Mentoring is about equipping the student with their own compass, with the confidence to trust their own inner compass, to feel safe to play on the page, to discover things that they didn’t even necessarily realize they were setting out to explore. And to share that journey, ultimately, with readers as well, so that the student’s best work comes through and that each student’s journey to that best work is unique.
You’re listening to Parallel Careers, where writers who also teach share the big ideas and practical tips that they take into the classroom.
My name is Kim Pittaway. I’m a writing instructor, former magazine editor, author, and dog mom. I teach at the University of King’s College in Halifax in the creative nonfiction program. Currently, I’m the Executive Director of the program, but I’ve also been a mentor in the program as well. I was fortunate to come into the program at King’s after it had already been conceived and launched by Stephen Kimber and Don Sedgwick. And when they developed the program, they went into it explicitly wanting to weave in a heavy component of the business side of publishing because they identified that as, as a real gap in the MFA world. That students were coming out with writing skills, but they didn’t necessarily understand how the publishing world worked. So this program very explicitly weaves together both the craft of writing and the business side of publishing.
I’ve always been interested in that business piece of it. Because I worked as a freelance writer for so long myself, that understanding how publishing works, understanding how contracts work, understanding the business side of how all of those pieces—production, in the case of magazines, advertising, but in books, marketing, and, and all of those other aspects—come together. Understanding that equips you with the skills to make sure that your words have a better chance at finding their way into the hands of the readers that you want to reach. It also positions you to not be taken advantage of. I mean, that’s a really key piece in all of this. I know so many people who have signed contracts that they didn’t read, and nobody wants to read a contract. They’re designed to, to not be read <laugh>. But if you sign that contract without reading it, you’re opening yourself up to a whole level of problems later on down the road.
Contracts have expanded and shifted over the last two decades, in particular. The payment terms have shifted even in the last two years through the pandemic. We’ve seen advances get split, you know, from being in three pieces, to being in four pieces, to being in five pieces, to the point where they’re no longer advances anymore, they’re being paid two years after you delivered a manuscript in some cases. So we want students to understand how all of those things work so that they’re best positioned to ask the right questions. So they get to a place where their interests are best protected.
In 2020 and 2021, I had the privilege of working with Toufah Jallow on her memoir, Toufah: The Woman Who Inspired an African #MeToo Movement. Toufah and I met through a sort of odd series of someone-who-knew-someone-who-knew-someone. Toufah had met a Canadian embassy diplomat in Senegal, and at the end of their conversation, he had said, I would love to read a book about your story.
He happened to have a sister in Canada who is a journalist and a radio producer who knew me for my journalism work and knew that I was now working at King’s. And so I met with Toufah for the first time and we started talking, and two or three hours later, we finally both stopped talking <laugh> And, you know, during the course of that conversation, we started off just talking about what was involved in writing a book and what would be involved in working with a ghost writer and what she might want to consider. And I was just trying to give her sort of the lay of the land. As we talked, I was so struck by her, by her story, by the strength of her conviction. And I said, you know, you might want to work with an African writer. You might want to work with an African Canadian writer, and I would completely understand that. And I’m happy to, you know, try and provide some connections in that way. But if you’re interested, I would absolutely be interested in working with you to tell your story. And Toufah quite generously said that she felt that we’d, that we had a connection and that there was a sort of a common understanding there of what she was trying to get at. And so we decided to work together.
I had done a fair bit in my journalistic career of those kinds of “as told to stories,” right? So where you’re interviewing someone and then flipping it into their voice and writing it from their perspective. But I certainly never tackled anything like the length of a book-length manuscript as I was working with Toufah on.
First of all, we had dozens and dozens and dozens of hours of conversation. So there was a lot of me listening to Toufah’s voice and hearing sort of the rhythms of her language and of the way that she expressed herself and her ideas. So that was really important to sort of be immersed in her voice, to get her voice into my head. And then it was a matter of the back and forth of me reviewing the transcripts of those interviews and then shaping the story with that voice and some of those phrases from her and those details from her onto the page. And then working back and forth with her, where she would review the chapter and say, well, this might not be a word that I would use, or I don’t really understand, this doesn’t sound like me. And so we would do a little bit of that back and forth. It’s not just transcribing what she said, because none of us speak and write in the same way. So it was sort of making that leap from how she spoke to how she would speak on the page.
