How the 'magic' of beekeeping inspired the essay that won the 2022 CBC Nonfiction Prize

B.C. writer Susan Cormier won $6,000, a writing residency and publication on CBC Books for her essay Advice to a New Beekeeper — now's your chance tour chance to win in 2023!

Susan Cormier won $6,000 and a writing residency — now's your chance tour chance to win in 2023!

A portrait of a woman with dark brown hair looking over her shoulder into the camera.
Susan Cormier is a Métis writer who works in print, performance and film. She lives in Langley, B.C. (Bryant Ross)

The 2023 CBC Nonfiction Prize is now open! You could win $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts, have the opportunity to attend a two-week writing residency at Artscape Gibraltar Point, a cultural hub on Toronto Island, and have your work published on CBC Books.

The prize is open until Feb. 28, 2023! Submit now for a chance to win!

To inspire you, check out the story behind last year's winning essay, Advice to a New Beekeeper by Susan Cormier, below.

Métis writer and beekeeper Susan Cormier won the 2022 CBC Nonfiction Prize for her essay Advice to a New Beekeeper

She received $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and will attend a writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.

Cormier wrote Advice to a New Beekeeper because she wanted people interested in beekeeping to be aware that honeybees require knowledgeable, dedicated and hands-on care. For Cormier, this essay is an attempt to convey some of the things that a beekeeper won't learn from books and videos.

LISTEN | Susan Cormier reads her winning essay

Susan Cormier is the winner of this year's CBC Nonfiction Prize. Here she is reading her winning essay, "Advice for a New Beekeeper," drawn from her own experience keeping bees.

She spoke to CBC Books about how she wrote her winning entry.

The seed of the essay

"It's come to manifest slowly over a good number of years. As a beekeeper, so many people have questions about beekeeping. In the past 10 or 20 years, there's been a huge insurgence in interest in beekeeping, due to both ecological awareness and social media.

"When I'm talking to people who are like, 'Wow, I love bees, I want to keep bees,' I'm trying to figure out how to both simultaneously discourage them and encourage them. That's the seed of this particular essay. One day I thought, 'I got to start writing all this down' and it turned into this massive piece."

Susan Cormier is wearing her beekeeping suit holding a frame of bees. (Submitted by Susan Cormier)

LISTEN: Susan Cormier discusses beekeeping on Radio West

The magic of beekeeping

"One thing that I find difficult to reconcile is that with so many people who are interested in beekeeping, they believe it's magical and beautiful and bees are these mysterious fairy creatures, which is entirely the wrong reason for getting into beekeeping.

"There are two types of magic in this world. There's ignorant magic and there's knowledgeable magic. Ignorant magic is when you don't understand something — like how a magic trick is done — and witnessing it brings you joy. A lot of people want to keep bees because they believe bees are beautiful and magical, and they want to have that in their lives. But when they bring that attitude into beekeeping, that results in disaster.

The right person to keep bees is someone who's interested in learning that magic.

"Then on the other side, there's what I call knowledgeable magic. When you have learned something and you understand it and you've put a lot of investment into it, a lot of your own efforts and energy and stress and you worked hard at it, then seeing it in action is really incredible.

"The right person to keep bees is someone who's interested in learning that magic, not someone who thinks bees are magical fairy creatures that you can sit back and be like, 'Whoa, they're so good for the ecology.' A lot of the conversations I have in my head when I'm working with the bees revolve around trying to summarize that."

The vulnerability of nonfiction

"I'm primarily a poet and short story writer. I think there's a lot of blur between genres, but the bulk of the writing that I've done in the past has been poetry and short stories.

"I've written nonfiction, but I find it very vulnerable. The thing about writing short stories or poetry is it's not clear all the time what is true, what is real and what is something that was created for the purposes of writing this piece. But writing a nonfiction essay, I can't pretend that the character in the essay is some fictional character. Any flaws, any faults and any mistakes are made by a real person.

"I had to set aside any concern about judgment and say, 'I'm just going to write what I'm going to write and people are going to like it or not.'"

LISTEN: Susan Cormier speaks about her winning essay

Susan Cormier's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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