Desire Path: A Symbol

A good friend of mine visited yesterday and mentioned a noun I hadn’t heard used before, though it was an idea with which I was quite familiar. A desire path exists when enough people take a shortcut that their continued footsteps pack down the ground and create a new path over time. It is a path of use rather than of planning.

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I’ve seen many of these in public spaces where sidewalks are poorly placed for efficiency, leading people to cut across the grass. Many trails fit into the idea behind a desire path as well, because enough people followed the same way through the trees and stones that it’s obvious where others have walked before. Even in those trails, though, there are often smaller desire paths that veer the other way around trees, or jut off towards common lookouts and views. 

The concept of a desire path feels symbolic to me. Unlike Robert Frost, I’m not interested in the path less travelled, but the path more travelled. I find it most important where we walk despite the actual trail going in another direction.

We try to create a standard form of a language by establishing “correct” rules, grammar, and definitions, but ultimately the natural flow of common use shapes the path by which our language evolves. The standard language is a sidewalk, and the way we actually use the language is the desire path.

Writers outline and decide what we want our stories to be, but then our characters don’t behave and our thoughts venture in new directions. Themes we didn’t realize needed to be told suddenly show themselves through the new path that arises. I have often ended up with an entirely different story or poem than the one I first set out to tell. 

We carefully lay out plans all the time, but before long we find ourselves straying. Ask a teenager what they want to be when they grow up and then revisit them in five years and ask again. Even the optimist will probably have reshaped their direction in a way that faces less resistance and is more possible to achieve.

Desire paths are not always negative things, in the literal or symbolic sense. They can save us time or lead us to places we might have never seen had we stayed on the trail. They can reassure us that somewhere is safe to walk. We can follow the desire paths of our role models and those who came before us. We can know that although a path we want to take is not the normal, planned, expected trail, it has been travelled before. We can find community in past footsteps. 

 Maybe we do not follow the exact plans of our younger selves, but we are closer to them than if we’d abandoned them entirely. Sometimes leaving the planned path can help us to achieve good when we can’t achieve greatness. We can find new ways to get to the same place. 

As humans, no matter what the initial plans were to guide us, we will go our own direction. We make rules, and we break them. We create governments, and we rebel. We create strict philosophies and moral principles, then bend them when real life proves to be more complicated.

We are like water, flowing wherever gravity takes us, working our way between the stones in the easiest direction. But we can carve great valleys that way.

Desire paths are, in some ways, humanity realizing that it is not always who it thought it was. We tell ourselves that we are virtuous, brave, and pure of heart, with eternal, selfless love to offer. We tell our children to always be thoughtful and kind. We tell stories of wise leaders, strong nurturers, and witty antiheroes. We are endlessly hopeful about who we are and who we can be. We write to give ourselves paths to follow, but we don’t always take those paths when others are more convenient, or safer, or help us in small ways. 

We are imperfect. We have desires. We trample grass. 

Five Tips on Writing Titles for Those Hopelessly Bad at Writing Titles

This post isn’t about the word “title” necessarily. It’s a fairly neutral word unless you’re the one responsible for creating them. The word “title” is only ever terrifying for writers.

The saying that you can’t judge a book by its cover doesn’t apply to titles, presumably because traditionally published writers don’t necessarily have any control over their cover art, but they’re entirely responsible for the title of their piece. Titles are also an essential and integrated part of the story, essay, or poem in a way that cover artwork isn’t (unless we’re discussing picture books, comics, graphic novels, or graphic memoirs, of course.).

We know that they’re important and that we will be judged by them before anyone ever reads our work. Because of this, it pains me to say that I’m still unable to create consistently good titles. For me, they require a great deal more mental energy than any other part of my work, including opening and ending sentences.

I’ve tried to put a lot of thought into what makes a title successful and what makes it fail. Even if mine aren’t always strong, I can usually pick out the excellent from the mediocre in others’ pieces, and I can appreciate the different levels on which they succeed as a part of the work.

So, in an exercise of the blind leading the blind, I’m going to try to give advice to other writers reading this who struggle with titles.

Here are five strategies for writing titles when you feel hopeless and have no ideas.

