The writing of ‘The Inside Story’


by Jeanette Paul

When an autobiography’s subtitle tells you the author has been a priest, and its first few pages foreshadow alcoholism, forbidden sex and suicide, would it really surprise you if, a little further along between the bookcovers, you were to come across sermonising, sensationalism, or a numbing downer? From a broadcaster per se (one you scarcely knew in person), would you not suspect, a smidgen, that the page might turn soon into something of an ego trip?

THE INSIDE STORY takes few, if any, forays into the land of writing-sin temptations alluded to above. Because Neil McKenty is a man honest with himself, this courageous tell-all never strips him of his dignity. Nor do his revelations regarding others seek to stir up scandal The generous glimpse we get of Jesuit rites of passage, for instance, fascinates.

Skilfully crafted, The Inside Story speaks openly and even optimistically, of a life-long struggle with recurring bouts of depression. If I’d had a say, the book’s subtitle would not have been Journey of a former Jesuit priest and talk show host towards self-discovery. It would be instead In Praise of Depression.

It’s not just that “it took depression,” in Neil’s own words, “to get me to deal with fundamental fears/’ It was only after an episode of major clinical depression four years ago, he stated matter-of-factly. that “it occurred to me I might have something to say which might help other people.”

Help other people Neil has, according to rewarding feedback already received from readers. (Since publication in 1997, the book has appeared on local bestseller lists.) Even though its genre may be Memoir, or Autobiography, the importance of The Inside Story, to my mind, is more in the nature of Self-help, Some might say Spirituality.

And the questions we asked Neil at our WARM meeting February 11th bore testimony to that; many were posed with a seeking-personal-guidance slant. Not that our guest speaker didn’t do excellence in answer to queries more directly related to his topic, Writing Biography & Autobiography, too.

Neil pointed out that the trouble with most people who want to write is that they have nothing to say. As a university student, he knew he wanted to write, having gotten a taste of it already as a stringer for The Peterborough Examiner (under editor Robertson Davies), When he confided this desire to a wise Jesuit mentor, he was counselled: “then take something with content.”

This sage advice steered young Neil away from the usual writerly likes of English lit courses, and led to a History thesis which became the nub of his first book; a biography entitled Mitch Hepburn. (For those unfamiliar with Ontario history, Hepburn was a flamboyant 1930’s premier.) Neil McKenty later wrote one more biography (In the Stillness Dancing: The Journey of John Main) about the founder of a Montreal Christian meditation centre, today Unitas.

But now, in his seventies, when he finally did have something to say about himself. Neil’s problem suddenly became how to go about saying it- An elusive muse eventually vested upon him inspiration of the simplest sort: “just tell it like a story.”

It’s a good thing Neil possesses fine faculties for linear thinking and a marvellous memory, given that he never kept a journal. He just, as he says went with what was in my head – I figured it would be the most important.”

It’s also a plus that, as he confides with pride, “my wife is a very good critic,” since “I need reactions right away.” Never writing for more than four or five hours a day, he finished the first draft of his book “in two months flat”

And it didn’t hurt either that Neil doesn’t give up easily. Manuscript completed, he mailed a cover letter, a synopsis, and “a couple sample pages” to prominent Canadian publishers. Response varied from nil to No. He then mailed again, to publishers slightly less prominent. Ditto… 40 mailings all told.

Neil lauded the personal attention given him by the small publisher Shoreline, in nearby Ste-Anne-de-Bellevue. as well as the professionalism and speed with which his book was produced.

The drawback with a smaller press, he answered frankly when asked about publicity, is that they do not have the big bucks. “Anyone who wants to write a book today but who doesn’t want to promote themselves,” he said, ’’might as well forget it”

Not everyone has the same “public persona” promotional advantage that Neil does as CJAD radio’s former (and first) Exchange talk show host, and later, TV’s McKenty Live. But then again, it’s not everyone who could have made a capacity-crowd WARM meeting so memorable, (Guests from Canadian Authors and McGill ILR joined us also.)

’”Wasn’t Neil McKenty a great speaker?” penned one member in his notepad afterwards. “I thought he gave a wonderful talk.” With a quick nod, another member summed up her evening succinctly: “What a nice man!” All I can add to that is Amen. +

Originally published in Warm Times 1998

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: