Down the Writing Rabbit Hole—And Back Up Again


“The most comforting words to hear at university are: “I haven’t started either’” my son Micah reassured me. He’s in second year at Queen’s and I was whining to him about feeling like a panicked undergrad, and that a few of my classmates in my advanced feature-writing program had confided that they were too. This week, we have two assignments due and the term has barely begun.

The first assignment is a personal essay that needs to be good enough to be published in at least The Globe and Mail’s Facts and Arguments column. Past students have set the bar high. Sofi Papamarko’s piece in Salon, “How The Sims Turned Me Into a Home Wrecker” went viral in the U.S. and led to an offer from CBC to become an on-air columnist. Rosemary Counter’s piece, “A Craiglist ‘Missed Connection”, was published in The New York Times Modern Love column and was their first podcast (and was read by a Broadway actress).

You get the picture.

I thought I was on a roll with my idea. I was planning to submit a story for New York Times Modern Love too. The opening scene went like this:

My husband slept soundly beside me. It was 6:30 in the morning, but my question couldn’t wait. Laying my head on his chest, I put my hand on his heart and whispered, “Why are we monogamous?”

It was going to be a piece about “unconscious coupling” (the inverse of what Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin did with their “conscious uncoupling”) and weave in elements of… well, ten hours later (and 1500 words short), I didn’t have a clue anymore. I did the kindest thing possible and put a bullet in it.

The second assignment is a query for a feature and has to be sold to a Canadian publication. We had reviewed many queries from previous students, and again, their writing prowess was obvious. My favourite query was by Kat Sharmack who sold her investigative piece about how Toronto’s housing shortage led to the creation of an overcrowded and illegal rooming house by a man who did not own the house. It was published in Toronto Life.

I came out of the gates like a champ for my own pitch. My article was going to be about how innovative start-ups are beating the odds with their unique engagement strategies. The opening paragraph of my query letter went like this:

Pavan, a 27 year old software engineer and MBA grad from Mumbai is seated at the end of a communal table at a Toronto coffee shop, speaking about his search for employment. Like many highly educated millenials, Pavan is eschewing a traditional career path to the corner office in favour of more autonomous and creative environments. “I like the challenge of start-ups. Maybe a larger company would have more appeal in ten years when I would have more input into decisions.”

I interviewed cofounders of start-ups, and employees, and took a few stabs at developing my pitch. And with each successive interview and piece of research, I went deeper and deeper down a rabbit hole. I killed that story too.

Micah is right that misery loves company. It is reassuring to know that I’m not the only one floundering with too little sleep and too much caffeine. When I turned to John, my husband, for sympathy he said, “It’s not supposed to be easy.” And that was a revelation.

I realize that part of my panic is feeling like I’m a dimwit for not getting the story right from the beginning. I’m back at the drawing board. I’ve got some fresh ideas.

Photo credit:Flickr/Nate Steiner

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