Excerpt from: Toufah: The Woman Who Inspired an African Me Too Movement
Toufah Jallow: It has been six years since I was declared the winner of a national pageant sponsored by my country’s president, promised a scholarship to study anywhere in the world as my prize. Instead, President Yahya Jammeh raped me. I became a victim in The Gambia, was a fugitive in Senegal and then a refugee in Canada. At nineteen, I started my life over, a survivor of rape, separated from my family, afraid I would never see them again, worried they would suffer if I told anyone what had happened to me.
Should I add “allegedly”?
As I rebuilt my life seven thousand kilometres away from the country I’d grown up in, I struggled. With depression. With my secret. With loneliness. And then the dictator whose crimes had forced me to flee was deposed and driven out of The Gambia himself. I was able to return, to reunite with my family and, eventually, to tell my story, first to human rights investigators, then to international media like the New York Times, the Guardian, the BBC and CBC, and my country’s Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC).
But people kept telling me I should always say “allegedly.”
The strange thing is people and institutions aren’t nearly as adamant that “allegedly” be attached as a qualifier when they speak of murders ordered by Jammeh, when they talk of torture carried out at his instruction…. This insistence on using “allegedly” when it comes to rape can’t be explained away as simply protecting the rights of those not convicted, because the word isn’t just attached to the person named as perpetrator; it is attached to the crime itself. “He allegedly raped her” morphs into “she was allegedly raped.”
As I was working with Toufah on the book, the narrative drive of her story was very clear. This awful thing happens, she has to escape, she has to rebuild and then she has this kind of resolution in the public accusation and that public holding of account of this criminal. So the narrative line was fairly straightforward. I knew from my conversations with Toufah, that there were some really important themes that she wanted to have come out in this book. The themes around being silenced and reclaiming her voice, the themes around living across two cultures, the themes around embracing the strength of her African feminism. That it wasn’t just, oh, I came to Canada and Western feminism saved me. That was very clearly not her experience. So she wanted to acknowledge the importance of her African feminism, particularly the importance of her mother and her grandmother’s experiences as feminists.
She wanted to talk about choosing to be a visible survivor. That phrase “visible survivor” was very important to her. But also to recognize and acknowledge that not everybody has the same ability to be safely visible.
So those were themes that formed that idea plot. What questions were we asking? What insights were we trying to drive towards on the idea front in the book? And so while that narrative plot was fairly straightforward, the idea plot was something that yes, we could drop in at different points, but it required also going back and weaving material through once the narrative structure was in place. So I really sort of felt like the narrative was a scaffolding. And then the idea plot was something that we went back and deepened and wove through in different ways, looking for opportunities where we could layer in contrast and contradiction, where we could layer in what were the decision points for different people, for Toufah, for her mother, for her grandmother’s decision points that built to those themes.
What were sort of moments of illumination? Were there words of wisdom from other people that could help to emphasize some of the idea piece of it? And then were there images, were there particular phrases, were there particular references that we could repeat through the book, building a series of notes or a chorus so that by the time you get to the end of the book, all of these pieces make sense together.
Interviewing people about traumatic experiences is challenging. It’s hard. It’s hard for the person being interviewed. It’s hard for the interviewer. It’s hard in the moment. It’s hard in the lead up. It’s hard in the aftermath. Like there’s, there’s, it’s all, it’s all tough. Couple of things that I’ve learned from many years of interviewing people in traumatic situations and in writing about my own traumas and challenges along the way, and then working with students and helping students to write about their own trauma and the trauma of others.
You can’t just jump in and start talking about the traumatic stuff first. You have to establish some kind of trust with the person that you’re interviewing. And so interviewing for this kind of project is always going to be a lengthier process than interviewing for something that doesn’t involve this kind of trauma. You need to build up that kind of trust. You need to give thought to where and how this interviewing’s going to take place.
Sometimes it can be easier to do some of this kind of interviewing over the phone, because then you’re very focused on voice and you’re creating a kind of bubble of intimacy around voice. And I don’t have to look you in the eye. You don’t have to look me in the eye. If you’re crying, you don’t have to worry that I’m seeing that you’re crying. If I’m tearing up, you don’t have to manage my emotions as the interviewer, all of that stuff.
