Naming Rites

My process for finding the perfect title.


Welcome to “Girl Writing.” A reviewer and essayist for the Independent since 2012, I’ll be musing on reading and writing every couple of months in this column. My first task, naming it, led me to consider names and titles. So, here’s a bit of backstory behind my name, my books’ names, and this blog’s name.  

I’d been a parent and a psychotherapist for 20 years when I started writing fiction. My name at home and at work was the name I share with my husband and my now-grown children. But I signed, submitted, and published my first stories as Ellen Prentiss Campbell — instinctively returning to my given name.

Why?

Partly to put a boundary between my family self and my writing self, certainly to have a firewall between myself as therapist and myself as author. But, most importantly, because my writing comes from my original self — that reading, writing, observing girl within.

But what’s in a name when it comes to books? During the writing process, each of my three books had at least one working title which never made it to the published page. The choice only crystalized with the final draft. My latest novel in progress is on its second title; I think it will stick, but you never know. Like naming a baby, it’s hard to decide until you hold the child.

For almost 10 years, my debut novel’s working title was The Japanese at the Springs. Simple, descriptive, and apt, I thought, for a historical novel about Japanese diplomats captured as Berlin fell, sent to the States, and detained at the Bedford Springs Hotel in Pennsylvania. But as I prepared the manuscript for submission, one of my final readers disagreed:

“Sounds like a travel book,” this reader said. “That Japanese bowl mended with golden glue in your story; use that kintsugi bowl in the title.”

“But what about Henry James?” I countered. “What about The Golden Bowl?”

“My point exactly,” said my reader, an author and seasoned veteran of naming a dozen books. 

So, I christened the novel The Bowl with Gold Seams. And rather than the painting of the hotel I had proposed, the publisher’s cover design became a kintsugi bowl with a faint image of the hotel floating inside. Title and theme fit.

I learned another lesson about titles with my first collection of stories. After discarding several, I selected Contents Under Pressure. Just right, I thought, for these stories of women at moments of decision, women under pressure. The cover art (a painting called “The Blue Room” by Kevin Kutz) fit perfectly, as well. A woman sits off-balance in a bathroom where the floor seems to slant, the walls close in.

After the book was out in the world, Googling one day, I discovered Contents Under Pressure is a popular title for plumbing-supply books. Authors, beware! But as one amused book-club reader said, the coincidence fit. Women do have lots of plumbing problems.

You may be sure I Googled before naming my new collection of stories, Known By Heart, which concerns the challenges in various loving relationships. Its working title was an evocative phrase from a poem read and clipped from the New Yorker years earlier: “love letters written in lemon juice.” It suited the bittersweet, sweet-bitter stories of what goes right and what goes wrong between people who care about each other.

With the manuscript accepted, I wrote the poet, seeking permission to use the line. I never heard back. Perhaps my message was in invisible ink. Returning to the stories, I realized the book’s title had been there all along, right in my table of contents. “Known By Heart” one story is called, reflecting the themes of connection and yearning throughout.

And what’s behind the name of this blog? The cover of my new book (thanks to the Phillips Collection and my publisher) features Milton Avery’s painting “Girl Writing.” A girl in bright red socks sits at a table deep in thought, writing. I’ve loved the painting since I first saw it years ago, when I was a girl — a girl writing.

T.S. Eliot says in “On the Naming of Cats” that a cat requires different names: an everyday name, a dignified name, and a “deep and inscrutable singular name.” Well, though rarely deep and never inscrutable, when sitting down to the page, I am my essential, singular self. I am still a girl writing.

I even have red socks.  

Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s new collection of love stories is Known By Heart. Her story collection Contents Under Pressure was nominated for the National Book Award, and her debut novel, The Bowl with Gold Seams, won the Indy Excellence Award for Historical Fiction. For many years, Campbell practiced psychotherapy. She lives in Washington, DC, and is at work on another novel.

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