Arts·Year in Review

Sorry, Rory Gilmore: Writing personal non-fiction is not as easy as it looks

Writer Shawn Hitchins looks back on the insane process of writing his new book — which he's happy to say is finally complete.

Shawn Hitchins looks back on the insane process of writing his new book

(@shawnhitchins)

This is part of a series of personal essays in which CBC Arts asked Canadian artists to reflect back on the year that was. This essay is by entertainer and writer Shawn Hitchins.​

"I'm broke, busted, beggared," confesses Rory Gilmore in the latest Netflix installment of Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life. "I have no apartment, no car. Hell, my license expired three months ago!"

Writing a tell-all is the worst way of turning your luck around.

Then, Logan Huntzberger (Rory's wealthy and chiseled on-again-off-again sexual partner) offers her a key to an empty house in Maine with a gardener and a maid who will cook and clean while she pens her life story. 

"Take the key!" I screamed at the television. "Take the goddamn key, Rory!"

But no, the Yale graduate doesn't accept the key. Rory knows exactly where she will write her lit classic: in the Gilmore mansion. The words "just pour" out of her while sitting at the exotic wood desk (I'm guessing mahogany) of her deceased grandfather.

I watched this ridiculous storyline with a hot compress over my left eye after a capillary hemorrhaged and blood sandwiched across the white of my eye. The burst occurred while staring at my computer screen for 12 uninterrupted hours editing my upcoming book: A Brief History of Oversharing (ECW Press, fall 2017).

Entertainer and writer Shawn Hitchins. (Jen Squires)

For the last two years, I dreamed of someone offering me a key — a dedicated period of writing without distraction where food preparation was eliminated, laundry was folded and monthly bills were paid. But, this is a fantasy experienced by only the most privileged of Nancy Meyers characters.

The biggest impediment to my progress was daily life, as two years of nonstop adult reality prevented me from completing my book.

In June, I was about to blow through another deadline and was feeling a bit George R. Martin about it. My apartment lay in pieces after an amicable but devastating breakup, and if I didn't deliver a manuscript my publish date would be pushed (yet again). It was a critical moment, and that is when a friend recommended Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic as inspiration.

So. I purchased a copy of the bestseller, read the first chapter and realized, "I have no time for this bullshit. I have a book to finish."

Getting work made — creating a property that can be marketed and introduced commercially — is the greatest challenge faced by any Canadian artist.- Shawn Hitchins

I asked for one last extension from my compassionate (and awesome) editor. I cancelled gigs and parked projects. Without an income from performing, I panicked. I messaged a long-time friend from theatre school and asked her if there was a serving position open at the restaurant she worked at. The owner took a chance (or pity) on a crestfallen comedian and I rediscovered the service industry.

Serving tables provided a consistent source of income and afforded me forty hours of dedicated writing a week.

When an acquaintance eating at the restaurant asked, "Why are you serving tables? Aren't you famous?" I educated him.

"I'm getting my work made."

Getting work made — creating a property that can be marketed and introduced commercially — is the greatest challenge faced by any Canadian artist.

(@shawnhitchins)

Unlike Rory Gilmore, the words didn't pour out of me — it was an exorcism as I picked at old wounds and scraped at the paint of my childhood. I moved my desk to the end of my mattress, sitting on the floor, so it was the first thing I saw in the morning. I wrote nonstop all summer, hating everyone's cottage photos posted on Instagram. I wrote outside in parks during heat waves until the raccoons chased me back inside at night. I wrote through heartbreak as my ex moved on and I hid behind my computer. I wrote through a concussion after I became another Toronto cycling statistic.

But I achieved my mid-September deadline.

Six months later, my apartment is still in pieces and Big Magic sits unread on a bedside milk crate. My body is like an old car on the side of the road and my brain is like a cracked radiator needing coolant. Binge-watching Netflix is my way of decompressing, a way of mentally resetting. With the cover shot, marketing in place and one more month of editing ahead, I'm allowing myself to feel a sense of accomplishment.

In 2016, I finished a collection of personal essays. In 2017, I will focus on the next challenge: getting people to actually read it. Getting work seen once it's made is the second-greatest challenge faced by any Canadian artist. And with that hurdle in the distance, I turn on Netflix and find a new series to watch.

Shawn Hitchins is a Toronto-based entertainer and writer with 20 years of professional experience. His solo shows play to sold out audiences and garner rave reviews at various theater and comedy festivals, including The Edinburgh Festival Fringe. His book noted in this essay, A Brief History of Oversharing, will be released in the fall of 2017 through ECW Press.

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