Repost: On the Similarities between Writing and Living

writing like living

The last thing I do, whenever I’ve finished up a piece of writing and am readying it for publication, is to come up with a title.  The title frames the piece.  It gives the reader a sense of how to approach the reading and what to expect going forward.

One of my rules about writing is this:  Titles can’t come first; they must come last.

My theory about entitling is rooted in the fact that writing and living are very similar.

Writing (like living) just sort of happens, at least that’s the way it works with me.  Often, when I start an essay or a blog, I begin with the understanding that I’m not sure what I’m going to say or where it’s going to go.  I might have a general theme or topic in mind but then find that I end up exploring that theme or topic in a way I never could have fully anticipated.  That’s a lot like the way I live my life.  I generally start off with a plan and then just begin breathing in and out while the days pass.  I keep my plan in mind and refer to it from time to time but frequently discover that I’m drifting away and thus find that I need to make course corrections to stay on track.  Or, in many other instances, I find that my plan was ill-conceived in the first place, and rather than making minor adjustments, I have to jettison the whole idea and start from scratch.

I’ll give you a concrete example of how life (like writing) just sort of happens—how it begins with plans that often get adjusted or discarded.

When I was a young undergraduate, I had no idea what I wanted to major in.  I had always been a thinker—sort of a brooder, actually—and then had a few experiences in my late adolescence that caused me to become politicized.  Plus, as a boy, I’d been sort of prodigy.  I started making art and showed my work and sold quite a few pieces when I was just a youngster.

All of that was in my background when I went to college.  In hindsight, I probably should have studied the fine arts, but my desire to think about matters related to social justice won out, so I decided to become a student of government because I thought I would become a lawyer and fight to right wrongs.  I wanted to find work that would give me the chance to speak truth to power (because power needs to have truth spoken to it all the time).

So, I declared a major and created a plan.  I didn’t become a lawyer, though.  I became an academic instead.  (But I didn’t discard my artsiness or my desire to engage in political activism as I found a new direction to take my life in.)  I’ve reinvented myself again and again over the years, and each time I do so, I bring all those former passions and interests forward into my new way of being.

Now, why must a title come last?  I never fully addressed that part of the topic.

That’s because a person doesn’t know what to make of a piece of writing until one has finished it and then taken a moment to stand back and ask, “What does it say?  What is my point in writing it?  What will it mean to a reader?”

Life is like that too.  I’m kind of at a point in mine where I’m looking back at all the things I’ve done and wondering, “What does all this living mean?  What does it say about who I am, what I’ve valued, and where I’ve been?”

A person just writes and lives and then has the opportunity to take stock.  Part of taking stock is teasing out the meaning of the writing and living.

Thank you so much for reading what I’ve written.  I look forward to your responses.


75 thoughts on “Repost: On the Similarities between Writing and Living

      1. Dee, the adventure e-book writer from Seattle, says ‘Hello!’. My inspiration comes from self-experiental hikes&climbs. Not to mention the burst of oxygen in each trek fuels my brain. Hence the ‘title’ of my e-books (changes several times during chapters) but, you are absolutely right to say that it comes ‘last’ chapter. check out/sign to follow http://www.deetezellimountainstories.wordpress.dom & compare to e-books on Amazon Kindle….they have evolved together, albeit I confess adding some fiction in the violent depicted scenes. Thanks for gentle guidance.

  1. Very interesting. I think we all wish we could write the title first. After all that’s what we were taught in school righ? We are to write an essay on ….
    This year I am learning photography. In photography, you have to decide on your message first then compose the photo to relay your message.
    What is interesting is that sometimes the viewer finds a different just as plausible of a message which then makes me wonder if I failed in this photo as a photographer relaying a message or did I succeed because I relayed a message albeit not the one I intended.

    1. You’ve made me think. Perhaps we are cheating those who look at our photos and read our writings by giving titles to things. Titles sort of force a meaning on the reader. Perhaps we should leave things untitled and let readers come entirely to their own conclusions.

