‘Give yourself the opportunity to find out how well you write’

Photo of Nancy O'Rourke

Nancy O’Rourke was the winner of the 2018 CNFC creative nonfiction prize and will be one of the readers selecting the 2019 shortlist.

Below she offers insight into the power of the CNF genre and words of encouragement for those hoping to submit this year.

“The story need not be life shattering, or a grand tale, but it does need to remind the reader of something understood at a gut level.”

CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR WINNING PIECE AND WHAT YOU THINK MADE IT STAND OUT?

My piece focused on an ordinary event – a visit to a museum in a foreign country – and drew attention, primarily, to a single object as a means to highlight an atrocity of considerable magnitude. The story, “Descent into Darkness,” involved a visit to the genocide memorial, located in Kigali, Rwanda, which I visited with a group of young Rwandans in 2010. What stood out for me, with respect to both the genocide and the memorial, was the use of the machete as an implement of slaughter: more than 800,000 people brutally massacred within 100 days. But even more so, and underlying the piece, was the horror re-experienced by those accompanying me, young people who had survived the genocide as children.

Betsy Warland, the judge for the 2018 competition, stated that what stood out for her about the story was that it carried her on a journey to someplace new and little known. She said that the story accomplished this by taking a microscopic view of something, the machete, to reveal the macro-level impact it had on society.

WHAT MAKES A CREATIVE NONFICTION PIECE STAND OUT FROM THE CROWD, AND WHAT WILL YOU BE LOOKING FOR WHEN YOU READ THIS YEAR’S SUBMISSIONS?

What moves me with respect to creative nonfiction is how a simple truth, sometimes an ordinary or amusing event, can be told in such a way as to evoke a deep inner knowing, a shuddering of insight into the human psyche. The story need not be life shattering, or a grand tale, but it does need to remind the reader of something understood at a gut level.

The reader does not need to have direct experience of the narrative but the way the story is told should allow the reader to relate in a fundamental way. What I will be looking for is a strong voice, a story that pulls me in, begs to be read. A tale that beckons an emotional response and is relatable. I also admire narratives that utilize simple imagery, sensory details and metaphor to show that which may not be commonly recognized but when illustrated as such is well understood.

ARE THERE DIFFERENT CONSIDERATIONS WHEN SUBMITTING TO A CNF CONTEST VERSUS THOSE CENTRED AROUND OTHER GENRES?

Not that I’m aware of. As a new writer, creative nonfiction is the only genre I’ve undertaken to date. I would imagine the only difference is the “nonfiction” aspect. Writers must stick to the facts, tell their truth, but then not unlike fiction and poetry, the creative aspect is what will make the piece remarkable. The only thing I would encourage contestants to consider is how their story will stand out. Many stories can be told about the same topic, the same truth, but how the story unfolds, the surprises it brings, the twists and turns is what will make it extraordinary. Don’t simply write about “what happened.” As with poetry and fiction, make use of creative techniques.

IN ADDITION TO THE CNFC WIN, YOUR STORY “ARRIVING IN TOMBE” WAS A FINALIST FOR THE WOW WOMEN IN WRITING CONTEST. HOW HAVE THESE EXPERIENCES CONTRIBUTED TO YOUR LITERARY CAREER?

The recognition has given me a measure of confidence. Writing is such an isolating experience. Like most writers, I am driven to write. The story pulls me along, it insists on being told. But for the most part, there is very little feedback or acknowledgement with respect to being on track, or of having something of interest to offer. I often feel like I write in a vacuum, secluding myself for hours and sometimes days on end. Receiving recognition is a reminder that the decision to write was not entirely foolhardy.

As for how this acknowledgement has contributed to my career, time will tell. For me, these are still early days. What it has given me is additional motivation to continue writing. There is no turning back now.

WHAT’S YOUR FAVOURITE ONLINE WRITING CRAFT WEBSITE/RESOURCE?

There are so many, but I will mention the two I refer to most often. Medium is a valuable online writing website, as it offers everything from good literature to constructive writing instruction. Additionally, Medium is a website that allows authors to publish their own work – both previously published and unpublished, allowing for a wider audience. After my winning story with CNFC was published in carte blanche, I had it published on the Medium website.

The other website I often visit is Narrative. I love Narrative because it has so much to offer, in terms of good literature: fiction, poetry, nonfiction by new and upcoming authors as well as those long established. Aside from current issues, their archives are impressive, as are author interviews and stories of the week. Without fail the work is outstanding and provides excellent reading for a writer keen to learn.

WHAT PIECE OF ADVICE CAN YOU OFFER NEW AND EMERGING WRITERS WANTING TO ENTER THIS YEAR’S CONTEST?

Take the plunge. It is very good practice. I cannot tell you how many contests I’ve applied to, submitted my work. I think I made a friend of rejection, especially after I’d heard that Gertrude Stein submitted poems for 22 years before she ever had one accepted. That was an eye opener.

When I learned that my story had been long-listed (a first), I was pleasantly surprised and grateful. Finally, one of my stories had been recognized. When I was told the story had been short-listed, I was bewildered, over-the-moon happy and excited. At the CNFC conference, when it was announced I had won the contest, I was utterly shocked. The other two authors were more established than me and were already published. I was grateful simply to have my work considered among them. My advice is to give yourself
the opportunity to find out how well you write. Give yourself the chance to win.


A sociologist specializing in human rights, Nancy O’Rourke has extensive field experience, primarily in Africa. Now, as an emerging writer studying Creative Writing at the University of Toronto, she is writing a memoir that examines processes of forgiveness, focusing on a group of children she befriended in Rwanda in 1992, lost during the genocide, and found later in 2010.

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