My essay, “This Will Be the Last Time,” was recently published by Pangyrus. The full essay — which presents the three last times I saw my late husband, Jimmy Guterman — can be found here: link.
Here’s an excerpt, from when the kids and I visited him, in his last earthly existence, in the funeral home.
They touched their father then, over the sheet. His legs. His chest. Did anyone touch his hands? They were under the shroud, a lump on his chest. I touched his hard, bony small knee through the sheet.
“Remember the wolf pack?” asked Eli, putting one hand out to hover over Jimmy’s chest.
We nodded and looked across the body at each other, remembering that time in a dark-paneled and stuffy TGI Fridays in Niagara Falls, on the rain-soaked first night of our summer vacation. Tired from a long car ride, we longed for hospitality, not our cramped hotel room or the awful food in front of us. To break a rotten, collective mood and restore family togetherness Eli had declared, “Wolf pack of five,” and led us through the stacked-hand gesture.
Ten years later, in Levine Chapel, Lydia put an outstretched hand on top of Eli’s. I put my hand on Lydia’s, and then Grace topped my hand with hers. With our hands making a sandwich and hovering over their father’s body, Eli commanded, “Wolf pack, last time.” Our hands released, fluttered up like birds, and then dropped back to our sides.
There was a lightness in the air; we were relieved. Jimmy, estranged husband and troubled father, on the run and missing for days, had been found. We walked out of the room, and he was gone.
It used to be that an important part of work was being at work.
If you’re not a freelancer or independent consultant or something, this “being at” meant a physical, on-site presence involving social interaction, moving through the employer’s space, drinking the employer’s coffee, attending meetings or talks at which you were just a listener, and even going to occasional work parties, like good-byes and farewells.
This is not to say laziness or shirking was involved. These activities required attention, and sometimes a mood.
In addition to being at work, an employee or faculty member or whatever may also have done a crushing amount of labor that produced a result: editing photos, writing reports, grading papers or exams, preparing lectures, presenting at a faculty meeting, herding deliveries at the front desk, ordering food for meetings, mocking up brochures or signage, and re-shelving book after book after book.
At my university, we worked and taught remotely from March 2020 to the end of August 2021. This means that all of the second part of work—actual labor, whether social, mental, or physical—was done at home. And all of what used to count for the first part of work, the “being at,” stopped counting as work. Not that anyone monitored our WFH or time usage, just that it felt like nothing if I was at home (my new workplace) and not hunched over my keyboard, producing something, staring at my laptop during a Teams meeting, or talking with grad students about their writing over Zoom.
My calendar became crammed because I was just home, right? No travel time, no boundary between the workplace and the homeplace.
Productivity (mine, others) increased during this time period. (Disclosure: I had no young children to care for or homeschool.) This was not just for me; it was the same for others employed by my university. One reason was the disappearance of commuting. Another was the adoption of technology.
Some good things happened in this new paradigm. I liked not having my early-evening hours occupied by a long period in the car or on the train.
But: my eyes hurt from peering at a screen without blinking for hours; my right hip hurt from this weird, un-ergonomic way I have of sitting in my desk chair leaning to my left; and my right space-bar-banging thumb frequently twitched from overuse.
Synchronous meetings with students or team-teaching workshops with favorite colleagues were enjoyable but made up a small fraction of my week.
Every Friday morning on our call, my therapist W. asks me, “Have you tried to do any writing?” We are speaking, of course, about the pandemic.
“Not really,” I say. “Some lists.”
This week I went to the old Sears location at the Natick Mall.
I had an appointment. Though I read the instructions three times before I went, and I looked at the map, as I got closer to the mall I saw that my efforts had been unnecessary.
The signage was profuse and helpful. Sandwich boards with arrows directed me to parking, even when I was still on the main access road. More of them told me to wait in my car until no more than 10 minutes before my appointed time. Other signs directed me from parking and funneled me into the main entrance.