      1. I suppose this method would work well when we are not attached to the message.
        I feel abstract art is in this category. It is up to our imagination -as my husband always likes to say but perhaps he is wrong. Perhaps abstract artists do have a message and I for one completely fail to see it.
        This is such an interesting topic.

        May be a good test of a photograph would be to offer a “name this photo” type of contest.
        I think the answers would vary a lot more than in a “Name this essay” contest.
        Then again I could be wrong as each of us perceives what they read/see differently based on our experiences.

        Interesting experiment to launch nonetheless don’t you think?

      2. I think abstract art is in a category all to itself. I’m not for sure that most abstract art does have a message. (I think about abstract art a lot because I make such pieces.) An abstract piece of art isn’t be be “understood”; it’s to be experienced and felt. It’s for this reason that I think absurd titles work well for abstract paintings, drawings, etc.

        Actually, a lot of what I write is purely speculative, so I can both take a position about the value of naming things while simultaneously arguing that there is little value in giving titles to artistic work.

        It’s all a thought experiment for me.

        I always enjoy our conversations about writing and such. Take care and thanks again.

  2. Well explained…
    However, in my case, I start with a title and as the narrative flows ..there are corrections …. modifications and at times I end up conveying something more or bit different than what I started with the aim of….and finally the title is also modified..

    1. I like your use of the word “flow.” Once a piece of writing gets moving, it sort of flows, doesn’t it. And just like flowing water finds its own course, our words have to find theirs. Interesting. You’ve got me thinking. Thanks so much.

  3. That’s a great rule about writing the title last! I often end up writing random bits and pieces in my journal – just thoughts I’ve had from my daily walk with no title or even intention to turn it into a post. Often it does and like you my title comes later, if not last. Equally I’ll end up writing from a title and what I write becomes about something completely different – the title changes in turn. Your comparison with life is spot on. Thank you!

    1. I think your comment shows how there’s no “one size fits all” when it comes to composing. I like your little-bits-and-pieces approach. Your approach sounds a little what we writing teachers call “freewriting.” That’s a technique where writers simply generate lots of language very quickly, not worrying about structure or anything like that. Then, while going back to such unstructured writing, one can often find a little, lovely nugget that then can be turned into something beautiful and profound. Thanks, friend, for sharing your writing technique with us.

  4. Your writeup is so light but deep – a combination that makes this read refreshing.

    All it starts with an idea that grows to take a shape, but as soon as it passes infancy, a name starts to form and I get stuck temporarily until an appropriate name hits me, and behold !

    The name brightens the light into a flame of inspiration, the story that already has a theme, suddenly, like the vigour of youth, gets bold.

    And then, many a times, I could not contain it longer as it grew at a pace higher than I could write or even speak, for it picked up the language of the mind and ran through chapters after chapters, sometimes through series, three so far I had found.

    Oh dear, I feel I am just a limited vessel like a cart carrying a young swift bird who, as soon as takes the first flight, knows no bound.

    Seriously ! What has just happened ? A comment that sounds like poetry to me ! In addition to refreshing, your post is a source of inspiration too. Thank you.

    1. Thank you. I wanted the writing to “light but deep” as you described it. I can see that you are a very perceptive reader. And I am always impressed with your comments. Thanks, once again, for reading and leaving a very enlightening response. Peace be with you, Oneiridescent.

      1. 🙂 And also with your spirit.

        Your comment reminds me of Peter Handke, who has claimed, “To be receptive, is everything”, that my mind has reinterpreted as “To be perceptive, is the key to everything.”

      2. Being perceptive and curious. These two are so important. I don’t know the name Peter Handke. I’ll do a bit of Googling though. Thanks, friend. I always enjoy our brief talks.

  5. Titles to me are the worst. I start with them, generally, and of late they’re basically a re-iteration of the opening lines. I admire people who come up with good titles while at the same time wishing there was a plug-in available that could read your work and provide you with the appropriate header.

