CBC Nonfiction Prize juror Sharon Butala wants every writer to find their unique voice

Sharon Butala is a Calgary-based author of 21 novels and books of nonfiction. (Chipperfield Photography)

Sharon Butala is one of the jurors for the 2022 CBC Nonfiction Prize. her essay collection of her, This Strange Visible Airwhich came out in September of 2021.

Butala is a Saskatchewan-based author of 21 novels and nonfiction books, including The Perfection of the Morning, Where I Live Now, Zara’s Dead, fever and WildRose. She is a three-time Governor General’s Literary Award nominee and received the Marian Engel Award in 1998. She became an officer of the Order of Canada in 2002.

the CBC Nonfiction Prize Recognizes works of original, unpublished nonfiction up to 2,000 words. The winner will receive $6,000 from the Canada Council for the Artshave the opportunity to attend a two-week writing residency at the Banff Center for Arts and Creativity and have their work published on CBCBooks.

2022 CBC Nonfiction Prize is open for submissions until Feb. 28, 2022 at 11:59 pm ET. The finalists will be announced in fall 2022.

In This Strange Visible AirButala reflects on the ways her life has changed as she has grown old. She tackles ageism, loneliness, friendship and companionship, writing about dinner parties, health challenges, complicated family relationships and the pandemic. This book is an expansive look at the complexities and desires of aging and the aged, a stark contrast to the often stereotyped and simplisticals of the elderly in our culture.

Butala spoke to Robyn Burns on CBC Radio’s All Points West about the inspiration behind her essay collection and the qualities of a story she can’t put down.

CBCBooks7:42Sharon Butala wants every writer to find their unique voice

Sharon Butala, writer and juror for the 2022 CBC Nonfiction Prize, talks to Robyn Burns on All Points West about what makes great nonfiction. 7:42

What inspired your essay collection This Strange Visible Air?

I think it was mostly that I got old. When you’re old, you start spending an awful lot of time inadvertently thinking about your past and trying to make sense of it. I think it was those two things put together. I had never thought I was ready before to write essays about myself.

When you’re old, you start spending an awful lot of time inadvertently thinking about your past and trying to make sense of it.

I just decided that I’d give it a try. I was feeling more confident than I’d ever felt so I sat down and started writing an essay. Pretty soon I had a whole collection. It was just time and I felt wise enough.

Was the process one of self-discovery or was it just more or less getting it on paper?

It was a little bit of both. You see, I’m 81, and once you get to that point you have considered the important things in your life events, and look at them in a way that’s very different than you were ever able to look at them before.

That is to be much more distanced from them, which also means that you develop a compassion that maybe you didn’t have when you were young, it was just lip service. But when you’re old, it’s real. And that’s when you can actually make some sense out of important things in your life

From your experience and in your writing, what makes a nonfiction story or an essay about oneself captivating to read to an outside audience?

I think that the usual answer is that a story must have an unusualness to it or a powerful sensational aspect or something like that. I don’t deny it, but if you don’t have the craft, you’re not going to make the best out of that story. The story is going to diminish in impact.

So, I’m also looking for someone who has control of their craft. And I think the writer’s voice is almost equally important. How do I tell the story? How do I want it to sound? What is a combination of how I want it to sound and what I actually sound like?

Finding your voice is one of the most important things any writer can do. But it takes a long time. The only way to find it is to keep writing.

Finding your voice is one of the most important things any writer can do. But it takes a long time. The only way to find it is to keep writing. As you hone your style and your craft, the pure voice begins to emerge. And that’s what [nonfiction] is usually written in—the common language. It’s engaging and it gives the sense that I’m doing my darndest to tell the truth.

You’re a juror for this year’s CBC Nonfiction Prize. So looking at this as a reader, what are the qualities of a story that you just cannot put down?

Well, I mean, there are no new stories. I think that’s an agreed upon idea. So it’s the angle that makes it different. It’s the voice that makes it original. The way that the story is structured can also make a huge difference in whether the reader says, “This is boring” or, “Oh my gosh, what happens next?” So it really behooves a writer to give a lot of thought to the most powerful way to tell a story in terms of structure.

The way that the story is structured can also make a huge difference in whether the reader says, ‘This is boring’ or, ‘Oh my gosh, what happens next?’

Do you think entering literary prizes like the CBC Nonfiction Prize might help people become better writers, or make a competition accessible to someone who has the craft and enjoys it and has honed in on it but wouldn’t look at getting published?

Well, that’s certainly true. This is a wonderful vehicle for a lot of emerging writers to make a name for themselves, if they should be one of the winners or runners up. But I think that before entering something like this, a good thing to do is to go and read the winning stories from the previous few years. you’ll [get a feeling for] the kind of thing that judges seem to be looking for.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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