I went from designated person to designated person, a chain of steps leaving nothing to user (mis)interpretation.
Finally, at my station, I rolled up my left sleeve (short, nothing confining); I answered a few questions; I winced at the sudden stinging pain in my shoulder cap. I breathed out.
As I sat in the post-waiting area for my allotted 15 minutes, I marveled at the calm order and the comfort of a protocol that’s going exactly as it was planned. I looked around at people, trying to gauge ages and co-morbidities. Blank.
“This is about not dying,” I suddenly thought. Usually, when I get my annual flu shot, I think about my contribution to public health along with protections to my own health. I had never before dwelled on dying or not dying.
It occurred to me that this is what the entire last year has been: trying not to sink down into thoughts about dying and not dying.
Two nights later, when my left arm hurt like hell and I had an unprecedented headache as well as fatigue and a very low mood, I texted my youngest sibling, who had preceded me in the vaccine quest. “How did you feel?”
His symptoms had been similar. He added, “Low mood/fatigue sure but I get that lately anyways so hard to tell if it was from vaccine.”
Have you also been embarrassed lately by your lack of happiness? Really, I am fine, and this should be enough in the pandemic context. I have a job with benefits and a place to live. My workplace (though virtual) is positive or at least benign. I have food and love, and no one whom I love has died in the last year. Almost every day I get exercise. I try to salute the sun when I am outside.
Yet the facts of my life cannot overcome tedium, worry, and an empty tank.
In our weekly meeting, I check in with my boss, B., how’s it going. He asks me the same. Last Tuesday I sang a little, “The long and winding road….” Every week we look for metaphors and cultural references to capture this hell that’s not really hell for us. He asked, “Did you ever see European Vacation? He can’t get used to driving on the opposite side of the road, and there’s a long scene where they spend eight hours driving around and around inside a rotary, not able to get out.”
Here we are, in a rotary, around and around. No exit yet.
I don’t even know if I have the desire in me anymore to miss anything. The hunger has become deadened. If you forced me, though, in some icebreaker activity to say what I miss I could come up with something: sitting at a bar having a drink and a snack, my family the Kokes, going to a live show with my three adult children.
I feel as though we’ve crossed an ocean in a boat and can’t go back. We can write letters and send them, and who knows how long it will take for the letters to reach their destination or if a letter will come back. We are like travelers to a new land, forced out of the old one.
We left home, and yet here we are, in the same place.
There have been birthdays. Two weeks ago my youngest child, Grace, celebrated her 21st birthday. Though I also have a 28 year old and 25 year old, suddenly I am the parent of three adult children. My life is in a new stage. If you are a parent, you’ll know when you get there. This is the end of the innocence (theirs and yours), which has been a long time coming.
How will we get out of this period we are all going through? For a long long time I’ve been feeling as though we’re living through the End of Days, but now I’m imagining it as just a winter period, a hibernation, or an Ice Age of sorts. Life is coming back, for those of us who are still alive.
I am so so sorry for people who have lost a loved one or dear colleague or dear student to the coronavirus. You are like civilians on the front lines of a battle, and you were made vulnerable. There was nothing you could do. I imagine you are looking back all the time and wondering, “What could we have done?” You wish desperately that you could have saved your loved one by some personal intervention or action of your own.
It’s very hard to realize and accept we are not that powerful. I offer you compassion and I hope you will forgive yourself.
Looking through my phone for any pictures I’ve taken that could illustrate this time (and this blog post), I see I’ve hardly taken any photos beyond ones of my dog. I have taken screenshots of clothing in online catalogs that I haven’t bought. Aspirational? “Oh, I’ll wear this someday.”
Meanwhile, I have my uniform. And I sit at my desk that overlooks the neighbors’ yard. There is also the shed and the woods. Over my desk I’ve hung a calendar to cross off days as they pass. It helps me orient myself to the actual day and date as it’s happening.
