Banff Centre who's-who: Katherine Ashenburg
We talk to writer Katherine Ashenburg, a faculty member of Banff Centre's Literary Journalism program, about the perils and payoffs of creative nonfiction.
Can you tell us about the Banff Centre's Literary Journalism program?
I have the great pleasure and privilege of "teaching" or editing the work of a lucky four writers; my colleague, Victor Dwyer, edits the other four, and Ian Brown is our enimence grise who oversees and supports us all. The four writers I work with have been selected through our application process to polish an essay of some 7,000 words. They have to have written a draft of the essay before they arrive in Banff in July and then we spend the month making it better and better. The writers usually go through several drafts more, including a workshop where the other seven writers and three editors (Victor, Ian and I) talk about the newest draft.
It is very collegial, and involves as many meetings, readings and drafts as the writer and I agree on. The other writers are tremendously encouraging and helpful, and they're all good writers and smart, so working with them is a pleasure. I suggest, cajole, request changes from big ones to small ones, ranging from new approaches, structures to details. The writer can resist me... up to a point! But the essay remains their essay. I also weigh in on Victor's writers, as does Ian.
What is it about creative nonfiction (or literary journalism) that compels you as a writer?
Because it is true. We have to use all the tricks of the trade of fiction — language, form, structure, metaphors, rhythm — but in addition to all that, we have to respect the truth. Much harder than writing fiction! But it is so satisfying when you have got something as right as you possibly can and yet it moves, it breathes, it pleases aesthetically as much as a good piece of fiction.
What are the biggest challenges of writing about real people, including the people in your life?
This is a hard one, where you have to draw the line very conscientiously every time you attempt this balancing act. You must respect normal people who don't want their intimate or even semi-intimate secrets necessarily spilled across the page. In my own memoirs, one in particular when I was writing about the fact that I hadn't known my father was Jewish until I was well into my 30s, I sent the draft to my two brothers and my two sisters. It was at least five years ago, and I haven't yet had a response from my two brothers. My sisters were a great help and gave me lots of memories. I think one brother thinks I was exaggerating what is palpably true; and the other didn't want new information about our father. In this case, I decided since neither objected definitely and I was clearly telling the truth, I went ahead and published.
Years later, my nephews found the story fascinating and not threatening, and that won over the more reluctant brother. But each time you write about other people, you have to search your conscience and a certain egotism that comes with being the writer, and decide what is the greater good. Sometimes that will involve saying things that will not be comfortable for the other — as long as you feel certain that it is worth it, and not for trivial or egotistic reasons.
Is there anyone or anything you wouldn't write about?
Lots! Mostly to do with other people. About myself, I don't have very sensitive issues of privacy and have written, for example, how much money I made on a book I wrote, in great detail, as a cautionary tale for book writers. But I wouldn't write about much that concerned my daughters, unless I had their full permission. The same goes for other innocent people, in general. I would always ask their permission and let them read it if it's personal.
How do you negotiate a balance between your truth as a writer, and the notion of a "whole truth"?
With lots of individual consideration and trying to strike the best possible balance, knowing that the writer's truth is as far as you can go but it is essential to read, think and expand your own knowledge and wisdom in the subject as best you can. Being a writer is conducting your education in public — one of the glories and one of the constant embarrassments of the writer.
What's your most essential writing tip to give to aspiring writers in this genre?
Try to write something every day, polishing, polishing, polishing, without making yourself so hyper-critical that you stop writing.
A writing residency to The Banff Centre was just added to the list of CBC Literary Prizes. Read more about it here.
Katherine Ashenburg is the prize-winning author of three non-fiction books, faculty editor for the Literary Journalism program at The Banff Centre, and has written hundreds of articles on subjects ranging from travel, to mourning customs, to architecture. Her latest book, The Dirt on Clean: An Unsanitized History, chronicles the West's ambivalent relationship with the washed and unwashed body. She's a regular contributor to The New York Times and writes a column on design and architecture for Toronto Life.