Written by A Guest Author October 19th, 2023

A Title Is Born

By Lory Widmer Hess

When a book I’d written chronicling my spiritual and healing journey was accepted by a publisher, I didn’t expect the process of publication itself to hold further spiritual challenges. Choosing a title, for example, proved to be unexpectedly fraught with emotion. From the other side of this trial, I now see that it was a good opportunity to practice speaking up for my personal truth, while respecting the perspective of others, and staying mindful of a creative will greater than my own. In fact, it encapsulated my whole journey in a nutshell, and what could be more appropriate?

My book was structured around 18 poems I’d written based on the healing stories in the Gospels, along with background essays and memoir sections that complemented each poem. I hadn’t given much thought to a title — for most of the writing I called the project “Gospel Healing Poems” — but added a working title, Word and Flesh, when I started getting ready to send a proposal to a publisher.

When the manuscript was accepted by Floris Books, I asked if my title would be kept, and was told that was still to be decided. A few months later I received their proposed title: To Be Made Whole: A Personal Journey Through Healing Stories in the Gospels.

That seemed fine, except that on looking into the Floris catalogue, I discovered a similar title: Wilt Thou Be Made Whole?

Embarrassed by this oversight, Floris asked if I had any other ideas. I suggested The Wisdom in the Wound, a more poetic variation on “word and flesh”. But after conferring with the team, my editor came back with another suggestion: Balm for the Soul.

I did not like this at all, because it was too nice-sounding. My book was not about soothing the soul with some kind of panacea, but getting body and soul back together, often a painful process. I asked if there was any other option.

The next offering was Words That Make Us Whole. This also struck me as wrong, because it sounded like magic words that fix people, something I did not want to encourage. I suggested Made Whole by the Word, which at least pointed toward the Logos-Word rather than “words,” but the passive construction was awkward.

In the next round, I was given two options: Fragments That Make a Whole and The Wisdom of Failure. I preferred a title that was about healing, rather than failure. So, eager to end a discussion which had already taken longer than anticipated, I agreed to Fragments That Make a Whole. My editor was thrilled to be able to move on, and congratulated me on choosing an excellent title.

But over the weekend I started to have a sinking feeling, a dread that I had missed something important. Something was not right, when I could not feel excited about this title.

Over the next week, I sent other variants: Fragments That Make Us Whole? Broken into Wholeness? Fragments Can Make a Whole? Long emails flew back and forth, as I tried to work out what my issue was, and my editor tried to reason with me. I fought with feelings of being unheard and disrespected that called up difficult moments from my past. I knew this was no one’s intention; rather, I’d made an over-hasty decision and then had to pull back, a habit I thought I’d overcome. I struggled to find my center and think clearly beyond the triggering phenomena.

At last, my editor said I simply had to make a choice between Fragments That Make a Whole and The Wisdom of Failure. The book had to move on to the next stage in order to meet their planned publication schedule, and I’d already agreed to what everyone else sincerely thought was a great title.

Choosing between two options that both felt wrong was no choice at all. Should I have opted for self-publishing, with full creative control? But no, I knew I wanted to work with a publisher to get this book into the world, because it was not just about me. It was about a healing message that went beyond my personal needs, and I wanted to connect with others who found my story valuable to share — even given all the challenges that involved.

In frustration, I said I’d go with my former choice. Only, I plaintively wrote, I couldn’t understand why Broken into Wholeness was rejected — I’d thought it a brilliant solution.

The explanation came back that this had been found too strong for my book, which was about a more subtle kind of trauma. I could understand that objection, and found I agreed.

Suddenly, with this opening of understanding, I had one more idea: When Fragments Make a Whole, which made the title about a process rather than a thing. Believing I’d be much happier with that, I dashed off one more email on my way to work. Even if the title had gone to the cover designer, I argued, surely this change couldn’t be that difficult. It even had the same number of letters and words!

I felt as though I’d been through a process of labor, with a warming-up phase, a confusing, disorienting transition, and a painful final push. For a moment, I was flooded with a joyful conviction that I’d found the answer at last.

I had to wait, though, for the results of my labor to be accepted, and in the meantime I was cast into doubt again. Had I made a terrible mistake? Maybe the other title really was better. Not to worry, my idea would just be shot down again.

To my surprise and some dismay, my editor emailed later that day that she agreed, my new title was marginally better. But now the discussion had to stop. The trouble with changing a title that had already been entered into their system was not the word count, but the fact that two titles could easily get assigned to the same book, and cause problems down the line. It was just early enough to make the change, but later it would really not be possible.

I was still not sure I’d done the right thing, and wanted to write more emails about my doubts, but I knew I had to quell that urge and accept reality. I was proud of myself for daring to speak up, and in fact I’d gotten to play more of a role in the titling process than many authors do. Now I needed to get some sleep, let go of my fears, and trust that whatever happened next was for the best.

After a few days, my uncomfortable feelings had subsided. I was comforted by the sense that I’d made the right choice after all.

Choosing a title can be a very confronting process, my editor acknowledged. It is a moment when an author faces the fact that her book will be out in the world, in the hands of other people, who may have a very different experience of it than she has. While an author’s title emerges from her experience of being “inside” the book, the publisher’s choice of title gives it an “outside.” It reflects the publisher’s understanding of the readers the book can reach, a sense of what will intrigue and attract them. Somehow, an author has to grow into this consciousness, and it’s not always easy.

Inside becomes outside in the process of birth, while a name bridges the two. I grew a step further myself in the course of naming my book, and I can now look forward with joy toward the day when it’s ready to be launched into the world.

Lory Widmer Hess lives with her family in Switzerland, where she works with adults with developmental disabilities and is in training as a spiritual director. Her first book, When Fragments Make a Whole: A Personal Journey through Healing Stories in the Bible will be released by Floris Books in Spring, 2024. Visit her website and blog at enterenchanted.com.


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