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(Paddy Molloy for The Globe and Mail)
(Paddy Molloy for The Globe and Mail)

Life lessons from the back page Add to ...

Seagulls do not exist.

There are Sooty gulls and Belcher's gulls and Bonaparte's gulls but no Sea gulls.

I learned this from an essay I published in Facts & Arguments, the author a young girl who went birdwatching at Point Pelee, Ont., with her parents every year.

Thanks to Facts & Arguments, I learned something new every day for the eight-plus years I was its editor.

What I learned might be about (not Sea) gulls, or it might be a nugget of information gleaned from Michael Kesterton's Social Studies column - something that could dazzle an acquaintance, make me look like an obnoxious know-it-all or win me a bet in a bar.

Editing Lives Lived, I often learned from the great equalizer that is death about our shared humanity in grief, especially when a reader would call or send an e-mail to tell me about being moved by the story of a stranger they now felt they knew.

I might learn to stop feeling sorry for myself while reading an essay in the you-think-you've-got-problems vein, such as the piece by a woman who wrote about sitting through the coroner's inquest into her brother's death. Or I might learn from an essay that would make me cock my head and "Hmph" to myself when I considered its fresh perspective, such as the one about the couple who lived apart so they could keep their marriage together.

I remember the F&A editor job description specifying I would have to be prepared to publish essays with points of view that were different from my own. When I would find myself disturbed or riled by my first read of an essay (and inclined to reject it), I knew it was probably one I should present to F&A readers so they could decide.

I royally cheesed off my fair share of readers with some of my choices (or non-choice of their submissions). The way I edited an essay or a Lives Lived column could also make them cross. But none of my decisions were malicious; my mantra was always WWRW - what would readers want? Will this interest the F&A audience, engage them, provoke them to debate?

Read a selection of memorable essays chosen by readers.

Read former editors' favourites: Philip's picks, Constance's picks, Katherine's picks, Moira's picks and Lori's picks.

Readers never hesitated to let me know what they thought, the vast majority generous with their praise or articulate in their disagreement. But F&A was sometimes the target of readers' wrath; from that I learned how mean-spirited some people can be, particularly in an anonymous voice-mail message.

On the upside, some of my lessons came from submissions that made me laugh out loud, such as the one by the woman who pulled over to get something to eat while travelling with her young sons. They were inside what one son called a "friendly owl" restaurant before she realized it was a Hooters.

The humorous essays were always a particular gift. I learned early in my tenure as editor that people are much more analytical and articulate when they're unhappy, so I enjoyed the pieces that were funny because they were observationally off-centre.

One amazing phenomenon was receiving a bunch of essays on a similar topic all at the same time. This made me wonder whether ideas were like dandelion fluff that would get caught in the hair of many people as they floated across the country.

I learned about frustration when, several years in a row, I received an extraordinary Christmas-themed essay - on Christmas Eve. All I could do was ask the writer to resubmit the following year, but early in December so there would be time to commission an illustration to accompany it.

Sometimes, what I learned came from an illustration that would evoke a powerful emotion and spectacularly augment the words that were its inspiration.

There were days when reading the submissions seemed like climbing a mountain and never reaching the summit, but I would forget my crankiness when I found a gem.

I developed a system: I would read the first page and the last paragraph of each submission. Sometimes there would be 750 words of throat-clearing before the essay even started. And so I would send it back to the writer and say, "Start with your last paragraph and see where it goes."

After being editor for a few years (and being asked about it by readers), I thought there should be a book of F&A essays. I soon learned one reason why it had not been done earlier: It was a lot of work.

Facts & Arguments: Selected Essays from The Globe and Mail was published in 2002 by Penguin Canada. The payoff was the great response the book received. And one of my proudest professional moments was when it was selected for use as a text in an English course at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

Above all, the best thing about being F&A editor was getting to know those who wrote and submitted essays. Some became friends, but all who sent a piece along to F&A impressed me with their belief in their story.

So many were able to juxtapose old notions in a fresh way that amounted to the creation of a new idea. Not a map-the-human-genome new idea but a different way of viewing day-to-day life in Canada.

And from that I learned gratitude.

Moira Dann was editor of the Facts & Arguments page from 1999 to 2007. She lives in Victoria.

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