February 20, 2018

What’s In a Title?

The Crane DanceThe Crane Dance finally arrived as the title for my new book. Like a savory soup, options simmered for a long time. I tasted it, smelled it, spiced it with new flavors, and sought opinions as trusted readers took a sip.

One of my favorite stories about titles comes from Doris Betts, the long-time teacher of creative writing at the University of North Carolina before she died in 2012. “I overheard someone in a store asking for one of my books,” Betts told her students during a class I was covering for a profile on her years ago. “Instead of The Gentleman’s Insurrection, the customer asked for The Gentleman’s Erection.” Before the slightly embarrassed students quit laughing, she pushed on, telling them about a television interview she was about to do after publication of her short-story collection, Beasts of the Southern Wild. Just before going on the air, her long-time colleague at UNC, Max Steele, “leaned over and said, ‘Doris, don’t call your book, breasts of the Southern wild,’ trying to make me do just that of course.”

Betts knew her audience – college students who loved a touch of her bawdy wisdom, mixed with her quirky and steel sweetness. And she knew how to tell a story. The students loved her and her anecdotes. But they needed to find their own voice, their own titles.

Hope. Honesty. Shame. Desperation. Inspiration. Beauty. Faith. Fear. I needed a long time to sort out these emotions, all competing for air time and resolution during my midlife years. In 1988, I experienced the perfect storm of job restructuring, shifting gender roles, and a pink slip. With young children, little money, and a fuzzy career vision, I hit an emotional bottom. Over the next decade, I drew on the energies of the men’s movement, the power of the expressive arts, and the quiet force of mediation, along with antidepressants and therapy. Along the way, a talisman emerged that could hold hope along with desperation, fear as well as faith, shame and beauty – the crane dance.

My journey led me to dance teachers, the Karate Kid movie, and stories of how the whooping crane was near extinction, fewer than 100 left on earth. I started doing little crane dances to accent my long, thin arms as huge wings. As if flying forward, I shifted my weight from one lean leg to the other, arms flapping. My kids thought I was ridiculous as I played around in the backyard on one leg, arms stretched out and up. But what I worried about was money and work and the future. So, I tried to call up the whooping crane and remember that survival was possible.

I think Doris Betts would have liked the quirky crane dance stories in the book, such as the afternoon in a mall when I mortified my nine-year old daughter. Thinking no one could see me, I kept focused on a pleasant day with one foot high, arms outstretched behind racks of dresses. On a family trip to Mississippi, I did the crane dance on my uncle’s grave, with my mother’s blessing, to honor his life-long battle with, and defeat at the hands of, depression. I did the dance for a larger audience in my backyard as part of a class performance. At the end I moved off stage with swooping arms, one knee skyward, then the other, repeating phrases from the dance: “Long, skinny arms.” And, finally, “The crane survived, and so did I.”

A good title goes beyond scenes to the heart of a story, riding along underground as the hero’s journey unfolds. Cheryl Strayed in her book Wild appealed to the untamed American spirit in each of us as she described her hike on the Pacific Crest Trail. She called on us to remember our roots, to learn from our mistakes, to pick up our pack again the next day and put our lives on our backs until we could find the mystery of life’s new beginnings.

I want The Crane Dance to help readers find and relish their essential talisman, to stand with the wild power of their inner self. Sometimes, I still have to turn to my crane dance to remember to smile, to honor and be grateful for painful passages, and to notice the miracles around me. In the end, I believe we can all find our voices and our titles, and in the process, move through fire and pain to new vitality and regeneration.