I have so much work to do, and I’m doing it. Every day I wonder: What is it for?
There is this photo of Grace, taking a turn driving on January 29 on our way to Bronxville to bring her back to college. In the fall, she lived in a solitary room in an Airbnb run by retired faculty members. She wanted to be as close to campus as possible, though campus wasn’t really open and there wasn’t a room for her there. This semester, she got a dorm room. (Long, side story: she moved out a couple of weeks later, into a rooming house, when infections on campus surged.)
I am proud that all three of my children are safe, competent drivers. The feeling, honestly, is akin to the one I felt when all three of them could read, as though they were junior citizens in a world they could now participate in. (I mean, reading is SO MUCH.) Actors, with agency.
Here’s Grace, driving herself and me into some piercing, late afternoon winter sun. She was also the DJ, and a song by Ida Maria seemed fitting at the moment.
We went in the direction of the place that Grace wanted to be, though she understood that only in small ways would it be what she wanted, and what she had first hoped when she planned her college journey. It’s also not what I had envisioned for my child, when I saw the future opening up in front of her, as I did for Lydia and Eli too.
Life always intervenes. It thwarts and blinds us. If we can, we adjust. We drive on. Eventually, we get to a place. We stay there for a while and look for our people, our comforts.
This has been a narrow year, with experiences winnowed to their smallest amounts: one visit, one friend, one meal, one walk, one book, one day or one week. It has also been a year of lessons, the biggest one maybe something you come to understand when you’re past the middle of your life: there is no big destination, no place where you have it all or come to understand you’ve made it.
In our family chat, my sister Emily recently texted something like this: “Hey, we all made it through a day. And we’ll wake up tomorrow and have another one.”
I got those phrases out. Hard to keep going. The situation is so IMMENSE. How do I begin?
Finally, after a lifetime of living with people (not exaggerating), I have a room of my own or, at the least, an alcove and window of my own in my house. At work, where I have been going only rarely, I have an office of my own. Solitude is ample, though of course there are dear people in my life and I see them.
While I have the ideal Woolfian conditions for thinking, writing, and creating, my mind holds a shifting sand dune to trudge up and over before I can proceed. How do I do things that are not necessary, not for survival, not prompted by the pandemic, pre-election, or work pressures?
Yesterday I voted. I filled out my mail-in ballot on my kitchen counter with a black pen. The stroke curved to fill the right edge of the Biden/Harris oval and went over the line, perhaps a millimeter. I stared at it. Did I ruin my ballot? Did I disqualify my own vote? Doesn’t every vote count, even in Massachusetts? Who should I call, the town clerk? What string of words should I google to find out if I messed this up and what I should do to fix it?
I called on my inner voice. Jane, it’s really okay. It’s all about filling the oval. Not X-ing or checking it. The human hand cannot operate with 100% accuracy. Not your hand, not any other voter’s hand. Have faith. Keep filling the ovals, front side and back.
I walked to my town hall to deposit my ballot. Walking is better than sitting and driving. It felt ceremonial.
This is not about voting per se — it’s about the near-simmering panic that bubbles up. All these anxiety balls we are juggling are too many.
I read online some bit about the prefrontal cortex and its role in executive functioning and planning. (Did I get that right? If someone knows, please inform me because I am always happy to have the right answer gently provided to me.)
When this brain region is overwhelmed, as it is for all of us now, it can’t sort, prioritize, and plan.
I worked all day yesterday, feeling as though I kept circling the same To Do list over and over, picking off things to do and doing them with no sense of having picked the right thing to do. I ended up doing a lot and at the same time leaving a lot of gaps.
This is a duality: doing a lot and at the same time not getting much done.
I remember Jimmy, who loved quotable pithy wisdom, telling me more than once about some advice from guru screenwriter seminar-leader Robert McKee saying something like, “There is a difference between action and activities.” You want your character, if you’re writing a novel, to be involved in action, not activities. And–also according to Jimmy– someone else said, maybe a productivity guru, that this principle could be applied to work: be involved in action, not activities.
