‘Give yourself the opportunity to find out how well you write’

Photo of Nancy O'Rourke

Nancy O’Rourke was the winner of the 2018 CNFC creative nonfiction prize and will be one of the readers selecting the 2019 shortlist.

Below she offers insight into the power of the CNF genre and words of encouragement for those hoping to submit this year.

“The story need not be life shattering, or a grand tale, but it does need to remind the reader of something understood at a gut level.”

CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR WINNING PIECE AND WHAT YOU THINK MADE IT STAND OUT?

My piece focused on an ordinary event – a visit to a museum in a foreign country – and drew attention, primarily, to a single object as a means to highlight an atrocity of considerable magnitude. The story, “Descent into Darkness,” involved a visit to the genocide memorial, located in Kigali, Rwanda, which I visited with a group of young Rwandans in 2010. What stood out for me, with respect to both the genocide and the memorial, was the use of the machete as an implement of slaughter: more than 800,000 people brutally massacred within 100 days. But even more so, and underlying the piece, was the horror re-experienced by those accompanying me, young people who had survived the genocide as children.

Betsy Warland, the judge for the 2018 competition, stated that what stood out for her about the story was that it carried her on a journey to someplace new and little known. She said that the story accomplished this by taking a microscopic view of something, the machete, to reveal the macro-level impact it had on society.

WHAT MAKES A CREATIVE NONFICTION PIECE STAND OUT FROM THE CROWD, AND WHAT WILL YOU BE LOOKING FOR WHEN YOU READ THIS YEAR’S SUBMISSIONS?

What moves me with respect to creative nonfiction is how a simple truth, sometimes an ordinary or amusing event, can be told in such a way as to evoke a deep inner knowing, a shuddering of insight into the human psyche. The story need not be life shattering, or a grand tale, but it does need to remind the reader of something understood at a gut level.

The reader does not need to have direct experience of the narrative but the way the story is told should allow the reader to relate in a fundamental way. What I will be looking for is a strong voice, a story that pulls me in, begs to be read. A tale that beckons an emotional response and is relatable. I also admire narratives that utilize simple imagery, sensory details and metaphor to show that which may not be commonly recognized but when illustrated as such is well understood.

ARE THERE DIFFERENT CONSIDERATIONS WHEN SUBMITTING TO A CNF CONTEST VERSUS THOSE CENTRED AROUND OTHER GENRES?

Not that I’m aware of. As a new writer, creative nonfiction is the only genre I’ve undertaken to date. I would imagine the only difference is the “nonfiction” aspect. Writers must stick to the facts, tell their truth, but then not unlike fiction and poetry, the creative aspect is what will make the piece remarkable. The only thing I would encourage contestants to consider is how their story will stand out. Many stories can be told about the same topic, the same truth, but how the story unfolds, the surprises it brings, the twists and turns is what will make it extraordinary. Don’t simply write about “what happened.” As with poetry and fiction, make use of creative techniques.

IN ADDITION TO THE CNFC WIN, YOUR STORY “ARRIVING IN TOMBE” WAS A FINALIST FOR THE WOW WOMEN IN WRITING CONTEST. HOW HAVE THESE EXPERIENCES CONTRIBUTED TO YOUR LITERARY CAREER?

The recognition has given me a measure of confidence. Writing is such an isolating experience. Like most writers, I am driven to write. The story pulls me along, it insists on being told. But for the most part, there is very little feedback or acknowledgement with respect to being on track, or of having something of interest to offer. I often feel like I write in a vacuum, secluding myself for hours and sometimes days on end. Receiving recognition is a reminder that the decision to write was not entirely foolhardy.

As for how this acknowledgement has contributed to my career, time will tell. For me, these are still early days. What it has given me is additional motivation to continue writing. There is no turning back now.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE ONLINE WRITING CRAFT WEBSITE/RESOURCE?

There are so many, but I will mention the two I refer to most often. Medium is a valuable online writing website, as it offers everything from good literature to constructive writing instruction. Additionally, Medium is a website that allows authors to publish their own work – both previously published and unpublished, allowing for a wider audience. After my winning story with CNFC was published in carte blanche, I had it published on the Medium website.