  1. Look for Title Conventions in your Genre
    If you’re writing genre fiction, odds are there are some titles that will instinctively sound like they belong in your genre and titles that sound distinctly outside it. That’s because over time, enough books fell into those same naming conventions that they grew connotations that associate them with the genre. Some examples I’ve noticed include:
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    Fantasy- Blank of Blank
    (e.g. Goblet of Fire, Game of Thrones, Wizard of Earthsea, Lord of the Rings)
    Alternative Fantasy- Adjective Noun
    (e.g. The Golden Compass, American Gods)
    Mystery- Book Titles that Sound like Titles of Other Things
    (e.g. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde)
    Paranormal Romance- Puns, Alliteration, Some Level of Humor
    (e.g. You Slay Me, Dead Witch Walking, Dead Until Dark)
    Horror: Name
    (e.g. Carrie, Dracula, Frankenstein )
    .
    Granted, there are many books in each genre that don’t follow those conventions at all and there are many books in each genre that follow the conventions I’ve listed for the other genres. But, if you’re incredibly stuck in trying to think of a title, it might help to look through what’s common in your genre and use that as a template.
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  2. Long, Confident Titles
    These titles might be my favorite. They catch the eye right away because they’re longer than what we expect, and because of this they have an essence of confidence that can help convey a more modern or humorous tone.
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    One of my friends, K. M. Aleena, has several great titles that use this method.“I Bet it’s Snowing in Houston”
    “Well, You Asked Me to Read Your Future” 
    “Things I’ve Broken While Drunk” 

    In fact, of three titles I’ve ever been specifically complimented on, two of them were of the longer variety (“Let me describe the many reasons why you have no chance with this woman” and “Things Straight Girls Probably Don’t Do”).

    My only caution is that these titles generally need to be earned. They should have something to do with the subject matter, theme, tone, or some combination of those three. There needs to be a reason.

    For example, the poem by Billy Collins: “Reading an Anthology of Chinese Poems of the Sung Dynasty, I Pause to Admire the Length and Clarity of Their Titles” 

    Also consider using the very end of an enormously long sentence or idea. You get the fun of the ridiculously lengthy title while still having the actual title remain manageable to write down on a notecard when recommending it.4f4cf0f9e7a0b5f685768110.L

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  3. One Word Titles
    If you’re not having much luck at this point, why not try a less risky title. The one word title releases you from a lot of pressure, because it’s simple and can relate to the subject matter or theme without becoming too much of the poem itself.
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    As a word of caution, these titles will probably not draw much attention to your work. If your book is in a stack of books or your poem is in a long anthology, it might not be the one to which someone first flips.

    However, if you know you’re bad with titles, these can minimize how much attention they pay to the title and let the rest of the poem speak for itself. It also sounds a bit more important and serious than the long, humorous titles.

    The difficult part here is that you need to choose the right word, because a lot of emphasis will be placed on it. Try to avoid simply using a word that describes the subject matter. Sink more into the theme of the piece.

    Nikki Giovanni has some good examples of the One-Word-Title such as “Legacies” and “Resignation.”

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  4. Using Your First Line as a Title
    If you’re still stuck, look over the material that is already in your piece of writing. This works best for poetry or very short flash fiction, though if you’re writing something longer, if there’s a sentence anywhere in your work that might do better as a title, try it out.
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    Sometimes what stops us from being able to think of a title is simply that our piece is already finished. There is no work left for the title to do, so every title seems to just be excessive or take away from the piece. In these instances, it might be helpful to consider taking a piece of the work and using that as your title instead.

    As an example, many of E. E. Cummings poems are titled this way, (how else could “l(a” ever be titled?) and I’ve found it to be a useful strategy myself at times.
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  5. Ask a Friend
    An excellent poet, who I may have mentioned in this blog before, Philip Pardi visited SUNY Oswego’s Living Writers Series. He has a book called Meditations on Rising and Falling which is an excellent title, and many of his poems within the book have great titles as well.
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    I listened to him talk and answer questions and then we went out to eat with some other young writers. At some point, I (or someone else) asked if he could give some advice on how to write titles. He admitted that one of his friends had helped with the titling of his book, and that he was grateful because it pulled his work together in a way that made it much stronger.

