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How Do You Find Your Titles?
Writer reflects on the importance of titles
Welcome to our weekly column offering perspectives on lit mag publishing, with contributions from readers, writers and editors around the world.
I spent a lot of time during the pandemic writing memoir essays, and a handful have focused on my Holocaust survivor parents, like “My Mother Museum,” about unique objects that belonged to my late mother, which included the concentration camp uniform she was wearing when liberated in Germany in 1945. I discovered it after she died and it demanded being written about in some way.
The essay is structured like an art exhibition, but with only one object on display in each gallery. This structure presented itself while I was writing a different essay, one about a life-changing experience I had at the Tate Britain Museum that reminded me how enjoyable it is to be in a museum when it opens and there are no crowds. The feeling of strolling through empty galleries inspired both the title and form of “My Mother Museum”: I envisioned each of five objects as having its own “gallery.” The form was unusual, which may account for the essay being rejected by a dozen lit mags before the editor at Chaffin Review said she and the staff loved it.
This wasn’t the first time I was publishing a piece with an unusual structure or title. Years before when my mother was suffering from multi-infarct dementia, I wrote an essay titled "
Losing My Mother." There's a line drawn through that title because I was working with a paradoxical concept from Structuralist literary criticism, sous rature, meaning under erasure. Placement of the line through the title, which typically designates something deleted, in this case indicates that the word is not equal to the task of definition but is essential all the same: There/not there.
I first learned the term from my mother when she went back to college to earn a degree in comparative literature, though I have to report that when I asked my mother why she liked French literary criticism so much, she laughed and said, “Because it's like science fiction!”
The title came to me in a flash when I first saw my mother slipping into dementia: she was physically there, looked no different, and yet she was absent. The essay was about memory and language, about the ways in which my mother was slowly disappearing, and it won International Quarterly's Crossing Boundaries Award for Innovative Prose. I was thrilled that the judge was D.M. Thomas, author of an extraordinary Holocaust novel, The White Hotel. I hadn’t won a contest in quite a few years and somehow felt sure that this piece would win. It gave me a gigantic confidence boost and I think the title had to have grabbed Thomas, given the complexity of his own work.
Well, in reviewing “Mother Museum” and other recent memoir essays about family last fall, I found myself saying to my spouse, “You know, I've never really written about my brother.” We both grinned, because there was a lot to unpack there.
My brother and I have had very different paths, and I went from feeling overshadowed by him through my teen years to feeling liberated from that burden for dramatic reasons. Our positions in the family changed, too, so you could say that the piece I started writing that very day is partly about a reversal of fortunes.
Over the three-month course of submitting the finished essay, I struggled with the title. It started out as “Brother Love” which was meant ironically, since I was writing about jealousy. I felt stuck with that title despite it not being stellar because nothing else suggested itself and I wasn't going to wait for a better title before sending it out. The essay was ready even if the title wasn’t. Over the years, my titles either need work or come to me quickly, and I can sympathize with writers who appeal to friends on Facebook or Twitter for story or book title ideas.
In the undergraduate and MFA writing workshops I took, while we frequently discussed opening lines and “the hook,” I don't recall any professor emphasizing the importance of a strong title for a short story or essay—and isn’t the title just as much a hook as the opening line?
The first time someone mentioned to me a story called “What We Talk about When We Talk about Love,” I knew I had to read it even though I didn't know much about the author. Ditto Joyce Carol Oates's “The Heavy Sorrow of the Body” and Steve Almond’s story “The Evil B.B. Chow.” Those titles had rhythm, they had intrigue, they were unique.
In the undergraduate and MFA writing workshops I took, while we frequently discussed opening lines and “the hook,” I don't recall any professor emphasizing the importance of a strong title.
Then there are all the famous novels that had boring first titles but are unforgettable today. Gone with the Wind was originally Tomorrow is Another Day; Pride and Prejudice was First Impressions; and The Sun Also Rises was originally Fiesta. Professors might have told us about the first dull titles but didn't draw any wisdom for us from those changes. We were just supposed to be amused, I guess.
I wanted something as strong as those great story titles for my essay—and why not aim high?
After the first rejection, I landed on “I Am Not My Brother.” The essay deals so much with the contrasts between us that I suppose I thought our differences needed to be reflected in the title. But even as I re-christened the piece, I wasn't entirely satisfied. I suspected that it sounded too literal and bland. Still, I didn’t want to take the essay out of circulation just because the title wasn't satisfying. Who knew how long it would take to land just the right title? Time is not on your side when you're a writer.
Four lit mags said no to it under that second title; nevertheless, I felt certain that it would find a home. A better title would definitely help, though, and I left it to my unconscious mind to discover what that title should be. I've been publishing long enough to trust the process, but I was also completely open to an editor suggesting something else should it get accepted. I would not have been embarrassed telling an editor that I thought the title needed work. The editor of one of my mystery novels wisely came up with The Death of a Constant Lover where I could only think of Murder University at the time, and he wasn't the only editor I've worked with over the years who offered a better title than mine when I asked for help.
With each rejection, I tried to re-read the piece as if someone else had written it, which is advice I often gave my university students when I taught Creative Writing. It usually helps me achieve distance. In this case, while I did tinker with some of the wording, I didn't discover a better title upon re-reading. I suppose if it had been rejected by many more journals over the course of half a year or more, I might have shared it with my spouse, who's a writer and terrific editor, for suggestions. But at that point, it hadn't circulated enough to make me suspect it was flawed in some serious way.
I kept sending it out as is (or was) until out of the blue, I remembered an episode related to me by my mother when I was a teen: an anecdote about my brother and a piece of toast. I won't re-tell it here because that would be a spoiler, but I plugged that into the end of the essay and the title immediately fell into place as an echo. I realized this essay had to be called “My Brother is Toast,” which works as a symbol and so much more.
I liked the sarcastic bite of the new title, the hint of mystery. What’s more, now it matched the opening line “I killed my brother,” which refers to the metaphorical way I wrote him out of my fiction. The new title struck me as memorable and I especially loved the sound of it. That's important to me because I often read my work aloud to get a better fix on what works and what doesn't work.
So, with the new title that I thought surely made the essay a winner, I sent it back out to half a dozen journals from mid-January 2023 through the end of February 2023. Five didn't share my assessment, but the sixth one did. I'm now looking forward to seeing "My Brother is Toast" appear soon in The Smart Set.
Over time, I’ve found that some strategies can be helpful when trying to decide on a title. I’d love to hear some of your strategies in the comments as well.
Look for an image in your work that evokes its larger theme(s).
Don’t be afraid of using the title of some famous work: there’s no copyrighting for titles and what’s wrong with a literary reference in a lit mag?
Playing around with someone else’s work can be effective, like Peter De Vries’s Slouching Towards Kalamazoo.
Make a list of your favorite titles. See if you can identify why they appeal to you and how you can emulate them.
Sometimes an altered line from your poem, essay, or story might be the perfect title. Don’t be afraid to try it.
If your piece is humorous, a comic title can help prepare the reader and set the mood.
Don’t worry about being provocative or enigmatic: either choice can grab your readers.
If, after all this, the title still doesn’t feel perfect, don’t hold back on sending out your work. The perfect title will come to you when the time is right.
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