Personal Essays Are Not My Bread and Butter

In a recent post, I mentioned the heartbreak of a pitch that was almost good enough. I could write about and dissect at least ten such ideas, trying to figure out what I got right and, ultimately, what I got wrong. Was it truly just that the idea was off-base, or was it something a tad more subjective like timing or an offensive typo in my pitch email?

In most cases, I’ll never know, and maybe eventually I’ll put them all out here to be critiqued. Freelance writing is not a group endeavor, and Lord knows I could use some feedback other than what I get from the critic in my own head.

The attempt to publish personal essays is another form of self abuse I occasionally engage in. Something happens, I feel compelled to write about it, and then I want to share what I wrote with others. Only, more often than not, others do not possess the reciprocal compulsion to read it.

I can usually sweet talk my husband into reading something, but I’ve learned even my other writer friends feel a bit preyed upon after a while. So, I do my best to fine tune something, do a little homework and put it out there, hoping it’s on target for the publication I choose to submit it to. 

I’ve had some success with personal essays, first getting one published in Southern Living a while back. Another was published on a Dallas web site and, most recently, in Animal Wellness magazine. These are not gut-wrenching introspections into the tragedies of my life, but my hope is they offer some funny insights most people can relate to.

That’s what I was aiming for with an essay I wrote about my (then) four-year-old daughter and a hilarious episode that occurred during a game of Candy Land. Over the course of about a year and a half, I submitted it to (that gulp you hear is the sound of my pride being swallowed) 19 outlets. Nineteen. Ten plus nine. The first rejection I received was from a big national parenting magazine, and I actually found it promising:

Sorry, but my top editor decided to pass on this essay. We have a lot of essays in inventory already, and while I thought this one was a nice change of pace, it didn’t work. Feel free to send along other ideas (and clips, if it’s for stories other than essays).

In addition to numerous rejections of the silent variety, as well as some of the kindly but generic sort, other positive responses I got included: 

I enjoyed reading your essay; it’s a thoughtful piece with nice flashes of humor. However, I must report that we’ve decided to give it a pass, as it is not quite as fleshed out as we prefer. I wish you the best of luck placing this piece elsewhere.

We’re going to pass this time around; we felt the writing was excellent, but we tend to lean toward humor that’s just a bit more offbeat. That said, we hope you’ll try us again in the future should one of your pieces lean more that way.

This experience provides many lessons about the freelance life, of course. Lessons like:

1. There are way more fabulous essays out there than there are fabulous paying slots, so expect rejection.

2. You should not allow inevitable rejection to turn you into a tragicomic walking pity party.

3. I need to take a course in “How to find more (ideally, paying) outlets.” Although, I am three for six so far, which I guess is not so bad.

4. Constructive feedback is hard to come by, so a good writing group or very honest and well-read friend can be priceless.

5. Perseverance pays off…sometimes.

6. I agree with this wholeheartedly: “Journalism is not narcissism” 

7. Perhaps most importantly: Unless you are as poetic as, say, Sarah Hepola, as witty as, say, David Sedaris, and/or have a story as amazing as, say, Dave Eggers, you will not make a name for yourself (much less a living) writing about your misadventures, so plan your career accordingly.

Lessons aside, every essay eventually deserves to have its day in print, so I’ll keep trying. What’s the point, otherwise? Who knows, maybe the twentieth time will be the charm!

The Story Behind the Story: Spirit Magazine

When it comes to pitching story ideas to national magazines, “freelance writer” is really just a fancy way of saying “cold caller.” I accept this fact as part of the job, and do not take it personally when an editor sends a cursory “Thanks, but no thanks” or just ignores my pitch altogether. I get it. They didn’t ask me to send an idea,  and mine is one of hundreds hopefully lofted into their inbox on any given and already-harried day.

It’s the near-misses that will break the heart. The ones that actually do get a, “Hm, interesting. Can you flesh out the idea and send it back?” It’s like winning the lottery, one of those emails…until the editor opts out in the end. It was almost the right idea, but not quite. Moreover, it was not quite right enough for the editor to massage it into something that IS the right idea. I get that, too, though. Again…hundreds of ideas, looming deadlines, hordes of talented writers.

Recently, though, I got lucky.

I read Media Bistro’s “How to Pitch” guide (I love Media Bistro) for Southwest Airlines’ Spirit magazine and emailed the editor interviewed in that article. I’d pitched Spirit before without success, and thought I’d see if a personal note might help my cause (or, more realistically, completely alienate her).

The editor very kindly sent me some extra insight into pitching the magazine, and eventually I pitched an idea I thought might work. While she didn’t think it fit exactly as it was, she suggested if I tweaked it just a little so it was less feel-good service, more practical business, it could work. She connected me with Spirit’s Associate Editor Noah Bunn, who then embarked with me on a trial-and-error process to get the focus just right. 

The result of that much-appreciated partnership, “Cash in on Culture” can be found this month in Southwest seat backs nationwide, and could be read by up to 3.4 million happy flyers. Woo Hoo!