How to Pick the Best Title for Your Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

Read Memoir Revolution to learn why now is the perfect time to write your memoir.

When you write your memoir, you turn great swatches of your life into prose. You search for a narrative arc, psychological insights and dramatic tension in paragraph after paragraph, and page after page. But when you write a title, you must think like a poet, condensing the entire journey into a few words. To ensure your title has the maximum impact, microscope in on the phrase, searching for just the right meanings, hopefully spiced with a hint of ambiguity or mysterious depth.

Authors stare at the sky of their minds, hoping some pattern will jump out at them. But before making a decision, consider all the work a title has to do. A great title helps potential readers buy the book, love it to the last page and then recommend it to friends. To learn more, look at your own buying, reading, and recommending behavior to see the effect other titles have had on you.

The Title Is the First Line of Marketing

If a book’s title tickles my interest, I move to the next step. I look at the blurb or description and read reviews online. If still curious, I look up the author’s home page, blogs and social media. However, I continue to rely on the title as the centerpiece for all this interest.

Many factors play in my mind when I glance at a title. Is it fun? Is it somber? Is it cryptic? Sonia Marsh states in an interview about her memoir Freeways to Flipflops, readers want to go on an interesting journey. She believed that if her title had highlighted her son’s emotional problems, readers might have anticipated a bummer. Who wants to pay for that? By selecting a title with a more interesting visual image, Sonia Marsh made it easier to love the book.

Sometimes the title slows down my purchasing decision. Reading Lolita In Tehran by Azar Nafisi is a good example. Years ago I read Vladimir Nabakov’s book, Lolita, about a creepy man who coerced a little girl into sex. I had no interest in pursuing this topic, so despite repeated recommendations, I rejected the memoir.

The Title Guides You Through the Journey

Reading a book is like entering a contract with the author, and the terms of that contract are summarized in the terse few words of the title. Every time a reader sits down to read, the title goes through their mind, evoking an image that pulls them back into the story.

Just as the name of the “Big Dipper” helps stargazers imagine the shape of disconnected points of light, an effective title helps readers link together clues into the shape of a story that hangs together along a central premise.

For example, when I read Seven Wheelchairs by Gary Presley about life after polio, every time I picked it up, my throat constricted, remembering that we would resume the search for meaning in a life on wheels.

I knew The Man Who Couldn’t Eat by Jon Reiner would be about a man who had to stop eating in order to survive an attack of Crohn’s disease. Through his year of physical and emotional agony, the absence of food continued to play a central role.

Queen of the Road by Doreen Orion was about a married middle-aged couple who took a year off to travel around the United States in an RV. That title evoked a hint of playful irony, conjuring the image of a woman sitting on the “throne” of the passenger seat, ruler of all she surveyed.

Sometimes the subtitle serves this central purpose. Every time I picked up the memoir Anatolian Days and Nights: A Love Affair With Turkey by Joy Stocke and Angie Brenner, I accompanied the two authors on a love affair with a place, an unusual experience that is highlighted in the subtitle.

Sonia Marsh’s title Freeways to Flipflops provided a perfect link through the dynamics of the story. Every time I thought of the book, I visualized this urban family trying to make sense of life on the beach.

Write
Pick a memoir off your shelf and think about what you thought before you read it, and what you thought after. Were you attracted by the title? Throughout the book, were you satisfied that the title steered you well?

The Title Lingers After Closing

After we close the book for the last time, we continue to associate the story with its title. So when you look for the best possible title, consider the image it will leave. The title should haunt readers, please them, and continue to evoke images. Ideally, the title should roll off the reader’s tongue when friends ask for a recommendation.

For example, Slash Coleman’s memoir Bohemian Love Diaries implies a series of passionate romances. The word Bohemian has delicious implications that remind me of my youthful dreams of returning to pre-war Europe, and of living life according to my own fantasy, not someone else’s rules.

Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls raises a haunting, image, somewhere between a child’s innocent hope for the future and an almost sinister reminder of her father’s mentally incompetent ability to fulfill those hopes.

Freeways to Flipflops leaves a perfect after-image. It’s easy to remember, evokes clean, strikingly compelling images of the crossing between two worlds. And it’s fun to remember the two metaphors. I want to tell friends about it partly because the title is so much fun.

