I wasn’t too surprised when my publisher announced, after the copy edit had been complete, that she didn’t like my title, and she’d like to ask the copy editor to brainstorm a few ideas. I hadn’t been married to my working title “An Impossible Love, Revisited,” which a friend and I had cooked up after she’d read the first draft.
Thankfully, the very week I received the list of title ideas from the copy editor, I had read about how Ann Patchett came up with the title of her first novel, The Patron Saint of Liars. In her essay collection, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, she writes that she had just finished the novel’s manuscript but was at a loss for a title when a friend suggested she do the following:
Here’s my process, I thought. Incidentally, the memoir workshop I teach at StoryStudio Chicago was meeting the next day. Why not ask my students, all of them astute readers, to help me find my title? An added bonus was that none of them had read the manuscript and only a few had any idea of the details of the book. They couldn’t overthink it; they could only react to what was before them and judge whether they found out that title interesting. And that’s the idea: A title is supposed to generate interest.
So, that’s exactly what I did. I nixed a few titles the copy editor suggested that I didn’t like, and I added two of my own, and came to class with ten titles and Scotch tape. Thankfully, my students were thrilled to participate in the process (Side note: A fruitful side effect of this process is that I now have another group of people who were part of the process and are engaged with the book.). I taped my ten title sheets to the wall and left the room for five minutes so each of them could pick his/her favorite and then they could hash it out which one they would advocate for. When I returned, two students were particularly passionate about their choice. It was illuminating for me to hear their arguments. The rest of the group weighed in as well, and we settled on what would indeed be my title: Jumping Over Shadows.
I love that it comes straight from the book—it is not only the title of a chapter but it is what my father-in-law said to me the first time we met, namely that he didn’t know whether he could welcome me into the family, but he would try to “jump over his own shadow.” This is a German idiom and I appreciate that the title thus embodies some of the book’s cultural background, which also makes it unusual. There is no similar title to be found on Amazon. One of my students remarked that she liked that “jumping” connotes an active protagonist, someone who takes life by the horns, and that it is usually a positive activity but also one that implies effort. To jump over a shadow is an impossibility, of course, and so the impossibility of my working title is still there as are, in “shadows,” the dark forces the characters have to overcome.
I could never have come up with my book’s title on my own, and I couldn’t be happier with it.