From Complex Memories to the Compelling Title of Your Memoir

by Jerry Waxler

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

When you first consider the possibility of writing the story of your own life, you have not yet pulled experiences out of their storehouse in memory. Over time, the anecdotes take shape on paper, and you search for a beginning, middle, and end. From within your pages emerge story arcs. How did you grow up? How did you survive some assault on your dignity? How did you move to the next step? Some themes emerge gradually and others jump out as surprises. During a reading, or during a workshop, or while you are showering, you realize how long you’ve been struggling to please your dad, or you recognize the power of some dream that you’ve always taken for granted. You see how such a theme would hold the story together and drive the reader’s curiosity.

A memoir is born. But what to call it? How do you label your journey through life in a brief title that announces to potential readers that this book is worth reading? And just as important, what title will hold your own interest and help you tighten the concept of the book?

Fortunately, like every aspect of the memoir writing process, you don’t need to face this question alone. Every memoir you read offers an example of how one author turned a life into a story, and then labeled that story in a few enticing words. Take for example, the memoir Freeways to Flipflops by Sonia Marsh. Before reading the book, the title might sound simple, light and breezy. I think of a fun loving family leaving Los Angeles to try out the adventure of a lifetime.

However, in these simple words, the title evokes powerful images, metaphorically comparing life in Southern California to the laid-back life on the beach. Despite the breeziness of the title, Sonia Marsh’s life was anything but simple. The book actually describes one of the most pressured, complex periods of the author’s life.

However, despite the contrast between the breeziness of the title and the difficulty of the life it describes, I never felt betrayed or misled. On the contrary, the deeper I went into the story, the more meaning I found in the title. I realized it provided a micro-guidebook, showing the family’s initial optimistic hopes for the journey, and then as I proceeded, I discovered the irony of the title. This journey was not so simple as it first appeared.

At the start of the story, Sonia Marsh’s teenage son decides he can do whatever he wants. His sense of entitlement looks like the beginning of a terrifying descent. He crosses a line when he lifts his fist to his mother and instead of smashing her face, he puts a hole through the wall. His behavior is heart wrenching and frightening.

His dad was busy at his corporate job, and had no insights into how to change his son’s behavior. So it was up to Mom to come up with the next step. Some moms might be paralyzed with fear, or turn the matter over to the police or ship the boy off to military school or call in the therapists. Sonia Marsh does something different. Like one of those mothers who lifts an automobile off her child, Marsh attempts to get Los Angeles’ Freeway culture off her son’s back by moving her family to the Central American nation of Belize. Freeways to Flipflops is the story of that journey.

This is part 1 of a three-part essay about titling your memoir.

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

Notes

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6 thoughts on “From Complex Memories to the Compelling Title of Your Memoir

  1. Jerry, You bring up some valuable tips in this analysis..hooking the reader’s attention, capturing the essence of your story, delivering on a promise to the readers all within a few words in the title. I agree Sonia delivers with style. I’m in the throes of coming up with a memoir title so I’m all ears. Thanks and I look forward to our next installment.

  2. Jerry, thank you for selecting my memoir and for the in depth review of the title. I have to give credit to one of my close friends who came up with the title when I fist told her about writing the story of my family’s year in Belize. I tried different titles and discussed them with friends at my gym during workouts. Those who knew my story put lists together during their free time, however, “Freeways to Flip-Flops” always stuck with me, as it evoked an image which, as you mentioned, compared life in Southern California to the laid-back life on the beach.

    I appreciate your comment, “Despite the contrast between the breeziness of the title and the difficulty of the life it describes, I never felt betrayed or misled. On the contrary, the deeper I went into the story, the more meaning I found in the title. I realized it provided a micro-guidebook, showing the family’s initial optimistic hopes for the journey, and then as I proceeded, I discovered the irony of the title. This journey was not so simple as it first appeared.”

    Jerry, this is an excellent summary, and I appreciate your in-depth analysis. Thank you for helping all of us realize the importance of selecting a meaningful title.

  3. As usual, Jerry, you have such insight. I don’t know if Sonia thought all this in her head, but she did pick a great title for a fascinating story. I enjoyed her book very much.

  4. Linda, I agree that Jerry has such insight, and came up with details I had not thought of with such intense observation. When I answered his questions, I remember saying: “I wanted a visual title, and did not want to focus on my son’s defiance. The adventure in Belize was more important than focusing on ‘healing.’” The branding of my website, “Gutsy Living” also played a role in determining my title, as I knew it was important to stick with the same theme. My first editor liked the title, “Greetings from Belize,” which to me seemed weak and rather boring.

  5. I want to be a member of this village! Like Kathy, I’m still toying with titles, from simple to sassy, so I very much look forward to your next installment. (Hi everyone). thanks

  6. Thank you for all these great comments. I am always happy to spend a few hours thinking about a memoir, to honor the lifetimes they represent and the thousands of hours that went into creating them.

    And just as the memoir is written in private and shared in public, so are our observations here on this blog. So many things are changing in the world. This opportunity to join together, share lifetimes and ideas about lifetimes is one of the positive ones.

    Janet, thanks for wanting to be part of this “village” – it’s not a hard group to break into. LOL I think you’re in. :)

    Best wishes,
    Jerry

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