TNQ’s 2017 Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest winner is Kingston writer Susan Olding, for her luminous work, “A Different River.”
It isn’t always easy to see the beginnings of things. Sometimes beginnings are hidden, buried and forgotten like those lost rivers that seep and surge beneath the concrete corridors of our modern cities. So, I don’t know when my city, Toronto, began for me.
Our annual Personal Essay contest has no word count and all submissions are considered for publication. The 2017 adjudicators were: TNQ consulting editor, Tasneem Jamal, as well as Bruce Johnstone, Alister Thomas, Sophie Blom, Pamela Mulloy, and yours truly.
—Susan Scott, TNQ Nonfiction Editor
Susan, we’re thrilled to welcome such a celebrated essayist—and TNQ favourite author—back to our pages, and I’d like to start with the backstory to this beautifully wrought piece. Take us behind the scenes, to how or why this work began, and why it assumed the shape of an essay, rather than a poem, or perhaps a book. Is there a life story to the essay?
Blame Frances Backhouse. In a Creative Nonfiction Collective (CNFC) online discussion, she said something like: Where are the essays about Canadian cities? Where’s the Canadian “Goodbye to All That”? Her question was the catalyst.
I remembered reading and falling under the sway of Didion around the time I first moved to Toronto. And though Frances didn’t mention him, I also thought of Richard Rodriguez, whose “Late Victorians” never fails to move me, no matter how many times I return to it.
“Goodbye to All That” is not really about New York. “Late Victorians” is not really about San Francisco. Yet somehow each manages to summon the atmosphere of a time and place so exactly that as a reader, you feel as if you’ve walked the same streets as the author. That’s what I hoped to achieve with “A Different River.”
Part of what makes “A Different River” so compelling is how disparate histories—personal, cultural, natural—related to the city are interleaved so that each affects our apprehension of the other. What you do here—balancing research with evocative language and a storyline that draws us in—is precisely what writers who are new to creative nonfiction (CNF) often find intimidating about the genre. Could you talk about your process? How did you approach the weave of loss and memory with research into so several hidden histories?
Thank you. I’m glad the threading worked for you. Sometimes when I write a braided essay I feel like I’m battling my cat for a ball of yarn and losing!
My entry to “A Different River” was Didion’s famous opening line. (“It is easy to see the beginnings of things and harder to see the ends.”) Is it? I asked myself. Really? Not always, at least not in my experience. Right away, I was contradicting her, which raised an interesting tension because I also knew I wanted to write a kind of homage.
A few sentences in, I sensed the confluence that tells me I’m onto something. Whenever your personal experience aligns with a larger social issue, which in turn echoes historical responses to similar problems or the landscape itself, you have a richly textured story worth pursuing.
But when I began, I wasn’t really conscious of any of that; I just wanted to evoke an atmosphere and understand an era, and I was trying to record my memories in a way that situated them.
Structurally, I knew the essay had to meander and digress, like Toronto’s waterways. Its various streams would ebb and flow and come together towards the end.
In terms of process, I approached it the way I approach everything I write. I pay attention to any associations that come up. I chase my curiosities. And I try to stay open to synchronicity—the gifts the world presents as we are working on a piece. For me the Eldon Garnet installation was one of those. It post-dates my years of living in the city. On my visits since then, I was seldom in that neighbourhood, so I’d never noticed the installation. But I happened to walk across the Queen Street bridge one night when I was in the midst of this piece and was amazed to find Heraclitus shining down at me in stainless steel as well as echoing in my head.
I do a lot of research. It’s easy (maybe too easy) now, with the Internet. You can even do limited amounts of archival research on the Web. For “A Different River,” I did a fair bit of digging around in the scholarly literature and read a lot of news reports and articles about the city’s history and river ecology. I looked at a lot of old photos and videos of the city. I also visited galleries, walked the streets, and listened to some Stages playlists.
I thought I didn’t have any journals from that period, but it turned out I had saved one. It made for painful but instructive reading.
You include a marvellous anecdote about your initial move towards journalism. Happily, for CanLit, that dead-ended. Tell us how you came to writing, in general, and why you keep returning to the essay, in particular. Is it a form, you’d say, that has a hold on you?
