Tag: Titling

What Can We Steal From Thad Kenner’s “My Wife Doesn’t Get Just How Good I Am at Call of Duty”?

Title of Work and its Form: “My Wife Doesn’t Get Just How Good I Am at Call of Duty,” short story
Author: Thad Kenner
Date of Work: 2014
Where the Work Can Be Found:  The piece made its debut on Monkeybicycle in January 2014.  You can read the story here.

Bonus: Here is a piece Mr. Kenner published online at Hobart.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Titling

Discussion:
I usually begin each of these essays with a summary of the work in question.  This time, I want to talk about the title.  I was just looking through the ol’ Great Writers Steal Twitter feed when I saw this:

After reading that tweet, I simply had no choice but to click on Monkeybicycle‘s link.  I haven’t read Mr. Kenner’s story yet, but I want to point out why I think his title is cool and effective:

  1. The title establishes a character.  I’ve read the title, so I’ve really already started reading the guy’s story.
  2. The title establishes conflict.  There’s some Call of Duty-inspired marital strife going on.  I don’t happen to play the game, but I know this happens.
  3. The title establishes POV.  It’s in the first person.  I already feel close to this guy, just by reading the title.
  4. The title is a little bit “odd.”  I dunno…when I try to think of a title, I usually end up with a significant word or phrase from the story.  Or the name of the pivotal character.  Or something else that is boring.  Mr. Kenner’s title is “different.”
  5. The title relates to something that a lot of people like.  Like I said, I’ve never played Call of Duty and I don’t have an XBox, but I do know that lots of people do play the game.  I’m hoping that gamers who don’t ordinarily read short stories will click on the story (and read it) based upon the title.

Okay, now that I’ve described what brought me to the story in the first place, I’m going to actually read the story.  BRB.  K?  OMFGWTFBBQ?  A/S/L?

Okay.  I read the story.  (It didn’t take long.)  Fortunately, I enjoyed it a great deal.  It would be a bit embarrassing if I went to the trouble of writing the first half of the essay and ended up hating the story in question.  “My Wife Doesn’t Get Just How Good I Am at Call of Duty” is a piece of flash fiction in which the narrator describes how the relationship with his wife has changed during his extended time between “freelance” gigs.  The wife is at work every day and he is at home playing Call of Duty.  In the past, husband and wife would be supportive of the others’ pursuits.  This time, however, the wife just doesn’t appreciate her husband’s Call of Duty skills.

The prose is fun and the details seem accurate to me.  I don’t know if Mr. Kenner plays Call of Duty, but the screen names seem pretty typical.  I’m sure we all enjoyed that the story relates to the eternal conflict: partners trying to relate to each other and attempting to preserve domestic tranquility.

What do I think we can steal from the actual story?  I don’t know about you, but I really try to be a good person and not to hurt anyone.  Life is hard enough; I don’t want to contribute unfairly to anyone else’s happiness.  We live in a time in which there are many competing worldviews and the Internet brings them to us EVERY DAY.  WE CANNOT GET AWAY FROM THEM.  Most people must be a little bit like me: I try to reconsider my positions when I’m presented with a solid argument by a social scholar.  Here’s the problem: if ideology comes before story when I’m reading or writing, it’s no good.  When someone flips their metaphorical chair around and says, “Hey, I’m gonna tell you a story,” the narrative and characters must come first.  I can’t be thinking about this -ism or that -ism when I’m trying to feel the narrator’s joy or pain.

Social commentary doesn’t seem to have been Mr. Kenner’s primary goal, so I pushed ideological concerns out of my mind as I enjoyed the story.  Now that I’m done, here are some of the questions that I’m not letting myself consider:

  • The wife has a job and the narrator doesn’t.  Is he fulfilling his responsibility in the relationship?
  • Would we ask the same question if the genders were reversed?  And should we?
  • The first person narrator never specifies his or her own gender.  Is it being heternormative to simply assume that the narrator is male?  After all, I couldn’t care less if two women get married.
  • Some Call of Duty players say hurtful words to each other through their microphones.  Are there better ways to express what they’re feeling?  Should we try to condition aggression out of people?  Out of men?  Is it even possible?
  • There are countless women out there who enjoy the game.  Why can’t the wife play Call of Duty?

