Books·How I Wrote It

How being lost at sea inspired Joanna Streetly's Wild Fierce Life

Joanna Streetly, who was longlisted for the 2015 CBC Nonfiction Prize, discusses how she wrote the essay collection Wild Fierce Life.
In Wild Fierce Life, Joanna Streetly paints the portrait of life on the Pacific Coast in a series of essays. (Caitlin Press)

In 2015, Joanna Streetly's short essay The Brightness and Darkness of Lucifer was longlisted for the CBC Nonfiction Prize. Encouraged by the recognition, she decided to immerse herself in the genre. Some of those essays now comprise Wild Fierce Life.

In her own words, Streetly takes us through the genesis of her essay collection Wild Fierce Life.

Writing with a purpose

"I heard about the CBC Literary Prizes on the radio — as I didn't have Wi-Fi at the time — and I was inspired by the call for entries because I like deadlines. I read some of the past winners' stories and was inspired: I knew I had this story, of being lost at sea, that was worth telling and I wouldn't have put it in a long essay format, but it made sense in a shorter form and the creative nonfiction category of the CBC Literary Prizes allowed for just that. So I wrote The Brightness and Darkness of Lucifer specifically for submitting to the Prize."

Exploring the genre

"At the time, I wasn't really writing nonfiction, I was more into fiction and haikus actually. I had experienced with creative nonfiction, but it was more like prose poems. There were these little voices in my head saying I shouldn't bore people by talking about myself. But when I started to focus on creative nonfiction more specifically, I began looking at my life stories and tried figuring out in what ways I could expand them. Writing in a less straightforward way was more satisfying. I had to learn how to see the tree and the seed at the same time. I had to identify the stories within me and decide if they were worth telling."

Finding inspiration in nature

"My biggest inspiration came from reading Gods of the Morning by Scottish writer John Lister Kay. His nature writing had a narrative arc in each chapter with tension or humour, but generally there was always something that needed to be resolved. Reading it opened the possibility for me to combine my observations of nature with stories that have some drama or tension to them. His book made me see the potential in my stories and I had now found a way to tell them. As for submitting to the CBC Nonfiction Prize, there was a story about a swan from one of the previous winners and, when I read it, something about that story sparked a parallel with my own story."

Fight-or-flight response

"The most difficult story to write was Flight Instinct. In fact, I almost pulled it from the collection many times. I hadn't told anyone that story before publishing this book. I essentially wrote it for myself in order to gain personal insight. In fact, I tried writing it about five or six different times, but I always felt removed from it. It took meditating for quite some time, asking myself essential questions about it for me to get closer to what I wanted to get at. The version that is published has things about myself that I was never able to find until last year. Things don't always come when you want them to."

Joanna Streetly's comments have been edited and condensed.