The other website I often visit is Narrative. I love Narrative because it has so much to offer, in terms of good literature: fiction, poetry, nonfiction by new and upcoming authors as well as those long established. Aside from current issues, their archives are impressive, as are author interviews and stories of the week. Without fail the work is outstanding and provides excellent reading for a writer keen to learn.

WHAT PIECE OF ADVICE CAN YOU OFFER NEW AND EMERGING WRITERS WANTING TO ENTER THIS YEAR’S CONTEST?

Take the plunge. It is very good practice. I cannot tell you how many contests I’ve applied to, submitted my work. I think I made a friend of rejection, especially after I’d heard that Gertrude Stein submitted poems for 22 years before she ever had one accepted. That was an eye opener.

When I learned that my story had been long-listed (a first), I was pleasantly surprised and grateful. Finally, one of my stories had been recognized. When I was told the story had been short-listed, I was bewildered, over-the-moon happy and excited. At the CNFC conference, when it was announced I had won the contest, I was utterly shocked. The other two authors were more established than me and were already published. I was grateful simply to have my work considered among them. My advice is to give yourself
the opportunity to find out how well you write. Give yourself the chance to win.


A sociologist specializing in human rights, Nancy O’Rourke has extensive field experience, primarily in Africa. Now, as an emerging writer studying Creative Writing at the University of Toronto, she is writing a memoir that examines processes of forgiveness, focusing on a group of children she befriended in Rwanda in 1992, lost during the genocide, and found later in 2010.

Excerpts from past CNFC contest winners

2018 winner: “Descent into Darkness,” by Nancy O’Rourke

Machetes. The weapons of choice. Crude weapons, many of them with blades stained dark by the blood of victims. Machetes used viciously in the streets, in markets, schools, and churches. Machetes used to maim and slaughter men, women and children. Machetes used by farmers, shop owners, teachers, and priests. Machetes used to kill strangers, neighbours and sometimes family members.

*

I’d only been reunited with the children of Kimihurura for two weeks. Back in Rwanda on a United Nations contract, I was recognized one day by a man on the street. A man who remembered me from 18 years earlier as the white woman, the Muzungu, who played with children. Back then, I spent several months in the country visiting my then partner, who worked on a contract with the Rwanda Development Bank. With a love of children, but without any of my own, I was happy to join in with a group of neighbourhood kids, playing soccer in the afternoons, with a ball made up of wound-up plastic garbage bags. Those kids were something else. They strung up little lights around my heart.

Read more


2017 winner: “A Chaotic Jumble of Infinite Possibility,” by Joshua Levy

The bathroom was covered with graffiti.

For example:

The only things worth fighting for in this world are LOVE & FRIENDSHIP was written above the toilet. Immediately underneath: Wrong. You should never need to fight for love. And below, a third comment – this one in red: YOU are the fucking wrong one here, buddy. Love is a battlefield.

I washed my hands and checked my beard for signs of grey.

Outside, Toronto was only half awake. Fashionably dressed mannequins judged my plaid shirt and naturally faded blue jeans from behind glossy windows. In his car seat, a toddler pointed a gun at my head while we both patiently waited for the traffic lights to change colour.

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2016 winner: “Spectrum,” by Nicole Breit

RED

The wild strawberry flush across my chest, her cheeks. An illicit kiss in her basement suite.
Five years in, we start counting: two eggs bled away casually every month.
Then, six months of flirting, negotiations. Two hopeful women. A captivated man.
Cosmopolitans. Our red leather couch under mistletoe and holly berries. Jazzberry cartoon hearts radiate around all of us.
“Please don’t break our hearts,” I say.
“I won’t.” His scarlet cape promise. The last time we see him.
A year and a half later the rouged Costco employee, white hair rolled into a hairnet, hands out samples. Lights up, says “Such a beautiful baby!” and asks again, “But really, who’s the real mother?”
My girlfriend — the birth mother — looks down at her kid-size cup of tickle-me-pink sauce and says flatly, “This tastes terrible.”

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2015 winner: “Nana Technology,” by Kirsten Fogg

A faded picture of me and my little brother pops up whenever I turn on my phone. Here, encased magically in modern technology that my brother never knew, is the past that we were. It’s his third birthday, we’re sitting on top of the picnic table in striped bathing suits. I’m holding a patterned punching ball in my lap and his arms are reaching out, as if towards the future, but I know what he really wants is the chocolate cake mum’s carrying towards us.

