Naming Your Memoir: Not So Easy for Us Non-Celebrities

Michelle Obama gave her heralded memoir the unremarkable title of Becoming. Snarky comic George Carlin tried only semi-successfully working his famous “7 dirty words” stand-up routine into his autobiography by calling it the generic Last Words. Creative Desi Arnaz came up with the less-than-creative A Book, dramatically gifted Katharine Hepburn wrote the undramatically named memoir Me, the autobiography of trailblazing actor Sidney Poitier carries the trite title of The Measure of a Man, original Johnny Cash chose the unoriginal Cash, Dolly Parton and Ozzy Osbourne had similar thoughts with, respectively, Dolly and I Am Ozzy and genius inventor Ben Franklin devised The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. So maybe you don’t have to hurt your brain and struggle to figure out what to call your memoir, right?

Wrong! You are not a former first lady, disruptive comedian, Oscar-winning actor, iconic singer or founding father. You cannot rely on name recognition to attract readership, so you need a title that actually says something.

For guidance, let’s continue down the celebrity list. The late Carrie Fisher had a best-seller with Wishful Drinking. A pun is not an original idea, because puns are so popular for memoir titles and a bit of a copout since they’re clever by definition. But Fisher’s title—comedic, dramatic and tragic all at once—has so many implications that I like it a lot. Michael J. Fox named his autobiography Lucky Man: A Memoir. This simple title gives the reader immediate knowledge of the author’s outlook on life, even without the ironic twist implying that someone living with Parkinson’s Disease might be considered quite unlucky. Carly Simon’s Boys in the Trees sparks curiosity about which boys, which trees and what any of that has to do with the author.

Duplication is another thing to consider. With all of the books out there, duplicating a title is a strong possibility. Using your own name in the title is the most obvious way to avoid that, but it’s not the only idea. Tina Fey’s famous Bossypants has a memorable name that pretty much ensures uniqueness. Crafting a very long title increases the chances that yours will be the only one to have it. Consider Billy Crystal’s memoir, called Still Foolin’ ’Em: Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys? A funny title is great for an upbeat memoir, but even comedians run the gamut on this dynamic. Both Are You There, Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea by Chelsea Chandler and Yes Please by Amy Poehler earned rave reviews, but I think we know which one gets the catchy title award.

If there’s an ultimate title to emulate, I’d choose Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. A title doesn’t get better than that—revealing that the author’s life has provided insight into the feeling of being caged while inviting the reader to look inside to find out where the joy or optimism—the “singing”— comes in. But Angelou is a poet; we shouldn’t hold ourselves to that standard. We ordinary, non-poet, non-celebs should put some thought into it, test out a few of our title finalists on friends and family and then give it our best shot. And if all else fails, yes, there’s a Buzzfeed quiz that will create a memoir title for you.