Activities are about all that’s happening for me and work and life right now. Do, do, do.
Yesterday after I got back from voting I took a break from my To Do list and I repotted a succulent garden that had lost a few of its babies in an over-watering episode this summer. I did this also on my kitchen counter — it’s an island at the center of the kitchen, and in this house the kitchen is at the center of the house — and one thing led to another so I emptied the dishwasher, reloaded it, sorted the mail, boiled water for tea, and gave the dog Winston some affection. He does his job so well, providing comfort and companionship, and I don’t always recognize him for his contributions to our life.
Late yesterday afternoon, in a Teams message my friend and colleague Ashley Armand asked me:
“Have you updated your blog? I haven’t seen a new post, but always looking forward to reading about all the feels that come with this life.”
What can I say? I wondered. By “say,” I mean “write.” My mind is holding all details in working memory as equally important and not doing its usual sorting, emphasizing, and minimizing in the way I rely on it to do. Promising ideas and images are not naturally floating to the top.
Monday I had THREE medical appointments, ones that replaced appointments that had been canceled back in April. I saw my endocrinologist, I had a routine mammogram, and later I went to Joslin to get a deep look into my eyes. In all cases, they had timed everything so there was really no waiting. You check in, and you get directed immediately to a room. I felt safe, and yet also as though I was walking on the moon with a few other astronauts.
I looked back at my camera roll for the last couple of days, then extended it to the last couple of months, to see if I had any photos that could illustrate this extraordinary time we’re living through. I saw
screenshots of catalog items I probably won’t buy
photos of trees downed in the recent crazy rain and wind storms
pictures of Winston
pictures of Lydia
banner and sign images from front yards
a haircut photo
hills and trees from recent walks and hikes
one masked selfie
gold leaves and crimson leaves
one of the John Hancock Building from a distance as I crossed a pedestrian bridge over train tracks
and finally my ballot getting dropped in the box yesterday.
One month ago my partner Chris and I were on Cape Cod for two weeks. We had rented a house there to “work from home,” yet in a better location.
There was an afternoon when he was working, on conference calls, and I did my own thing. Maybe a room of one’s own can also be the outdoors.
The world is glorious, full of wonders, I thought. I turned in a circle and looked all around, taking a lot of mental photos and a handful of digital ones. It was an instance when I could believe that life itself is timeless–it existed before I was born and it will exist after me–and let go of that constant feeling of needing to do everything to save it.
And yet I don’t believe that our worries about the world are unfounded.
On our first snow day in Boston this season, I revised again my essay, “Borrowed Garden.” I also jumped into Medium and published it here: link.
“Before the storm,” November 30, 2019
In it, I describe a process of coming back to life after a suicide loss. Moving from one rental to another helped. So did gardening. Though it seems counter-intuitive and maybe even counter-capitalist to invest so much labor in a house and garden I do not own, it has been a forward-looking process, and an outlet.
Just as time was running out, I found the house and yard that we live in now, near Boston and near my sister. Only 10 days before my youngest child, Grace, embarked for college, we moved in. Something about the overgrown lilacs, trampled lawn, and back shed whetted my appetite even more than the bedrooms and kitchen did.
I have turned to self publishing after about four polite rejections. One magazine editor told me her editor in chief “doesn’t do grief.” Other editors said something along the lines of this: “It’s not quite right for us.”
Weeks ago, I asked Grace, who is a sophomore at Sarah Lawrence College, known for its writing program, to ask one of her professors, a well-known poet, for his thoughts on self publishing. Grace admires and trusts him. He texted her back, saying that poets never intend to make money from their work — hence, teaching — and that finding readers is the point.
I am reading a book, long ago recommended to me by teacher/artist/writer friend Jan Donley and recently brought to my attention by daughter/college student/writer Grace Guterman, that focuses on the building block of prose: sentences.