And in terms of asking questions and gathering enough detail to convey something on the page, it’s a really delicate dance. And so I try to create space with literally leaving space for somebody to answer, not rushing in to fill the space too much. By asking fumbling inarticulate questions sometimes. By saying off the top, you control what you share here. You can tell me what you want to tell me. You can tell me to back off. You can tell me you don’t want to talk about this right now. All of that’s, all of those responses are okay. And as we’re working on this together—and this is something that I know that some of the journalists will cringe at—but for this kind of interviewing, I will say, you know what? We’re going to talk. And if you decide later that you’ve told me something you don’t want on the page, then we pull that out. And you’re going to get to see how this goes down on the page, and we’re going to work back and forth because I’m not doing gotcha journalism at this point.
I’m trying to convey the reality of someone’s most awful moments on the page. And I don’t want to do that in a way that re-traumatizes somebody. That punishes them for what they’ve gone through. So it is a very, very collaborative process.
So one of the exercises that I’ve found really useful for myself and also in working with students is a really simple one. And it’s simply an exercise in shifting perspective. It’s particularly helpful for people working on memoir, but I think it can be useful in any kind of nonfiction work. And the way it works is, as you come up against a piece or section of writing where you’re having difficulty, where you don’t seem to be able to get it down on the page. Where you have what might be an area where you have a factual gap, but more often it’s an area where you’ve got an emotional gap on the page.
You know, you’re trying to write about something that happened between you and someone else in your life. And it’s just not working because either you’re filled with anger, or you’re filled with hurt, or you’re filled with, you know, you don’t understand somebody else’s perspective on the page. And so for me, what has worked well is simply shifting perspectives. Not writing it from my point of view. Putting myself in the other person’s head and trying to write it from that person’s point of view. Now that doesn’t necessarily find its way directly onto the page, because I can’t inhabit somebody else’s point of view, but injecting myself into somebody else can open up a lens onto my actions and reactions that I might not see otherwise. And you can play with it. You don’t necessarily have to put yourself in the head of the other main character in the scene, but maybe you put yourself into the head of somebody else in the scene.
If it’s a scene that happens in a restaurant, maybe you put yourself into the head of the waiter. What did the waiter see? If it’s a scene that happened on a bus, what did the bus driver think or see? What did the person in the row behind you think or see? And that kind of perspective shifting can just shake you out of the rut that you’re in of trying to keep running at this wall in the same way over and over again. In the case of a piece that is non-memoir driven, where you’re running up against, you know, sort of a blank on the page, the same sort of thing can be helpful in searching out others who either bring insight to that scene or who were at that scene, but who may not have been the key players. There’s a fantastic Jimmy Breslin piece from 1963 from when John Kennedy was killed.
And it’s a newspaper column about the grave digger, the guy who dug John Kennedy’s grave. And it’s always stood out to me as one of those great pieces of searching for the unexpected point of view.
Excerpt from “After”
They’d spent the evening roaming from bar to bar to hear his musician friends play. His wife, her friend, was there too. First here, then there, then a short stumble down the road to the next place. She made him laugh with risqué lines about how the waitress was coming on to him. His musician friends laughed too. “Hey, can you fit these beers in your bag? We don’t have any at home,” he said, as they got ready to leave the bar. And she did, the scent of foamy hops filling the car as they all headed back to his house, where they downed the now-warm beer and laughed until past 3 a.m. She crawled into his daughter’s bed, the girl away for the weekend.
She woke to see him sitting on the side of her bed, his hand stroking her leg and inching toward her crotch. She was groggy, still drunk. “She’s just across the hall,” she said quietly, referring to his wife, her friend. “We can’t,” she murmured. He shrugged and went away. At dawn she called a cab, counting the change in her wallet and hoping she’d have enough to get home. Halfway there, she made the driver stop. She was mortified to be that girl, the one with her head hanging out a cab door vomiting into the gutter, the one that married men propositioned. She didn’t have enough money for a tip.
After, she was embarrassed because she must have done something to encourage him. She never told his wife. After, she smiled and made jokes with him. She was friendly to him on the phone. She couldn’t meet his eyes when he stared at her.