    1. Writing titles is a little nerve-wracking, isn’t it? There’s something very final about the process of naming a piece of writing. Once it’s written, a writer has sort of made a commitment that isn’t easy to back out of. Thanks so much for your comment.

    1. I like to think of my style of living is something akin to “experimental living.” I start with a hypothesis but then run experiments that may or may not confirm my original theory. Thanks for the comment.

  6. Interesting stuff here.
    I often find a title and begin from there.
    However, by the time the piece has taken shape,
    several edits down the line, I find
    a different story, a different angle has appeared…
    and so a different title.

    This leaves the title to return to the shoebox of unused titles!

    (framing = very nice)

    1. Writers don’t really have full control of their creations. At some point along the way, the thing takes on a life of its own. It becomes a kind of “Frankenstein monster” that leaves the laboratory and begins to move about on wobbly legs. I’ve never written a piece that fully conformed to the notions I had about it at the early stages of life, immediately following its conception. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.

  7. Our approaches to writing (and life) appear to be similar. Even if I do manage a name for my posts, I often end up changing it somewhere in the middle. Often when I’m researching a subject I feel I already know about, it morphs in the middle because I see something else I never noticed before. It’s often surprising even to me just how my writings turn out. “I’ll take things I thought I knew something about for 200 Alex.”

    1. It’s great that you’re flexible like that. It makes me wonder about some of things we’re taught in high school. Like the idea of beginning an essay with an outline. Starting with an outline seems a little like trying to strap a saddle to the back of a wild, never-ridden horse. A person can try to tame such a wild beast, but the horse will have a lot to say during the process of being tamed. Writing just pitches around and bucks and throws me off every time! Thanks so much for sharing your story.

  8. Most of the time I start writing with a very concrete title, subject and plot in mind. Often I end up getting what I wanted, but sometimes not. Compare it to expecting parents who think of all kinds of names for their soon to be born. Even making contingencies for different outcomes. And then the critter gets born in under unexpected circumstances and ways with some very particular characteristics. Their goes your planning.

    1. I’ve always been a planner but am getting a bit more relaxed as time goes by. I suppose I’m learning that things just sort of find their own way of being “born” (to borrow your child metaphor). Circumstances are almost never ideal, and some pieces of writing even resist being cleaned up. So the more I think about writing, the more I’m liking your comparing writing to a child being born. We only have so much control over what writing and children eventually become, don’t we? Thanks so much for a wonderful comment.

  9. I agree with this. I usually have a “title” in just so I can know which story it is. Often find myself thinking “what a great title for a boom” when someone says something that sparks inside me. I rarely use it as an actual title. It seems most of life turns into a bunch of story prompts

    1. I think you’re right. I’ve got a million fragments of things I’ve wanted to say and write about saved in a folder on my computer, but most will never amount to anything. Thanks so much for your comment.

    1. Lucky you when it comes to writing! When you figure out the secret of life, give me a call. Thank you so much for reading my piece and leaving a comment.

  10. Thanks for sharing your words here. Your comparison between life and writing resonated with me and brought to mind this line from a song by The Talking Heads: “You may ask yourself, how did I get here?!”
    I find coming up with the title to be the hardest part of writing. What will sum up what I’ve written and also peak someone’s interest enough to actually read what I wrote?! I struggle with it every time. If you have any suggestions, I’m all ears!!

    1. I ask your Talking Heads question at least a dozen times a day. (By the way, The Talking Heads were really great, weren’t they?) I don’t really have any suggestions. Sometimes we try to hit a home run when we’re writing titles. I think we think that we have to be super profound with our titles, but simple titles often carry a lot of power. I also think it depends on what you want to do with your titles. There are times when I use the title as a kind of umbrella summary of what I’m saying in the rest of the piece. Other times, I want to leave my reader guessing about what they’ll discover going forward. I guess my one piece of advice would be to think about purpose when writing a title. Do you want to tell your reader what to expect before they start or do you want to intrigue and entice them? Thanks for your comment.

