the power of a deadline

I decided to enter the CBC’s Canada Writes Nonfiction Literary Competition this week. Immediately, there were two problems with this decision: One, I first heard about the competition five days before the deadline. And two, the regulations included an unusual word count requirement: 1200-1500 words. Ordinarily, writing competitions or journals give writers a maximum word count, but rarely do they give a range. And if they do give a range, it’s rarely so narrow. A full-length essay usually falls between 3000-4000 words. A short-short–or flash–essay, an increasingly popular form of nonfiction, typically has an upper limit of 700-1000 words. Of course, 1200-1500 words is a lot like the length of a blog post, but blog posts–or anything self-published for that matter–were strictly disallowed.

Because I started teaching a new class this week (and, yes, because I needed to go to the climbing gym and to a movie and to a beer tasting event), I didn’t have the chance to start cobbling together a submission until about two days before the Wednesday-at-midnight deadline.

And this is the power of a deadline. I spent about five hours on Wednesday trying to turn a 900 word piece into a 1200 word piece and somehow, right at the last minute, what had been a pretty good scene became something bigger and more interesting. It was a scene that I thought might fit into my book, but probably won’t, a scene about the first time J and I talked about love. Adding another 300 words forced me to ask myself a lot of really useful questions:

What are the power dynamics involved in asking someone if they love you? Or in telling them that you love them?

How can I write about someone I spent ten years of my life with, a relationship that I still have lots of unresolved and complex feelings about, in a way that is fair to both of us?

And why do I keep coming back to this scene, to the two of us at twenty, lying on his old lumpy futon and talking about love? What is it that matters about that moment?

I really like this post by Shanna Mahin in defense of the memoir. In response to the criticism that memoir writing is some kind of misguided attempt at self-therapy, she writes, “If I can come from a place of honesty and love, I might be able to tell a personal story that resonates on a universal level.” And I like Jennifer Bowen Hicks’ argument that an essay should be like “an earnest whisper in another’s ear—how brave. Put away thoughts of black lace and sordid secrets. The sort of whisper I mean can be about hummingbirds or athlete’s foot, an aging parent or eggplant. Its very purpose is not to show, but to say, and by saying to connect.”

I have understood for some time that when it comes to my own love story, my position is the more sympathetic one. I wanted it more. And when it comes to love, we identify with the one who wants the relationship more. The pain of the lover is always deeper, more acute, more compelling than the pain of the loved. Of course we were both lovers and we were both loved, but the story, as I cannot help but tell it, inevitably contains my belief that I wanted it just a little bit more. I was attracted to J for his independence. I loved that he was like no one else I knew. He was (still is) insistently nonconformist. I wanted to be someone who was unafraid to move alone to a village in the middle of the Andes. But since I could not be that person, I decided to fall in love with that person instead.

I don’t know how to write about love, and to make it personal and complex, without using my own long-term relationship as a lens. But I wonder, can I write from a place of love about someone who left me feeling alone and adrift, even when we were together? (and should I have expected anything more from the most independent person I know?) I don’t believe I can be objective. But I do believe that I can be honest, and that I should be kind. I believe I should doubt my assumptions as much as possible, and that my role is to whisper rather than shout. (Perhaps there is irony in saying this about whispering while simultaneously writing about my life in such a public forum, but…I accept it.)

So at about 11 p.m. on Wednesday night, I stared at my computer screen and thought, “This piece just became f-ing awesome! I’m awesome!” And then I thought, “It’s a good thing this needs to be sent off immediately” because, usually, the more awesome I believe something to be, the less awesome I’ll find it to be in a month. It clocked in at 1202 words, which I gleefully typed into the box on the CBC website asking for the total word count. I named the file and attached it to the entry form and sent it off. Then I cut myself a piece of cake. It was as I read over the website one last time that I noticed: “The deadline is February 1 at 11:59 p.m. Eastern Standard Time.” My clock read 11:23 p.m. Pacific Time.

Bummer, I know. But, rather than dwell, I’ll leave you with this, my current favorite internet video. It reminds me of what I said before about love and knowing. It’s a nice visual metaphor for that experience of watching as someone you once knew become strange and unknown. It contains the nostalgia that comes with a lost relationship–and the bitterness–but not the mopey sadness:

3 thoughts on “the power of a deadline

  1. Wow, your writing skills have improved dramatically over the past few years, Min. Very proud of you. Now get back to work.

  2. mandy! i was going to suggest that competition to you ages ago- so proud you did it! even if you were a little late, you are awesome!
    and i love this video. makes me homesick.

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