The Evolution of a Title

June 24, 2022 § 12 Comments

By Barbara Ferraro

Ever google ‘how to title a book?’ From YouTube videos to master classes, title generators to ten-step plans, there’s plenty of online help. Build on a theme or phrase from the story. Use a character’s name or memorable setting. Pull keywords from a hat, two by two, till you find a pair that sings. Lots of free advice but no easy answers. Which leads me to believe: maybe the book chooses the title.

Twenty years ago, I began writing memoir as an antidote to my dysfunctional Sicilian in-laws. The well of inspiration was vast and deep. Gloomy, troubled scenes about family secrets, my husband’s hush hush adoption, a conspiracy to hide the truth, and a script straight out of The Sopranos flowed from my fingertips to the page in a total brain purge. The saga was dark and disturbing—but oh, so shallow.

Did I mention the curse? Malocchio, or Evil Eye. From the Italian mal, meaning bad, and occhio, meaning eye. Bad luck cast upon you by an evil person—usually someone close. Rooted in spite or envy.

Evil Eye, the first working title,captured the mood of my early rant. But titles are placeholders, like my father’s second wife, which thankfully don’t last forever.

What is the story about?

As my anger eased and writing improved, this one-dimensional tirade morphed from flat and bitter to multilayered and rich. And a funny thing happened. A handful of objects kept sneaking into the scenes. Vintage slot machine straight out of the Untouchables; beat up suitcase stashed in a musty basement for fifty years; silver spoons hidden from the Nazis in the mountains of Norway; a stack of wartime love letters from the South Pacific. Ordinary objects with extraordinary personal significance. Objects too personal, too painful to touch. Objects that felt like characters on the page.

Ordinary Objects screamed at me in capital letters as the natural second title. It was perfect. Perfect, until the objects started squawking. They had different opinions, different voices, and two completely different points of view. I watched in awe as a second thread emerged from the scuffle, poking up here, weaving through there, to form a more complex story than I ever could have imagined. But as the writing evolved, this title also fell short.

What is the story about?

On the umpteenth revision, a pivotal sound bite buzzed on the page like a neon sign. ‘Blood of my children,’ four words spoken at the aha moment that braided the intertwining threads together. Then it clicked. Two people—my husband and me—with different histories, searching for the same answers: who am I, why am I here. Two people whose separate identities merged in our children. Knowing ourselves so they could know themselves. Bloodline, ancestry, heritage. This book was their unvarnished family tree. Blood of My Children elbowed its way to the title page, where it stayed for quite some time.

Too bad it sounded like a crime story. I loved it, I hated it, I wanted it to be The One. It captured the essence of the narrative but sent the wrong message. I had taken the writing as far as I could. I tucked the project away and moved forward.

Months later, alone in my office, the manuscript whispered from its hiding place in the bottom desk drawer: hey dummy, what’s left when everyone dies?

Wait. What?

The memoir that lived in my mind, on my laptop, in a drawer, inside my heart for two decades had its own timeline. Shit happened, people died, but what did any of it mean. The story marinated, I ruminated. Time and distance sharpened the focus as I learned to listen to the writing. Which brings me here.

When the noise and chaos, anger and pain, sadness and longing of thirty years finally faded to a whisper, what was left was love. Love is more powerful than family dysfunction, war, and even death.

So simple. What’s Left When Everyone Dies.

That’s the one.  


A third generation Chicagoan, Barbara Ferraro is a married mother of two fine adults, interior designer, and foodie who appreciates a nice glass of Chardonnay—very cold.

What Do I Call This? How to Title a Personal Essay

September 2, 2021 § 16 Comments

By Andrea A. Firth

Essay titles challenge me.

Maybe it’s because I’ve worked for years as a journalist and magazine writer, where titles are formulaic and the editors’ domain. News article titles distill the story to five to ten words of succinct, accurate summary: Titanic Sinks Four Hours After Hitting Iceberg.

Magazine titles get catchier: Ten Ways to Survive a Shipwreck (And Catch His Eye on the Lifeboat!) or Six Cruise Ship Destinations Best Viewed from the Boat.

