“Parkdale Reno Nightmare” a cautionary tale in creative non-fiction

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In its June issue, Toronto Life ran a first-person essay about a family who bought and renovated a derelict house, detailing the many mistakes the couple made and the money they spent – $1.3 million! – to get their dream home.

The city promptly erupted. Toronto is in the midst of a housing crisis, and this story tapped a deep vein of resentment and frustration. Average-earning millennials have no hope of ever buying into Toronto’s overheated real estate market, not unless parents or generous benefactors have deep pockets. Families have no hope of moving beyond their starter homes. Young couples are basically confined to condos – if they start families, they’ll have trouble affording anything with more than two bedrooms, and Toronto isn’t like Europe: there aren’t many apartments or condos that are built for families.

When the piece appeared, people promptly piled on, eviscerating the writer and her husband on social media. They were callous gentrifiers. Hapless snobs. Overprivileged whiners. To make matters worse, a second magazine carried a story by the same author about how they snagged a classic Canadian cottage for a steal. Casually mentioned within the article was that the husband had suggested buying the property with the same rubber arm-twisting charm that had convinced the author to buy a Mexican property.

Suddenly a couple who had been described by Toronto Life as being “desperate,” “cash strapped” and “hemmed in by a hot market” turned out to have a property empire. (The Toronto Life story revealed a fourth property, a 900-square foot condo that the family lived in while they renovated.)

Although… the Toronto Life story had a certain charm to it. The author, Catherine Jheon, playfully described her husband obsessively interviewing contractors, only to hire a mostly toothless guy who pulled up on a 10-speed bicycle. She admitted he later drove a Bobcat through their foundation, causing their reno costs to sky-rocket and leaving them with little choice but to stick with him to sort it out.

But like I said, the backlash was immediate and severe.

So what to take away from this? Personal essays are the bread-and-butter of some non-fiction writers. But in the age of Facebook and Twitter and the concept of “going viral,” confessional essays can go wrong in a big, big way.

Almost a month after the Toronto Life piece appeared online, the author’s husband, Julian Humphreys, took to his personal webpage and penned a 10,400-word piece titled “How my family came to be the most hated family in Toronto (at least for 24 hours).” The piece was tone deaf – drawing its own backlash – and was taken down a day later. (I’ve linked to a cached version above.)

In it, he described working with Toronto Life editors, leaving the reader with the impression that the magazine had an agenda of its own.

For example: “A week or so later Malcolm (Johnston, a senior editor at Toronto Life) returned the draft (story) with notes. So covered in red ink was the script that my wife wept. She had heard from other writers that the Toronto Life editing process was more like a re-writing process, but her ego as a writer took a hit.  More detail, less cliché, was the gist of what he wanted, and much of the detail he wanted he had actively suggested.  ‘Rat trap,’ for instance, to describe our former home, and ‘half-dressed, fully-dazed,’ to describe one of the tenants, were just some of his contributions.  Although I could see the literary merit of these additions, a mean-spiritedness was entering into the article that was not in the original draft.”

This is my advice: be careful with your stories. Writers have a tendency to devalue their work; we tend to agree to write a piece for far less than our effort is worth, because we’ve fallen in love with the story we have to tell, and we feel it deserves to be told, whether we’re fairly compensated or not. We soar at the idea of having our names appear in the magazines and newspapers we’ve long admired, and so we go silent when editors put their stamp on our pieces. In this case, the framing of the story did not help. It misrepresented this couple – they were not “cash strapped.” They may have been house poor, but that’s not the same.

Also – and I am by no means the first person to say this and I won’t be the last – be careful with the people in your stories. The response from the author’s husband ( a reach back all the way to his grandmother’s life in 1939 as means of explaining who he is and what he’s really like) shows how unprepared he was for this story to hit newsstands. He didn’t understand the journalistic process and how much control one loses over their narrative when they turn it over to an editor. His response suggested that he’s a likeable guy, if only you’d get to know him. He’s not what you think. As a good friend said, he doesn’t feel entitled. But there’s only so much space for a story – if the lack of nuance is going to paint your partner as dunderheaded, impulsive and entitled, think twice. You do have to live with this person.

And here’s something that’s much trickier. When you’re baring your soul, try to find an outlet you understand and an editor you trust. Toronto Life has been on a roll lately, presenting stories that boil the blood of citizens of the city they claim to represent. They have a way of making their subjects look smug. When you’re pitching, don’t assume that you’re going to be the exception, that the publication will tone down their snark when presenting your story. (Humphreys talks about thinking that Johnson would look out for his wife’s best interests – a whole other issue for so many reasons.) What I’m saying is, go for a place that has the feel that matches what you’d like to present.

And trust your gut. If your spidey sense is tingling, listen to it. It’s not easy to pull a piece – it basically black lists you from the magazine. But would you want your name there in the future anyway?

(Photo courtesy of Pixabay)

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