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The Lacunaby Barbara Kingsolver
Titling a book should happen like a romance: the words should bedazzle the writer from the start. Getting swept off your feet is useful for book beginnings, as for marriage, as it can carry the smitten along through some of the constructive work and whining that inevitably lie ahead.
I've nursed this fantasy through many writing years: one after another, titles gazed at me across a crowded room and made me weak in the knees. The first time, I hardly knew what had hit me. I was a biology graduate student, walking across the University of Arizona campus to my favorite study haunt, an old brick library. I looked up to see the entire façade covered with an enormous wisteria vine, its branches flowing upward from one gnarled trunk, ending in a shimmering fringe of bean pods. I took it all in: the thousand pods, the absurdly arid ground, the roots that had pushed below cement, with their symbiotic microbes pulling nitrogen out of empty dirt to fuel this magnificent productivity. (As I mentioned, I was a graduate student.) "Bean Trees," I said aloud, and understood I needed to write a novel about how people living together in communities can draw resources from unlikely places. This was not what I'd planned to do with my life. It took a few years to break it to my graduate committee.
But my point is, the title and theme of the book arrived together. It happened again and again. Animal Dreams, Prodigal Summer, Small Wonder, I received each one as a gift, the only part of writing that seemed effortless and beyond my control. A good title holds magic, some cognitive dissonance, a little grit between the teeth, but above all it is the jumping-off place into wonder. Titling a book is not like putting a coat of paint on a finished house. It's like finding a skeleton key in the grass, then devising locks, building them into doors. The key allows entry into every part of the house.
Imagine my dismay, then, when I found myself several years into writing my thirteenth book and it didn't have a title. It had a label, of the kind one scribbles on a manila folder: a file-cabinet description for my poor unchristened project. Maybe I've outgrown love-at-first-sight, I thought. I consoled myself with the memory of a previous novel that had gone through several titles, all bad, (one of them so awful my agent made squawking sounds over the phone when I proposed it), but in time I’d seen the light and called it The Poisonwood Bible. Order returned after that. The next four book ideas arrived with titles attached.
Now, though, in the autumn of 2007, I was more than halfway through a draft of this novel whose name remained at large. Unlucky thirteen? I felt panic rising. Just in time to send me over the edge, I learned that the current Wikipedia entry for author Barbara Kingsolver made the bizarre claim that a new novel (titled with the file-folder name) would be released at the end of that month! "What's the problem?" my husband asked his supine wife, in a lull between her howls. "You’ve still got three weeks."
A full year later, I was finally closing in on a solid draft. This was the most difficult, research-intensive, delicious creation I'd ever sunk my teeth into — and I still had no idea what to call it. My story was full of secret passageways, tunnels through time and lives. It was about missing manuscript pages, dark caves, people who disappear against the backdrop, and the howling falsehoods that obscure quiet truths, all connected thematically with an underwater cave the protagonist discovers while diving in the sea. The image of that cave was as potent for me as the Bean Trees that stopped me in my career tracks twenty-two years before. I hungered for enough words to describe it.
I keep Roget's Thesaurus within reach of my desk chair. I love the heft of this white book, its treasury of associations, for even though no two words in our language have precisely the same meaning, a good thesaurus can lead you down the trail to exactly the one you need. I leafed through the wafer-thin pages. This sea-cave in my novel was a grotto, a chasm, an orifice, an interval, a missing link, a void, a... lacuna. Dear reader, I swooned. I heard the angel chorus, the cherubs fluttering overhead holding up the banner: THE LACUNA. This word whose many intertwined meanings unlocked every room in the house I'd built. I typed it, and stared. It's possible that I smacked myself on the forehead. I could not wait to march downstairs from my study and announce to my family, "I have a title! The Lacuna!" My husband put on his kindest I-hate-to-tell-you-this face. The trouble with my fabulous title, he offered, is that most people don't know what that word means.
"Oh," I said. "Well. I hope they will learn it soon."
I'll confess, I've had my moments of doubt. Or I've rationalized. I did name a novel Prodigal Summer, and almost nobody knows what prodigal means either. (It has nothing to do with returning home.) When people ask, "What is the name of your new book?" I brace myself for the furrowed brow. I am sorry, I wish it were otherwise, and if I've sent anyone begrudgingly to the dictionary, I swear I'm not out to thump the American noggin one vocabulary word at a time, this is not eighth-grade English. It's just that no other word will do. We have no exact synonym for lacuna, with its scent of old manuscripts and mystery, its dark salt taste of geology, its Latinate echoes, these grooves and ridges of meaning. This is the one. I found my key lying in the grass, in the nick of time. I suppose it must have been there all along.
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