Tag Archives: manuscript

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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Currently Writing

My current bio project has required me to change my method, and I’ve had to adapt to someone else’s timetable. When I was writing Pierce: Six Prairie Lives, I was working on a personal project, not being paid for it, and working largely on my own timetable. The research took years, and I could pursue any line of investigation I wanted. In the end, the voice was all my own, interpreting all the research as I saw it. Everything meant what I decided it meant.

Writing for hire is a completely different beast. For one thing, it pays, making it a very nice beast. But that also makes it a more demanding beast, in terms of finishing the manuscript and in terms of the subject’s image. There is a fixed (supposedly) timeline, set out in the terms. The client has last say, and therefore controls the research entirely, what to share, what to withhold. The writer writes, and having writ, waits for the client to approve.

For the last week or so, as I try to sort all the research, I’ve been thinking about an article I recently read. The subject was the biographer’s voice. If the biographer’s voice doesn’t emerge, then it’s nothing more than transcription. That’s a sobering observation. If I’d wanted to be a stenographer, I would have gotten a different kind of training. My hand, my critical eye, will be present in the shape of the finished project, but I have to create a place for myself in the story of someone else’s life. I hope to be there in the transitions, those spots where meaning and connections are made. And, I have to accomplish that in such a way that the whole reads as though there is one voice only. It will take deft handling.

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