Why are we talking about sentences? Why not talk about the work as a whole, about shape, form, genre, the book, the feature story, the profile, even the paragraph?
The answer is simple. Your job as a writer is making sentences. Most of your time will be spent making sentences in your head. Did no one ever tell you this? That is the writer’s life. Never imagine you’ve left behind the level of the sentence behind.
Most of the sentences you make will need to be killed. The rest will need to be fixed. This will be true for a long time.
I endorse this book. It is mesmerizing and full of wisdom. If you write, and if you struggle with shaping your sentences, it will also validate your labor and thoughtfulness.
Note: At the beginning of May, I joined a 30-day writing course designed by Megan Devine, founder of Refuge in Grief. Every day we get a writing prompt, and there is a secret Facebook group to post to and share writing with other members. There are losses of all sorts, mostly deaths, and some losses are recent and some, like mine, more in the past. There is something special about the group — I joined for the writing, and I’ve gotten much more. Find more info about signing up for the next group here: link. My post for Day #19, unedited, is below.
Image credit: Belmont Public Library
“You forget what you want to remember and you remember what you want to forget.”
Last night when I got home I asked Grace what she had done with her day. She is newly home from her first year of college. She told me that she and Elena (cousin) had gone to Ghost Road, off of Chickatawbut Road in Milton, to take Winston for a walk around a secret pond.
“I remember the day we later found out that Dad had died, Sally had taken us for a walk earlier that day around that secret pond in Chestnut Hill,” she told me.
“What? What?” I ask, confused. “You went on a walk the day Dad died? Who went?”
“Sally took me, Eli, Lydia, and Sara,” replied Grace. “Then later the police officer came and told us Dad died.”
It was one of those moments when I realized there was something I had forgotten, or never knew, from that confusing, consuming time that Jimmy died. In the days preceding July 25, 2016, when all we knew is that he had run away and no one could find or reach him, we swung between huddling together and trying to solve the mystery — Where is Jimmy? — to carrying on as usual with grocery shopping, dog walking, and (me) working. It was summer school time, and I was teaching a class.
So, I learned or was reminded, on the day we found out, in the afternoon, that Jimmy had been found dead in a hotel room, —
Wow, I had to pause there after I wrote that. I have a life, I had a life, in which the man I was married to, was estranged from, would run away and go to a hotel room and die of an overdose.
I don’t always think of that. The facts of that day. All I can picture is the moment the police detective, Matthew Something, drove up and got out of his car in a Red Sox shirt thrown over his uniform. I can never forget that and I never want to: the vivid Red Sox shirt, all white with the red trim and lettering, over the dark uniform and against the darkness of his car. He walked over to me standing there outside. He had called ahead. After days of searching for Jimmy, I knew what he would say before he said it. Sally was standing outside with me, on the driveway. He walked over. He told us, “Mrs. Kokernak” (no one calls me that), “I am sorry to tell you that your husband’s body has been found.” And then, the details of the finding. The questions about the name of his doctor, and his psychiatrist. They would investigate. There was likely no crime. He could not tell me the cause of death. Then the kids come outside, Eli, Lydia, Grace. One of them ask from the front porch — Sally and I still in the driveway — “Mom?” as if my name and the question mark ask everything.
On profound occasions, a person like me feels the pressure to come up with some profound words to mark the moment. I have none ready-made.
Today was the last meeting with my physical trainer, Kim Gomez, because we are moving. For the last year-and-a-half, with almost no breaks in our schedule, I lifted, stretched, lunged, and hinged two times per week. This has been one of my most important new relationships in the two years since Jimmy died, and we didn’t talk that much. I’m not a small talker, and neither is she. Of course, we talked. More significantly, she believed in me and she pushed me, and as my body got stronger my mind did too. It’s hard to come back after a trauma. If you ever have to do something like that yourself, reader, make your body do something. The mind doesn’t always lead the way. Often, the body does.