Even today, I stare at the smart phone in my hand and marvel at its ability to link the past with the present, to take bits and pieces of me, my body and my voice, tear them apart, send them hurtling through the air and reconstruct them all on the other side of the world. In Skype milliseconds, I jump from Australia to Canada, from midnight to Manitoba morning, from today to yesterday, from my home office to Nana’s funeral. If only I could reconstruct my brother in the same way.

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2014 winner: “On Good Days,” by B.A. Markus

On good days I’m Gertrude Stein

On bad days I’m Mordecai Richler.

On good days it is the same sun that shone on Gertrude Stein that shines on me. On good days I fling open my shutters and shout, “Quelle belle journée!” and with my basket on my arm I wander as Alice B. Toklas did, from shop to shop in a delightful quartier.

In my delightful quartier I buy 200 grams of goat cheese from les Îles de la Madeleine. Artisanal cheese made from raw milk. Milk from goats who eat the grass that grows on the slopes of those northeastern shores. Grass cured by the Atlantic’s salty breezes. Cheese that tastes of the sea. This is what goes into my basket. On good days I hesitate between not one, not two, but four crusty white baguettes, all baked locally and according to the highest culinary standards. Just like on la rive gauche. Le pain, le pain, surtout le pain.

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Announcing the 2019 CNFC/Humber Literary Review Creative Nonfiction Contest

The Humber Literary Review and the Creative Nonfiction Collective Society (CNFC) have joined forces to bring you a Canada-wide creative nonfiction contest.

CONTEST CLOSES February 14, 2019 at MIDNIGHT EST.

Winners will be announced in June 2019 at the annual CNFC conference in Vancouver, BC. First prize includes payment of $750 and publication in The Humber Literary Review. 

WHAT: Original previously unpublished creative nonfiction – maximum word length 3,000 words (no minimum). Literary journalismmemoir, the personal or lyric essay—all are welcome.

WHO: The competition is open to Canadian citizens and permanent residents of Canada.

WHEN: The deadline is February 14, 2019 at midnight EST.

FEE: General public $20; CNFC members $15.

Members of the CNFC receive a discount on the entry fee. Find out how to join

HOW: Submissions accepted via our online submission form only. The contest will be judged blind so PLEASE don’t put your name or contact information on the actual submission. If you do not delete identifying information, your submission will be disqualified.

The judge will be Helen Humphreys, keynote speaker at the 2019 CNFC conference.

SUBMIT NOW

::

The Humber Literary Review, a literary and arts magazine, publishes two print issues a year (fall/winter & spring/summer). Its pages feature personal essays, short fiction, poetry, artwork, and comics by emerging and established Canadian artists. The HLR is distributed by Magazines Canada and can be found in bookstores and on newsstands across the country. Work from the HLR has been featured in Best Canadian PoetryBest Canadian Essays, and has been nominated for a National Magazine Award. Find out more.

The Creative Nonfiction Collective Society (CNFC) promotes innovation and excellence in Canadian creative nonfiction writing. It  provides its close to 300 members from across Canada with opportunities to enrich professional skills, including support in adapting to new publishing contexts. The CNFC advocates for the genre’s prominence and inclusion in Canada’s educational institutions, cultural agencies, and literary organizations. The 2019 CNFC conference is scheduled for June 14 to 16 in Vancouver at UBC’s Point Grey Campus. Find out more.

 

Looking for some inspiration? Check out these excerpts from past contest winners.

2019 CNFC Conference: June 14 to 16 in Vancouver

The 2019 CNFC conference is scheduled for June 14 to 16 in Vancouver at UBC’s Point Grey Campus.

We’re thrilled to announce this year’s program details. Registration will open by the end of February!

MASTER CLASSES:

Get Real: The Art of Writing with Humour

Can humour be taught? Join us as Dina Del Bucchia, host of Can’t Lit, Artistic Director of The Real Vancouver Writers’ Series, and UBC Creative Writing instructor, reveals how using humour allows us to write more honestly and with greater sharpness.