In both settings, the reader knows exactly what to expect from the story from the start.

What about the title of this blog post? It starts with a playful question: What do I call this? to draw the reader in, but like news and magazine articles, the subheading clearly tells the reader what’s to follow.

In contrast, the title of a personal essay is unique—subtle and finessed, it makes us wonder. Done well, the title challenges both the writer and the reader. The title hints more than summarizes, adds instead of mirrors, draws from instead of encapsulates. How? By employing the same literary craft techniques found in a good personal essay.

Let’s look at the titles of some of Brevity’s best essays to see how it’s done.

Choose the Right Word

Lori Jakiela’s “Holy” tells the story of a morning she spent making nut roll with her dying mother. Her mother wants to talk about religion, a topic that divides the two. Jakiela finds her title in the details. “The mug I’m holding was his, Batman, the image faded by my father’s hands. My mother’s mug, full of lemon tea, is Robin, faded to a mask and cape and the word “Holy.”

Create a New Way In

Diane Seuss’ title, “I hoisted them, two drug dealers, I guess that’s what they were,” leads directly into the first line of the essay: “Crackheads, I exiled them is what I did, from my son’s basement apartment, they’d come to feast off what was left of him…” Her 494-word, single sentence essay about kicking the dealers and her drug-addled son out of her house starts in the 12-word title—three phrases separated by commas and only the I’s capitalized—and shows how this story will unfold.

Find An Image

Marilyn Abildskov’s “Wishbone” describes fragmented memories of her early childhood in rural New York. For the title, she latches onto an image: “My brother and sisters laced up their skates, and I slid stiff-legged on small winter boots while they pulled me across the ice, my arms up like a wishbone.” In this sliver of time, she captures the essay’s themes: family, home, and hope.

Use a Metaphor

Roxane Gay’s “There Are Distances Between Us” covers a lot of ground. Her father’s love of highways, his atlas, and family road trips. The fissure that erupts inside Gay and between her family after an “incident” with some boys. Her passionate long-distance love affair. Metaphors abound and she finds a single title that touches on them all.

Keep it Simple

Simple titles work wonders. Brian Arundel’s “The Things I’ve Lost” is exactly that, a list of lost items.

Go for the Shock Value

J.D. Schraffenberger’s title “Dropping Babies” sounds ironic, almost unbelievable, but the examples in his braided essay support his choice. A 500-year-old ritual in western India where babies are dropped from a 50-foot tower and caught on a taut sheet, a blessing of good health and luck; the day a baffled crowd watched Michael Jackson dangle his infant son over the edge of a balcony in Berlin; and the night the author, exhausted by the nonstop demands and crying of his own baby, dropped her onto the sheets of her crib.

Punctuate for Effect

Danielle Geller’s “Blood; Quantum” sounds mysterious. Geller’s essay explores her birthright. She is half Navajo through her absent mother, a fact that her white grandmother tries hard to hide. A fact that other Native Americans she encounters, strangers, identify immediately. Punctuation like the semi-colon connects words in interesting ways, creating a sense of separation and a connection at the same time. If you break this title down, Blood; Quantum might translate as Heritage [Therefore] Significant.

Although you may have a working title in mind when you start, write the essay, then find the title. When you have a complete understanding of what the story is about, build on the craft to create a title that adds to and completes the personal essay.

Further tips for titling your personal essays:

  • The title is the first thing the reader sees—grab her attention.
  • Short is ideal, four words or less. There are always exceptions.
  • The title and essay need to connect…but not in the way the reader might expect.
  • Punctuation provides options. Consider what the emdash, colon, semicolon, and exclamation point can do.
  • Capitalize all words except pronouns, articles, prepositions and conjunctions. There are always exceptions.
  • Editors often like to put their fingerprint on titles. Be prepared to be flexible.

And, back to this blog post title: What Do I Call This?  

The End.

Andrea A. Firth is a writer and journalist living in the San Francisco Bay Area and the co-founder of Diablo Writers’ Workshop. She is teaching a (Zoom) class on Flash, Fiction and Creative Nonfiction in the Fall. Details and register here.

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