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Creative Nonfiction

The ability to shake us up: Lorri Neilsen Glenn

2013 CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize reader Lorri Neilsen Glenn talks about the capacity of nonfiction to "dance with reporting, philosophy, storytelling, and poetry."

Tell us about yourself. Where do you live and what do you write? 
I live in Nova Scotia and divide my time between the city and the country. I write creative nonfiction, poetry, and all manner of things in between.

What's your day job? 
I teach writing, ethnography, and arts-based research at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax. 

What's your literary street cred? 
Several essays (in anthologies) as well as a memoir about loss, Threading Light (Hagios, 2011); a best-selling anthology of prose and poetry about mothers of the 1950s, Untying the Apron (Guernica, 2013), and many other books. Four collections of poetry, including Lost Gospels (Brick Books, 2010); Former Halifax Poet Laureate (2005-2009); writer-in-residence in Canadian and international locations; juror, reader, long-time editor. Several awards. I teach prose and poetry writing (including memoir) locally and across the country. I'm also a mentor in the new MFA in Creative Nonfiction at University of King's College in Halifax. 
What are you working on now?
Personal essays. And research into the late 1800s and my Red River Métis/Cree
relatives, who, as it turns out, are fascinating characters. 
What do you like most about creative nonfiction? 
Its roominess. Its capacity to dance with reporting, philosophy, storytelling, and poetry; its possibilities for bringing the gritty here and now to the page, and, in doing so, asking questions about how to be in the world. How it calls on our imaginative powers to transport ourselves, recreate and live inside a moment or a place. Enliven us. Shake us up.

When you’re reading hundreds of stories and trying to choose the most compelling ones, what are you looking for? 
 The kind of writing that causes me to turn to someone and say, “You gotta read this.” I’m looking to be dropped into the scene right away: in medias res. Fresh, vivid language. Respect for the reader; writing that doesn’t pander or get on a soapbox. Wit, or at least sharp observation. Intelligence. Risk. Depth. Humility. It's old advice, but "show, don't tell" still applies. Or if the piece must tell, I want to feel a part of the discovery the writer feels, to learn something. And I love it when a writer plays with form. Tall order, right?

What are some of the subjects/themes that people are writing about? 
 A range—but frequently, the explosive, disruptive, pivotal moments in everyday lives. Themes that bring all writers to the page: loss, grief, thresholds and portals, being thrust into a new culture, faith, abandonment, abuse, travel, children, parenting, life-threatening and life-altering events. 

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? 
Being a reader reminded me again how important it is to let things steep, and to edit, edit, edit, which I try to do. You can always tell when a piece of writing has been tossed off, or isn’t ready yet. And you can always tell when the writing has been overworked, when it is too self-consciously writerly. It’s a fine line. Would I do anything differently if I submitted? I’d try to write the kind of work I love to read—something that has an impact, and lingers days afterward. Reading these pieces gave me great respect for what people live through, and write about. And immense admiration for the writing talent in this country. 

Can you describe a couple of the entries that struck you as standouts? 
One of the entries was about a long-haul flight and a seat companion who was a candy-snitcher. It was told with such gentle wit, I couldn't stop smiling. Another took me to the Arctic, where the writer swam underwater for eggs—beautifully written, with no romanticizing, and a healthy dose of Southern humility.


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