    So even excellent writers who sometimes create excellent titles have difficulty with it. There’s absolutely nothing wrong in running some ideas by other people and asking for help in creating a title for your work. Sometimes when we’re truly stuck, we just need a new pair of eyes.

As a last piece of advice: Titles are hard to make, but when you do it right, they’re strong. They carry a lot of weight and do a lot of work.  A good title does not label a piece of writing. A good title builds on a piece of writing. 

Murder, Pride, and Charm

Q: What do you call two crows on a branch?
A: An attempted murder.

I’ve been traveling with my family the past week and my mom requested this blog post after never having heard the joke before. I explained that a murder was a group of crows in the same way that a pride was a group of lions, or a business was a group of ferrets.

“But why do they call it a murder? What are those terms? You should do a post on that.”

These terms are a part of language called a collective noun. Most of us remember that a regular noun is a person, place, or thing, so a collective noun is a collection of people, places, or things (usually things) taken as a whole, or described as a single unit.

The most common and least specific collective noun is “group” because it can be applied to almost any noun. A group of people. A group of chickens. A group of mountains. What we’re communicating is pretty clear, but we can get much more colorful with our collective nouns to really specify what we’re talking about. A team of people, a clutch of chickens, and a mountain range.

If we’re talking about a murder of crows (or a clutch of chickens), it is a special kind of collective noun called a term of venery. These are terms for groups of animals, mostly. They began with English hunting vocabulary in the Late Middle Ages, to describe various groups of animals they might be following. Lists were recorded in various books in the fourteenth to fifteenth century and proliferated like crazy as people decided to add more and more collective nouns.

One of these books, entitled Book of Saint Albans or Book of Hawking, Hunting, and Blasing of Arms was written for and popular among wealthy men. Published in 1486, the contents of the book spread into the English language through common usage among a large enough number of people. Though collective nouns were “made up” for the book, they became actual words because people felt they were useful. Not all of the collective nouns were created at the time, but enough of them were that it’s notable.

At this point, in 2014, the majority of them are not incredibly useful, so most people don’t use or know very many of these terms. However, they still are available to our lexicon whenever we decide. The most common collective nouns still in use are probably pack, herd, flock, and pride.

Though the histories of many collective nouns aren’t particularly inspiring, I find the words to be quite poetic in some cases. They create potential for a lot of musical language, especially with alliteration, but also with consonance and assonance. Some of them also have strong connotations in some contexts, which could be helpful in a line of verse to create tone. A murder of crows just sounds so much more vivid than a “group” or even a “flock.”

Some of my favorites are the following:

Because of the personification:
A congregation of alligators
An army of ants
A colony of bats
A family of beavers
A business of ferrets

Because of the sound and music:
A flutter of butterflies
A pounce of cats
A charm of finches
A gaggle of geese
A knot of toads
A watch of nightingales

Because of the connotation:
A cackle of hyenas
A bed of eels
A swarm of flies
A cloud of gnats
A scourge of mosquitoes
A cluster of spiders

You can find more of them here.

I encourage their use for poetic value alone. I would love to read a fairytale where a little girl finds a knot of toads in the forest or read a book where a sailor falls from his ship into a bed of eels. I can almost feel the need to hold my breath and squeeze my eyes shut when I read “a cloud of gnats,” which is a physical reaction I would never have to “a lot of gnats.” There is something sensory about many of the terms of venery that bring more life and sensation to the words than unspecific collective nouns.

As for why the collective noun for crows became “murder,” I’m not sure. Maybe it has to do with crows’ taste for carrion in their scavenging. Crows have been seen eating flesh, potentially that of humans, and this certainly may have contributed. Still, though, we do not call groups of other scavengers, or even predatory birds, “murders.” Several myths involve crows’ relationship to death or the dead, as well. Trying to get to the bottom of our cultural perception of crows would take a much longer blog post and a good deal more research.

Theories about naming the collective noun “murder” all relate to the connotation of death that our culture has long since associated with crows, but any specific tale of its origins has been lost to history.

My Muse is an Abstract Concept Who Likes Naps and Pancakes.

If you hang out in writer-circles for long enough, you’ll inevitably hear about muses at some point. Individual artists have different ideas about what muses can do and what form they take. We discuss if they exist and what that existence or lack thereof might mean for an artist. Some people— the atheists of the writing world— find belief in muses silly, and others find it comforting.

