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Creative Nonfiction Prize

Linda Rosenbaum on finding moments of joy in sadness

There are five names on the shortlist for this year's CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize. Before we announce the winner, we want to introduce you to the finalists and their stories. 

Linda Rosenbaum talks about loving roses and hamburgers, the importance of educating people about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and what it's like to write about family.

Tell us about yourself.
I’m a mother, wife and friend—roles that clearly mean the world to me since they’re the first words that came to mind. I write, edit, cook, garden, dance and cycle. I love roses and a really great hamburger, particularly if accompanied by equally good fries. I cry easily, whether happy or sad, and wish I could get more sleep. I live on Toronto Island.

What do you usually write?  
I’m a curious person, so other than poetry and fiction which I do not write, just about anything is game. If something piques my interest, I’ll write about it. That covers a lot of territory. Professionally, I often write about health and medical issues.

Entries on my blog in the past year were, what some might say, all over the place. In one entry I revealed a secret to making a great chicken soup (parsnips). I gave a list of collective nouns for animals in another, (murder of crows, lamentation of swans, parliament of owls... ), and in another, challenged readers to write six word memoirs (“Not quite what I was planning.” “According to Facebook, we broke up.”). 

I also write about Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS), a condition my son has. Too many people are still not aware of the irreversible harm from drinking alcohol when pregnant. While Asperger’s Syndrome has made its way into the public’s radar, FAS has not, and it’s a shame, because FAS is preventable.
What made you write this story?
This piece is actually the epilogue of a memoir I have been writing, some of which has to do with the challenges of raising our son. I wanted to end the book with a positive feeling, which I hadn't yet done. So when I read about this competition, it encouraged me to write "Wolf Howling at Moon."
I hoped to show how those of us who live with sadness, particularly in regards to our children, must relish the moments of joy that come our way. They’re not always easy to find, but if we can shift our dreams and expectations, we may make it easier for ourselves.

Did you tell the people implicated in your story that you were writing it?
Yes, my family knows knows about this piece. My husband knew when he married me that I was a writer, and one day would likely turn him into subject matter, so he takes it all rather well. My daughter is a little less comfortable, but now accepts that I have been writing a memoir and can’t exactly leave her out. That said, I’m very careful what I say about her.  

Writing about my son, in this piece and the memoir, is a little more complicated because I talk about his disabilities and the struggles we have had raising him. If I didn't feel there was a greater good from telling our story, I would have had to stop. But I have nothing but love and compassion for Michael. I hope this overarching message comes through loud and clear when I write about him.

You mention three past events in your story: Michael’s arrival home, his birthday party, and his diagnosis. What was important about those particular events? 
These three events reflect a seismic shift in what it was like to be Michael’s parent. When we brought him home from the hospital, we were like all new parents—hopeful, optimistic and full of dreams. I thought a good way to convey these feelings was to describe the scene of our homecoming at the ferry docks. 

Five years later, I describe the birthday party we had for Michael with the many boys in our community who were born the same year as Michael. While the party was great fun, and all was well on the surface, clouds were setting in. My husband and I were seeing how different Michael was from the other boys he was playing with. Sure enough. With time, we watched these boys grow up and move on in their lives in ways Michael never has. 

One year later, we had the diagnosis. Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. His birthmother drank when pregnant with him. The diagnosis confirmed what we already knew—Michael was damaged. No easy fixes. The road ahead would continue to be rough, and there was no turning back. 

You describe three of Michael’s carvings. What do you think is so important about these images, for him, and for you?
Michael finds comfort and safety in nature and with animals, less so with people. So it’s not surprising that he chose to carve a wolf, a bass and a bear. Since he was young, Michael has dreamed of living on his own, self-sufficient, in the wilderness.  

Michael has heard wolves howling while on camping trips with us, and that very well might be his reference. When I asked Michael why he chose to carve a wolf howling at the moon, he didn't have an answer, he said, “I like wolves.” 

It’s very possible that I read more into “Wolf Howling at Moon” than Michael does. As a mother and writer, I am always trying to understand how Michael thinks and feels. A wolf is a strong metaphor in many cultures. Though they are actually social creatures who live in packs, there is a mythology about wolves as solo creatures. These lone wolves, like Michael, prefer to live alone and independent rather than in a group.  

How does it feel to be shortlisted for this prize? 
Nothing less than thrilling. It feels great to have my work recognized and share my story with a broader audience than I could otherwise,  

And how can I not feel love for the CBC and Canada Writes for honouring and celebrating the written word.


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