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Banff Centre who's-who: Ian Brown

We talk to writer Ian Brown, chair of The Banff Centre's Literary Journalism program, about candour, confession and writing compelling creative nonfiction.
What do you teach at Banff, and what's your teaching method?
We try to use the gifts Banff has to offer — solitude, serenity, great beauty, a quiet place to write (your own studio in the woods), an absence of urban distractions, zero obligations (you don't even have to cook your meals) — to give our writers the chance to do what all good writing requires — which is, that the writer stop thinking about what he or she is supposed to be thinking about, or what others want them to think about, or what they think they ought to be thinking about — and concentrate on what is actually true, in their material and in their heads and in their bones. To help them get to that state of mind — the mind that moves very slowly and very quickly at the same time, to use J. D. Sallinger's phrase —- we have three editors on hand at all times, plus the companionship of seven other writers going through the same experience, should anyone want their companionship. Apart from that our only techniques are rewriting and rewriting and rewriting yet again, and a general adoption of the old motto of the alchemists of the middle ages:  patience, courage, and continuous regimen.

Other than that we teach people how to write a compelling nonfiction story, using classic techniques of fiction and nonfiction. There are essentially two kinds of information — the info you know you need to know, to live your life, and the information you didn't know you wanted to know, but which makes your life worth living. Ninety-five percent of the information passed along in journalism, online or anywhere else, is the first kind — the stuff you know you're supposed to know.  And ironically, because of the way the internet and the 24 hour news cycle works, it tends to be the same narrow, 5 percent of human experience, repeated again and again and again, that makes up that 95 percent of what you read.

At Banff, we try to remind writers to concentrate on the second kind of info, the kind you didn't know you wanted to know, but are thrilled to learn — the kind of information we read novels for, or that you find yourself full of after you put a book down and realize you just spent two days reading about the history of oranges, because the story was so beautifully told. That kind of information is drawn from the 95 percent of human experience that seldom gets written or blogged about. Most of the way we live is still undescribed. We try to present that as an opportunity for our writers. 

To put it another way: The organized world, especially the technological world, keeps trying to convince us that we are one, that we can share a collective mind, can live a collective life, if only we're all on Facebook or Twitter, or if we behave a certain way and observe set rules.  But that's a lie, and a political lie at that. Facebook and Twitter and other political "systems" operate more by isolating people than they do by uniting them. The more reliable (and subversive, and freeing) way to experience shared humanity is to read great stories — about the individual details of the lives of individuals. Not to sound too pretentious, but we spend a fair bit of time reminding writers of that fact, in various ways.

What is it about creative nonfiction (or literary journalism) that compels you as a writer?
I'm the kind of reporter and writer who needs to write about something before he knows what he actually thinks.  I loathe intellectual certainty — I can say that with certainty — and, in general, I deplore generalizations. I prefer non-theoretical specifics, and the slow accumulation of undeniable details, before I make up my mind about something. So I like to pay attention to things for as long as I can, and then describe what I saw. I find that the longer you hang around a subject, or a scene, the more layers and originality to takes on: you start to understand what's going on in ways you could never have predicted, and sometimes you can even describe it in what feels like a slightly fresh way. I like getting to that place, because it makes me feel new, makes me feel alive.  That probably sounds a little grand and seems rather a lot of pressure to put on the basic act of paying attention, which is what deep reporting is...but I'm afraid it's true. I guess this kind of writing lets you take it seriously, and I like taking things seriously. Plus it makes you see where your own thinking has become cliched. 

What are the biggest challenges of writing about the people in your life? (Or, in the case of nonpersonal literary journalism, what are the biggest challenges in writing about real life, and real people?) 
Writing about the people you love, or are close to, is tricky — it's very easy to expose them to unwanted attention from others, and very easy to unintentionally betray them. I remember once describing some games my mother played, on the radio...I called them absurd. I meant it as a joke, one she might appreciate.  She did not, and resented my imprecision all her life.  And so if you are going to write about people close to you, you have to be honest, and complete. You don't even have to tell the whole truth, but the truth you do tell has to be intact and thorough. If that makes any a sense at all. In any event it's a perilous business.

As for people you don't know:  if they agree to let you into their lives, you have to be fair.  You can be truthful, but you have to be fair.  But those are just my personal rules. Every writer has to come to terms with their subjects in their own way.

Where do you draw the line between the public and the private? Or do you draw a line?
This may not be an answer to the question, but I think there's a difference between confession and candour. Confession is not good — it's based on shame, on an apology, on a repudiation of the way you are in deference to another way you are supposed to be. In my experience, that makes for cliched stories. Candour, on the other hand — unapologetic and merely explanatory, unashamed candour —- doesn't come so freighted, and so is more acceptable to readers. And a little candour, well-managed on the page, goes a long way — it often makes readers think you're being more revealing, more daring, than you actually are.   

Is there anyone or anything you wouldn't write about? 
I wouldn't write about my daughter or my wife, not without asking their permission or without showing them the results — not in nonfiction, anyway. Plus, they are both way, way more articulate than I am, and can speak for themselves. On the other hand, I don't think I'd mind if they wrote about me, but perhaps I am fooling myself there. Famous last words.

But subject-wise, I would like to think if there is nothing I wouldn't write about. The more taboo it is, the more you need to write about it. If writers don't take on difficult subjects, they stay in the dark, where they fester — and that's never a good thing, as we all know. It can be scary, but scaring yourself that way can be very satisfying. I want to write a reported story about virgins — not the religious kind, just the ones who are virgins by circumstance. That promises to be a real minefield, and I'm slightly terrified of the prospect. But that means there might be some life to the story. 

Do you inform the person(s) in advance that you are writing about them? Do you feel you have to get their blessing before proceeding? 
Probably, unless they are dead.  How can you not?  Point of view — the internal point of view of the characters in the story — is one of the foundations of literary journalism. How can you "do" point of view if you haven't spoken to the person you're writing about? Or at least spent time with them? And how do you check the facts, at least as they see them? I'm not saying it can't be done, but it's tricky.

How do you negotiate a balance between your truth as a writer, and the notion of a "whole truth"? 
I don't make a distinction between them. I don't go for this notion of "the writer's truth," or the so-called "truth of memory," which is often invoked by memoirists who wish to excuse the fact that they want to make some stuff up, to cover a hole in the story. The truth — the actual truth, as opposed to what is supposed to be true, or what we want to be true — is hard enough to determine as it is, without complicating matters with vague notions of "the writer's truth."

What's your most essential writing tip to give to aspiring writers in this genre? 
I'm not sure any one tip is more essential than the others — and besides, if you want the really good stuff, you have to apply to the Banff Literary Journalism program. But I will give you my shortest tip, which is this: You can tell a complicated story in a simple way, or a simple story in a complicated way.  But you can't tell a simple story in a simple way, because it's not interesting, and you can't tell a complicated story in a complicated way, because it's too confusing. As a rule that is now begging to be broken, that's a pretty handy one.

A writing residency to The Banff Centre was just added to the list of CBC Literary Prizes. Read more about it here.

Ian Brown is an author and feature writer for The Globe and Mail, and his work has won many National Magazine and National Newspaper awards. He was the host of CBC Radio's Talking Books, and is the anchor of TVOntario's two documentary series, Human Edge and The View from Here. His newest book is The Boy in the Moon. Previous books include Freewheeling, which won the National Business Book Award, and Man Overboard. He lives and writes in Toronto.



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