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Creative Nonfiction

Attention is a finite resource: CNF reader Christopher Shulgan

As we prepare to unveil the shortlist for the 2013 Creative Nonfiction Competition, we're introducing the readers who read hundreds of your stories in search of the best. 

Voracious reader Christopher Shulgan believes it's important not to waste a single word. 

Tell us about yourself. Where do you live and what do you write? 
I live in Toronto and write everything.

What's your day job? 
Ghostwriter of books and columns for people who have more interesting lives than I do. Under my own byline I write a parenting column for the weekly Toronto magazine, The Grid, and have written two books, one of which, The Soviet Ambassador, was nominated for BC's National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction. 
What's your literary street cred? 
None particularly. Just, I've been a voracious reader since I learned how to do it. 

What are you working on now? 
For a client, I'm ghostwriting a book about Canadian politics that'll be out in 2014 with a major publisher. 

What do you like most about creative nonfiction? 
Ideally, it's a window into an unexpected world. 

When you’re reading hundreds of stories and trying to choose the most compelling ones, what are you looking for? 
A fresh voice telling a fresh story—one that created a setting, then recounted an event that introduced narrative tension that was in some way resolved on the story's final page.

What are some of the subjects/themes that people are writing about? 
One ongoing theme that kept emerging again and again through the hundreds of entries was the death of a loved one. 

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? 
Yes, absolutely it's changed my approach to my own writing. I'm now a lot less precious about my skill as a writer. Time and time again I found myself blown away by the excellence of the submissions. Evidently, writing skill is a lot more common than I previously thought. Another thing it taught me is how important it is for the story to MOVE. Every word is a unit of attention, and that attention is a finite resource. Don't waste it with needless exposition, analysis or description. Narrative economy is a beautiful and rare thing. So now in as few words as possible, I'm trying to introduce tension and then spend the rest of the story recounting the pell-mell rush toward the tension's resolution. 

Can you describe a couple of the entries that struck you as standouts?  
So many were standouts! The old chestnut about the contest judge having a tough time winnowing down the selections into a shortlist certainly applies here. A child recounting a father's slide into dementia was chilling but warm. Paralympic sailors' romance between each other, and with the sea. And a recollected recounting of a house fire that also works as a metaphor for the earlier upheaval of the parents' divorce was melancholy and honest. These were beautiful and well-crafted stories.


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