Writing Assignment #3: Titling Your Life Story

The road is long and usually poorly lit. Writing adds wattage.

Start your writing by giving the whole delightfully weird thing a working title…or several titles.

Will this path take me to a place I already know or a different more appealing one?



Imagine you have just written your up-to-the-minute life story (it lies on your lap, all 48lbs of it)! It covers not only your beginning but the whole crazy lot of people and experieces that you have inherited. That’s right, you started breathing at zero, but soon you were inhaling the air from generations past.  As we gather years under our belts, we realize more and more how this life of ours has emerged within a deep context of inherited delights and eccentricities, many charming and wondrous, but others more fodder for novelists.

So if you are embarking on writing your life story, you’ll need to include, even if it’s on the periphery, some acknowledgement of what went on before.  Now these may not be the sexy bits of your story that you are really interested in writing about (and you may know little about your generational history) but leaving imaginative space for that knowledge to seep in is important.

Make your titles compelling so that you will want to write the story suggested by them. A good title will also put you in an investigative mindset that is liberated from fixed interpretations of events.  Write, perhaps, seeking alternative interpretations of long held conclusions.


Use sensory titles, ones that evoke  a compelling mood or image: In The Deceptive Quiet; What I Didn’t Know;  I Thought I Could Always Rely on Art to Pull Me Through; Killer Tomatoes; Only God Knew the Score and She Wasn’t Talking; Me and History Keep Colliding; Jazz When I Needed Bach; It Always Stinks at Low Tide

Consider visual images that serve as metaphors: Smoke Rising in the Distance; Living Under Glass; High Heels and Flat Tires; Hung Up in the Laundry While the Action Was in the Kitchen; Waiting For the Ships to Come In.

Borrow from movies, plays, books and websites; give them a twist: The Postman Kept On Ringing; Me and My Inner Robocop; Years of Living Dangerously; War, Peace and Rye; Apocalypse Postponed; How Green Was My Knowledge; Life on the Cutting Room Floor.

By contrast, there are factual titles that announce the story but may not stir your imagination: Me And More.  My Road. My Story To Date. What I Have Seen. Maxie’s Life. What a boy from Chicago Did; My Years at GM;etc. Whatever you choose, you’re not stuck with–work with one title until it’s outlived its usefulness.  Move from Little Red House in Suburbia to Armageddon to Jersey Shore as you need!

My book titles include: “What He Saw But Didn’t Notice,” “Nomad In Settler’s Clothing” and “What Happened To Broadway?”

Your ancestral story may not be vivid to you, but its themes are probably woven into your roots.

As you come up with titles, you’ll see that each one suggests a slightly different slant on your story.  My Tree Grew in Brooklyn But the Apples Had Worms! and Atlantic Ave Was So Long You Could Always Find the Sun! These titles may tell the same story but do it from slightly different perspectives that draw out stories that reinforce the dominant tone of the title.

You can get so used to telling your stories in the same familiar ways that you may forget or no longer see that different versions of the same stories may also be “true” and that subsequent data may have altered the original story.  I could no longer tell the story of my father leaving me at 5 and my not seeing him until I was 16 in the same way I did once I discovered that for several years after my mother divorced him, he suffered great depression.  And while that’s a dramatic example, our most savored stories (often ones filled with great emotion) may need to be revised over time as subsequent data (and our own maturing) add more nuance to those once brightly lit tales. Writing heightens our awareness of how our life has changed thereby updating us on who we are. Not a bad thing!

What's the title of the life you are yet to lead?


About kendalld

Bio for Kendall Dudley Kendall Dudley, MA, is a Career and Life Design consultant who works with individuals and organizations, teaches art and autobiography, and leads self-discovery journaling trips to Morocco. He presents at major conferences on career and life direction, runs grants-funded public art and writing projects, has taught at Tufts and Lesley Universities, and was career consultant at Harvard for 15 years. His current travel essays appear in books and journals; he’s appeared on TV and radio; and his novel, Speedway / A Racy, Comic Novel About Grief will be out in 2015. He has traveled to 36 countries, lived in 5, and launched his real life while a Peace Corps city planner in Iran! He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania (BA) and Columbia University (MA) and pursues life-long interests in Islamic architecture, art, and adult development. A lifetime ambition: to design and take a group of travelers to Iran! Projects On The Front Burners: ARLINTON WRITES! 2014 / A town-wide journal writing project funded by the Massachusetts Cultural Council YOUR ILLUSTRATED LIFE STORY / a 6 week project that invites people to draw, paint and write their life story; sponsored by Emerson Umbrella Center For the Arts, Concord MA WRITING FOR A WEEK: ISTANBUL / 2015 is a new project built around a writing workshop in the old city of Istanbul with excursions out into the old and new city each day. CURRENT WRITING PROJECTS: • Publishing “SPEEDWAY / A Racy, Comic Novel About Grief” that draws on Kendall’s travels through Tucson, Mothers, Marriage and Mayhem! • Writing and Distributing ADVENTURE TRAVELING IN YOUR OWN LIFE STORY: A A Journal Approach to Discovering Meaning and Direction in Life!
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