Writing is like telemarketing is like dating is like playing the lottery is like shooting a basketball from half-court is like a thousand sea-turtle hatchlings inching through the sand toward the water that will mean death for 999 of them and life for one.
As a writer, I am continually starting new essays. Most of them never make it from my notebook to my computer. Of those that do, most of them never make it to a second draft. Of those lucky survivors, most of them never make it to a third draft, and so on, unto an nth draft. Even of those few chosen drafts, most of them never get submitted for publication.
In fact, the word “essay” actually means “attempt.”
In late 2005 I had an idea for an essay. The essay would be about my rock guitar hero, Adrian Belew.
I wrote the piece. Its thesis was essentially that Adrian Belew is great.
True enough, but so what?
It has been said that you should write what you are passionate about. I am passionate about how great Adrian Belew is. Yet, the more that I worked on this essay, the more I realized that my passion was not, in this instance, translating into a publication-worthy essay.
Eventually I gave up on the piece and put it into the corner of my file cabinet reserved for these failures. Maybe these are what James Taylor was singing about when he sang, “Sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground.”
Some months later, I was teaching a class called “Writing the Personal Essay,” and we were discussing what a personal essay is—which is, I assure you, a more complicated question than it might first appear. At some point in the discussion I said something I’d never said or heard before—that a personal essay is two things: It’s personal, and it’s an essay. You take a topic, and then you put yourself in there.
I came home from class, went back to file-cabinet Siberia, pulled out the almost-forgotten essay about Adrian Belew, and began working on it again. This time I began writing about my own years playing guitar in high school and college; playing in terrible rock bands, hoping to one day become a professional musician. Truth is I was a much better pianist than guitarist, but still probably not good enough to ever make a living as a musician.
This process of transforming the feature piece into a personal essay took the thing further. After a few months of work, I was confident enough to mail it to a few magazines.
I heard nothing back.
Tip to aspiring writers: Most of the time when you submit something to a magazine, you don’t get a rejection—you just get nothing. You learn to live with this. You learn to send the thing off, assume you’ll never hear anything, and then go and get some lunch.
After living through a few months of this literary unrequited love, I sentenced the poor essay back to Siberia.
At some point a year or two later, a thought occurred to me: What was missing from this essay was the music itself. What this thing needed, wanted to be, was an audio essay with excerpts of Mr. Belew’s music.
His music is virtuosic and stunning and full of surprises and it would form a bulwark for my thesis. And then I realized that this needed to be a piece that would air on the radio. And though I had an established relationship with Chicago Public Radio and had done several essays for it, this essay needed to air on Cincinnati Public Radio—with whom I had zero connection—since Adrian Belew is from Cincinnati.
With this new idea, I rescued the essay from Siberia again, and began the process of listening to just about every song that exists by Adrian Belew and his bands King Crimson, The Bears, and songs by other artists whose recordings Adrian Belew had produced or been otherwise involved in.
I narrowed the field down to a few songs that I wanted to use for the radio-essay, and I wrote to Mr. Belew and to all of the bands in question. Over the course of a few months and more than a few e-mails, I secured permissions from all of the bands in question—including permission from Mr. Belew himself—to use the music in this radio-essay.
I then went onto the Cincinnati Public Radio website and mailed a random staff member my pitch. I heard nothing back, and a few weeks later sent the proposal to a second random staff member. I heard nothing back, and a few weeks later sent the proposal to a third random staff member . She replied instructing me to go ahead and send her the essay. I did. She liked it.
I contacted Chicago Public Radio and they generously agreed to produce the piecefor Cincinnati Public Radio.
Next week I have an appointment to go into the Chicago Public Radio studios and record the essay, and then we will produce the piece, which will consist of my reading of the essay punctuated with excerpts of tracks from Adrian Belew, The Bears, Jars of Clay, and King Crimson. And if all goes as planned, this six-minute radio-essay will air on Cincinnati Public Radio in December of 2009—four years after the piece was born in my notebook—in honor of the occasion of Adrian Belew’s 60th birthday.
This one might just make it.
And now I’m going to get some lunch.
Ranjit Souri lives in Chicago.