Journey toward a book title

“So how do you feel today?” Tim asked me. “Spacious!” I said. “There’s so much room!”

It was quite a change from the day before—actually, from the whole month of January, when I and the publishing team were scrambling to find the right title for my book. Now, at last, we had arrived at the title, and for the first time in a month, I’d enjoyed a full night of sleep.

We’d had a working title from the start, of course, a vivid, approachable title that made people’s faces light up every time I repeated it: Kissed by a Fox: And Other Stories of Friendship in Nature. But I had misgivings. So did the publisher. Did this title convey what the book is really about? Did it give the right tone? So, spurred by everyone’s questions, and with some publishing deadlines looming—vendor catalog, cover design—I went to work.

Picture this: me at 5:00 a.m., bundled in every layer I own against the night-chilled house, scrunched under Bodhi’s dog blanket on the sofa with my laptop piled on high while Bodhi tucks himself into my side, snoozing. I am brainstorming, using every title-generating process I can think of. I review the summary of the book, a vivid paragraph I just wrote, to ground myself in the book’s themes. I scan the manuscript waiting for phrases to leap out. I close my eyes and breathe, imagining myself in places that appear in the book—beside a tree or a creek, walking down a trail. Whenever a promising phrase or idea appears, even if it isn’t quite right, I jot it down. Then I grab my Rodale’s Synonym Finder, double-checking pregnant words against Rodale’s rich lists of word-cousins.

On a different morning I pursue a particular phrase, checking all the possibilities related to that phrase. I go to the online Library of Congress catalog, scanning all the titles that begin with that phrase. Again, I write down every word or phrase that invites me in, feels like it might have something to do with the book. The pages of single-spaced type are accumulating.

I do this for several mornings, watching the sky begin to lighten sometime after six and the orange sun finally peek over the horizon. In the middle of this generating process I go out of town for a week to teach my grad students at Prescott College. Between meetings and presentations, I sink into a comfy chair in the sunlit college library, my mind still churning on the title. Now it’s become “the damn title.” Even after all these days, we seem no closer to a good option. I want to say to my students who are trying to condense their projects into one-sentence thesis statements, “I know exactly what you’re going through. I feel your pain!”

By now the Title Problem has taken over all available mental space. It’s no longer simmering away on back burners. It’s front and center. I’m walking the problem, talking it, thinking about it constantly. Brainstorming is wearing thin. Nothing offered by any one on the publishing team feels right to all of us. Time is short. I wonder what last-minute inspiration is coming. It will have to be inspiration for nothing else is working.

Back home again, I resume my early morning wake-ups, cuddling on the sofa with Bodhi before dawn to ponder the Title Problem once more.

Finally it’s crunch time. The publisher’s drop-dead due date is the following day. I take the two most promising titles to a happy-hour gathering of the Boulder Media Women, a group of trusted colleagues who have devoted their lives to words and images. Full of hope, I try out my last-ditch possibilities on the three other people at the table. At first they listen with interest, but then their eyes glaze over. In the space of two titles, their faces travel that inestimable distance from “curious” to “polite.” I am not surprised at the feedback that follows: “Those titles don’t do anything for me.” “Yawners.” “If I saw them in a bookstore, I’d pass them right by.”

I know these women are right. I feel the same way. Still, I am crushed. And now ready to panic. I abandon the rest of my evening’s plans and rush home to think. Hard. I call a dear editor friend across the country. Though she is fried from her day of spinning words into coherent order in addition to looking after her bouncy four-year-old, she takes time for me and my Title Problem. She listens. She brainstorms. She commiserates. Most of all, she makes me laugh. I decide I may not have to jump off the bridge right this minute after all.

The next morning, Title Day, brings no clarity. In a final down-to-the-wire push, my agent, Kristina Holmes, and I put our heads together one last time. She brings the most promising results of her own recent hours of brainstorming. Her titles sound fresh to me, her subtitles a welcome relief after all the snoozers I’ve been thinking about. Through a hash-it-out conversation we nail down a half-dozen strong possibilities. My assignment is to take an hour to think over them, try them on, then we’ll touch base again before reporting one of them to the publisher.

I sit down with the list. I breathe. I read them over again. I try them out on my tongue. Their dazzle starts to fade. One by one they get crossed off the list. This one, when I say it, gives an ever-so-slight feeling of chill in my body. Not good. That one makes my tongue trip; I probably can’t repeat it over and over, the way authors need to, offering the name of the book to every new and interested reader.

After fifteen minutes I’ve nixed all those shiny new possibilities. I can’t believe it. The well has again run dry. How did that happen? And what in the world will I tell Kristina when we reconvene in forty-five minutes?

I take a deep breath. I look around for inspiration. On my desk is a sheaf of papers handed out in a workshop at Prescott last week. The papers contain poems and passages from prominent nature writers. I haven’t had a chance to read them yet, but now seems the perfect moment. When the internal springs are dry, I often open a favorite book of poems or prose. Just getting into someone else’s head and out of my own is a relief, and when that person is an accomplished writer, their words usually start the waters of creativity flowing again.

I sit on the sofa with the papers. A poem by Denise Levertov opens the collection, and reading it opens my breath as well; I relax—not a lot, just a tiny bit. Enough to enjoy the next paragraph, a passage from David Abram, its words so elegant I think, “Ahhhh! How does he do that?” Next are some paragraphs from John Seed and Joanna Macy, then a passage from Paula Gunn Allen. These writers are all friends on the page, their books the lights that for years have guided my path.

But when I get to the third page, my body comes to alert. What is going on? At the top is a passage from Annie Dillard’s Teaching a Stone to Talk. Buried in the middle of the long paragraph are these words:

The very holy mountains are keeping mum. We doused the burning bush and cannot rekindle it; we are lighting matches in vain under every green tree. Did the wind use to cry, and the hills shout forth praise? Now speech has perished from among the lifeless things of earth, and living things say very little to very few.

