As we prepare to unveil the shortlist for the 2013 Creative Nonfiction Competition, we're asking the readers what it's like to read hundreds of short stories in search of the best.
Christin Geall on the challenges of creative nonfiction and how, as a reader, she responds to diction and syntax before story.
Tell us about yourself. Where do you live and what do you write?
I’m from downtown Toronto, but I’ve spent most of my adult life in Oak Bay, a quaint corner of Victoria where I can grow salad year-round. I worked in journalism before moving to creative nonfiction, so in all I write, I try to stay loyal to the truth.
What's your day job?
I don’t have a regular day job, so in a way, I work all the time. I teach at The University of Victoria, write, lecture, edit, network, mother, and do political work in my community. I also pick up writing-related contracts when I can. Right now I’m developing creative nonfiction curriculum for the BC Ministry of Education.
What's your literary street cred?
What are you working on now?
My agent is currently shopping my first book, a memoir called The Motherlode. I’m not quite ready to commit to another book project, so I’m having fun with essays for now.
What do you like most about creative nonfiction?
I love the challenges of the genre—how you have to lean hard on yourself, tell your truth (or try to find it), and how you have the option, but not the imperative, to use fictional techniques to craft a compelling narrative. I love how creative nonfiction carries both lyricism and reportage, and the way an essay might flex and shape itself to the writer’s mind. I love the genre’s honesty, and self-doubt. Most of all, I love brambly personal essays, particularly ones where the writer breaks the fourth wall.
When you’re reading hundreds of stories and trying to choose the most compelling ones, what are you looking for?
I’m looking for the qualities I’d look for in a friend: intelligence, trustworthiness, humour, passion, and a developed sense of aesthetics, or style. I read for language initially, meaning I respond to diction and syntax before story.
What are some of the subjects/themes that people are writing about?
Memoir dominated, and many submissions involved recording the stories of the dead, dying, ill or infirm. I’d pull away from my desk feeling exhausted after reading such pieces, because too often writer wasn’t writing for the reader, but rather recording history. I enjoyed the essays about immigration and travel, particularly when the Canadian landscape exerted itself upon the lives of the characters.
Has being a reader changed anything about how you approach your own writing? Would you do anything different if you were to submit to the competition?
I was teaching an advanced nonfiction workshop when the submissions were rolling in, so I took a stack of fifty essays to my students and gave them each a few to read. I told them they had five minutes to decide whether any of their essays would make it to the next round of reading. My goal was to show them how little time we have as writers to hook a reader, and I have to say, the exercise worked; they vowed to never write a boring lede again.
Can you describe a couple of the entries that struck you as standouts?
Two stories stand out in my memory, and both of them exposed a thin slice of a life, using scenes instead of summary. The first, "The Last Summer," haunted me as it left so much up to my imagination. I felt the writer was being as honest as she could be, so I trusted her despite her omissions. The second, "The Women Here Have Never Heard of Curtains," charmed me with its wonderful characterization of Vancouver and a family navigating through crisis. Whoever wrote it—and I sense they’re young—should keep writing.