I’d have made a terrible reporter! It was probably lucky for everyone concerned that Ryerson turned me down. But at the time, I felt humiliated and ashamed. It stopped me from writing for a long time. I threw my early journals and poems and stories down the garbage chute at St. James Town.
I went on to get a degree in philosophy, though it took me years to do it and in the meantime, I waited an awful lot of tables and sold a lot of books and clothes and bath oil. I also worked for a butcher for a while, gutting chickens. Do you know that Ellen Bass poem, “What Did I Love”? She gets it so right!
I was thirty years old and in law school before I mustered the courage to start writing seriously again. Eventually I switched from law to education, and most of my paid jobs have been teaching or editorial-related.
I write poetry and fiction as well as nonfiction, but the essay must have a hold on me because I return to it again and again. At its best, the form combines an intimate, confiding voice with a quality I’ll call spaciousness. The essay makes room for any kind of curiosity. For me, that’s an irresistible lure. Essays allow us to air our uncertainties and argue with ourselves, to puzzle things out, to loosen the knot of unknowing. This attraction to dialectic may be the only lasting effect of all my training in philosophy.
I tend to write slowly, partly because my outside-of-writing life has included the usual complications and then some, and partly because essays can take time to accrete—the best ones rarely arrive in a burst. Essaying is thinking, and thinking is hard—at least for me.
Julie Paul, our 2016 winner, cites you as an influence—a writer who explores your own life “with honesty and insight that inspires.” And whom do you admire? Are there works you turn to for guidance? Are there favourite works, or writers, you’d care to recommend?
Julie Paul! I owe my association to TNQ to Julie Paul, did you know that? I didn’t know it myself for many years because I had never met her. But about a decade ago, she submitted my name to a TNQ call for readers’ “most loved living Canadian writers.” I hadn’t even published a book at the time but she had read some of my work in literary journals. Kim Jernigan, who was TNQ editor at that time, tracked me down and solicited my very first piece for TNQ. I sent her “Mama’s Voices,” which went on to win the inaugural Edna Award. I’ve been coming back to the journal ever since.
Ah, that call-out to readers, for our 100th issue, brought a panoply of names, beloved and new, to our attention!
It was years before I learned the identity of my secret fan, and years again until Julie and I met in person. I still can’t believe she chose to submit my name. For an emerging writer, that experience of recognition is so rare. You write and write for years into a void, getting a few acceptances, maybe, but never really knowing if anyone reads your words or whether they matter—and then a complete stranger says they did matter, they moved her, they inspired her. This meant and still means as much to me as any prize or award I’ve ever received. (Bonus: It turns out she’s a terrific writer herself!)
I love this story because it shows such generosity on Julie’s part, and shows, also, that the so-called little magazines do still make a difference to developing writers; this is where we find one another and learn from one another, and some of the best and most interesting work in Canada still appears in the pages of journals like TNQ.
By the way, TNQ readers already know her nonfiction, but if you haven’t read Julie’s The Pull of the Moon, I highly, highly recommend it. Smart, funny, and acutely observed stories.
I’ve already mentioned a few of my favourite essayists. Didion and Rodriguez and Vivian Gornick, along with Orwell and Woolf, are probably my biggest influences in the sense that they’re the writers who made me want to write essays in the first place.
But I’m always reading and finding writers to admire. In Canada, Jane Silcott. Julija Sukys. Though she now lives in the U.S., so maybe I should class her there; she does really interesting work with archival material. Helen Humphreys is known mostly for her fiction, but she also writes lapidary nonfiction. I’m thinking of Nocturne, which is a memoir, but also The River, and The Ghost Orchard, which are essayistic in spirit and based on original research.
Marion Agnew and Anne-Marie Todkill are also doing really interesting work in this form—but you know that because they were finalists for this contest!
In the U.S., I admire Brenda Miller, who’s been writing braided essays even longer than I have. I didn’t know about her writing until after I’d already worked out that form for myself—alas, because her example might have saved me some confusion and frustration! In addition to her essays, I love and often use the textbook on writing she co-authored with Suzanne Paola, Tell It Slant. Other Americans whose work I admire: Eula Biss, Alexander Chee, Maggie Nelson, Claudia Rankine, Rebecca Solnit, Ira Sukrungruang.