      1. They were great!!

        Thank you for your advice. I’ll ponder a bit more about purpose when coming up with a title. And I agree that simple ones can be powerful. All good food for thought!!

  11. Truly amazing post once again. I have observed that my writing process is similar but I have a working title in the beginning which helps provide a direction but I let my brain flow in any and all direction and watch at what the outcome is. After having reread the piece, I write another title. I feel like even in life we tend to fix a destination of where we want to see ourselves and start carving the way towards that destination. Start writing towards the working title. However, I wish like writing we are courageous enough to see the changes that take place and alter the path according to that and walk towards an unknown destination. I am a young student and I see with myself and others around me that we are too scared to change the destination. We are fixated on becoming an engineer or doctor, that we fail to see in what direction we naturally lean towards. I feel like we are too afraid to naturally write away from the working title. I hope that we all understand that real art is created when you are naturally yourself.

  12. When I write music sometimes the title comes first and guides the direction I take the music. Other times music arrives in my mind first and the title comes later. Still other times the title is changed when the composition is nearing its final form. As you say, I find life can be like this too. There can be a plan but we have to be ready for it to change.

    I studied a BTech majoring in Product Development at university. Then took a year of managing severe depression. Many factors involved. I went back to university to retrain as a teacher and lived every minute of it. Now I work in the Fundraising department of a non profit organisation, and I am working on publishing books and music.

    It’s a funny thing, this thing we call life, isn’t it?

    1. Life is very funny and I think you’re figuring it out. Follow your bliss, my friend. Don’t be afraid to adjust your course! We’ve all got our challenges and they can mostly all be met with success. Just pay attention to what your body and mind are telling you to do and you’ll be fine. It sounds like your work life is going in a cool direction. What sort of non-profit are you working for? I was the director of a non-profit museum in the past. That was a great experience. Actually, every single thing I’ve done has taught me something and had value. My one piece of advice would be not to take life too seriously. I think you’re figuring that out too. Take care, my friend.

    1. Absolutely! By the way, I love your avatar. I enlarged it yesterday and looked at it very closely. Did you make that? There must be a genre of art called “food art” or something along those lines. I’d like to learn more.

      1. Thank you so much – I asked my Mum to depict me in fruit-form for my profile picture, since she’s the artist in the family – I’m the science nerd 🙂

      2. Do you have a nerdy science website you could point us to? Also, I’d like to see more of your mom’s work. Does she publish these kinds of things somewhere? If not, she should.

  13. Thank you so much. My blog tends to run along these lines as well and I’m of an age where as I look back over my shoulder, I notice the disparate threads of past passions do actually reassemble to a lovely pattern, quite unexpectedly. I had begun to doubt the value of my blathering on in the ‘vanity press’ of my blog, but I see now that it isn’t blather at all— it’s the human experience. We learn about life and discover the title only when we’ve completed the writing.
    Thank you again!

    1. Hi. I had a look at your blog yesterday and really like your writing. In fact, I would like to discuss it with you. I can be reached at I looked for an email address on your site but was unable to find one. Perhaps it was right in front of my nose and I missed it?

  14. This is so well thought out and well written! Fully agree that the title should be written in the end. That gives you more freedom while you’re drafting the content!
    And loved how well you have articulated the similarities between writing and living too! 🙂

  15. Thank you for the article. Yes, names are best when they “come out” of the experience. I think we should name children the same way … like the way we name puppies. We watch them play and “see” their personality and then name them. When I contemplate an issue nothing else matters and it feels like a part of me is playing like the puppy. When I write it sometimes feels like “something” is left behind in that experience. While I publish little, I keep journals of my thoughts and ideas. Journal writing seems more like play while publishing feels like work, where I am labeled. I admire those that publish an article reflecting their insight of principles that unify all of us. It’s as though I can see the principle at work in their thoughts … unifying principles like wisdom, clarity, harmony, unity, peace, creativity, wholeness, & Love. These are the names and titles that matter. You all do that at “Pointless Overthinking.”