The original muses were goddesses. There were nine of them: Calliope, Clio, Euterpe, Erato, Melpomene, Polyhymnia, Terpsichore, Thalia, and Urania. These goddesses were all sisters, and the daughters of Mnemosyne and Zeus. Together they personified knowledge and the arts and provided inspiration.

Now, more often it’s not a religious concept but a fantastic one. The muses at some point transformed from goddesses to beings which have more in common with imaginary friends. There is still a bit of magic involved, but the relationship is not standardized between artist and muse at all.

In a TedTalk, Elizabeth Gilbert suggests that the reason muses (by any name, she refers to them as ‘geniuses’) are so attractive is because they allow us to redirect pressure away from the artist onto an external force. She describes it as “a psychological construct to protect you from the results of your work.”

This might seem odd at first. What is wrong with writers that we don’t want blame placed on us for the things we are writing? It makes a bit of sense once you consider how our culture views art. An unsuccessful piece of writing earns a large pile of rejections and lots of thoughtful criticism from family members, friends, and random people on the internet telling the writers that maybe they ought to do something more productive with their lives. A successful piece of writing earns all of that, plus publication and an expectation that the writer now has the ability to access something secretive and creative that no one else can. The family members, friends, and random people on the internet ask where the ideas come from and maybe even say they wanted to be a writer. Famous writers are praised and elevated and their egos inflate like red balloons… until they are criticized again or sit down to write something else, at which point those same red balloons deflate while flying around the room making unpleasant noises.

Gilbert seems to use her muse like a scapegoat for dealing with all of this. She says, 

“And everyone knew that this is how it functioned, right? So this was how the ancient artist was protected from, for example, certain things like too much narcissism, right? If your work was brilliant, you couldn’t take all the credit for it. Everybody knew you had this disembodied genius who had helped you. If your work bombed, not entirely your fault, you know? Everyone knew your genius was kind of lame.”

 

However, the blame-soaking muse is only one of many. Stephen King describes his muse more like a drug dealer. 

 

“There is a muse, but he’s not going to come fluttering down into your writing room and scatter creative fairy-dust all over your typewriter or computer station. He lives in the ground. He’s a basement guy. You have to descend to his level, and once you get down there you have to furnish an apartment for him to live in. You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling tropes and pretends to ignore you. Do you think this is fair? I think it’s fair. He may not be much to look at, that muse-guy, and he may not be much of a conversationalist (what I get out of mine is mostly surly grunts, unless he’s on duty), but he’s got the inspiration. It’s right that you should do all the work and burn all the midnight oil, because that guy with the cigar and the little wings has got a bag of magic. There’s stuff in there that can change your life. Believe me, I know.” 

(Stephen King, On Writing, page 144). 

 

Unlike Gilbert, King feels constantly indebted, rather than released from pressure. He works to serve the muse, not the other way around. King’s muse is also much less romanticized, and reading through the description, one might begin to notice what might be an unhealthy dependency on the guy. I think many writers can relate to the feeling of giving hours and hours of work to a piece of writing, then feeling completely justified when they get a taste of the inspiration. All the Writer’s Crippling Self Doubt, frustration, and effort is worth it when the ideas and words start to flow.

A band called Whitebrow has a song about the songwriter’s muse where he describes her more like an on-again-off-again lover who he desperately hopes will come back every single time she leaves him. 

 

“My Muse has left for the hills 
and she’s taken my inspiration.


One day she’ll come back to me. 
One day she’ll come back right here.
One day she’ll come back to me
and make all the muddy waters clear.”

 

Here too, the muse is personified as the one who has the inspiration. The writer must earn the company of the muse in order to get the inspiration, somehow, but this always feels like a fair deal. You can’t stay mad at a muse long.

Not everyone is dependent on a personification to help them write, though. I’m certain there are many authors who believe that real writers just get to work like everyone else and refine their craft.

A fantastic poet named Philip Pardi said once that sometimes he believes in the muse and sometimes he doesn’t. The day I met him at the Living Writers Series at SUNY Oswego, he believed, but perhaps in the days before or after he did not. He’s a muse agnostic.