Something here feels very close to the thing I am looking for. The book I just wrote is all about listening to the voices of Earth—to  nearby trees, to the dog who sleeps on the bed each night, to the grasses outside the window. Something about speech, listening . . . but what? How does that translate into a title? “The Speech of Earth”—hmm, not quite right. I brainstorm a few titles related to speech and listening. I email them to Kristina. She’s less than enthusiastic. But we’re closer now; I can feel it.

I feel compelled to go outside now for a walk. It is early afternoon, the eleventh hour. Within minutes we must get a final title to the publisher. The day is breezy but unusually mild, the temperature topping sixty. A warm blustery day—perfect for an overheated, blustery mind.

Heading into the wind, I trace one of the familiar paths that Bodhi and I walk every day then turn down the path toward Wonderland Lake. A breeze flares up and dies away, whistling through the bare branches of the tree I am passing. The sun disappears for a few moments behind scudding gray clouds. More gusts of wind, but they are warm, invigorating. Today I feel light like the wind, my usual winter layers pared to only a windbreaker.

Before I have gone even a block, a quiet thought occurs to me. A sentence from Rumi returns to me, a sentence I wrote about in the final chapter of the book:

The speech of water, the speech of earth, and the speech of mud are apprehended by the sense of them that have hearts. (Masnavi 1.3292)

“The speech of water.” The phrase breaks over me, fresh as a mountain stream in hot July. “The speech of water.” I play it over in my mind.

I am home. Suddenly home. My mind lets go of its buzzing. Instantly I feel quiet inside, calm, spacious, free. I float effortlessly around the circle of lake, nearly running, chanting to myself, “The speech of water. The speech of water!” At the end of the circle the phrase is just as right as it was at the start.

A few emails with Kristina follow, to arrive at the perfect subtitle. But finally there it is, our new title: The Speech of Water: Renewing Our Connection with Nature. It has the right elegance, the right heft, the right poetic tone for the book.

The publisher loves it too, as I knew he would. That evening I go out for dinner with friends, my face beaming, my heart free. The next morning I sleep past dawn.

And here is where I thought the story ended. Glad to at last have a title, I opened up my manuscript file and swapped out the old title for the new.

What was that—a slight twinge? Was I already missing the fox?

I take the new title to the next Boulder Media Women happy hour. I notice that it doesn’t roll off my tongue quite as easy as the old one. Everyone loves the new title. But they say at the same time, “Oh, I hate to lose the kissing fox!” I know what they mean. So do I.

A few days go by, and then I get an email from the publisher. He has attended a regional meeting with marketing and sales people. They presented my book, and it was a hit. (Yippee!) But there was only one problem. All the people around the table hated the title. Every one of them. After a prolonged discussion, my publisher gives them the old title: Kissed by a Fox: And Other Stories of Friendship in Nature.

They love it. Down to the last person.

I am laughing aloud. After all that work, all those sleepless early mornings, here we are, arriving back at the place we began.

And here’s the thing: I trust those people. Even though I’ve never met them, I trust their perspective. They are thinking like a reader who is browsing through a bookstore. They agree with all my friends, who down to the last person, have said, “That fox makes me want to pick up the book and read it!”

So it seems we have arrived at a title after all. It just happens to be the one I’m already used to repeating:

Kissed by a Fox: And Other Stories of Friendship in Nature


9 Responses to Journey toward a book title

  1. Rivvy Neshama says:February 8, 2012 at 10:28 am

    This is an awesome post! you have described in exquisite detail what I’ve been going through the last month (after my coach said I should rewrite the overview of the proposal): the sleeplessness, the thesaurus checking, the obsessing, the brainstorming with friends and family (who all cancel each other out), the “That’s it!” moment that curiously transforms into a “Yuck, what was I thinking” moment by the next day…. You have captured the pain and joy of it all for all of us, Priscilla! I thank you, and I congratulate you on re-finding the perfect title — which I, too, have loved from the start!

  2. Pauline says:February 8, 2012 at 1:55 pm

    I loved the new title but after reading this post, I agree. Kissed by a Fox sounds right and is memorable. (I miss Wonderland Lake.)

  3. Elizabeth says:February 8, 2012 at 2:56 pm

    Thank you for sharing your process. I like the watery one, but am also happy you circled back to the fox – so vivid.

  4. Danny Beebe says:February 8, 2012 at 3:57 pm

    I would love to share a poem that I wrote and had published a few years ago if you want to read it let me know…………………….Danny

  5. Kathy Kaiser says:February 10, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    I love your story of this serendipitous process back and forth and coming full circle. Maybe the lesson is that the first title is the best.

  6. Kathleen Christensen says:February 24, 2012 at 11:45 am

    I loved the water title, but I’m kind of glad the fox is back too …

  7. Gail Storey says:February 25, 2012 at 4:15 pm

    I have always loved the Kissed by a Fox title and was on the edge of my chair throughout this post at the scary thought you were giving it up! Imagine my relief that you came back around to it. It is so the right title for your book, Priscilla, and captures the sexiness of Nature. ;-D

  8. Cheri Hoffer says:February 26, 2012 at 10:57 pm

    Absolutely delightful, Priscilla. Like a young man or woman who ventures far from home, exploring the world for the first time, coming back home to a “new” place. So goes the title. Fresh eyes and ears from the journey. And then we never take home for granted again. You’ve earned every fine word that comes your way, tenfold. It will be my pleasure to finally read the stories. BRAVO!!

  9. Annette says:February 28, 2012 at 9:43 pm

    Brilliant! Isn’t that just like life…back to the start. Congratulations, Priscilla. What a pleasure to have a peek into such an amazing process.