Journalists learn early in their careers the critical importance of headline writing. If you don’t hook the reader from the start, you may not catch her at all.
I’ve been writing headlines for over 20 years as an opinion journalist. For better or worse, I have become attuned to the challenge of capturing the reader’s attention in an era of micro-short attention spans.
I talk about various false starts, and then:
That approach didn’t work for my narrative, the twin themes of which— Ruthie’s pilgrimage through cancer and my return home in its aftermath—proved too complex to be summed up punchily or pithily. I thought briefly about “South Toward Home,” a reverse-play on “North Toward Home,” the Mississippi journalist Willie Morris’s famous account of his Yankee hegira. But that not only lacked originality, it also put too much emphasis on my own experience, versus my sister’s.
Still, I liked the journey concept; it linked the twin odysseys of siblings who were often at odds. The nexus was this: Ruthie’s passage into death revealed a way of life that showed me the way home.
A way. The word means both “path” and “method”—and this dual meaning gave me a conceptual breakthrough.
I once compared my sister to St. Thérèse of Lisieux, the 19th-century French nun who died young from tuberculosis. Thérèse Martin, a plain village girl, embraced the virtues of simplicity and humility. After Thérèse’s passing, her Carmelite sisters published her spiritual autobiography, “Story of a Soul,” in which the nun described her “petite voie,” or little way, to healing and holiness. “What matters in life are not great deeds, but great love,” Thérèse wrote.
That line, which sums up the whole of Thérèse’s philosophy, could have been Ruthie’s epitaph. It became the epigraph for my book about her—and the “little way” became my title.
Read the whole thing. Thank you, Wall Street Journal, for the chance to write this.