I’m pretty bad at coming up with titles for my stories, but I love discovering the meaning of titles in other works so should use that as a lesson. One of my favorite books is A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. The title is a little off-putting. Long, weird. It’s about the aftermath of war—Chechnya, which makes it particularly timely these days with Putin recreating Chechnya in eastern Ukraine. But the moment when I came across the title was a wonderful exhale of “Oh, wow!” By the time it comes, you are so ready for it.
Endurance was always called Endurance in my mind. Inspired by the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton’s own ship and example of extreme endurance that really couldn’t be fictionalized because you’d never believe it. Kind of a spoiler, I guess.
My dictionary, the old-fashioned printed kind, has three definitions, a painful number of them using a form of the word itself: 1) the act of enduring 2) the power of enduring, a) the ability to last, continue, or remain, b) the ability to stand pain, distress, fatigue, etc.; fortitude 3) duration. Then the “rare,” that which is endured; hardship. The online M-W has a slightly different take.
Pretty simple. Putting up with a lot of shit, basically.
This could apply to the act of writing a novel as well. It takes a long time, is incredibly stressful, and, frankly, many never make it to the end. To Shackleton’s credit and the meat of his fame, every one of his men survived.
I often start with one title and then figure out the final one as I work. Wishbone’s came late in the process. After describing the story to a friend, it came up and she said, “I think you have your title.” My collection’s title story, “A Perfect Life” was a long struggle, both the writing and the title. It was my first paid publication (and still one of my favorites). I don’t remember the exact process of developing the title. Did Tate saying the words come first or did I put them in her mouth? Looking at my files, it was apparently called “Pirate Dreams” for a while. The words “perfect life” don’t appear and there were a lot of dreams.
I didn’t keep a Notes file back then. I do now for every story I write—a journal of what’s going on, how I’m feeling, hashing out concepts before they get to the page. The notes file can be as long as my story. Endurance’s is more than 90,000 words.
I tend to have one-word titles or one word following “The”: The Game, The Gift, The Stranger. Sigh But titles also go in cycles, trends. For awhile everything was The [somebody’s] [daughter, apprentice, etc.]. Looking online, I see The Second Wife, The Echo Wife, The Yellow Wife. Even just The Wife. I notice this trend in my music playlist. The best way to shuffle the list without endlessly repeating the same few is to listen in title order. Of more than 600 songs, 38 begin with “The.” “I” is right up there at 33. But I digress.
Endurance is the perfect title for my novel and Shackleton’s experience. In his case an prophetic coincidence. In mine very intentional. It’s a great word. The Shackleton family motto is: Fortitudine Vincimus, by endurance we conquer. He named the ship to honor that motto. May we all live by it today.
More about Endurance and buy links here.