An Unspoken Rule: It’s Never Simple

For the last few years, I’d get the odd inspiration to write something suitable for the Facts & Arguments section of the Globe and Mail. For those unacquainted, it is a daily feature of one of our national newspapers; a personal essay between 800 and 1,000 words, open to the public for submissions.

Easy, right?

Truth: no. Every time I’ve tried in the past, I can’t pull it off. Can’t even get past two paragraphs. It’s not a question of writing 800 words of personal essay, but rather pulling off 800 words of personal essay that actually is interesting to a wide array of people which isn’t intellectually disingenuous at the same time. I say this because it’s easy to make fun of the Facts & Arguments essay (or at least I find it easy). “In the end,” I’ve joked to my wife, “what I learnt from my cat is that it’s not the travails I endured, but the lessons contained therein which have enriched my life. Ha, ha“. They are all, clichés aside, about personal experiences which lead to larger realizations. You could compare this (somewhat) to the essay featured at the back of the New York Times Sunday magazine, only longer and not as consistently curated.

Again: easy, right? After all, it’s just 800 words of personal stuff. You’re a writer, eh Cahill?

Truth: no, not easy. No, not at all. One misty Sunday morning over the Christmas break, I got the inspiration and decided that I was going to finally hunker down and do it. Me, the fiction-writing blogging sorta guy was going to sit his ass down and write an honest to goodness Facts & Arguments-style essay if it killed me. And it had to be good. And it had to be honest. No bullshit. No cynical kiss-ass formula-copying. It would, after all, have my name on it, published or not.

I realized several things immediately:

  1. Even though I write for this blog, which could be construed as “personal non-fiction” (or whatever the latest strain of non-fiction terminology is), it’s still pretty free-form stuff. It’s not like I have an editor, aside from my own middling expectations. In other words, it was not a load of help.
  2. Unlike fiction, I couldn’t write it all down as a semi-coherent story and then revise-by-whim from there. I don’t write enough non-fiction to have those strengths. My first “draft” (and trust me, that word deserves those odious quotation-marks) was a stinky grab-bag of overly-literary ideas which made no sense to the world outside my head, which for the most part seemed up my ass at the time that I wrote it.
  3. Being honest in a blog and being honest in a personal essay intended for mass (as in nationwide) publication are two totally (totally) separate things. I had to pay attention to a lot more than I had bargained for. And no swearing.

It has been torture. I’ve spent more time on this than I care to mention (at last count, thirteen revisions in two weeks). And yet, I didn’t want to give up. The format was a challenge and as a writer/artist/whatever it’s important to be challenged, especially if one wants to be versatile. In the end (ha ha), I’ve finally got something worth submitting. Whether it actually gets published (and, God knows, I’ve done my best on this sucker) is no longer a chief concern. The goal was to submit my best effort and that is what I’ve done (though of course I’ve cursed my chances of this ever happening, having written about it beforehand and all).

Many lessons learnt, indeed.


4 Replies to “An Unspoken Rule: It’s Never Simple”

  1. Please do, and let me know how it goes for you. This “challenge” I’ve set for myself has turned into an Ironman marathon.

  2. The personal essay is the hardest form to write, I think, other than poetry.

    But, I commend you, because you went beyond the desire to be published. You got involved in the process of writing.

  3. Todd: I cannot express how much of a “process” this has been. Your poetry comparison is best: I can only compare what I’ve gone through to writing a sestina as a homework assignment when I was at writers’ workshop. When you pull it off, it’s as if you’ve designed and built an incredible (and incredibly personal) monument. And yet the work involved…

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