Witnessing Both the Ugliness and the Beauty: Will Johnson in Conversation with Chris Donahoe

Chris Donahoe

Chris Donahoe's creative nonfiction story, "Test," appears in our Essential East Coast Writing issue, Fall 2012 #180.

Will Johnson recently graduated from UVic's creative writing program and is now finishing an MFA at UBC. His first major publication was "Sea to Sky," in The Fiddlehead. He now lives in Halifax, NS.


Your story "Test," (Fall, 2012, issue #180) is about your time working in Alberta’s oil industry right after graduating from high school. What drew you to this story?

In my class with Wayne Grady last year, we tried to look a little deeper at the stories we tell over and over throughout our lives. You know, the stories we tell over beers, or as ice-breakers, or to girls/guys we want to sleep with. These stories become our go-to material in certain situations when we want to impress someone or give them a sense of who we are. And, each time we tell a particular story, it becomes something more fixed and polished, something that comes to define who we think we are and where we think we came from. As a creative nonfiction writer, it’s interesting, and important, to step back sometimes and think about why we tell those stories when we do, and to try to uncover any patterns or bits that link them all. This process can be incredibly revealing and scary, depending on the content. The final event in my story is, quite literally, awesome, a thing that I think anybody would turn into a story to tell over a beer. It’s been bubbling inside me for a long time. But when I put it next to the other stories I tell, it takes on another life and I see that there were other things compelling me to tell and write this story other than the incredible nature of the event itself. The story’s about unexpectedly finding amazing, beautiful things when everything looks most wrong and ugly. That’s a trend for me, not only in my stories, but in my life in general. 

"Test," takes place more than ten years ago. Do you think that time has given you a different perspective on your experiences in the oil industry?

Jesus, it’s over fifteen years ago now. It’s hard to believe, really. This is a timely question for me because both my brother and my cousin have just recently gone out to work on the patch. From what I hear, it’s different now. There are strict drug and alcohol policies and there’s a lot more emphasis on workplace safety and respect, etc. But when I was there, guys were smoking crack on the block, at extremely dangerous sour gas well sites. And then, at shift-end, the usual fights, booze, blow, hookers, you name it. It was the fucking Wild West. You have to keep in mind that I was a kid, totally out of my element. I’d never been in a fight, I hadn’t even smoked weed at that stage. I was a skinny little wimp with a broken heart trying to make money to go to hiking in Nepal. I have many stories from this stage of my life, it was a very formative time for me in many ways. And now I’m older and seeing my young family members heading out west and it makes me wonder what sorts of experiences they’re going to have and how it will shape them. It almost feels like a rite of passage or something. It was a very difficult job, in many ways, and I’m fortunate to have been paid to do it and to have gotten some material from it, but it’s a thing I could never, ever return to.

You've worked a variety of random and unusual jobs over the years, and you've done a fair amount of travelling. I know you lived in Australia for a few years, you worked at a pig farm in Eastern Alberta and you've lived in a number of places across Canada. How do you think these experiences have shaped you as a writer and a person?

I’ve been very lucky. I’ve met the right people at the right times in my life and have had the chance to go on some pretty cool adventures, both job-wise and otherwise. Because I lived largely by the seat of my pants for over a decade, I’ve had to work pretty steadily and take some nutty jobs with some colourful characters. I think it’s important for everyone to take a dirty, mind-numbing, physically demanding job at least once in their lives. If you’ve never had tar all over your hands from roofing a house, or inhaled noxious fumes from some horrible industrial plastic-casting process, or felt the sting from walking in steel-shanked boots on cement floor for fourteen hours a day, then I think you’re missing something pretty fundamental. Though I feel myself gravitating to other lines of work as I get older, all of those jobs have given me something I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else. And the same can be said for travelling, for witnessing that terrible turning of the world. But I’ve come to see backpacking as a pretty selfish and hollow experience, which I address in my story “Busted” (EVENT, 40.3) (which you can read in full at the NMA website or here).

I feel like if you only take the shortcuts, you’ll find that you really haven’t come too far in the end. Doing hard, challenging things is what makes you fit, for the people, for the situations, for the shit, and hopefully, for the good things that come along. But I’ve been lucky. The resulting weird Tom Robbinsesque feeling of providence is something that definitely comes out when I write, it’s something I’m still trying to pin down as I practice, something I’m trying to keep in mind as I deal with the days, good and bad.