We both knew it was the last day, and I wondered how I would mark the occasion, though I didn’t plan it out as I usually plan things out. I actually hurt my back mid-lift, and instead of maxing out on lifts and lunges, Kim led me through stretches and extensions until I was okay again.
I couldn’t look at her in the last few minutes. I looked away, steadying my voice, and said, “It’s hard to put into spoken words what I want to say. I’m going to write it down and leave it for you.” She embraced me. Maybe she said my name – I love when my name is called. I hugged her back, and in the air next to her head I said, “Kim, you have been a great friend to me, in the work you do and the way you do it. I’m strong again. I’ll never forget you.” She responded, “I’m proud of you. Email me anytime if you have questions.” We parted. I stopped to look out a window.
Today is also the two-year anniversary or yahrzeit of Jimmy’s death from suicide. Here is his obituary:link. This event in our lives was truly “unexpected.” And yet, like so many stunning events, it also made sense to us as we reflected on it. The fragments fit together.
Just that something makes sense doesn’t mean that we feel any loving kindness toward this truth, any deep peace. Recently, talking about love, Eli said to me, “Mom, I have a feeling that for the rest of our lives all four of us will be experiencing everything through this layer of trauma.” I thought this: “… even if that layer thins over time.” Continue reading →
When I was a child, every spring in anticipation of Memorial Day we would go to the cemetery to visit the graves of my mother’s father and sisters. My parents tidied up around the headstone and planted new flowers, like petunias and geraniums. There was one job I liked to help with, using the grass shears to trim the overgrown grass that was too close to the headstone for the lawnmower to mow. I liked how the shears worked: you squeezed the handles vertically so that the scissors would open horizontally. The task satisfied my desire to make things neat, even then.
Full inventory of Columbine in quart-sized pots; I bought one
Otherwise, my siblings and I would go up and down the rows calling out the names and doing the arithmetic to figure out how old someone was when he died: “Nineteen seventy minus nineteen twenty one. That’s…. forty nine!” This one, very old. This row, all soldiers, young. My mother’s sisters, just girls. From far away across rows my parents would yell: “Don’t climb on the headstones!” These were not good manners, we knew, yet we were children and it was hard to resist climbing.
Today I went with Grace to the Walnut Hills Cemetery in Brookline, where Jimmy’s remains are buried. In the trunk of the car were hand shovels and a Columbine, two pots of ground cover, and several geraniums and New Guinea impatiens. There was a watering can, too.
Almost bare but for an evergreen left by an anonymous mourner
In the car on the way there I said to Grace, “I didn’t buy mulch. It only comes in those huge bags, and we don’t need a lot.” She seemed pretty cheerful, so I added, “Yesterday when I was at Home Depot in the garden center, I thought that at the register they should sell ‘cemetery kits’ for people like us: a few plants, a shovel, and maybe a two-pound bag of mulch.” She didn’t say “great idea!” so I figured not a great idea.
Jimmy’s plot is on Chestnut Ave. When we got to his spot, I noticed that the plot of his nearest neighbor – a woman, Mamie H., died in 2017, born 1960, fifty seven! — was decorated with pots of flowers, some on the ground and some hanging from wrought iron shepherd’s hooks. Suddenly I worried I had not done enough in preparation for this small-sized yet very important gardening project. Is love measured by what or how much we plant or decorate?
Months ago, an anonymous mourner left an evergreen tree in a light blue pot for Jimmy, and it has survived. Today we left it where it was, and we planted our little plants nearby. The ground was hard, and because it had been raining we had to squat. Our ankles and knees ached and we stood periodically to stretch, then we’d squat again and dig at the hard sod. Grace and I had a mere sketch of an idea for where we’d place our flowering plants, and we modified as the perimeter started to fill in.
