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Creative Nonfiction Prize

Meet the readers: David Swick

We're introducing you to the 10 talented Canadian writers who helped narrow down the 2,300+ entries for the 2011-2012 CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize into the longlist.

Today, the Halifax writer and professor gives his take on what judging a literary competition has in common with... hitchhiking.

Tell us about yourself. Where do you live and what do you write?
I live in Halifax, and write magazine articles and opinion pieces I hope are both meaningful and an excellent read.

What's your day job?
I teach writing courses and journalism ethics in the journalism department of the University of King’s College.

What's your literary street cred? 
I have an MFA in creative nonfiction, am a member of the International Association for Literary Journalism Studies, and one of my magazine articles (a profile of Joan Didion) is part of Harvard’s Nieman Foundation’s narrative collection.

Why did you want to be a reader for the CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize? 
Judging writing competitions is fun! I hitchhiked a lot as a teenager, thrilled to never quite know who would show up next. Reading hundreds of writing submissions is like that. Every one who shows up has a new story to tell.

What do you like most about nonfiction?
Nonfiction can feature many of the best literary techniques found in fiction, plus it has this delicious quality: it’s real.

Where did you read the entries?
I mostly read sitting at the dining room table, from which I can see the sea. It’s a big table, and entries were spread all around, leaving just enough room for a teapot. 

When you're reading hundreds of stories and trying to choose the most exceptional ones, what are you looking for?
Tone, rhythm, and exacting word choice. A good story well told. Do I care about this story? Will others? 

Can you describe a couple of the stories that struck you as standouts? 
Is He Yours? is well structured, gentle, and funny, with just a bit of bite. A fresh perspective is patiently revealed, and so the reader begins to care - and wants to know what happens next.
Firstborn features a woman in a terrible situation, and we are allowed inside her most intimate thoughts. Like all great writing, it’s compelling. And the structure is unusual but effective.
What is it about a story that makes you put it in the YES pile?
In great writing the meaning and the sound of words complement one another, combine to create power. Every story with this quality made it past my first round.

Having read all these stories, do you have tips, any dos and don'ts for story writers?
In your first draft keep writing, without stopping to edit, without entertaining doubt. Keep adding words until you have a bad first draft. Later you can edit and revise and hack and add. Then do it again. And again. 

Also: when writing nonfiction, read great nonfiction. Read Martha Gellhorn and Ryszard Kapuscinski and Tracy Kidder. Reading great nonfiction will help you develop an ear for this kind of work.

What did you enjoy most about the experience? 
I was touched by the writers’ honesty. Canadians went deep inside themselves to tell stories with care, and the result was raw power. That takes courage.

David Swick is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax, where he teaches journalism ethics and writing courses. He has a Masters degree in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College in Baltimore. Swick’s journalism includes dozens of articles for magazines, IDEAS programs and documentaries for CBC Radio, four years as a weekly CBC Radio columnist, more than 1,800 newspaper columns, and one nonfiction book. 

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