Imagine receiving over 600 creative nonfiction submissions and being faced with the task of selecting which ones will appear in a single magazine issue. A daunting prospect, isn’t it? Alicia Elliott recently lived this experience when editing the first ever creative nonfiction edition of the esteemed New Brunswick-based literary journal, The Fiddlehead.
Elliott, a Tuscarora writer who lives in Brantford, Ontario, fell into nonfiction writing a few years ago and came to be “enthralled by the genre’s possibility, its malleability, the way it requires you to push beyond what’s in front of you and see what’s hidden underneath.”
Elliott offered Great Canadian Longform insights into her editing process, why she’s excited about the state of Canadian nonfiction and what she’s reading today.
GCL: What was the most challenging part of choosing from over 600 creative non-fiction submissions?
AE: Since I was selecting the pieces as part of an entire issue, I had to consider each submission as part of a potential whole. That meant when I was making my longlist, I had to consider which pieces had the same themes, or followed a similar structure, or used a similar narrative voice, then decide from there which I wanted to publish. That meant making a lot of really difficult decisions. Would I go with the more lyrical piece? Or the more challenging piece? Ultimately, I thought of the issue a snapshot of the possibilities of Creative Nonfiction, so I tried to include the work that further illuminated the genre for me. There were so many incredible pieces I couldn’t include that I hope find homes in other publications. It really was a great group of submissions.
GCL: Did you notice any common themes or topics in submissions that might suggest what’s on the minds of writers today?
AE: There were a lot of pieces about mourning the loss of a loved one, which makes sense to me. Death is unspeakable in a way. There’s no way to really heal from that loss. You just learn to live with it. There were a lot of writers grappling with that on the page, trying to speak the unspeakable, to make sense out of something that in many ways defies sense.
GCL: How would you describe your approach to the role of editor?
AE: I try to discern what the author’s intentions for a piece are, then figure out the best ways to emphasize those intentions. Obviously reading is a subjective experience, but as a writer you want the reader to get specific things out of your work. When you’re writing you know what those intentions are, but sometimes you don’t realize there are other possible interpretations of your words.
It’s my job as editor to try to discourage interpretations the writer doesn’t want by altering sentences or rearranging paragraphs or replacing words. I want to make sure that we control the reader’s experience as much as we possibly can, so I edit with the idea of making the piece as clear and effective as it can possibly be. I like to explain exactly why I make changes so the author knows what my rationale is. That way if they don’t like my suggestion, they can more easily make their own. It’s a collaborative effort that hopefully makes the writer happy and feel heard.
GCL: What do you think we’re missing today in the Canadian non-fiction that gets published?
AE: I think some of the most exciting creative nonfiction has been ignored in the past because publishers thought there wasn’t a market for those voices, or they had a very specific idea of what readers wanted and would only publish work that resembled that. We’re in an exciting time, though, because a lot of those misconceptions are being torn apart, so the things that were missing before are being published now.
Lindsay Nixon’s nîtisânak just recently came out, and it’s an incredible gift of a book. Gwen Benaway’s essay collection trans girl in love is coming out in 2020, which will change the way people think about transphobia, abuse and love. Kai Cheng Thom’s essay collection is on the horizon, and I’m thrilled for that, as well as Jenny Heijun Wills’ transracial adoption memoir Unni and Adam Pottle’s exploration of deafness and writing, Voice.
As for those who don’t have nonfiction books out yet, I’m excited for everything Angela Wright, Amanda Leduc and Erin Soros are writing, and I love Jenny Ferguson, both as a writer and as CNF editor over at carte-blanche. I hope all of them will be publishing nonfiction books soon! It really is an incredible time for CNF in Canada.
GCL: What is your favourite piece of advice for creative nonfiction writers?
AE: When you’re working on revisions, ask yourself why this is a story you need to tell. Answering that question can be difficult, but it will always give you clarity. You need clarity like that to edit a piece and make it the best it can be.
GCL: Is there a particular piece in the new issue of The Fiddlehead that you might recommend reading first?
AE: I put a lot of thought into what the experience would be reading the whole issue from front to back, so I’d say start with the first essay, which is Ania Mroczek’s “It’s Necessary to Talk About Trees.” It’s an incredible tale of friendship between two young women, written with such precision and emotion it brings to mind the Neopolitan novels by Elena Ferrante.
GCL: Obviously the pieces in the new issue of The Fiddlehead have your stamp of approval. Are there any favourite Canadian longform pieces you’ve read lately that our readers should check out?
AE: I loved Gwen Benaway’s “trans girl in love“. She writes with intelligence, integrity, clarity, precision, craft. It’s a good preview of her forthcoming book. I also really enjoyed Isabella Wang’s “Eleven Stops Until I’m Half Way Home“. Isabella has talent well beyond her years, and her use of structure in this piece is so smart and effective. Amir Khadem’s “Barbarism as Civilization: White Afghanistan and the Alt-Right” is well-researched, well-written and well-argued–and the topic is timely. It gave me a lot to think about.
The Fiddlehead’s creative nonfiction edition is now available for purchase. Excerpts can be read at their website.