I teach my students to come up with good titles for their essays. Because titles are important for essays. It’s the first thing a reader sees associated with an essay. A one sentence summary that somehow is supposed to capture the essence of the writing, while drawing the reader to conjectures about whatever topic populates the page. I teach them when doing research, before reading an article, read the title first, make sure it sounds like it is going to focus on the essay’s topic. I teach them to make their titles complex and long, something catchy, and explanatory. Like “Which Witch is Wich?: Commonly Misused Words and Their Homophones”, or whatever. It’s fun and precise. The only problem is: I hate titles. Well, hate is vague and negative word I’m told, so I’ll be more specific. I loathe them. I detest them. There is nothing more troublesome than a title, especially a misplaced, ambiguous, misleading title. They are evil, deformed spawns of highfalutin pedagogues.
Whoa. Let me explain.
When an author titles writing, specifically creative writing (because creative writing such as fiction, non-fiction, poetry, screenplays, etc., mystery is part of the appeal), we need the unknown. The unknowable. Yes, someone does the writing. And yes, they have some ‘control’ over the final product. However, ask any writer, a true writer, a lover of the craft, and they will tell you that writing is a process of discovery, not creation. A writer (and all forms of artists should be included here) does not compose from nothing, a writer is part of a whole world of language, of experience, of knowing and unknowing and searching. Each word, sentence, paragraph; each character, scene, story; each poem, song, book, they are all accidents of discovery. They are stories that are found, not made.
I had a film teacher once describe the artistic process as a person trying to find some great unattainable entity, something we all are searching for. I think of it like this:
There is this thing we call Art, out there somewhere, no one knows where. Perhaps it’s the Ethers. It’s always there, existing, infinite, omniscient, omnipresent. Some people call it God. Some call it Karma. Others Buddha or Allah. Others, the great perhaps. Other still think of it as Science, as those perfect yet-undiscovered laws that completely govern the Universe. The theory of everything. But it doesn’t matter the name, because it’s always there, waiting. Waiting for someone to reach out and touch it, to grab a piece of it and examine, dissect, and reassemble its parts. We never have our own ideas, not really. They are all out there with Art, in Art, and we are participators within Art. As artists, we must put ourselves in a place where we become in tune with this ephemeral Art. We meditate. We exercise. We practice. We study other artists’ experiences with Art. We read and write and create, over and over, until we are in a place where we can almost see Art, almost smell and taste it, where we feel its presence in us, flowing through our veins. We suddenly call it ‘inspiration’, that elusive light flickering Morris Code in the dark across the infinite ocean of doubt and hesitation and worry. And when we feel it, then we have captured it (but really, it is a gift given to us), and we begin to create.
That is writing. That is how a writer finds story, character, beauty, and truth.
This is where my loathing of titles comes from. It is difficult enough to align yourself with Art for a brief moment while through you it generates something magnificent. It is a whole other scenario to name that new creature. I have three reasons why:
1) You cannot give a name to something that isn’t truly yours.
2) You cannot name something that you do not fully understand. Each piece of writing is an exploration, and all the parts that can be discovered cannot all be seen by one person. Something will always go unseen.
3) Naming a piece of writing drastically reduces the mystery of the piece, ruining the reader’s ability to formulate their own interpretation, to have their own unique and unadulterated experience.
Number three is the most important to me. I don’t like guiding readers to any sort of conclusion with my writing, especially with it involves stories--fiction and non-fiction alike. Titles are huge guiding influences (there are others, but that will be for another time). They give a reader too big of a hint at the story, whether it’s the actual purpose of the piece, or simply a glimpse at one of the characters. Titles ruin the reading experience.
As artists and viewers, hell, just people, we all come with a lot of baggage. A lot. Millions of tons of it. We have so many filters that cloud our ability to communicate, interact, interpret, and display our emotions, that it’s no wonder we can’t get along. All the more reason to avoid titles. It’s difficult enough to try and understand another individuals experience with Art, adding a title to that only disrupts an already improbably connection.
I take it further than just dislike for a title. I distain having any identifying information associated with my writing: title, author’s name, date, publication/copyright info, the name of the author and title of the book on each and every page reminding you who ‘created’ this piece of work and what you should ‘call’ it as if you would have forgotten part way through what you were holding; I want none of it. Even page numbers. That information distracts from the text. It tells the reader that this experience is fabricated, only pretend, what you now embrace is merely a commodity to be added to the pile collecting in your garage or attic or closet. To be used and discarded without further thought.
That mentality terrifies me.
That mentality leads to eBooks and tablets and the loss of touch, of the physical experience.
But titling doesn’t just stop at Art. We title everything, give everything a name. Our cars, our homes, our computers; email accounts, Facebook, Twitter, Instragram, YouTube; most important, we name each other. Chubbs the Second was born a few weeks ago, and we gave him a name. I say ‘gave’, because it was a gift, some hope that he will take his name and create a story that flows from his title. A title that I and the Wife hope he will grow into, that will become the epigraph to his life, the title of him. We named him without knowing him. Only born for an hour and we named him, a name we had in mind for years but waited to finalize until we saw his face, a name that will come to define every single action, good or ill. A name he will have to live up to, because we forced it upon him (gifts are like that sometimes). True, if he chooses, he could change it in the future. But that won’t change the effect it will have had on his growing years; or the years to come, knowing that he altered his title to fit the story he now wants to tell, that he wants to forget the story already written but cannot change.
Titles are complicated, at best.
Sometimes we aren’t even happy with the titles others are given--our friends--at birth, or our own titles for that matter, and so we create new ones, as if we can rename our/their story, alter the course that has already been traveled, become what we/they are not but imagine ourselves/them to be.
Unfortunately, there is an ancient established pedagogy that determines the structures of which we are a part, which dictates our roles in civilized society. A Panopticon, if you will. If I want to live in society, I have to have a name, which translates into a social security number that allows me to be monitored (mostly on a financial level). I need to have a birth certificate that indicates I exist, that my specific title is attached to my blood, that I am who I am. Those two documents then push me (or us) in various directions that only exist because of that title, of our documented existence, which we further propagate through societal dialogues. We don’t introduce ourselves by personality, by interest, by desire, but by our title. By those few defining syllables that from birth form our identity. And, when it comes down to it, if we want to create, to collaborate with Art, we must title that interaction, stamping our name to it to make it ‘real’, to make it exist.
I know I can’t escape this system rooted in place for millennia, but I want to. I want to burn the whole artifice down and start anew. I want to be the trillions of atoms intelligently bonded structuring my body. I want others to be their bodies, their own beings without titles, without misnomers. I want to just exist because I am, because we all are.
Is that too much to ask?