When I finally picked up Azar Nafisi’s memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran, I enjoyed a delicious weaving of life and literature. In addition, it provided a fascinating analogy between the way Humbert Humbert treated Lolita, as his “thing” and the way Islamists dehumanized the women of Iran as their “things.” Nafisi’s intense personal experience, coupled with the profound analogies she drew from literature helped me understand these powerful cultural dynamics. As a bonus, Nafisi’s love for literature took me so far into the mind of Vladimir Nabakov I feel like we have become good friends. I now recommend the book, but I completely empathize if you decide to pass. Click here to read my post on the memoir.

Ask the Story to Reveal its Own Title

If you don’t yet have a title for your own memoir, keep a list of whatever comes to mind, and meanwhile reserve your main focus on crafting your story. Perhaps the story itself will reveal a powerful title. With continued revision, the story becomes more real and accessible to your own mind. Every time you attempt to answer the question “what is your memoir about” you will find yourself inching closer and closer to a concept that satisfies your authentic intention as well as creating curiosity in potential readers.

Turn words over in your mind, and then try them out with friends and fellow writers. Eventually you will be able to explain the scope of your entire story in a catchy, meaningful phrase, a creative achievement that symbolizes to you and your future readers all the creative effort you have poured into turning your life into a story.

Writing Prompt
Free-write a descriptions of the journey taken by the main character, or ask a good friend to ask you what the book is about and try to explain it. Vary these synopses, looking for the overall lesson of the book, or some powerful transition, or a metaphor that keeps coming to mind, or something about a main character, main desire, or something about the time and place. Use these brainstorming session to reveal the power in characters and situations. Each possible synopsis might provide you with just the right phrase or idea to act as the guide post for the life of the book. Will it entice a reader, guide them through the journey, and leave them with an image after they close it that they would want to share with a friend?

Sonia Marsh’s Home Page
Freeways to Flipflops (Kindle Version)

Notes
I have not yet published my memoir, tentatively titled Thinking My Way to the End of the World, but I have published two other books. The title of my self-help book for writers “Four Elements for Writers” accurately described the contents, but it didn’t make sense until after you finished reading it. Recently, working on a re-release, I arrived at a new candidate, “Writers: Train Your Brain!” which hopefully evokes more curiosity and direction before, during and after.

Sometimes the title appears from nowhere. Early in the design of my book about the surge of popular interest in memoirs, the title Memoir Revolution popped into my mind. It felt good to me and when I mentioned my working title to writers and even agents they said “Nice title.” So I kept it.

For brief descriptions and links to all the posts on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order Memoir Revolution about the powerful trend to create, connect, and learn, see the Amazon page for eBook or Paperback.

To order my how-to-get-started guide to write your memoir, click here.

6 thoughts on “How to Pick the Best Title for Your Memoir

  1. Another thought-provoking post Jerry. I remember when “Eat, Pray, Love” first came out, how people could not remember the title. It only made sense after reading the memoir. There are so many trends, for example, three-word titles, then one-word titles are popular.

  2. Jerry, thanks for an informative and educational post. As I draft, I have a working title but already know it likely will not win the end of the day, I’m finished contest. You’ve cleared up a few mysteries for me.

  3. My favorite title ever is Wild. When I first picked that book up off the local store’s shelf I had never heard of it, but the title and the photo of her shoe caught my attention and inspired my purchase. I only hope I can do the same one day with my title for my memoir. Meanwhile I have lots to worry about besides the title since I am a long way from completion.

  4. Hi Sonia, Sherrey, and Lori, Thanks for your comments. The challenge for us entrepreneurial writers is that even though we have consumed books for years, we have rarely been involved in producing them. As a result many of the details of production zoom up on the horizon. “Hey, I have to learn that!” This is why in the new community-based publishing environment, we have to stick together, learn together, swap lessons and observations. This mass creativity makes writing a memoir so intriguing in so many different ways.

    Jerry

  5. Jerry, What luck to happen upon your article and site. I’ve finished my memoir and have been looking for a title since I began writing it five years ago. All those I come with believe it or not– taken: Like, Something of Myself ( Kipling!), and
    A Woman’s Grasp (though by an unknown, she had climbed a mountain!) So, I’m always going back to square one. Now, with your comments, I have more of a strategy. Thank you. JMK

  6. Congratulations Judith. What a wonderful achievement. Now to the next step. I love all the hard creative work that goes into writing a memoir and attempting with all one’s might to do it right! I’m glad you found some good ideas in my blog about how to proceed. Your dilemma is fascinating. I ought to write a post about what to do if your title sounds too much like another… someday. Just so you know, titles are not copyrighted, so legally you are free to reuse them. But of course you also want readers to think about YOUR book when they think of the title.

    Best wishes,
    Jerry

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