Malahat books reviewer and UVic Writing instructor Christin Geall interviews Jane Silcott, final judge for the 2015 Constance Rooke Creative Nonfiction Prize. Silcott lets readers in on the intricacies of creative nonfiction, the editing process, and the importance of finding one's voice in writing.
You teach, mentor, and edit, in addition to writing, and serve on the Canadian Creative Nonfiction Collective Society’s board of executives. How do you define creative nonfiction and do you have any advice for people new to the genre?
Oh, you started with a hard one. The name “creative nonfiction” engenders so many discussions — mainly about the word “creative” which is interpreted so often to mean “made up.” The “nonfiction” is meant to counteract that, but somehow people miss that fact. And that's the thing — it's about facts, and the word creative is meant to speak not to the facts, but to the way they're conveyed. Creative nonfiction is a big, messy genre, as big as fiction and poetry, with as many branches and sub genres and debates as any true and real thing. At heart, it's true stories, pieces of people’s lives and minds; it can be essays, it can be biography, history, travel, adventure, memoir and … It’s stories from the world that come alive through the skill of the storyteller. I like to think of people sitting around a campfire; everyone leaning in; the storyteller’s voice is weaving everyone together; she’s painting pictures in our heads so that we see the people in the stories. We hear their voices, we feel their joy or terror or pain, and the horrible thrill inside of that – maybe it’s our inner voyeur — is that little voice saying it’s all true. That’s the excitement of creative nonfiction. When it’s well done, with all the verve and dash of real things, it can give us, not just news of the world, but the ideas and images from one another's minds and hearts.
Advice. Ah, didn’t someone say never to give advice? And yet I’m a teacher, so it’s a hazard of the job. My advice is to read and to pay attention to the world around you and then to pay attention to yourself. What do you care about? What moves you? Write that. Write, as my friend Cathy Ostlere (author of the memoir Lost) recently said to me: “From the great deep heart of you.”
In your book Everything Rustles, you included a number of essays about the body. Did you ever fret over self-exposure? And how did you edit yourself to ensure your work moved beyond the personal to resonate with readers?
Yes, I fret. I stall. I fret again. I like to think it's a necessary part of the process of shaping a piece so it becomes an entity of its own — an essay with its own purpose and life. At the Creative Nonfiction Collective conference this spring, keynote speaker Alison Wearing gave a wonderful demonstration of that process. She described an artist making a mould of her body and then stepping out of it, adjusting it, smoothing out places, roughing up others. She held this imaginary shape at arm’s length and told us this mould was herself in the pieces she was writing, but a self that’s been shaped and crafted, so it’s from her, but it is not her anymore.
I think that expresses it beautifully. When I think of some of the more personal pieces I've written, especially the body one I think you're referring to — what freed me from fretting it to death was the knowledge that ultimately it wasn't about me. It was about women's health, and against that larger idea, my feelings of shame and doubt and fear were not important. That sounds harsh, I know, but what I mean is that they are common feelings. All women have them in that situation.
To answer your question about how I edited myself — I asked for help. I gave it to my husband and then to my mentor and then to writing friends. Having others read it helped me see the difference between what a reader needed to know and what I needed to write.
What nonfiction books or essays are currently on your desk? Any publications you have bookmarked on your computer? Who are your favourite essayists?
I’ve just finished reading The Boy by Betty Jane Hegerat. It's an amazing amalgam of forms. Hegerat uses fiction, creative nonfiction and a bit of fantasy to investigate the story of the last man hanged in Alberta. I find this incredibly exciting. It raises all kinds of questions for me about how I receive information, how a story inhabits me. Does it do so more fully in fiction or nonfiction? Do I need the connection with character to be drawn in fully? At first the fiction drew me emotionally and I found the investigation less compelling. Gradually I began to feel the tension in the narrator (Hegerat) as she was drawn deeper and deeper into this story, and the emotional component was there too, which is interesting to me — the different pacing and levels of tension and engagement in the two forms. The book wrestles with: how could this happen, what about this boy who was hanged? At the same time it takes us inside different parts of our minds, which is brilliant. That’s the great thing about good creative nonfiction — you can do whatever you want to do — you can write about dreams; you can fantasize; you can imagine; you can make things up — as long as you’re straightforward about it.
Favourite essayists — I love anyone who sees beyond the moment and inside the moment, who opens the world through craft and attention. In Canada, there’s Susan Olding, Lorri Neilsen Glenn, Luanne Armstrong, Fiona Tinwei Lam, Andreas Schroeder, Mark Kingwell, Theresa Kishkan, Madeleine Thien, Lynne van Luven, Lisa Martin-Demoor, Lawrence Hill, and many more. I know I’m missing people here, entire communities of people. There are so very many writers yet to read. Then there are the American classics: Annie Dillard, Joan Didion, E.B. White (I adore E.B. White). I also want to read more of Lia Purpura, Joy Castro, Sarah Manguso, Chris Arthur. The list, before even leaving this continent, is very very long.
In my opinion, too few personal essays focus on the quotidian or on ideas. The genre leans toward scenic memoirs and towards the recording of significant life events. Do you agree? Or am I being too hard on contemporary creative nonfiction?