    1. Thank you very much about your kinds words about Pointless Overthinking. We try our best.

      I love your idea about naming children based on observing them. Had my parents done it that way, I might now be called Quiet Shy Headrick. What would your name be?

      I also really like (and need to think more about) your sentence “When I write it sometimes feels like ‘something’ is left behind in that experience.” That really jumped out at me when I read your comment. I’m wondering what you mean by that. Perhaps you could say a little more?

      Thanks so much for leaving such a thought-provoking comment. You’ve given me things to think about!

  16. Its a very good point. I tend to use my title to focus my thoughts a bit, otherwise they mostly run from one thing to another and the only one who sees the connections is me.
    I guees it’s the way my brain goes.

    1. Hi. The fact that you see that your readers might not see connections is a fantastic breakthrough. That means you’re able to see your writing as a reader might see it. Our brains are amazingly interesting (and faulty) computer-like contraptions. I think all the time about how I think. (I occasionally think I’ve got myself figure out but then something happens that proves I don’t.) By the way, do you blog? If so, why not post a link to your site here so we can check out your writing? Thanks for the chat!

  17. Quite interesting read. Even though I do prefer having a title (since it makes me structure ideas and thoughts), but I concur that after several edits, I end up having a different title altogether.

    1. Sorry about the lateness of my reply. I often get so many comments that I sometimes find it hard to keep up. One thing I’ve discovered over my many years of teaching writing is that every writer finds his or her way to do things. There is no “one size fits all” approach that works for all writers and all situations. It’s good that you’ve found what works for you! Thanks so much for you comment.

  18. Im glad I came across your blog, I love the way you express yourself. It’s so true that many times you never really know how something will turn out until you reach the end of it.

  19. I think I have always been a planner. Whether it’s life or a simple blog post, I like to have a clear plan of the direction I am working towards. Often this process has worked favourably; in keeping me motivated and having a place to return to on days I feel lost. However, other times and more frequently now I have started to shrink away from the rigidity of a harsh structure and instead, embrace fluid creativity. I still value the satisfaction and comfort of planning (for writing and life), but “letting it happen” as you say in your post is fascinating in itself 🙂

    Thanks for a helpful analogy about writing and life!

  20. I love your life philosophy and that you’ve allowed yourself open eyes to watch for opportunities, as well as hazards, on the current of your days. As for titles, I am a brainstormer so I pick my favorite brainstorm topic and make that my drafting title, to steer my canoe if you will. Then after I revise, I do what you do and make sure the content and the title are still a good match. Sometimes they are, sometimes the title gets that final revision. Like chapters in life.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Hezaasan. You sound like a fairly experienced writer. Are you an academic? Or do you some other type of work, something connected with writing? I’m looking forward to checking out your blog.

  21. I liked your article but for me, I find sometimes the title comes first and is such a strong concept that the article is created with in that. However, I do understand your concept of the flow, development creation during writing. I am curious to know if you meditate or not and if you consider yourself to be spiritual in any way?

  22. For me, the title of a book, of an article, is important. If it attracts me, if some way or other awakens my interest, I will read it, or buy it in order to read. I am also in the habit of “leafing” through a book, article, but this does not work the way it should. It actually prove to be a waste of time in the end. To a writer (the reader, also) it is the content that counts. When the article we are writing seems good enough and interesting enough for a reader, it’s time we thought of a similarly good and attractive title, with well chosen words, that will tell in a nutshell what the article is about.

  23. Very interesting. I just started blogging just as a stess reliever and all my titles come up only in the end. So good to know I am on the right track 😊!

  24. That’s an interesting way of looking at things. I myself always write the title last, but I also know people who write it first, then use it as a compass to guide their way through an article. And I too enjoy linking writing (or anything else, really) to life. Anyway, thanks for this post!

  25. Neat post, Troy. Blogging and writing has been fluid for me, as you note with adjusted or discarded plans. Be open. Listen to your intuition. Trust your gut. Life and writing become fun and freeing by being open and willing to listen to that quiet but all powerful voice coming from within.

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