Winston was with us, and at first we leashed him to our parked car because someone in a red SUV pulled up alongside Mamie’s area. I imagined it was Henry H. because his name is also carved on their family grave marker, though with only his year of birth indicated. I imagined he was the person who lavishly placed all the pots of flowers around her resting place, and then I wondered if it might be too much for him to stand nearby, defenseless, seen. So he sat in his car, perhaps praying, perhaps wondering why he was there.
After the imagined Henry H. drove away we let Winston off leash, and like a good child he roamed the grass along the road but never so far away that we couldn’t call him back by name. He seemed happy, or at least frisky.
He gallops off
He returns when called
How did I feel? I felt deliberate, if that is even a feeling. Like, this is an important thing to do, and we haven’t done it yet. Finally, we’re ready. I had a sense of ritual: this is an act being performed this weekend across this cemetery, across all the cemeteries in Massachusetts, in the country. The caretaker and grounds crew will make sure the lawn is mowed, the trees tended, and trash removed. It’s up to us to individually mourn and later honor our own people who have died.
We worked quietly; we talked only of the plants, weather, and our aching knees. Grace took her sandals off and put them in the car to stay dry, and I kept my wet sneakers on. It didn’t matter.
I have drunk from many of these
I filled the watering can from the spigot raised off the ground with a piece of pipe. These cemetery faucets are one of my favorite, simplest things. I considered them magical as a child – water, in the middle of nowhere! – and I still do.
I always noticed, during the annual cemetery visits when I was a child, that my mother did not cry, and even as a child I thought this would be required. People in her family had died, too young and of terrible illnesses, and there she was with her gloves and trowel and perhaps her hair tied back, concentrating and talking to my father.
Mulch we needed (and still need)
And today, Grace and I, no young children around us, were also not crying as we tended the ground, planted flowers where there were none, watered them, and replaced the small stones that had been scattered by the mower blades.
Right after Jimmy’s death, when we were making the funeral and burial plans, the children were quite skeptical about a cemetery plot and why we needed one. “There has to be a place to go,” I must have said. I believed that. I also reminded them that Walnut Hills was in our (then) neighborhood, and it was a place we all had strolled through many times. In fact, Lydia and Grace learned to ride their bicycles there. Jimmy or I had taken the dog there daily. “Winston and I will visit,” I assured them. Well, here we are.
This was my idea, the planting of flowers. Perhaps it was motivated by childhood training, that it is right to care for the dead in an active way, perhaps by other feelings that are so strange to me I don’t have a name for them. Last summer, around the first yahrzeit, I could not have planted these flowers: I was weary, and I didn’t want to. Now I want to. That feeling I know.
With my daughter Grace, a senior in high school, I’ve been coaching the writing of the college essay. Last night we finished the final proofreading. Grace said we don’t need a title. “Not required,” she said. “Optional?” I wondered. “Yes,” she admitted. Okay, then, we’re writing one.
Titles are so important: they are the invitation, and the doorway into the book, movie, and college essay.
It was 10 o’clock on a Friday night, and Grace and I were spent. Remembering a nifty list of exercises for generating title possibilities, I dug it up out of the Google dirt. Here it is: link.
We focused on the first three of the four functions of a title. (The fourth one seems more important for publications.)
First, it predicts content.
Second, it catches the reader’s interest.
Third, it reflects the tone or slant of the piece of writing.
Fourth, it contains keywords that will make it easy to access by a computer search.
And then, from the list of title prompts on page two of the guidelines, we used numbers 1, 6, 7, 13, and 14 and generated about 15 good and bad title ideas for Grace’s essay. It took only 10 minutes with two focused people working together.
What we learned: your first idea is NOT your best idea, and bits from your bad title ideas will provide you with a key word or two that together may be the foundation of a good title.
Also, people, tone is really important! If it’s a humorous essay, avoid an academicky, serious title. If it’s a hopeful essay, give that title a lift (e.g., Grace’s title uses the word “spirit” instead of “motivation.”)
Titles are important! Always use them! For essays, make them informative and inviting.