What Would You Write About Other Than What's Driving You?:
Melissa Hiebert in Conversation with Barbara Stewart

Barbara StewartMalahat volunteer, Melissa Hiebert interviews our UVic 50th Anniversary Prize judge in the creative nonfiction category, Barbara Stewart, about her writing, what she's looking for in a winning entry, and her views on writing contests.

Can you describe what it was like to write your latest book, Campie, and some of the good moments and bad moments you experienced throughout the process?

I once heard someone who had just finished writing a book describe the process as “soul destroying.” I was aghast. It was like hearing a new parent call their baby “ugly.” After having written Campie, a memoir, I understand. At the outset of the manuscript’s acceptance by the publisher, I was ecstatic. And then one night I woke up in an epiphanic terror—my life is going to be public! But months later, when Campie was released, I did sense a strange and imminent freedom. Whether because I felt that I was walking away or towards the gallows, I’m still not sure.

Of the pieces you’ve written, which has been your favourite?

My favourite piece is a personal essay titled “The Arms of My Inheritance,” because it brought me to a deeper understanding of my relationship with my father. I think the first challenge in beginning any new work is to discover which literary form will support, not limit, or misdirect the creative writing process. The very personal question I had about my father could have been explored through a fictional character, or I could have taken a more journalistic approach to the arbitrary aspects of inheritance. Either of these would have installed an emotional buffer, however, in sparing myself, would I have found the answer to my question: why didn’t my father leave us all behind? The probing nature of the personal essay gave me the room to linger over an incident that revealed a surprising new question: what was I doing with all those guns and knives? I believe the essay worked so well because the form so suited the content.

If you had to describe the tone of your writing in one word to someone, what would it be?

I’d like that word to be “resonant.”

When writing a CNF piece, how do you decide what experiences to write about?

I’m likely to write about events with some emotional heat or heart attached to them. In Keep it Real, Lee Gutkind explains a wonderful duality common to creative nonfiction, where an “inward” private story often parallels an “outward” public story. So I try to consider how my personal experience is connected or relevant to greater community issues. That last sentence sounds weighted in favour of market approval, but yes, I also consider where the work might “find a home,” as is so kindly said on rejection slips.

What made you decide to eventually take creative writing at the University of Victoria?

From my early nervous forays into the writing department’s hallways and offices, to questions by phone and email, I was met with courtesy, patience, and good counsel. More than the stellar faculty or any serious research on my part, my decision to attend UVic was based on the kindness I found there.

Was there any one experience during your time as a student at UVic that stood out?

Early in the second year, there I was, uncertain that I could dredge up anything worth writing about. After handing in an assignment to Professor Tim Lilburn, I apologized for “always writing about myself.” He looked at me quite directly and said, “What else would you write about except what’s driving you?” His answer should be framed on the wall over my desk. It set me free.

What was the most important lesson you learned as a writer during your time at UVic?

Like most writers, I’ve got long bookmarked reading lists on my computer and towering shelves of How to Write books, all full of important lessons and exercises. But I found nothing equal to the shoulder-to-shoulder workshop experience, breaking prose around a table with my peers.

What are you looking for when judging CNF entries, and what makes an entry stand out from the others?

Beyond excellent handling of the craft’s mechanics, am I held by the story? And what is its staying power? Or does something cause me to doubt the writer’s intent and credibility? A CNF submission I read some years ago has stayed with me because mid-story the narrator claimed to have taken a direct flight between two northern cities. I was from the area named and knew that it could only have been a flight of imagination. For me, a CNF entry stands out when the storytelling devices of fiction are wielded in such a way that I am completely engaged by the truth of the genre’s form.

Have you entered many writing contests yourself, and what motivates you to enter them?

I’ve entered numerous writing contests. In the early years, I overlooked the rewards of participation itself, of writing and rewriting to a deadline. Eventually, I recognized the discipline of the goal, including the support of literary publications, and finally, after a shamefully long time, I could celebrate the success of other writers, especially those whose writing I knew and admired. Now, when my name does not appear on the list, after a brief sulk and a lot of chocolate, I go at the piece again, writing and rewriting. Nothing is for naught.

Do you like judging contests, and why did you decide to accept a judgeship for this contest?

A judgeship is an honour and I’m always enriched by the caliber and rich variety of submissions. I can hardly wait to start reading.

What cliché’d piece of advice for writers do you find is surprisingly useful (if any)?

Some clichés have a “best before date.” Original writing discovers which ones and when.

Melissa Hiebert

Melissa Hiebert

* * * * * * * *

Check out the guidelines for our University of Victoria 50th Anniversary Prize.