Jason Reynolds, the National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, is back with another weekly writing challenge. This time? Create a book cover. Any book cover. If you’re stuck, make a cover for a book about your own life.
It’s a great exercise, particularly the last one. It makes you think on a couple of different levels.
One, you have to consider your life in visual terms — one or two pictures, symbols or shapes. Two, the colors you choose are critical. A black and red cover, you’ll agree, is much different than a blue and yellow one. Three, the title? The industry standard is five or fewer words; a couple more for an explanatory subhead.
As someone who has written about other people for years — and written a memoir — I can tell you it’s much easier to do this for other people than it is for ourselves.
In part, this is because we’re accustomed to summing up other people in shorthand. We do it all the time. For famous people, it’s simple. Elton John, pop star? His bestselling memoir of last year was named “Me.” Plus a picture of him on the cover. Easy! People loved it!
But what about the rest of us, who are not world-famous pop stars? How do we convey the heart of our story to readers?
In 2018, an unknown historian named Tara Westover published a memoir. She told a colorful tale of growing up in a remote part of Idaho with a survivalist family. Her parents did not send her to school. Still, she went on to obtain many academic degrees, including a Ph.D. from University of Cambridge University in England.
She called her memoir “Educated.” The cover was a drawing of a sharpened pencil (like students use in school). The color scheme was warm, red and amber and yellow. Within the outline of the pencil was an image of a mountain peak, part of the landscape that had dominated Westover’s childhood. And within that was a tiny image of a woman hiking, looking at the peak (the writing tip of the pencil) in the distance.
What does that image say? A young woman on an adventure. The one-word title tells the goal of that adventure. The subhead, “A Memoir,” clarifies the type of story she’s telling. Brilliant.
This gets complicated when we turn our gaze inward, though. While we don’t know much about the interior lives of other people, we know ourselves to be a swirling, contradictory mass of thoughts, emotions, fears and dreams. These can’t be easily expressed, much less in a couple of words and images. Plus, you have to decide on one mood or idea you want this cover to convey — which means you have to exclude all the others that are also important to you. That’s the last lesson the exercise teaches — editing your thoughts and making tough decisions.
So, what’ll it be for the story of your life?
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