He’s brown, he’s carved, he’s wooden – oh and he’s a bear.
Ernest Hemingway is good value on the process of writing. Here he’s struggling to find a title for one of his books. This is what he wrote to Scott Fitzgerald in 1927.
“I could get no title, Fitz, run through Ecclesiastics (sic) though I did. Perkins, perhaps you’ve met him, wanted a title for the book. So I being up in Gstaad went around all the bookstores that I could trying to buy a bible in order to get a title but all the sons of bitches had to sell were little carved brown wood bears. So for a time I thought of dubbing the book The Little Carved Wood Bear and then listening to the critics explanations. Fortunately there happened to be a Church of England clergyman in town who was leaving the next day and Pauline borrowed a bible off him … Well, Fitz, I looked all through that bible, it was in very fine print and stumbling on that great book Ecclesiastics (sic) read it aloud to all who would listen. Soon I began cursing the bloody bible because there were no titles in it although I found the source of practically every good title you ever heard of. But the boys, principally Kipling, had been there before me and swiped all the good ones so I called the book Men without Women …
ERNEST HEMINGWAY SELECTED LETTERS
Men without Women? Ernest get a grip! He had some fantastic titles to his books: Death in the Afternoon, For Whom the Bell Tolls, A Farewell to Arms, The Old Man and the Sea, To Have and Have Not.
But Men without Women?
He just wasn’t trying very hard, was he? He should have stuck with The Little Carved Wooden Bear and enjoyed watching the critics trying to work it out.
I make lists of possible titles as I go along. The crime ones came easily enough. Bloodless Shadow (my first crime novel) was from a book of poems, The Rooster Mask, by a friend Henry Hart and he had it from Homer or Virgil. At any rate one of those scenes when the classical hero goes down to the underworld and the bloodless shadows (the dead) cluster around him.
Poetry is a particularly good source for titles because of the way poets crack open language. They jam words together in arresting and muscular ways and that’s what you want from a title. Something that grabs the attention, unsettles , fizzes.
The title of my most recent book Far Away is the least dramatic of my titles but it persisted and in the end I was satisfied with it.
On occasion regrettably you can come across the perfect title for your book after it’s published. This happened to me the other day when I was reading Under Siege: Literary Life in London 1939-45 by Robert Hewison. I came across this quote from Uys Krige, a South African war correspondent, captured in Africa like my father and a POW in Italy. Here’s his description of what being a POW was like:
“This is a dead world, a lost world and these are lost men, lost each in his own separate limbo, banished from his memories, exiled even from himself. Here even dreams are dead.”
From this short passage I found four titles: Dead World, Lost Men, Banished From Memory and Even Dreams are Dead.
Even Dreams are Dead is the one I like best. That is the title that got away!
Uys where were you when I needed you?
If you’re a writer how do you find the titles of your books or short stories? Does it come easily?
If you’re a reader tell me some of your favourite or least favourite titles.