Whistler’s 7th annual lit-fest, the Whistler Readers &
Writers Festival, is set to take place Sept. 12-13, 2008. With 15 different
seminars, sessions, workshops and readings available to select from, the
biggest challenge for aspiring, emerging, devoted or lapsed writers is choosing
which sessions to take. Streams on fiction writing, non-fiction and magazine
writing, as well as memoir and writing from life are programmed, with guest writers
including Wayne Grady, William Deverell, Nancy Warren, Shaena Lambert, Leslie
Anthony, Susan Reifer, Candas Jane Dorsey, Mel Hurtig and Rebecca Wood
Barrett. For more information, visit www.theviciouscircle.ca and download
the festival program. Tickets are available online at www.theviciouscircle.ca,
and start from $20.
This week, local writer and filmmaker Rebecca Wood Barrett
discusses creative nonfiction with author Wayne Grady.
Rebecca will be teaching a session on
Screenwriting at the Whistler Readers and Writers Festival.
A conversation with Wayne Grady
The truth about creative nonfiction
By Rebecca Wood Barrett
Author Wayne Grady and I have never met in person, but in a strange way — and one that’s indicative of our cyber-times — I think we know each other rather well. Last year Wayne was my online professor of non-fiction in the UBC low-residency MFA program. He read and critiqued my work, and encouraged me as I wrote and revised four highly personal essays, including one about my breasts — but that’s another story. He’s the author of 11 books of non-fiction, including Bringing Back the Dodo: Lessons in Natural and Unnatural History , and Tree: A Life Story , co-authored by David Suzuki. I can’t wait to meet him in person at the Whistler Readers and Writers Festival in September, and if you’re interested in creative writing, you should sign up for one of his workshops. It seemed only fitting that we meet for an interview by e-mail.
RWB: The term “Creative Nonfiction” sounds like a contradiction. How is the genre a hybrid between journalism and fiction?
WG: Creative nonfiction writers borrow techniques normally used by fiction writers; they use character development, scene setting, dialogue, experiment with point of view, and so on. Nonfiction writers tell stories just as fiction writers do, except that the stories they tell are "true," in the sense that the events in the story actually happened. Unless you are told in advance, it should be almost impossible to tell the difference between a nonfiction story and a fiction story.
RWB: If creative nonfiction uses techniques borrowed from fiction, how much license can an author take with “reconstructed”, rather than recorded conversations or events?
WG: With both fiction and creative nonfiction, the story is what is important. Story trumps material. While in creative nonfiction, we don't actually invent material, we do select, change the order of events, combine several conversations into a single conversation — whatever it takes to make the story work, short of making things up out of whole cloth.
RWB: I have a fear of writing about people I don’t know very well; I’m afraid I might insult them. Where’s the balance between self-censoring and revealing truth?
WG: There is no balance. A writer must never self-censor, and a writer must always strive toward revealing truth. In a sense, you should not write about people you don't know very well, any more than you should write about any subject you don't know very well — nuclear physics, or 18th-century art. Get to know your subject thoroughly, so that you are sure that what you are writing is the truth. Then I suspect the fear will vanish.
RWB: You’re writing a travel book with your wife Merilyn Simonds — did either of you have any ethical stumbling blocks writing about each other?
WG: Well, we are respectful of each other, in our work as in our lives. No writer should be offensive or hurtful; that is not the same as being honest, and it usually is not art. We sometimes make jokes at one another's expense, but we do that in real life, too.
RWB: Autobiography and memoir are two best-selling genres. Is there a difference between them?
WG: Yes, there is a big difference. Autobiography can be thought of as traditional nonfiction, whereas memoir is closer to creative nonfiction. Autobiography is usually the straight recitation of the facts of one's life: "I was born in a small town in northern Saskatchewan." In memoir, the writer is trying to understand something about his or her life, say, how being born in a small town in northern Saskatchewan has shaped his or her life. Also, an autobiography tends to be about a person's entire life, from birth to the present; a memoir can be a whole book about a certain period in one's life, or a certain person in one's life.
RWB: At the Whistler Writers’ Festival you’re teaching two workshops about memoir. I love how the titles — The Frying Pan and The Fire — allude to the passion and risk when writing about one’s own life. Who should take these workshops?
WG: I hope anyone interested in creative writing will benefit from our discussions and workshops: when you come right down to it, almost all creative writing has elements of memoir, even if what you're writing is technically fiction. We write what we know. Also, for anyone struggling with the difficulty of writing about other people, or real events that may be recalled differently by other people (that fear you mentioned earlier), I think our discussions will help them get past that stumbling block.
RWB: Would you like to add any final words?
WG: In any kind of writing, the quality of the writing is the most important element. We will be discussing story material, certainly — the building blocks that make a story — but we will also be working on improving the writing itself. This sounds like a tall order for a short workshop, but sometimes it only takes a bit of tweaking to make a story sing.
The Frying Pan and The Fire are just two of 15 events offered at the Whistler Readers and Writers Festival, Sept. 12-13. To register visit www.theviciouscircle.ca.