One of my favorite regular features is the Times’ Modern Love column, and the curator has lately been sharing submission tips and archived columns via the Facebook page. I really enjoyed this entire tip today, which also explains in part why I like the columns so much:
Ideally, writing a personal essay is a process of discovery. You only understand the point of your essay after you’ve spent a lot of time and effort working on it. When you come up with a “pitch” for an essay, however, you must figure out that point at the start. The ensuing writing process often then becomes less about discovery than execution. You feel you must hew to that point. Any detours into new and unexpected terrain might threaten to derail or even undermine your point, so better not go there. Better snuff out that idea before it takes over the whole thing. Better not acknowledge that wayward truth or you may have to start all over.
I don’t accept pitches because with personal essays I feel almost anything can work or not work, and nearly every pitch sounds shallow and overly familiar to me anyway, even if it would make for a great essay in its particulars. But I still end up reading many essays that read as though they were written with a pitch mentality. They don’t seem to have grown organically or stumbled into surprising places or reached a place of heightened awareness. Instead, they feel constricted and workmanlike, hemmed in by a need to execute a pre-conceived point. Often this leads to an essay that consists of a series of examples in support of the controlling idea, like: Why our marriage is a study in contrasts but still works (or something along those lines).
It’s comforting to write that way, to not let yourself get lost, to write by following the essayist’s equivalent of a pre-set GPS device. And it can be scary and inefficient to careen off the road into the deep woods. You might waste all kinds of time and energy and still wind up totally lost. But you also might discover a place that can’t be boiled down into a two-sentence pitch. It just can’t. If someone wants to understand, they’re going to have to read the whole thing. And if you’ve done your job well, they’re going to want to.