The Art of the Interview

Award-winning Vancouver Sun Journalist Denise Ryan shares how she prepares for the challenge of conducting and writing compelling interviews.

Compelling Science Writing

Alanna Mitchell, journalist, playwright, and author of Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis, discusses how she approaches complex scientific writing and presents her research in a way that makes them compelling and accessible.

*Plus one member-proposed master class

KEYNOTE ADDRESS: Helen Humphreys

Hear one of Canada’s most celebrated and beloved fiction writers talk about why she is moving her writing away from fiction towards hybrid and nonfiction forms of storytelling.

PANELS & WORKSHOPS:

Genre-bending: The Many Ways to Tell True Stories

We are delighted to present Helen Humphreys, Chelene Knight, Betsy Warland, and Renee Saklikar in conversation, as these four master writers discuss ways to blend genres and cross literary boundaries.

Writing My Story

Join Darrel McLeod, Cree from Territory Eight in Alberta and a former chief land claims negotiator for the federal government, as he tells the stories behind his recent Governor-General award-winning memoir, Mamaskatch.

Writing to Heal and Recover

Kara Stanley, author of Fallen: A Trauma, A Marriage and the Transformative Power of Music, and her musician husband Simon Paradis present a joint reading/musical performance, followed with discussion as they explore the connection between trauma, the power of writing and its ability to heal.

In My Head and Onto the Page: Writing About and Through Mental Illness

Join Judy Rebick, one of Canada’s best-known women’s rights advocates and author of Heroes in My Head, and Alicia Elliott, Tuscarora writer, recipient of the RBC Taylor Emerging Writer Prize for 2018, and author of A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, as they share their personal accounts of writing about mental illness.

Writing Our Journey of Reconciliation

Monique Gray Smith, of Cree, Lakota and Scottish ancestry, and author of Speaking Our Truth: A Journey of Reconciliation, reveals how education, awareness and understanding can lead to repairing and healing the fractured relationships caused by our past history. As one young person she interviewed said, “awareness creates healing.”

Writing Intimate Crime and Violence

Renee Saklikar, author of air india, un/authorized exhibits and interjections, and Carys Cragg, author of Dead Reckoning, How I Came to Meet the Man Who Murdered My Father, reveal what influenced their decisions to write about the violence and crime that directly impacted them and their families and the long-term effects they have had.

*Plus one member-proposed workshop or panel

MEMBERS’ CAFÉ:

Welcome to all members, new and returning. Enjoy the opportunity to take part in open mic readings for members and students.

IN CONVERSATION

Join celebrated writers Elizabeth Hay, author of All Things Consoled, and David Chariandy, author of I’ve Been Meaning to Tell You, A Letter to my Daughter, as they come together and talk candidly about the issues they confronted when writing intimately about family.

PERFORMANCE: Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis

Sea Sick is Alanna Mitchell’s critically-acclaimed and Dora-nominated theatre production about the state of the global ocean and the world. Come and experience this powerful story in which Mitchell uses science and her own delicate wit to tell us about her journey to the bottom of the ocean, the demons she discovered there, and her hope for the future. The performance will be followed by a talk-back session with Mitchell.

“So, I’m a science journalist and one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done was research a book on how we’re altering the chemistry of the global ocean. Sounds a bit dull, right? But it was a tale of grand adventure and marvellous discovery with a good dollop of humour, peopled with some of the most fascinating scientists in the world.” – Alanna Mitchell

PERFORMANCE: The Shoe Project

The Shoe Project is a writing and performance workshop where immigrant women tell the stories of their arrival in Canada – through a pair of shoes. They are coached by veteran Canadian writers and theatre professionals. Shoes accompany us on all our journeys. They say who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. Writing their shoe memoirs gives members a voice and helps them be heard in the Canadian mainstream.

Now in its sixth year, The Shoe Project was created by novelist Katherine Govier and incubated at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto.

“I have never imagined I could be standing in front of an audience sharing a personal story in English. The Shoe Project has been the most empowering experience in my life.” – Natalia, participant from Uruguay

Plus: Banquet, literary cabaret, announcement of the 2019 CNFC/Humber Literary Review writing contest, wrap-up party, and the CNFC annual general meeting.

