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.

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on reading your own writing

Just before bed last night I was looking at what wordpress calls “the dashboard”–your basic blog control panel–when I saw that someone had arrived here yesterday by Google search. The dashboard shows daily “referrers”–links that bring people here–and which pages visitors read each day. For this blog, most people come from Facebook or an e-mail subscription. But for the first time, someone had come because they’d searched for me. Query: “mandy len” Vancouver.

When your online presence is as small and new as mine is, having someone intentionally seek you out sends an electric signal straight to your ego. And having someone stick around and read every post? It’s totally gratifying. Because what writer doesn’t want to be read?

But then it dawned on me that whoever searched for me wasn’t looking for the blog itself. If they know my name and know about this blog, they would’ve just typed in the web address. Or they would’ve searched for “mandy len” “love stories”, not “mandy len” Vancouver. So it was probably someone who had my e-mail address and guessed that Len was my last name, someone who doesn’t really know me. And since I’ve only given my e-mail address to one person in the past few weeks, I think I know who Googled. This realization sent another, more complex signal to my ego which can be translated as a series of questions: What would someone who doesn’t really know me think of me based on what I’ve written here? And would someone who stumbled across this blog want to read the book I’m trying to write? Would I want to read the book I’m writing?

I looked back over what I’ve written and an uncomfortable thought came to me: this blog would probably not motivate me to read my own book. I even suspected that I might sometimes be annoyed by its writer. When she is rushed, she lapses into what Orwell would call “ready-made phrases,” as if she cannot be bothered “to hunt about” for the best combination of words. She is careless and imprecise in a way I often caution my own students against. On a bad day, she and her rhetorical questions might easily be written off as a member of the “Carrie Bradshaw” genre.

I originally pitched the idea of a blog to myself as a workspace, a place to play with ideas, as something that would necessarily be rough and unpolished. I was okay with that. But sometimes reading your own writing is like listening to your voice on the answering machine. Its cadences are familiar, but the tone is warped. You hear as with someone else’s ears, and you become a stranger to yourself. When I was writing with no audience other than my writer’s group, I could be sloppy. I could let things simmer. Or I could polish feverishly. My writers group expected things to be messy, and all anyone else would ever see would be the clean, shining gem that might appear one day in print.

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