All in the Name

Almost always, the titles of our favourite books and movies somehow capture the whole work in a very few words. A title serves as a doorway that we step through into the work, and by the end, we have a clear vision of how the title functions. Maybe most readers don’t think about titles having a function, other than getting a reader to pick the book off the shelf. A title has to have meaning. Think about naming kids. We choose carefully, something with meaning, something symbolic, some kind of statement, a signpost. Pet people do it, too. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but the other name wouldn’t work the same way in a poem.

My first book is called Shattered Fanatics, and the cover image is a rather crushed looking carved figure. I chose the image because it looked to me like a shattered fanatic might look. The phrase comes from a student essay, some terrible kind of typing error, and I immediately could see what such a person might be. A shattered fanatic is someone who has believed absolutely and then realized, standing at the stake, waiting for the fire, that nobody was going to show up for the rescue. The faith is shattered. The poems inside the book are spoken by such people. When I chose the title for Pierce: Six Prairie Lives, I wanted to honour the family name and to acknowledge the importance of the individual family members. I wanted to situate their story clearly in their place, and I did not want a pedestrian title. I wanted something that set them apart from any other family biography in the way that I felt they were demonstrably apart in their lived story. I wanted something with their strength without being prosaic about it.

My current poetry manuscript has a working title drawn from myth, “The Hungry Grass,” an image apt for the story being told. Naming takes thought. I’ve always told my students that essays are like babies: if you can’t name it, you shouldn’t be having it. Or writing it. A title doesn’t have to be  labyrinthine, or elaborate, or grand. Think of On the RoadHamletPride and PrejudiceJane Eyre. A title just has to fit. Like a glove. Perfectly tailored.

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4 Comments

Filed under On Writing

4 responses to “All in the Name

  1. dorgrease

    My title, The Best of Two Lives, like your analogy of naming the baby, still fits perfectly. However, I am not so comfortable with the subtitle which is the Arabic translation of the English words. At the time, it seemed like an honorable idea, but if I stumble over its pronunciation each time and still have to head back to the manuscript to just spell it correctly, I begin to doubt it’s appropriateness. Who on earth should have to go look up how to spell her baby’s name?

    • You know, given that yours is the story of two lives, it’s rather fitting to have the title reflect that so clearly, plus–because it’s a cross-cultural story–the title conveys some of that communication struggle. In that sense, the Arabic half of the story isn’t your baby. The title has a function directly related to the story.

  2. I used to feel like a shattered fanatic. Sometimes I still do.

    http://www.truthfully.ca/2012/08/19/crisis-of-unfaith/

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