‘Creative nonfiction is about looking at reality from an original angle’

Joshua Levy was the winner of the 2017 CNFC/carte blanche creative nonfiction prize and will be one of the readers selecting the 2018 shortlist.

Below he offers insight into the power of the CNF genre and words of encouragement for those hoping to submit this year.

‘I find the translation of reality into prose to be deeply satisfying’

CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR WINNING PIECE AND WHAT YOU THINK MADE IT STAND OUT?

My piece is about sitting in a park and reflecting on whether to stay broken-up with my girlfriend. On its surface, it has no plot, virtually no dialogue, and no movement (95% of the story takes place with the protagonist sitting mute and motionless on a bench). And yet, the short piece is packed full of everything under the sun: riots, extinction, Nazis, family history, etc.

I think what made the piece stand out is that the story takes the conventional writing maxim of “show, don’t tell” to the extreme. The protagonist actually spends the entire story doing everything but directly reflecting on whether to stay broken up with the girlfriend.

While he seems to be purposely avoiding addressing the central issue of this story, his subconscious is in overdrive attempting to glean insights and draw parallels between his present, past, and desired future. Because the story plays with these relationships in time, the very short piece feels more epic in scope than its humble plot would suggest. This is why I named it “A chaotic jumble of infinite possibility.” Even mundane moments are packed with spectacular possibilities.

WHAT MAKES A CREATIVE NONFICTION PIECE STAND OUT FROM THE CROWD, AND WHAT WILL YOU BE LOOKING FOR WHEN YOU READ THIS YEAR’S SUBMISSIONS?

Creative nonfiction is about looking at reality from an original angle. The topic is irrelevant; it’s how the story is told. I will be looking for stories that move me, plain and simple. I will also be looking for authors who fully understand what their story is ultimately about, and who make tough editorial choices to protect their truth from the distractions of superfluous facts.

ARE THERE DIFFERENT CONSIDERATIONS WHEN SUBMITTING TO A CNF CONTEST VERSUS THOSE CENTRED AROUND OTHER GENRES?

I don’t think so. Compared to fiction, creative nonfiction has the pesky added responsibility of not misrepresenting what actually happened. However, CNF gives ample cover for creative solutions.

Many creative nonfiction pieces can also be submitted to the fiction genre. In this sense, it doubles the opportunities for writers to submit their work.

IN ADDITION TO THE CNFC WIN, YOU WERE LONG-LISTED FOR THE CBC NONFICTION PRIZE. HOW HAVE THESE EXPERIENCES CONTRIBUTED TO YOUR LITERARY CAREER?

Until a couple of years ago, I wrote exclusively fiction, and I still employ many of the literary techniques of fiction writing to my nonfiction. The positive reaction to my creative nonfiction has made me realize that there are endless true stories waiting to be told. I find the translation of reality into prose to be deeply satisfying. It has opened up many doors for my literary career.

For example, I have recently written commissioned CNF pieces for literary journals, been asked to tell CNF stories on CBC Radio shows, and been invited to tell CNF stories at live events, festivals, and even for a museum.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE ONLINE WRITING CRAFT WEBSITE/RESOURCE?

I love the Paris Review “Art of Nonfiction/Fiction/Poetry” series. They have been conducting extended interviews with the best writers in the world since 1953. It’s a treasure trove.

I also really enjoy the New Yorker’s fiction podcast. Each episode has a famous writer reading another famous writer’s short story and then analyzing what they think makes that piece work so well. I wish that the podcast included nonfiction writers, too, but the mechanics of great writing transcend genre.

WHAT PIECE OF ADVICE CAN YOU OFFER NEW AND EMERGING WRITERS WANTING TO ENTER THIS YEAR’S CONTEST?

You won’t win any competition that you don’t enter. So, enter! Also, don’t be discouraged if you don’t win. My winning entry was rejected by other competitions and magazines before it won a grand prize. The final ingredient to success is, unfortunately, luck.

The solution? Keep submitting! Each time you submit your story somewhere, you’re increasing your chances of getting lucky. Your talent should eventually get noticed — but only if you’re willing to play the numbers game and absorb a pile of rejections. Stay strong.

Joshua Levy is a storyteller. He and his wife split their time between Montreal, Toronto, and Lisbon, Portugal.