I could go on for quite some time, but I don’t think that is what Mr. Kenner would like.  He wrote a really short, really fun story that left me feeling a bit sad for the narrator.  My reading of the piece indicates that there’s a storm brewing between husband and wife.  They seem to love each other, but may be growing apart.

The Twilight Zone was conceived out of Rod Serling’s desire to tell socially relevant stories without all the hassle he received when confronting racism and other problems without the benefit of the scrim of science fiction or fantasy.  Those who were against integration in 1959, for example, were less likely to understand that Serling was arguing for equality because the story took place on Mars instead of on terra firma.

Have we all spent countless hours thinking about the powerful ideologies that Serling was espousing through his show?  Sure.  But Serling (and Matheson and all of the other writers) put storytelling over their desire to tell others what’s wrong with crazy people in this crazy world.

What Should We Steal?

  • Refuse to settle for a boring title.  I have one terrible story I called “The Choice.”  Really?  “The Choice?”  Why didn’t I just call it “Random Noun?”
  • Ensure that your story is more important than your message.  How will anyone interact with your grand idea about humanity if the story seems like a lecture?

What Can We Steal From Nick McRae’s “Psalm 137”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Psalm 137,” poem
Author: Nick McRae
Date of Work: 2012
Where the Work Can Be Found: “Psalm 137” was originally published in Issue 50 of the Hayden’s Ferry Review.  Mr. McRae has been kind enough to make the poem available on Ink Node; why not read that poem and several others of his?

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Titling

Discussion:
“Psalm 137” asks six questions, each of which seems to lament the changing nature of “manhood” in contemporary society.  Mr. McRae dedicates the poem to his “grandfathers” and mentions old men who laugh with each other and spit tobacco juice and young men who,

elbow deep in grease,

leaned, blackened, into the shells of Internationals,

knuckles bloodied, and tooled the cast-iron carcasses to life?

Mr. McRae demonstrates a sense of economy in the way he uses his title.  Instead of simply plucking out one of the poem’s particularly memorable lines, he makes reference to the Old Testament.  Thanks to public domain, I can simply paste the King James Version of Psalm 137 below:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.

We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.

For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion.

How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.

If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.

Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Rase it, rase it, even to the foundation thereof.

O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.

Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones.

What does Mr. McRae gain with his choice of title?  The whole poem is colored by our understanding of the psalm.  What does it mean to me?  Well, it seems as though the narrator is lamenting the loss of a homeland and a way of life.  What a coincidence!  Mr. McRae’s poem seems to lament the conventions of the “old days,” in which we all had a closer connection to nature and more people (women included, of course) fixed things themselves.  When Mr. McRae invokes the psalm, he is creating a literary dialogue between the two…all with the simple choice of a two-word title.

Phew!  Look at the length of some of those sentences.  I know, I know.  Your middle school English teacher told you not to write long sentences.  Mrs. Amaya’s advice was very shrewd at the time, as most sixth-graders don’t have the skills necessary to put together a solid 100-word sentence.  Now that you’re a writer, however, it’s your solemn duty to experiment with language and to play with syllables.  Feel free to let your poetic sensibility loose.  What do you have to lose?  You can always revise your work.

“Psalm 137” teaches an unexpected lesson.  Look at the version of the poem I’ve linked above.  Now order a copy of Issue 50 of the Hayden’s Ferry Review.  Have a seat.  Wait for your mail carrier to deliver it.  Good?  Okay, open the package and turn to page 61.  Notice any differences between the two?  That’s right, there’s an additional stanza in the version of the poem that Mr. McRae posted online.  The sixth stanza (missing in the Review) is slightly different from the others, explicitly mentioning Psalm 137.  What happened here?

A little birdie told me what happened.  The kind editors of the Hayden’s Ferry Review suggested to Mr. McRae that the poem be published without the final stanza and Mr. McRae graciously assented.  It’s safe to say that all of us love the work we produce.  Our poems and short stories and screenplays are like our children, aren’t they?  No matter how hard it is, we must take criticism and sometimes change our work based upon it.

What Should We Steal?

