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
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.)