You won EVENT’s nonfiction contest last year for your story “Busted” which was also in the running for a National Magazine Award. And now your nonfiction is appearing in The Malahat Review and Grain and was shortlisted again for EVENT’s contest this year. Have you thought about branching out into fiction? And why do you prefer telling true stories?

Chris Donahoe

I’m trying to start writing fiction again. I have a stack of fiction stories lying around and I just submitted a fiction piece to the CBC awards, but I struggle with fiction. I struggle with the imaginative aspects of it because I struggle to place myself emotionally into the characters. With creative nonfiction, I can write stories as if I’m writing fiction. I can include all of the imaginative details because I was there, because I feel the beat of the story and know how it moves and ends. I don’t necessarily prefer it, CNF just feels easier to me. Fiction requires seeing a character and understanding how that character relates to you personally, knowing why that character has come out of you or is speaking to you. My fiction is often born from a moment of cleverness, some cute plot twist or contrived situation, it’s completely cerebral. I’m trying to figure out how to employ the obvious emotional connections I have with the narrator in my CNF stories to the characters I create in my fiction. I need to learn to see some part of myself in those characters in the same way that I see myself in my CNF narrators. Then I hope the imaginative elements will open up the same way they do when I write CNF. Although new CNF stories appear for me now and again, I feel like I’ve exhausted my memoirs for now, and so I need to move on to fiction and start working into it. I’m also kicking around two novels, but they’re getting pretty bruised.

You wrote "Test" while taking a nonfiction workshop at UBC last year. You told me some of the students were offended by the content and encouraged you to tweak your depiction of this experience and the men involved. How do you think this shaped your piece? Do you regret changing it?

The misogyny in earlier drafts was pretty awful, but accurate. A writer I really respect from the class had a very emotional reaction to it, understandably. It was suggested that I tone down the misogyny and make it clearer that the narrator did not agree with the attitudes of the other characters. I think switching out some of the misogyny for some other forms of ugliness actually made the piece stronger, but I really regret a couple of the lines outlining the narrator’s disgust with the other characters now that I see it in print. I needed to distance the narrator from the situations and characters in the story to make it clear that he was witnessing both the ugliness and the beauty in the end, but I took it too far and now his attitude comes across as condescending, the distance is above instead of across. I’m still happy with the piece as a whole, but I would cut a sentence or two in hindsight. Ah well.

This piece was published in The Malahat Review's Essential East Coast Writing issue. Do you consider yourself an East-Coast writer? How does living in the Maritimes influence your writing?

You know, it’s funny because I recently returned from living out-of-country for over three years, and now that I’ve returned, I’ve rekindled my love of Halifax and the Maritimes. I’m often stopped by something simple, something taken easily for granted, and I think about how cool this place is and how beautiful and how rich and ripe with history and culture and art. There are a lot of people here who know the value of things, of necessities, of other people, of the roof over their heads, because the Maritimes have a history of have and have-not. A place like this seeps into you after a while and I think it makes for good art, something to which Halifax is a testament. I’ve only really been writing seriously for about two years now, so I was away from home during my real writing birth. I haven’t written much about the east coast, but I’m seeing that change day by day as new writing comes out of me. I’ve been influenced by classic Maritime writers like Alden Nowlan and Hugh MacLennan, but I’m looking forward to getting better as young Maritime writers like Kris Bertin and Trevor Corkum put Halifax on the writing map.

You have a book-length manuscript of essays completed called “A Paper Boat.” What was it like to compile these stories together, and what more can you tell me about the project?

It’s basically a memoir. It’s about shooting yourself out from a cannon after losing love and learning nothing, and then doing it all over again. It’s about figuring things out slowly after making the rounds a few times. There’s heaps of travel, humour, and nature stuff in there, vehicles for dealing with the bigger issues surrounding loss and growth. It’s fascinating because, like I said before, the stories are interesting enough on their own, but when I arranged them into a collection with its own arc, strange things started to emerge, things I didn’t expect. Suddenly, clear trends rose to the surface and I saw my work and myself very differently. Like Leonard Cohen at the end of Ladies and Gentleman, Mr. Leonard Cohen, I was like, wow, that’s not how I saw myself at all. Anyway, it was fun to put together, but it’s just sort of a brick now, sitting inside my computer. Maybe one day I’ll throw it through a window.

Where can we read more of your work?

I have me a website. It’s got pictures and stuff. There are links to the blog where I post drafts and excerpts of stories and offer up my poetry and other tidbits. I think the pictures are nice. Especially the ones where I’m naked. badbutnotbroken.com

Will Johnson

Will Johnson

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You can read Chris Donahoe's creative nonfiction story, "Test" here.