June 2018 | A bit about titles

Photo by Theresa Barker.

I’m sitting in my office this evening thinking about the ways in which our surroundings influence us.  Today is Independence Day in the U.S., and I hear the pops, cracks, and booms of fireworks (legal/illegal) outside my window.  It’s been a warm day for Seattle – 70s-80s – and deeply cloudy this evening, a strange sort of gloominess in the sky.  Yet the circle of light from my desk lamp casts a friendly light on my writing and this little evening moment with words connects me with writers all over the world, with writers of the past and those who will write in the future.  Words are our connections, aren’t they?  Language and thought and the poetry of conversation.

Photo by Theresa Barker.

Where do you like to write?  Whether in a nearby coffee shop, at the kitchen table, or (if you’re lucky enough) in a studio of your own, the place around you becomes a part of your writing. Right?  This week I wrote on the train, in a waiting room before an appointment, and sitting in a bus shelter waiting for my bus.  Each time my first thought was, I wish I was home at my desk writing!  But there I was, balancing my writing pad on my lap or scribbling in a notebook with my pen while sitting among strangers.  Then I might overheard a snippet of conversation, or I’d see two people talking together, something that would jump into my imagination and become part of my writing.  It was wonderful and strange at the same time.

Have you ever heard this quote?

“The art of writing is the art of discovering what you believe.” – Gustave Flauber

I hope you will just take a few minutes, whether you are on the bus, at your desk, or perhaps sitting at the beach or in a park enjoying these beautiful summer days – wherever in the world you call home, and think about this:  what is your most passionate belief?  How would you want to change the world, if you had the power to do so?  Consider this: If you had to list the five top things that you believe in, what would they be?  Perhaps you might jot down this list, but remember, you don’t have to share that list with anyone.  You can keep it in a drawer or crumple it up and toss it into the wastepaper basket.  But having thought a little about your most important beliefs may influence your writing in ways that you might never expect!

Writing Tip – Taking a title and making a story

In the past few weeks I’ve been experimenting with a new exercise.  Open a book of short stories, turn to the Table of Contents, and write down one of the story titles.  Then start your own story using the title of the story you wrote down.

Although you’d think it would be difficult to write a story with only the title to go on, this exercise has given me some unique and engaging results.

Let me share one example:

The Lottery Ticket (after the story by Anton Chekov)
Theresa Barker

Emile and I consented to buy the lottery tickets together.  Whatever happened we would split the winnings half-half, and since we both put in equally to the purchase, we thought it was simple, that nothing could go wrong.

But then there was the winning ticket that wet November night.  Emile had bought it with our pooled funds at the convenience store on his block.  He brought it to work the next day and when the winning numbers were announced we checked the ticket together, like we always do.

Imagine our surprise when all the numbers checked out.  A match!  We did not believe it at first.  You know how these things go and how much the odds are against winning.  No one more than us.  But still, it was there, every one of the thirteen digits a match.  What could we say?

It should have been simple. Emile and I splitting the pot half-half. But first there was the disagreement about whether to take the lump sum (less) or the annual payments (more). We had to agree, there was no doing it both ways. Then there was the part about if Emile should get more because it came from his purchase at the store in his neighborhood. Finally, I pointed out the lottery pool was my idea in the first place and perhaps I should receive a larger share.

That led to therapy in which we both examined childhood, school traumas, lost boyfriends/girlfriends. In the end it was just too expensive, too complicated, too deadening. We gave the ticket to a charitable group that provides eyeglasses to orphans in distant countries and they were happy for the windfall. Emile and I didn’t speak again. We work in different locations of the same company. We never buy lottery tickets together.

After you have tried this exercise a few times, you may find, as I did, that I started to think about story titles a little differently.  Practicing with already-set story titles has helped me to explore new ways of finding my own story titles.  I’d love to hear what you think!

Thanks for joining me in thinking about beliefs, story titles, and summer.  Happy writing!

22 thoughts on “June 2018 | A bit about titles

  1. Luanne

    I read this this morning, and then the two different repair people showed up, one after another. Ick, one of those days. Plus, did I say 114 degrees out? I think the story title idea is very clever. I always put the title on last, but I like the idea of using the story title as a prompt–and then after my piece is done, changing the title to an original one. Thanks for the prompt!

    Reply
    1. TheresaBarker Post author

      114 degrees??? That’s just crazy. But, I know how that goes from the couple of times I visited Phoenix in July (not recently, sadly!).

      Titles are super-challenging. Right? I love when poems have a title that “bleeds” into the first line, but with stories you can’t do that as easily. I’ve taken to looking for literary reference phrases for some of my stories, but when I stumbled onto a list of titles from a short story journal and then decided to try writing my own story, it was like a magical thing. Thanks for noticing that! 🙂

      Reply
  2. Ana Linden

    I loved this one, Theresa! It brought back such fun memories. I was smiling when reading about writing in the train and how snippets of other people’s conversations can be so inspiring. The strangest place I ever wrote in must be my favourite tree in my great-grandmother’s garden, when I was a teenager – not as uncomfortable as you might think, and yes, the actual tree, not a tree house. I’m so much more conventional these days… 😉
    Using a random title to inspire a new story is a great writing exercise, from what I remember. I had an English teacher in middle school who always gave us a title or a first or last sentence and asked us to come up with a short piece of fiction, usually no more than 150 -200 words. It was a love it or hate it thing, depending on how much each one of us enjoyed writing. These days, however, I generally choose a title after I write the story, or at least after I have a story idea.
    It looks like this exercise worked well for you, I enjoyed the story and your subtle humour, particularly the part where they have to go to therapy. I got a very strong “I’d rather have nothing if I can’t have everything” feeling from reading the ending, in spite of the awareness that others have it worse and could use that winning lottery ticket a lot more.

    Reply
    1. TheresaBarker Post author

      Ana, I love the story about being in a tree as a child, how wonderful! Your great-grandmother’s tree? Wow!

      I love that you had an English teacher who used to give you a title or a starting line for your story. It sounds like you choose good titles now! – And thanks for your kind words about my little story, I wash hoping for humor!

      Reply
  3. Miriam Hurdle

    Very good tools and example, Teresa. I remember in the poetry class, we read one poet’s Poetry Defined. A couple of people have their concepts of poetry and wrote their own. 🙂

    Reply
      1. Miriam Hurdle

        Yes, Teresa. I participate in a weekly challenge. But I’m compiling my early poetry and try to make a small book. Someone in the poetry class teaches a publishing class. Summer quarter is short, so he only does questions and answers. Hopefully he can look at mine in fall quarter.

  4. anotetohuguette

    Titles often jump out at me from snippets I come across or see…what a wonderful exercise to open a book and create a new story from a title that catches your eye!

    Reply
    1. TheresaBarker Post author

      Thanks, Kimberlee! I’ll be interested to hear what happens, if you give it a try! I actually discovered this exercise when I was going through some journals with fiction in my field, and I was feeling a little down about having my work rejected by the journal, so when I ran my eye down the list of story titles, there seemed something freeing about using the published story titles as fodder for my own work. Hah! 🙂

      Reply

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