What a wonderful word — quotidian. And yes, I love the everyday and agree I’d rather read pieces that are less about drama and more about ideas and reflection. That said, the other book I’m reading now is about the horrific events at Memorial hospital in New Orleans after Katrina. I swear my blood pressure went up as I was reading it, and I love that, being swept up by drama. It’s exciting. You get all roiled up and involved. The quotidian touches you in an entirely different way and requires another part of you to respond. It’s more about mind than emotion and maybe — depending on the story of course, and what you may need at that point in your reading life — it can be more satisfying to read pieces that slow down, look, listen, pay attention. The other book on my desk now and I think it will be there a long time, is called The Road to the Interior by Matsuo Basho. It's a translation by American poet Sam Hamill. Basho studied Zen and poetry for many many years; in essence he practised paying attention. It’s a beautiful book, challenging because it requires that involvement of mind. That's not to say that a story can't be a reflection or can't inspire one. It's all in the way it's told; in the artfulness of the writer — or in the quality of the listening. Again, it’s in going to the “great deep heart” of things and telling the stories from there.
One of your strengths as a writer is your voice, which is neither overly confessional nor aloof, but both familiar and intelligent. How important is voice in creative nonfiction? And now that you've found yours, what do you think of that voice?
Thank you. That's a lovely compliment. Voice is huge in creative nonfiction; to me, it's almost the whole point of it, but then I came of age in the 70s, when we were reading Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson and delighting in blowing the cover on the whole objective reporter myth. Not to say stories or the news should be delivered by questionably groomed men and women high on acid, but it is a treat to hear people speak in their natural voices. The inflections, the gaps, the rhythm and texture of the way people speak is as distinct as fingerprints or a whisper in the ear. It's intensely intimate, and isn't that what we want out of stories? To feel less alone?
Okay, to the second part — about what I think of my own voice. Well. That's harder to answer. I know I said I was sick of it a little while ago. I'd come to a point of trying too hard to write, and I really didn't know what I wanted to say, so everything I wrote felt like a parody of myself. I'll lean on Basho again, who said we need to write without being hampered by our own personality — and here's where it gets really interesting because if you're speaking with your own voice, you're probably not thinking of personality, you're thinking about what it is you want to say and how best to say it to your reader. You transcend yourself. (That's probably about as clear as the sound of one hand clapping.)
I once heard that a person should ‘write the book they want to read.’ What’s the book you’d write if you could? Are you writing that book now?
So many books jump into my mind with this question — February by Lisa Moore, The Curve of Time by M. Wylie Blanchet, Fishing with John by Edith Iglauer, but I’m not going to choose any of these. Instead — and this is a little crazy because I haven’t read it yet — I’m choosing Vivian Gornick’s recently published memoir, The Odd Woman and the City, which is described as vignettes from her walks through the city. So much of this appeals — "vignettes," for one — “odd” for another, and the brief description: “The author spends her time walking around and observing New York City, while ruminating on friendship, love, and feminism. Reading her book, you feel like you’re talking to the smartest, wittiest mentor in the world.” — Sarah Seltzer.
Isn’t that nice? Wouldn’t you like to be called the smartest, wittiest mentor in the world? Well, we’re talking about fantasies here. What excites me most is the idea that a book can be made of vignettes and rumination. The other thrill is that on reading the first chapter, I discover it’s also about irritation, which appeals enormously. I love books by women who are independent, who are odd, who are irritated. It’s so refreshing, like jumping outside of everything we’re supposed to be. To me that's as dramatic as reading a book about climbing K2. And now to further rationalize this choice I'm going to say that choosing a book I haven't read makes as much sense as thinking of a book I haven't yet written. Both are equal invitations to hope, wild dreams, the great stir of anticipation.
But to answer your question about the book I’m writing now, I’ll just say that it’s in progress. I’m feeling the beginnings of some understanding of what I’ve been writing for the past year, and that is exciting — but it’s a wisp of a feeling, so I don’t want to jinx it by talking about it. Instead, I offer you Gornick again (quoted from a review): “The street keeps moving, and you’ve got to love the movement. You’ve got to find the composition of the rhythm, lift the story from the motion. ... Civilization is breaking up? The city is deranged? ... Move faster. Find the story line more quickly.”
What’s your writing routine like? Do you have a certain time of day you work creatively? A writing partner or group you exchange work with? How many times might you come back to an essay before submitting it?
I like to get up early to write when the house is quiet and sometimes there’s a dream still haunting me, so I’m in a state between day and night. I find things interesting then. They can get interesting again sometimes very very late when I’m so tired I can barely speak; then when I lie down, an essay will start to spool out in my mind — which is frustrating because I just want to sleep! I also love to write on trains. We don’t have that option here much, though, but in Ontario where I go to visit family, I always take the train, and then I sit by the window and watch the blur of landscape, and a calm comes over me. All that sounds terribly romantic. It’s not most of the time. Most of the time, I sit in my office and stare at my screen. I also get together with a friend every week, and that’s productive. We sit in a coffee shop. I tend to write what’s around me, so my next book may be about the views of people streaming past on Main Street, which is a kind of people-scape, rather than landscape.
As far as producing an essay, that’s very slow. I probably come back to it dozens of times, maybe even a hundred. All that’s to do with getting past the surface narrative and myself. As I mentioned earlier, I’m reading Basho — his translator, Sam Hamill, writes: “From Saigyo [a Buddhist monk-poet 1118-1190], the poet [Basho] learned the importance of ‘being at one with nature,’ and the relative unimportance of mere personality.” I like to think that's why it takes me so long. "Being at one with nature” is about finding the interconnections, the underlying warp and weft of idea and feeling and subject; and the “unimportance of personality” is letting go of all the surface doubts and fears about making words public. Both sides of that are many-layered processes, all prey to interruptions, distractions, the cry of a neighbour's child, the call of a cup of tea.
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