CBC Literary Prizes

How Brenda Damen wrote the story that won the 2020 CBC Short Story Prize

Brenda Damen discusses how she wrote Gibson.
Brenda Damen is the winner of the 2020 CBC Short Story Prize. (Submitted by Brenda Damen)

Calgary writer Brenda Damen is the winner of the 2020 CBC Short Story Prize for Gibson.

She will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts and a writing residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. Her work was published on CBC Books, you can read it here.

Damen discussed how she wrote her winning story with CBC Books.

A story that was hard to write

"Working on this story, I learned a lot about myself, in terms of what I was trying to say. What was the crux of my question? What did I want the answer to be?"

"I wanted to explore how a child in abusive circumstances could reclaim her identity and carry out an act of rebellion against her abuser. Whatever happens to her after that moment, she is going to start the slow journey toward reclaiming herself.

I had to get good and angry to write like that.

"Many children don't. They never reclaim themselves. I wanted to write an example of one who did.

"Getting those words onto the page was gutting and harrowing. I had to get good and angry to write like that."

An important message

"I would like readers to take away a sense of what it's like for kids who are abused. I would like them to see the peeling away of self, the crushing of the spirit and autonomy. That these kids aren't cherished and nurtured, they are instead used by the very person who is supposed to protect them.

I want readers to take away the feeling of elation when she breaks through and sees herself for the first time as beautiful and large.

"But most of all, I want readers to take away the feeling of elation when she breaks through and sees herself for the first time as beautiful and large. That Gibson bass guitar crashing down with the rockslide is a symbol that she knows her own worth. And the thunder resonating from every tunnel and cave is affirmation."

A 13-year journey

"I'm puttering about in the same manuscript I've been working on for 13 years. I have fun polishing up the words and moving scenes around. It's a giant jigsaw puzzle. There are so many possible configurations, the mathematical possibilities of putting the scenes in various orders are endless. I keep moving the scenes around to see what sparks the scene beside it, and how telling the story in one order as opposed to another order changes the way the reader would receive the information.

I have fun polishing up the words and moving scenes around. It's a giant jigsaw puzzle.

"I switch back and forth between writing long-hand and working on the computer. Writing longhand has been proven to activate more parts of the brain. I know for me that if I want to get to something I can't quite define, longhand is usually the way to dislodge it.

"I also keep paper and pens by the bed. It's a little invitation to the subconscious to go on working in my sleep. In the morning, if I've written anything down in the night, that's a gift from my deeper places."

Calgary writer Brenda Damen reads her story, which won the 2020 CBC Short Story Prize, Gibson. Warning: This story includes details of sexual assault readers may find disturbing. 15:08

Putting your work out there

"This has all been very surreal. I've followed the competition for years, never entering, but always excited to read the finalists. Entering was solely a personal declaration of courage. I've had something to say for years and I guess I've finally been able to get down deep enough into it.

Entering was solely a personal declaration of courage.

"It's very confirming as a writer. Even being called a writer is exhilarating. This is the height of everything for me. To be included under the CBC name, to be published on CBC Books, is truly amazing to me."

Brenda Damen's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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