More writers from the U.S. and beyond whose work I’ve been reading in the past year—Ta-Nehesi Coates, Teju Cole, Jenny Diski, Natalia Ginzburg, Mohsin Hamid, Jenny Offill, Ali Smith, Zadie Smith. A few of those aren’t primarily essayists but their fiction has an essayistic bent. I also read poetry—lately, Ellen Bass, Suzanne Buffam, Jackie Kay, Rachel Rose, Mary Ruefle, C.D. Wright.
When it comes to guidance, I like what David Bayles and Ted Orland say in Art and Fear:
What you need to know about the next piece is contained in the last piece… The lessons you are meant to learn are in your work. To see them, you need only look at the work clearly — without judgement, without need or fear, without wishes or hopes. Without emotional expectations. Ask your work what it needs, not what you need. Then set aside your fears and listen, the way a good parent listens to a child. (pp. 35-36)
Of course, this is easier said than done.
Interest in CNF contests is exploding. For publishers, the advantage to running contests is that they bring in such varied works; we discover voices that might otherwise escape our notice. Contests alert us to trends, to shifts in the genre, and to writerly preoccupations. On the other hand, for writers, submitting is time-consuming and expensive. Given all the options, what drew you to TNQ?
That’s easy—it’s one of the finest literary journals in the country, and it makes a special place for the essay as distinct from other types of CNF.
I’m glad you point that out. We run several nonfiction features, which means we have to be selective about the CNF we do choose—the personal essay, for instance, is a (curiously) neglected genre that we’re determined to support.
Also, the Edna Staebler contest is open to submissions of all lengths. There are not many places in Canada where you can publish a long form piece like “A Different River.” I’m grateful.
Now that “A Different River” is a prize-winning essay, does that change your relationship with it? I’m interested in the enduring power of a piece—not only how it resonates with readers but also its continued impact on the writer, who is likely still invested in ways that gave rise to the writing in the first place. Is that true here, too? I suppose I’m asking if you’ve laid any ghosts to rest, or has the essay stirred them—allowed their honouring, perhaps.
What an interesting question.
When I started this piece, I don’t think I realized how painful it would be to write. In the early haze of nostalgia, it didn’t occur to me that I’d have to relive my grief and loss. I also had to confront my guilt and shame. That was harder. In retrospect, my behaviour at the time seems cowardly and selfish. I wish I had tried to reconnect with my friend sooner; I wish I been more of an activist and done something concrete to fight the discrimination. Something more than making supportive noises and voting consciously, which I did do.
I was young and confused and often broke and depressed; as a working student, my time was limited and I was already volunteering at a literacy centre. I had a lot of plausible excuses for not getting involved. Still. It isn’t always easy to become reacquainted with our younger selves.
With this essay, I longed to move beyond the page. I wanted to map the stories against the buried rivers, to make it web-based and interactive. To create a kind of palimpsest of image and text and walk the reader through the sites, elaborating on some of the political and environmental issues that I could only touch on here. I don’t have the technical expertise or the funding to make that happen, but if I ever find a pathway or some collaborators, I might go back to it.
I don’t think winning a prize changes my relationship to the essay, except in making me feel more confident it will find a few readers, which of course is a gift. But as I was working on it, I did have the sense that it represents the start of a larger project. I’m just finishing off another manuscript about how books stitch themselves through the fabric of our lives; two of its essays originally appeared in TNQ (“Library Haunting” and “A Pilgrimage to Hampstead”). “A Different River” is taking me in a new direction and I look forward to daylighting its still-buried streams.
Edna Staebler, a pioneering writer from our region and the generous benefactor whose bequest makes this contest possible, was determined to see writers supported fiscally as well as morally. Would you care to say what plans, if any, you’ve had for your prize money? Anything it’s earmarked for that Edna might enjoy?
Yes! A short writing retreat with friends in the spring. I’ll spend it (in part) on food. I am certain that Edna—the author of several best-selling cookbooks—would like that.