I suppose I am too. I’m a big believer in awful, forced first drafts that become good writing through revision. I believe that poetry is not necessarily magical or spiritual and that believing so is often a part of why many people are intimidated to write and read it. When we take away the mysticism, what is left is a skill to learn like cooking, building, and mathematics. It gets people away from the doubt about whether they’re real writers if they don’t sense some voice telling them the words to put on the page. I also think that getting away from the idea of divine insight makes revision more fun. If your first draft came from the muse, how could your revision possibly improve on pure, magical inspiration? Deciding that your first drafts are just whatever you jotted down makes it a lot easier to admit the piece needs work.

But then again, sometimes the words flow so easily, it’s almost a spiritual experience. Every once in a while the ideas, memories, music, and lines all weave together as if outside my influence. Sometimes characters decide their choices for themselves. Sometimes poems grow in my brain when I’m actively trying to do other things. 

When this happens, it’s easy to call that sensation “inspiration given from a muse.” The secret is that muses are not exclusive to artists at all. Muses, if we decide they exist, are in great abundance. Everyone has moments when everything just seems to come together. You can see this for yourself when a boy completes a puzzle, a woman realizes she’s in love, or a student says “Oh, I get it!”  

Neil Gaiman explained this concept well in response to the common question “Where do you get your ideas?” 

 

“You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.” 

 

I believe that is the truth. Everyone feels motivated and compelled to explore ideas occasionally. The hard parts are doing something about it when it happens and getting it to happen with some regularity.

The first time I took the word “muse” seriously at all, it was in my ‘Introduction to Poetry’ course in college. My professor called free-writing “muse writing” and it stuck for me. Muse writing consisted entirely of writing without stop until the words started becoming interesting, and using that as raw material later to shape written work. It was never stressed that we needed to believe that someone was giving us the words to write down, but somewhere in the phrase implied that by doing this we were tapping into words we might not have written otherwise.

When you have a muse, he isn’t going to chat all the time. He’s usually the kind of person to show up late or cancel plans last second. So you really need to get a schedule established if you want him to have a sliver of a chance remembering when you want him there. Invite him every morning at 8:00 a.m. or every evening at midnight, and he’ll start showing up. Of course, he’ll still probably miss some days or weeks and show up when you don’t want him around too, but it’s good enough. Muse writing is a way of giving him a call and inviting him over.

Or, in non-magical terms: If you start writing every day, you’ll eventually have some great ideas. More than that, you’ll be ready for those ideas, notice them, and know how they might benefit your writing.

Why do writers so often talk about it in the way that sounds more like a fairytale? Why have specific genders, personalities, and relationships associated with feeling motivated and having ideas?

Well, honestly, it’s fun. It’s comforting to personify ideas, and I think a lot of writers can’t help but think of the world in that way. We build our lives around stories and made up people in our heads, so it’s pretty obvious why some of us like assigning character traits to the abstract concept of what gives us inspiration. It also gives writers a narrative to fall back on (the muse never stopped by) during periods of Writer’s Crippling Self Doubt. Maybe it’s also a bit of an inside joke to talk about our muses in the same way we talk about “killing our darlings” when we need to delete sections of books we’ve spent months on or erase characters we love for the good of the writing. It’s not quite the truth that we’re hearing voices and killing our loved ones all the time, but on an emotional level it sometimes feels that way.  

My own muse is not a goddess, a blame-taking fairy, a sketchy guy in the basement, or a fickle lover. She’s a roommate who loves naps more than anything else in the world. She spends the majority of her time sleeping, often in my bed, until her hair gets tangled and she drools on the pillow.

When I need to talk to her, I try to shake her awake. She’s a heavy sleeper, (and can sleep for months at a time like a bear) but sometimes she mumbles for a while about what she’s dreaming. Most of the time it doesn’t make much sense, but it gives me something to write about.

Some of her ideas are bad or completely incoherent, but on good days she’ll wake up and give me all sorts of brilliant advice while I make her pancakes. She’s encouraging and pleasant when she’s awake, and always reminding me that my stories are important. More often than the pancake mornings, though, are the nights where she wakes up on her own and shakes me awake because she needs to talk. Sometimes I decide to sleep and ignore her, but when I listen to what she has to say, I never regret it.