The last thing I do, whenever I’ve finished up a piece of writing and am readying it for publication, is to come up with a title. The title frames the piece. It gives the reader a sense of how to approach the reading and what to expect going forward.
One of my rules about writing is this: Titles can’t come first; they must come last.
My theory about entitling is rooted in the fact that writing and living are very similar.
Writing (like living) just sort of happens, at least that’s the way it works with me. Often, when I start an essay or a blog, I begin with the understanding that I’m not sure what I’m going to say or where it’s going to go. I might have a general theme or topic in mind but then find that I end up exploring that theme or topic in a way I never could have fully anticipated. That’s a lot like the way I live my life. I generally start off with a plan and then just begin breathing in and out while the days pass. I keep my plan in mind and refer to it from time to time but frequently discover that I’m drifting away and thus find that I need to make course corrections to stay on track. Or, in many other instances, I find that my plan was ill-conceived in the first place, and rather than making minor adjustments, I have to jettison the whole idea and start from scratch.
I’ll give you a concrete example of how life (like writing) just sort of happens—how it begins with plans that often get adjusted or discarded.
When I was a young undergraduate, I had no idea what I wanted to major in. I had always been a thinker—sort of a brooder, actually—and then had a few experiences in my late adolescence that caused me to become politicized. Plus, as a boy, I’d been sort of prodigy. I started making art and showed my work and sold quite a few pieces when I was just a youngster.
All of that was in my background when I went to college. In hindsight, I probably should have studied the fine arts, but my desire to think about matters related to social justice won out, so I decided to become a student of government because I thought I would become a lawyer and fight to right wrongs. I wanted to find work that would give me the chance to speak truth to power (because power needs to have truth spoken to it all the time).
So, I declared a major and created a plan. I didn’t become a lawyer, though. I became an academic instead. (But I didn’t discard my artsiness or my desire to engage in political activism as I found a new direction to take my life in.) I’ve reinvented myself again and again over the years, and each time I do so, I bring all those former passions and interests forward into my new way of being.
Now, why must a title come last? I never fully addressed that part of the topic.
That’s because a person doesn’t know what to make of a piece of writing until one has finished it and then taken a moment to stand back and ask, “What does it say? What is my point in writing it? What will it mean to a reader?”
Life is like that too. I’m kind of at a point in mine where I’m looking back at all the things I’ve done and wondering, “What does all this living mean? What does it say about who I am, what I’ve valued, and where I’ve been?”
A person just writes and lives and then has the opportunity to take stock. Part of taking stock is teasing out the meaning of the writing and living.
Thank you so much for reading what I’ve written. I look forward to your responses.