  • Make the title of your work do work.  There’s nothing wrong with having a title that is simply pretty or simply refers to the main characters of your story.  It is possible, however, for your title to do some structural work.  Mr. McRae doesn’t need to mention Psalm 137 in the poem itself because the reader already has it in the back of his or her mind.
  • Employ long sentences in the interest of making literary music.  Long, beautiful sentences can enhance the music of your work.  Lush sentences like the ones in “Psalm 137” engross the reader in the same way that a listener can be captivated by a symphony.
  • Accept criticism gratefully, especially when it comes from really smart people.  At some point, an editor (or even a friend) will make suggestions with which you may disagree.  Instead of being defensive, try to see your work through different eyes and understand that you can always reinstate the final stanza in a future collection of your poetry, so to speak.

What Can We Steal From Andrew Hudgins’s “Helen Keller Answers the Iron”?

Title of Work and its Form: “Helen Keller Answers the Iron,” creative nonfiction
Author: Andrew Hudgins
Date of Work: 2011
Where the Work Can Be Found: The essay was originally published in the Spring 2011 issue of the Kenyon Review and was reprinted in the 2013 edition of the Pushcart Prize anthology.

Element of Craft We’re Stealing: Titling

Discussion:
Andrew Hudgins is a poet whose work is marked (in my mind, at least) by the playfulness with which he uses language.  Don’t get me wrong; his work is indeed as deep and as poignant as you would expect from a top-flight poet.  Some part of Andrew remains childlike, allowing him to put words together without the self-consciousness we tend to develop in adolescence.  This essay is centered upon a special kind of poem: the joke.  Andrew confesses that he was always fascinated by jokes; the darker the better.  He begins by describing a childhood filled with elephant jokes, a medium that helped him learn about surrealist thinking and appealed far more to him that that boring iambic pentameter Shakespeare stuff.  Why do we enjoy jokes about death, religion, race and sex?  “Fear, tripped as it stalks toward us, makes the reversal of expectation more powerful.”  Andrew describes how he used the power granted him by jokes that rub against societal taboo.  In one delightfully disquieting scene, he cut a dead baby joke that ordinarily came before a dead dog joke because he was performing for his mother, “a woman who had lost a child.”  The essay ends with way some jokes came to bother him as he matured.  What is the line between “edgy” and “racist?”  When does a lighthearted joke become callous?

Like “a good man,” good titles are often hard to find.  This essay has a great one.  Why is it such a great choice?  Imagine you’re looking through a table of contents and you see “Helen Keller Answers the Iron.”  What work does this title do for its author, particularly for a reader who knows nothing of the essay?

  • If the reader has heard the joke, he is reminded of the emotional reaction they had.
  • If the reader hasn’t heard the joke, he is briefly jolted by the image of a severely handicapped woman pressing a hot iron to her face.
  • There’s a kind of pleasing poetic meter to the title: HELen KELLer ANswers the IRon.  (What are the specific feet? Trochee, trochee, dactyl, trochee.)

Talk about economy.  Like a good poet should, Andrew packs a ton of possible meaning into five simple words.

The essay is also written with unflinching honesty.  Might some readers think Andrew is a jerk because of some of the confessions he makes?  Sure.  It’s more important, however, that Andrew tell the story straight.  When he was a teenager, he made friends laugh by making fun of Charles Woods, a man who had been badly burned while flying with the U.S. Army Air Corps.  Upon reflection, Andrew says he is now “nearly appalled” at his callousness.  Why wouldn’t the average reader think Andrew is a big jerk?  Because he explained exactly what he did and why and fully explicated his thought process.  A life well-lived requires us to evolve; Andrew trusts the reader to give him a chance to understand him on a human level.

What Should We Steal?

  • Make your title a tickler that ends up being a punch in the gut.  Considered blind (no pun intended), the title of the essay piques your interest and convinces you to give the essay a chance.  Once you’ve read the piece, you get a deeper meaning; you understand why Helen Keller jokes are so prevalent and what it says about the rest of us.  I know…titles are hard.  We need to get over it.
  • Treat your reader as you would a friend, particularly in nonfiction.  Your friends think that you’re pretty cool.  Why?  Because they have spent a lot of time around you and they probably have a good idea of what is inside your heart and mind.  (Blood and neurons, respectively.)  Allow your reader to become your confessor; if you’re sincere, you may be absolved.  (And get a book deal and stuff.)