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Banff Centre who's-who: Victor Dwyer

We talk to writer and Globe and Mail editor Victor Dwyer, a faculty member of Banff Centre's Literary Journalism program, about his approach to teaching (and editing) nonfiction — from Orwell and obliqueness to a pronounced lavender allergy.
What do you teach at Banff, and what's your teaching method? 

I'll be one of two faculty members working in the Literary Journalism program, along with chair Ian Brown. As I understand it, the program involves a fairly organic approach to working with (for the most part) fairly established writers as they develop a feature story, essay or memoir, with my colleagues and me (and the writers' fellow writers) giving feedback and suggestions as their work unfolds. In the past, as part of Ryerson University's continuing education program, I taught feature writing in a more traditional classroom setting, but there, too, I saw the process more as a give-and-take undertaking. I'm a believer that writing cannot be taught. It can only be learned, by looking for what you'd like to emulate in other writers you admire; being open to feedback from early, prepublishing readers of your work; and then, with those examples and that advice, forging your own unique voice to tell a story that is meaningful to you. 

What is it about creative nonfiction (or literary journalism) that compels you as a writer?
With fiction, the rule (though it's not unalterable) is that you show, not tell. One thing I like about creative nonfiction is that it allows you to tell all you know, too. And yet, unlike much of journalism, literary journalism - while based on research, experience and a solid grounding in the matter at hand — allows a writer's personal style to shine through: their voice and point of view, their selection of facts, their pacing, their forging of a narrative. All those things importantly inform how their story unfolds.  

What are the biggest challenges of writing about real people, about real life, and real people?) 
You don't want to descend to what one writer called "the familiar essay, that lavender-scented little old lady of literature" that once held sway and still occasionally comes gently knocking at the door, looking for its afternoon tea and bringing only sweets to the table. But at the same time, you don't want to snuff out the personal and replace it with nothing but the starched, the grey or the formal. 

I wrote a story for The Globe and Mail a couple of years back about a southern holiday I took with my partner and his father, just a few months after the death of my partner's mother. The point of the story was both to describe the trip itself for the Globe's travel section; and to nudge the notion of travel writing outward by exploring the feelings and emotions that accompanied our trip.

It was a story about our experiment in healing, knowing that the healing would involve experiences that would make us — and especially my father-in-law — that much sadder for the absence of the woman whose death prompted this geographical escape. I would be lying if I said I wasn't initially concerned about how I would tell the full story without getting maudlin. But when it came time to write, I found that approaching the piece obliquely, from an angle (or rather several angles) worked well: touching on my own feelings, on my memories of my mother-in-law as they were evoked by the trip, on comments my partner made during our voyage, and on quiet observations and guesswork about what my father-in-law was thinking and feeling. I think in the end it worked fairly well as a travel story, a meditation on the healing power of exploring new horizons, and a portrait of marriage and grief, without smelling of lavender. 

Where do you draw the line between the public and the private? Or do you draw a line? 
That's something you have to negotiate, explicitly or implicitly or both, with your subject. The Heart Does Break, a 2010 collection of essays in which Canadian writers described their grief at losing a parent, contained great examples of intensely personal profiles that also managed to convey deep respect for their subjects and often a real sense of humour about life's darker corners. I think the word respect is key — not in the sense of bowing down to the point of hagiography. Rather, if a subject is worth writing about, particularly if you know the subject, presumably an honest and forthright approach will evoke the subject's integrity, uniqueness, values and foibles in equal measure, without ever betraying genuine confidences or magnifying faults. 

It's important to remember that if an essay of this type is successful enough, it will likely begin life in a magazine and end up, finally, in a book. This isn't your Xeroxed Christmas letter — it's journalism, and so private insights and revelations may well become truly public. You have to be sure both you and your subject (if you know the subject personally) are okay with that. 

Of course, if the subject is a public personality, you have to be careful about all your facts, your slant, your story's balance. That doesn't mean you aim for a false objectivity but that you be fair, which in the case of some subjects does not necessarily mean flattering or that you keep away from their private life. Any profile of any subject — a politician, a celebrity, whoever — is going to be more insightful if you can convey aspects of their private life. 

It's up to you do determine where to draw lines: What will they tell you? What's on the public record? Who might you approach who knows more? You have to judge what degree of privacy a subject deserves (the mother of a recently killed soldier, probably more; a superstar celebrity milking the media for all the coverage he can get, not as much).

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?
It's pretty hard to write about someone without their knowing — but of course, if you know for a fact they won't speak to you, you don't have to give them a lot of extra heads-up that you're working on a piece about them. There are of course some subjects who don't want to talk to you, but won't go wildly out of their way (even if simply because it looks bad) to enforce silence from all those who know them. In that case, it can be good to let them know you're working on something, so they hear it from you first.

How do you negotiate a balance between your truth as a writer, and the notion of a "whole truth"? 
From the selection of your subjects, to your stated reason for profiling them, to the background research you deem relevant, to the questions you ask, the people in their orbit you approach, the lead paragraph you write, the anecdotes you omit, you are forever negotiating a balance between the truth you convey and the "whole truth." Otherwise, you would be merely a stenographer, and even then you'd be framing the questions whose answers you were dutifully writing down. 

George Orwell said that "one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane." That's probably true, but ultimately a goal, a beacon, rather than a fully realizable way of writing. As clear as you want your view to be, it's always refracted through and filtered by you, the writer. As Tolstoy said, "Truth, like gold, is to be obtained ... by washing away from it all that is not gold." A lot of writing inevitably involves raking, sifting, washing (of the windowpane, too, perhaps!).

What's your most essential writing tip to give to aspiring writers in this genre?
The trope that good writing involves rewriting is one that we all need to remember. That said, it's also important, as Roger Rosenblatt puts it in his writing-class memoir, Unless it Moves the Human Heart, you should learn to "recognize when you've done something effectively the first time, so as not to say it again, poorly." When it comes to personal journalism, there can be too much rewriting (and, I admit, too much editing). 

Another balancing act: that between cleaving to a logical, sound outline; and letting your story take you where it's going. You have a story to tell and you must tell it clearly. But it will also keeping trying to tell you how it wants to get where you're going. Listen up.

Victor Dwyer is a faculty editor for The Banff Centre’s Literary Journalism program; and an editor in the Arts section at The Globe and Mail, where he works with the newspaper’s reporters and critics in the fields of architecture, film, television, dance, theatre, music, and visual arts. Previously, he spent a decade at Maclean’s magazine as a reporter, writer, and editor, and is the winner of a National Magazine Award. He was also a regular columnist for Canadian Business magazine between 2002 and 2007.


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