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CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize winners: Where do you draw the line?

Last year's first- and second-prize winning stories for the Creative Nonfiction Prize were both vivid stories about family members. We revisit a conversation Canada Writes had last year with writers Gina Leola Woolsey and Leslie Beckmann about how they decided to make their stories public.
*Editor's note: This interview took place in the spring of 2011, just as the winning stories for Creative Nonfiction were being announced and published.*

Gina, your piece, "My Best Friend," is about your turbulent relationship with your brother. Has he read it?

Gina Leola Woolsey: No, he hasn't read it. I did get to talk with him just before the awards were announced, and let him know that I'd written a story that was largely about him, and he was quite supportive. So I hope he reads it, but he said he wasn't ready. One of the reasons I think I wrote this piece is that I really wanted to reach out to him, and this was a way of doing it. So it was somewhere for me to put my feelings, and hopefully he will read it eventually, because I think it's a lovely picture of how much I care for him.

Leslie, same question for you about your piece, "Tortfeasor," which is about an abusive relationship that your mother left when you were about twelve. Has your mother read it?
Leslie Beckmann: She has. She didn't want to read it at first, and I said th it was really important for me to do so. So she worked herself up to being ready to read it, and then when she did, it wasn't as bad as she expected. She expected it to be very negative and blaming... I think in a way it was a relief for her to hear it. She carries a lot of guilt, and to have the feelings out in the open and be able to move beyond them was really good for us.

When both of you started writing these pieces, did you ever think you'd be submitting them for a prize, and that they'd eventually be published - and public?
GLW: Well, I'm trying to have a career as I writer, so everything I put down on paper, I'm considering it going out into the world. So yes, I wrote this piece with the intention that I would send it away.

Psychologically though, did you prepare yourself for the endgame? Did you think, am I ready for this story to be public?
GLW: I didn't think about it until I got the phone call that it had won, because I just assumed it wouldn't. It wasn't until I got the phone call that I thought, "Oh, wait a minute. What did I say in that story? Maybe I should start making some phone calls and preparing some people." But I feel pretty strongly that I did a good job of being fair in the piece.

Leslie, how about you? When you started writing your piece, did you think it could become published?
LB: I always knew I would submit it somewhere, but I had no expectation that it would do so well. So, like Gina, when I got the phone call I started making my own phone calls. In a way, I didn't want to retract it, because it was all true, and it was my story to tell. I just wanted to make sure the people I care about also knew that it was written with compassion.

I'd like to know about the writing process for both of you - was it painful to tell these stories?
GLW: It certainly was an emotional experience, and that's the way writing has to be for me. I always write from a very emotional place. And the reason I decided to write this piece is because I found a letter that my brother had written in the process of going through AA, and it moved me to tears.

Leslie, same question for you.
LB: It was emotional, but in some ways it was a relief. It was like an unburdening, like a great exhalation after holding my breath for a really long time.

As writers of nonfiction, and personal nonfiction at that, what do you think your responsibility is to those whom you write about?
LB: I think the biggest thing for me is to step out of a personal need, or a sense of anger towards someone else, and try to see it from their side before writing it from my side. And in that sense it's like a thinking process and a healing process for me, because I explore the whole issue and can come to some sort of peace with it. But in terms of an obligation, it's almost like the medical obligation of doing no harm.

And then there's the notion of ownership - ownership of someone's story. Leslie, do you feel that your mother owns the story in the same way that you do?
LB: Absolutely. I actually had an e-mail conversation with my current stepdad, who is wonderful, and he said, "Why did you write about this? It's very personal and very private." And I said, "Well, it's my story to tell." But equally it belongs to my mother, because she was part of it, and she has a different version of the story. The byproduct of writing this story is that I got to hear some of her version, which I think was good for both of us.

Gina, what's your feeling about the notion of ownership of the story, and your responsibility to those who you write about when they're real people?
GLW: That's a tough question, and I don't think I have a real clear answer for it. I waver quite a bit. But the significant thing is that I participated in this story. I was there. So as much as anyone has a right to ownership of their version of the story, of their truth, I have mine. I've read lots of great quotes from nonfiction writers talking about how they have no friends - everyone's afraid to hang out with them because they may end up on the page. I feel like the real issue is around truth, and what you feel about objective truth. I feel that the best I can do is tell my truth, and be as honest as I can, and not try to manipulate the reader or the people in the story in any way that isn't real. I couldn't say that the quotes are absolutely accurate, it's not journalistic integrity in the story. But when I'm writing about my family, I'm trying to do it from a place of respect, and an understanding that people are whole individuals with flaws and good qualities, as well.

Gina Leola Woolsey was the first-prize winner in the Creative Nonfiction category of the 2010 CBC Literary Awards. She is currently working on a memoir of her childhood years spent in a small Albertan town. Gina went back to her heartland birthplace last summer to reconnect with family at a reunion, and stayed unexpectedly for three months tracking the memories. Now Gina is back in Vancouver with her husband and teenage daughter, writing full-time.

Leslie Beckman was the second-prize winner in the same category. An environmental scientist by day, she moonlights in the world of writing. Her first novel, The Sum of All Evils, was published in March 2011; a short story, "Fingerling," has just been shortlisted for the Malahat Review's "Open Season" award for creative nonfiction; and she is busily plotting a young adult novel that must get done before her daughter turns into a true adult. Leslie lives, works, and plays in Vancouver with her daughter and their menagerie.

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