A Title That Works

Awhile back, I was working with a student whose memoir encompassed the AIDS epidemic, being (illegally) deported from American Samoa, taking a midnight tour of Algiers, lecturing Madeleine Albright on the United Nations’ failures during the AIDS crisis (while Albright was the UN Ambassador), and explaining a suitcase full of female condoms to curious customs inspectors in Tehran.

And the title Martina Clark was working with for this romp through international awkward encounters? My Accidental Life. 

“You may have to rethink that,” I said.

Martina liked it because her life and her story are just so full of surprises. But I kept tripping over “Accidental.” I mean, Martina puts the “active” in activist.

Ultimately, a few more surprises would determine the title for Martina’s memoir: My Unexpected Life: An International Memoir of Two Pandemics, HIV and COVID-19.

“My life…is, indeed, filled with many—many—unexpected events,” Martina says. “And I’ve bookended the memoir with COVID which, unfortunately, is also timely and relevant.”

In looking for her title in the surprises, adventures, and urgent social issues of her story, Martina did exactly what Kristen Paulson-Nguyen recommends.

Paulson-Nguyen is a professional title doctor (yes, that’s a thing!), and the No. 1 mistake she sees is authors choosing soft-focus titles.

“A vague title does a book a disservice,” she says. “I begin with the writer’s query letter and synopsis. They contain vivid imagery; action; and the specifics of your story’s world.”

OK, you’ve found imagery, action, and details. Now what?

Play, Paulson-Nguyen says. Try:

  • Reworking a significant snippet of dialogue;
  • Enlivening a phrase by adding a verb;
  • Linking two words you don’t usually see together, like Katherine Standefer’s book Lightning Flowers;
  • Making up a new word, like Samantha Montano’s Disasterology.

These are the moves Gotham Fiction teacher Divya Sood tries for her own books. With her first novel, a story about reincarnation manifested through shared dreams, Divya landed her title when she finally decided on the name for her protagonist: Maya,which means illusion in Sanskrit.

For her second novel, she realized her characters refer repeatedly to a line from the poem “Tonight I Write” by Pablo Neruda: “Through nights like this one I held her in my arms. I kissed her again and again under the endless sky.”

“The book—Nights Like These—is about love and loss,” Divya says. “So, I thought it apt.”

Once you have a good candidate for a title, you still have one more test to run, Paulson-Nguyen says. Read it to your friends. If they pause before gushing, “I love it!” it’s still not the right one.

When it’s right, they’ll react immediately, Paulson-Nguyen says. “We all recognize a title that works.”

Kelly Caldwell

Dean of Faculty

Never Finished, Only Abandoned

Teresa Wong, fellow Gotham teacher, did me the huge favor of dropping in on my memoir class recently to talk about her graphic memoir, Dear Scarlet, and the graphic memoir she’s working on now, All Our Ordinary Stories, which will come out next year.
And she said something about Dear Scarlet that really surprised me: “I am a little bit embarrassed at some of my drawings in my book.”
Why should this surprise me? Authors talk constantly about how they open their published books and find sentences, paragraphs, chapters they want to take another run at. Every writer I know can quote Leonardo Da Vinci: “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
To me, a reader, Teresa’s book seemed as though it must be exactly what she intended: A heartfelt and moving story about her experience with post-partum depression.
But no story is ever what the writer first envisioned.
“The pictures in my head are much more beautiful and well rendered than the ones I can actually draw,” Teresa said. “That’s a creative phenomenon that everyone has. It’s always going to be better in your head.
“But then you have to realize that if it’s beautiful in your head, it doesn’t really mean anything. Because no one else can see it.”
And that’s the salient point. It’s wonderful, really, to love a story in your mind. To love the idea, or how it might move people, how it might sound, or look, or feel.
As long as you don’t get too hung up on that perfect story that doesn’t actually exist. Yet.
That’s a kind of perfectionism that’s especially self-defeating. Unchecked, it can feed a writer’s imposter syndrome, and paralyze you even further.
Author Athena Dixon, whose memoir The Loneliness Files is forthcoming this fall, has written and spoken extensively about imposter syndrome, and says that kind of perfectionism can warp your own perceptions of your work.

“Any small mistake makes [perfectionists] question their competence,” Dixon wrote in the anthology Getting to the Truth. But, if “you can give yourself credit for what you are doing well, it will make what you have to ‘fix’ less overwhelming.”
If you’re asking whether the version of the story you write (or the picture you draw) is as good as the one you envisioned, you’re asking the wrong questions.
“It’s better to ask, does it communicate? Does it reach people?” Teresa said. “As long as you communicate, you’re golden.”
If you do get that sinking feeling when you’re writing, that this story will never be what you’d hoped, remember that most likely, what you were picturing was a story that would move people. Other people. Who don’t live in your head. And for it to do that, you have to let go, let it out, and let it be what it’s going to be.
“To exist, it has to be a little bit flawed,” Teresa said. “But then at least it can be shared, right?”

Kelly Caldwell,

Dean of Faculty

Digging Deeper (Clichés Part 2)

My grandmother Eleanor (who you might remember from my letter awhile back about her broccoli-cheese casserole) was the person who taught me the expression, “It takes all kinds.”

It’s an abbreviation of the longer saying, “It takes all kinds to make up the world.” And Grandma loved it, because to her the world was a vibrant place full of interesting people she couldn’t wait to chat up at Jewel. When I was a bratty 13-year-old saying, “Look at that hair!” or “What is that weirdo doing?”, Grandma would tell me to be less judge-y and more open by saying, “It takes all kinds.”

“Just imagine how boring this world would be,” she’d say, “if everyone were exactly like you, or me!”

This is really good advice for judge-y 13-year-olds, and writers, too. It reminds us to be open to the strangeness of the world, and the people who make it interesting.

But also, it doesn’t go far enough. Because “it takes all kinds” is what psychiatrist and author Robert Jay Lifton called a “thought-terminating cliché.”

A thought-terminating cliché is one that immediately wraps things up, a little too neatly, so that no one probes any deeper. Think of phrases like “It’s always darkest before the dawn” or “It is what it is.”

They can be dangerous, Lifton wrote, because they “compress the most far-reaching and complex of human problems into brief, highly reductive, definitive-sounding phrases, easily memorized and easily expressed. These become the start and finish of any ideological analysis.”

Already you can imagine all kinds of scenarios where this would be disastrous for a writer. A character says, “All things must pass,” and brings a funeral scene to an abrupt, unsatisfying end. An essayist takes 2,000 words to explore their family’s experiences with immigration, starting fresh, and loneliness, but ends with, “A stranger in strange land.”

Last month, I wrote that it’s OK to let clichés flow into our early drafts, as long as we go back and weed them out. We need to keep an especially watchful eye out for thought-terminating clichés. Because when they show up, we should ask ourselves, “What are you avoiding?”

Probably something uncomfortable. But important.

Once, Grandma and I together watched a story on the evening news about men who observed Good Friday by re-enacting Christ’s crucifixion, complete with having themselves actually nailed to crosses. I must’ve said something like, “That’s nuts,” because Grandma put her hand on mine and said with such tenderness, “It takes all kinds, honey. Remember that.”

She died five years ago, so I cannot ask her what she really thought of the penitents and their devotion. Did Gram, a lifelong Catholic, imagine those men getting closer to their faith? Or did she think perhaps they only brought themselves closer to the cruelty of the world?

Clichés happen. Next time you see one, though, don’t let it shut you down. Do what I wish I’d done with Grandma—ask for more.

Kelly Caldwell,

Dean of Faculty