I wrote the essay “After,” in about an hour and a half <laugh> in sort of a flush of fury and despair and connection at the time that the Jian Ghomeshi trial was happening. And it was at that moment where there was a lot of chatter about how some of Ghomeshi’s accusers had behaved in the aftermath of what they said had happened. And this was before “Me too,” so we’d had less conversation about, about the complexities of response to sexualized violence. But there was a lot of disbelief that someone might experience sexualized violence, and then still talk to the person that did that to them. And there was all of this conversation about, well, well, what did she do after? What did she do after? Well, she did this after, and I felt the top of my head wanting to blow off <laugh> over that part of the conversation. Because I knew from my own experience and I knew from the experiences of so many women around me, so many of us have been in situations where we’ve been victimized and where we have had to still play nice. Because there are other relationships at stake. There are jobs at stake. These things don’t happen in isolation.
And so I sort of put this essay down in sort of a hot drive of writing on the page. And every one of the incidents on the page is something that has happened to me or to somebody I know. And so I went back to all of the women whose experiences I had put down on the page and said, I’m writing this thing. I’d like to include your experience. Do I have your permission to do that? And then the piece culminates in the experience of one of the women who was one of Ghomeshi’s accusers, and that experience I drew from the news reports. I didn’t know her personally. And I realized now sort of upon reflection, she was the only person I didn’t connect with to say, may I use your experience on the page? And that’s something I regret. But in that moment, that was public knowledge. And I was writing what felt like a defense of her, a defense of her on the page.
It’s essential when we’re writing non-fiction for it to be non-fiction. For it to be truth on the page. There can be a tension between being truthful on the page and wanting to provoke, evoke an emotional truth. My experience has always been that fucking with the facts fucks with the emotion <laugh>. And so sometimes it’s because you think that fudging the facts will get you to the truth faster, or will get you to the emotion faster. But often what it gets you to is a surface emotion. False facts get you to false emotion. So sticking with the facts, trying to work your way on the page with the messiness that is human experience brings more nuance to that emotional truth that you’re trying to get at. And that emotional truth can be more conflicted. It usually is more conflicted. It is more complicated. It is messier, but it’s truer <laugh> and finding your way to that is so much more rewarding. It rings in your reader’s guts, to mix a metaphor, but it rings with more power. It stays longer. It resonates in a way that kind of surfacey, false emotional shot doesn’t ring.
Claire Tacon: You’ve been listening to Parallel Careers, which is produced by myself, Claire Tacon in partnership with The New Quarterly literary magazine. Erin MacIndoe-Sproule is our Technical Producer and Story Editor. Financial and in-kind support was provided by the The Region of Waterloo Arts Fund, St. Jerome’s University and the Government of Canada. The music you heard on this episode was composed by Amadeo Ventura. You can hear more of his music at amadeoventura.weebly.com
Visit tnq.ca/parallel for more information on Kim’s work, including the book Toufah: The Woman Who Inspired an African #MeToo Movement. There, you can also listen to outtakes from this episode and check out more teaching and writing tips. Thanks for listening.
In this episode, Kim Pittaway shares strategies for writing non-fiction with emotional depth and why it’s essential for writers to learn how the publishing business works.
0:00 | How mentoring should equip students with their own compasses
0:40 | Her work as Executive Director of the creative nonfiction program at University of King’s College and the importance of learning the business side of writing alongside the craft
3:19 | Working with Toufah Jallow on her memoir Toufah: The Woman Who Inspired an African #MeToo Movement
9:20 | Developing the “idea plot” alongside the narrative drive of a creative nonfiction piece
12:15 | The challenge of interviewing people about traumatic events and the best practices she’s developed over her career
15:24 | Working through a shift in perspective when encountering an emotional gap in a piece
18:30 | Her essay, “After” and challenging conventional reporting on sexual violence
22:50 | Getting to nuanced, emotional truths when writing non-fiction
Feedback and Safety on the Page
The Power of Story: On Truth, the Trickster, and New Fiction for a New Era by Harold R. Johnson
Body Work: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative by Melissa Febos
Dog Flowers by Danielle Geller
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann ni Ghriofa
Lost & Found by Kathryn Schulz
They Said This Would be Fun by Eternity Martis
How to Read Now: Essays by Elaine Castillo
Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan