The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Dancing with Facts

by Tricia Dower

Forty-two years after Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood reputedly birthed the genre, The Malahat Review is dipping its literary toes in creative non-fiction waters. Editor John Barton stopped by the Victoria School of Writing’s summer session to tell us that (and a few other things).* Other Canadian lit pubs have been in the pool for a while: Event, Grain, Room of One’s Own, The New Quarterly, Prairie Fire, The Shore and Prism (which calls it “literary nonfiction” and eschews the hyphen).

So what’s the creative part of this genre besides including dialogue and description, building suspense and so forth? Can you call it non-fiction if you’ve changed the names of people and places so you don’t get run out of town? Or if it’s essentially true but you’ve added a bit here and there to spice it up? Several of the VSW faculty unwittingly engaged in a small debate via their plenary lectures.

Brian Payton (not the football player) doesn’t like the term “non-fiction." You might as well say non-watercolour, or non-sculpture. And calling it “creative” is simply saying it’s well done. He does make a distinction, though, between writing based on fact and writing based on fiction, calling the latter “literature of narrative untruth.” On his list of recommended “truth” writers are Joan Didion, Peter Matthiessen, John McPhee, John Vaillant (The Golden Spruce), J. B. Mackinnon (Dead Man in Paradise) and Ryszard Kapuscinski (Shadow of the Sun). Brian claims everything in his latest book, Shadow of the Bear (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2006), is true. He gets prickly at the suggestion that creative means you can make up stuff. To do so violates the contract with the reader.

Lynne Van Luven says it’s okay to “re-imagine” real events. She’s associate professor of writing at UVic. She cites Under the Bridge by Rebecca Godfrey as an excellent example of re-creation based on research. Godfrey’s book tells of Reena Virk's horrific murder right here in Victoria the Good. Lynne has this to say about creative non-fiction in the introduction of her book Going Some Place (Coteau Books, 2000):

If creative non-fiction were a bird, it would surely be a magpie. Like the fractious, black-and-white bird with the iridescent feathers and raucous voice, creative non-fiction operates on audacity and curiosity. Grounded firmly in “real life,” it nevertheless swoops across the writing landscape, picking up the bright baubles of invention wherever it finds them. As long as the item glitters, the inventive magpie will appropriate it, to enhance its sallies into narrative. Yet, despite its flights of fancy, the magpie of creative non-fiction is a hardliner when it comes to actuality – it does not invent its stories, it simply tells them dramatically.

Harold Rhenisch, poet and memoir writer, says, “To hell with the facts. Tell the story.”

I came across the account of a speech on creative non-fiction given by Canadian journalist Peter C. Newman. He referred to the genre as a “new journalistic writing style with a creative twist” that is increasingly necessary to appeal to today’s overloaded prospective readers. “You have to give more than facts,” he said. “You have to entertain people ... tell them stories, convince them to spend their time with you…To do this, you have to make the facts dance ... endow them with feeling.” On the matter of whether creative non-fiction is factual or not, he said, “Truth is too big of a concept, but authenticity you can provide.”

Except for my weekly blog, you'll find me dancing with the narrative untruth.

* Barton’s Submission Tips:

  • Acceptance odds are higher for poets as The Malahat Review gets three times more short stories than poetry and they devote an equal number of pages in each issue to prose and poetry.
  • Send your submissions unbound — no staples (I knew that) and no paper clips either (I want mine back).
  • Keep your cover letter to a single page —they don’t care about your hobbies.
  • On your SASE, write the magazine’s return address as well as your own.
  • Feel free to submit elsewhere if you have not heard within nine months to a year!!!! (Exclamation points mine. John said they’re getting a little more accepting of simultaneous submissions. Just a little.)
Photos, top to bottom: John Barton, Brian Payton (credit rarevisionphoto), Lynne Van Luven (credit Melanie Siebert), Harold Rhenisch (credit Anassa Rhenisch)


Blogger Anne C. said...

You may have inspired me to become a poet.

Sat Aug 04, 06:58:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

I had the same thought, Anne, but my poetry sucks.

Sat Aug 04, 08:12:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

This is great. Love Joan Dideon. I too feel inspired. Thanks, Tricia.

Mon Aug 06, 04:40:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

Entertaining and educational as always! Thanks Tricia. My unstapled, unpaperclipped poems are on their way to Malahat and only Malahat.

Mon Aug 06, 07:53:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Tricia Dower said...

Thanks for reading, Tamara and Andrew. Get those poems in now, y'hear?

Tue Aug 07, 02:10:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Steve Gajadhar said...

Thanks for this Tricia, I love getting the view from the other side of the fence.

Tue Aug 07, 09:56:00 pm GMT-4  

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