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Shepherd’s Pie with a Side of Yellow Hummingbird–On Titles

August 21, 2013

bridge from gorge

I happen to live in a part of the world that is gorgeous, mountainous, and occasionally duplicitous. Perhaps this is because Vermont has more writers per capita than nineteenth-century Concord. More people answer to the name POET around here than in the backroom of a 1990’s coffeehouse.

I suppose, the whole bumptious, cranky, scribbling lot of our Vermont writers try in their way to make up for all the nuance and subtlety that our momentous landscape lacks.

For instance, a gorge not far from my house is famously touted as the Grand Canyon of the East. The historically-minded will chuckle at this. I’m sure that most painters of the Hudson River School would have been more likely to call the Grand Canyon the Quechee Gorge of the West. But that’s not the point. Up the road a ways from the parking lot where tourists congregate to see the gorged grandeur is a restaurant called The Shepherd’s Pie. One of my keenest fantasies is to walk in there and be greeted by a pirate-like waitress pertly informing me that there’s plenty of grub on the menu, BUT NO SHEPHERD’S PIE!

This leads me to consider the titles I tend to assign the stories and flashes I write.

Is there an appropriate situation for a short story to have a bold misdirection for a title?

My general philosophy for titling is to aim for an absolute, nearly supernatural correspondence–as if there is only one perfect name for a piece and my job, like Adam’s in the garden, is to figure out what that name is. All that’s left for me to do then is to give back the name that already belongs to the piece, bearing this name in an ideal sense.

Perhaps the perfect title for your piece is the name it went by in the ethers before it was made into a story, and an angel pressed its harp in the cleft of its chin. And isn’t that just so precious? And isn’t also full of so much hooey and warm garbage malarcky?

As naming strategies go, this one about ideals and angels is as boring as the Internet (and nearly as self-righteous).

Another naming tactic I’ve always wanted to try–besides misdirection–is patterned after Japanese prints. In the classic example, the drawing is tall, thin, and exploding with outlined detail. From the top down, it contains sky and clouds, sprigs of foliage with arcing butterflies and branches. There’s a house in the distance, some peasants, a well on a hill. A vibrantly red and orange samurai lunges across the foreground. His sword is drawn. His face is a mask of fury. At the very bottom, where more branches and ornate leaves swarm, you can barely make out amidst the tangle a tiny yellow hummingbird.

The official translation for the title of this busy piece: Yellow Hummingbird.

Just once, I’d like to follow this title-giving principle, making the whole go by the name of its humblest part.

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