This week in my creative writing class, we are talking about the value of a good title. We read the short story “We Ate the Children Last” by Yann Martel and discussed how the title foreshadows and alludes to the dark details yet to come. My students asked me what I considered to be a good title. I said I value titles that help readers feel and remember the essence of the piece. Easier said than done, right? How do you find the essence of anything? They asked for some of my favorite titles, and I listed these: Ceremony, Passing, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, The Namesake, and Brick Lane. All of these are titles to novels that tell you something specific about the story, and part of the joy in reading is finding out what the title actually means to the story.
When I was in the Johns Hopkins fiction writing program, one of my professors said Arthur Phillips’s novel Prague and Ann Patchett’s novel Bel Canto had the best conceivable, dare I say perfect, titles for these books. Prague is a place the characters romanticize and Bel Canto alludes to the operatic theme surrounding a story based on the Lima hostage crisis. In Prague we know there will be longing, and in Bel Canto we know there will be drama, disaster, and beauty. But simply giving examples like these does not always work.
Sometimes when I write, I think of the title first. For instance, I came up with the title “The Ticklish Nature of Mustaches” long before I came up with the story. When I finally wrote the story, I realized nobody in it had a mustache, which meant I had to make some changes to the narrative. Sometimes titles come long after I’ve written a piece. The original title for “Exactly What You Want” was “Forgotten” and then “On Whitford Road,” but I discovered the story’s true title while writing the final scene in which one of the characters says, “This is how it feels to get exactly what you want.” In fact, I wanted to use the longer version which was inspired by Sherman Alexie’s “This is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona,” but a writing friend thought that sounded too cumbersome. Only certain writers can get away with titles that long. (Alexie also has a story titled “The Only Traffic Signal on the Reservation Doesn’t Flash Red Anymore,” which almost forces you to take a deep breath in the middle.)
Titles are like baby names. We see a baby and he looks like a Charlie or a Gus, so we call him Charlie or Gus. We know that the world will look at the baby with his name and read his essence accordingly. Charlies act a certain way (though, perhaps after Charlie Sheen’s example his will be a name few parents will use for awhile). If you’re like me, someone who lives in his imagination, then you may have the names for your children — Mateo, Diego, Alexander, and Xavier — long before your children actually exist. Baby names are fun to think about, come up with, switch around, and create stories for.
I gave my students an assignment: come up with three titles that allude to a specific event or hold a clear image. They came up with some great ones like “Sometimes People Miss Their Bus,” “Fistful of Fame,” and “Falling through the Ice.” The last one reminds me of Rick Moody’s novel The Ice Storm, which is something else titles do: they remind us of other associations. It’s like meeting a Gus and saying, “I had a cousin named Gus. He was a jerk.” For the second part of the assignment I asked them to switch titles with another student who would then write a short sketch piece in response to the title. The best thing the student who got “Falling through the Ice” can do, in my opinion, is not have any ice fishing or ice falling imagery at all. Sometimes the best surprise is meeting a new Gus and finding that he is nothing like the Gus you once knew.
The title for this piece came about during last night’s editorial meeting with the managing editor and interns for the Potomac Review. We were discussing future blogging ideas and one of them joked about using the title for a review of the many brands of whiskey, based on the stereotype that many writers are whiskey drinkers. We laughed at the silliness of the idea, but I thought, “Hey, that’s a good title!” So I used it.