In 2011, Anne Marie Todkill won our Constance Rooke Creative Nonfiction Prize with her story, "Hoarding" (issue #177, Winter 2011). "Hoarding" has since been nominated for a 2011 National Magazine Award in the Personal Journalism category. Our creative nonfiction board intern, Vanessa Annand catches up with her to talk about life post-win.
How has winning the 2011 Constance Rooke Creative Nonfiction Prize affected your writing? Do you scribble away with a new sense of affirmation, or do you still find yourself embarking on, as you've mentioned in a couple of interviews, numerous “false starts” when writing?
The prize was affirming, which certainly didn’t hurt, but I don’t think it’s had any effect on my method or confidence while I write. Perhaps it’s messed with my head, just a little, by sharpening my sense of unease about not getting more writing done.
What have you been up to since winning the prize — a strict regime of daily writing, or a permissive schedule where you write when the spirit moves you?
Well, I haven’t ascended to some authorial nirvana where daily, “protected” writing time is possible (wouldn’t that be nice?); wafting around with the spirit hasn’t been working out terribly well, either. There are too many things on my plate—work, family, other projects—that aren’t amenable to deferral or neglect. Lately, I’ve been doing more writing in my head than I have on paper. I’m in a slow process of letting go of some things so I can get back to various writing projects.
Your work in several different genres—including poetry—has garnered awards. You've even received the World Press Freedom Award from the National Press Club of Canada. Do you find yourself favouring a genre after you've been recognized for your work in it, or do you tend to move on to a genre where you feel you've more room to grow?
Thanks, but you’re making things sound grander than they really are. To answer your question, though, for me an originating idea doesn’t emerge separately from a genre, and so whatever form attracts me at a given moment is really just the shape in which an idea presents itself. It’s not like I think, “Hmm, now I’d like to write a short story/play/poem.” I’ve been thinking recently about a plan for a photo essay—not because I want to switch media, but because the idea requires that approach. But you do need to love the form you’re working in, to stay interested in a piece. I think I’ll always have an affinity for the essay form, as a writer and a reader. And for some reason I find that when I get stuck, it helps to move for a while to something else in a different form.
You wrote in an interview last year that “contest deadlines perform a kind of psychological service for writers who find it difficult to either finish or let go of a piece.” How do you know when that reluctance is justified (because the piece really does need more polishing) and when it is simply the result of inertia?
I think inertia is relatively easy to identify, at which point you can give yourself a stern talking-to (possibly to no effect). But sometimes when you think a piece is bad or unfinished, it’s because it is bad or unfinished. A contest deadline can give you some impetus, but it doesn’t change the truth. On the other hand, it’s possible to second-guess a work in progress to the point where it stalls really badly or falls apart. That’s when testing something out in a workshop or with an editor or some other reader can help. Last fall I took an albatross of a piece to the Piper’s Frith writers’ retreat in Newfoundland. I’d been worrying it like a dog with a bone for so long that I needed to ease up and ask other people, okay, what do you see on the page? What have I got here? It was a great retreat, by the way—a warm and wonderful group and a terrific place.
You've worked as an editor and reviewer of other writers’ work, and you've ruefully written that you find “little pleasure in book pages” because they “remind [you] of the many volumes that sit reproachfully on shelves at home, unread, partly read, read but in need of rereading.” How do you balance writing and submitting your own work with the need to expose yourself to others’ work?
I have no method. There are writers I want to read, and subjects I want to read about, and I dive in when mood, energy, and a window of uninterrupted time all coincide. The same goes for writing. Since I spend most of my work-day editing, reading can be problematic: it’s hard to stifle the editorial nag in one’s brain. That can get in the way of writing, too. So I tried a new tactic over the past year, which was to shift some of my work toward page design and layout. This seemed to help. After a big project I felt stale as an editor, but now I feel refreshed. And I can read again with pleasure, which is a relief.
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