Sound of Music; The Perks of Being a Wallflower; Bohemian Rhapsody; Fake Plastic Trees; The Glass Menagerie; Atlas Shrugged; Tender is the Night; and The Catcher in the Rye. I would add more Joni Mitchell to the list, including Both Sides Now and A Case of You. And the cache of killer Dylan titles, Tangled Up in Blue; Positively 4th Street, Subterranean Homesick Blues; and Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again and you wonder if folk singers of the 1960s had a lock on the coolest titles.
I’m happy to report a title came to me as I was watering the geraniums. A title so perfect for my book I couldn’t wait to get back to the draft and type it in boldface caps, THE STORIES WE TELL OURSELVES. Now my novel has a name, an identity, a reason to exist under something other than AUTUMN DRAFT.
It’s not Eugene O’Neill worthy or folksinger savvy, and it might not last through successive drafts, but it fits the mood and narrative of the book as it is. As I plod through the last third of the draft I’m feeling like a happy novel-writing momma. My baby has a name, an identity to nurture. I just have to finish the damn thing.