Author’s essays alert to nuance

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May 17, 2013

Vancouver resident Jane Silcott has made the leap from publishing her essays in such literary magazines as Room, Maisonneuve, Geist and 18 Bridges, to her first book, Everything Rustles, published by Anvil Press. She obtained her MFA in Creative Writing from UBC in 2002, following a BA in English and Creative Writing at the University of Victoria. Silcott has had a varied career, including being a founding director of the BC Association of Magazine Publishers. Silcott answered Lynne Van Luven’s questions just after she had attended the Creative NonFiction Collective’s annual conference in Banff, Alberta.

Jane, I notice that you also write and publish fiction and poetry. Can you talk about how your personal and public selves intersect in those two genres and whether that relationship differs in creative nonfiction?

Thank you, Lynne. I like that idea of personal and public selves. It gives me a momentary sense that I’m in control—instead of the usual feeling that my various selves are running off on their own and then crashing into one another in great, public messes. That’s a joke, I hope. In truth, I think we shift moment to moment from public to personal—from an awareness of the exterior back to the interior. I believe that awareness follows a similar path in all of the genres. And for me it always starts in the personal, some question or conundrum that I want to explore. I choose the genre depending on my need for privacy. Fiction offers the most. I can cloak my personal self in imagined characters and situations, knowing I’m protected somewhat by that scaffold or scrim of invention and also by people’s expectations of the genre. When I write CNF, the impetus is the same, the personal at the core, but because I can’t make things up, and I’m using the personal to illustrate it, I have to create that distance or scaffold in a different way. I do that by carefully choosing which experiences to use and also by research. If something feels too revealing, too close, I go out into the world and find other people’s voices to say what I want to say. Poetry, which I don’t write as much, is for me, a condensed form of CNF. There, the personal is . . . so condensed, so deep inside an experience or feeling, it feels distanced, and therefore public again. I’m not really sure why but there’s something that happens in the very effort of locating the words, the crafting of lines that makes it public. It’s as if we take this lump of personal clay or wood and then we chip away at it with words, and that work of crafting takes us outside of it, no matter what the genre. I think that’s really the answer, that craft, no matter the form, is where public and personal intersect and the relationship is different only slightly because the feeling at the core is the same—intense vulnerability. The strategies on how to manage that vulnerability may differ slightly—one is invention, the other selection, and the third is something else again—a deep re-imagining—a visit down to the bones where language and ephemera intersect.

Does anything stand out about your own beginnings as a writer when you think back to your early days as a student at the University of Victoria?

When I look back, what I remember first are the several bad stories that I wrote and the painful typing of them onto carbon paper and the sharp, slightly sweet smell of the alcohol in the spirit duplicator that we used to make our purple-printed copies. But one event does stand out for me. I was in a fiction workshop with Bill Valgardson. Bill had given us a minimum word count we were to reach by the end of the year, and I was at least 9,000 words short. I was sitting in class feeling desperate, certain I would fail when he told us about his first rock climb. Bill’s description was so vivid, and he was so excited about his first experience of climbing, that it made me think of the climbing I’d done. I decided to write a story about it, hoping that the topic would distract him from my paltry word count. But what began in calculation ended in discovery. Knowing that Bill was excited about climbing gave me confidence, so I focused on every word, doing my best to replicate that experience on the page. It was my first piece of Creative Nonfiction. I’ve been grateful to Bill ever since. And, luckily, he liked the story, so even though I still ended the year far short of the required word count, I passed the course.

When you started writing, you took your grandmother’s name, Silcott, instead of using your own name, Hamilton. Why did you feel the need for, as it were, a protective pseudonym and would you make the same choice again?

I actually chose it, not to hide myself, but to distinguish myself from two other Jane Hamiltons who write–the American author of The Book of Ruth and Mapping the World and Jane Eaton Hamilton, a wonderful writer who happens to live near me, and who has, also like me, struggled with how to distinguish herself. Jane, whose initial is also “A,” called herself “Jena Hamilton” for a while and then “J.A. Hamilton” before adopting her grandmother’s name “Eaton.” I initially tried “A. Jane Hamilton,” but decided for a wholesale change after a local bookseller approached me at a reading some years ago. He was carrying a stack of books and journals, all containing work by one Jane Hamilton or another (including me), and he said, “Which one are you?” That was the final push. I chose “Silcott” from my father’s side of the family partly because that history is not as well known, and also because I like the sound of it. I believe if I were to choose again, I’d do the same, even though I miss my Hamilton name and feel a little odd without it, I also feel an invigorating sense of newness and possibility—this Silcott person—who is she?

The title of your book comes from Sophocles: “To him who is in fear everything rustles.” And yet, in reading your essays, I don’t really pick up actual fear, except perhaps in the final essay. Rather, I see ruefulness, occasional trepidation, huge curiosity, a sense of humanity’s innate frailty . . . What did you set out to encapsulate in the collection?

That’s interesting that you don’t pick up on fear. People tell me that quite often—that I don’t seem afraid, and yet I feel afraid almost all of the time, especially when writing, so in that sense the full quote is apt. And yet, I agree with you that the book isn’t all about fear. There are other shadings, and I’m happy that one of the cover images is so joyful (the blue dress, the bare feet running through leaves). For me, the rustling speaks to that state of hyper-awareness inside of fear when time seems to stop and we see and hear everything around us in sharp relief. That’s the state of awareness I’m after and curious about—in all kinds of emotions and situations—those moments that shimmer and rustle around us.

You have been active as both a writer and an organizer/administrator for many years. And now you teach writing. What does your membership in the Creative Nonfiction Collective bring to you personally and professionally?

The CNFC is a wonderful group—historians, poets, memoirists, essayists— writers who aren’t afraid to look themselves in the eye. I admire them all, and I love the sense of fellowship and camaraderie in the group. At the conference, we explore questions of craft and ethics and talk about the hard things about writing from life—like when is it okay to be stopped by concerns about others’ feelings, and when is it your story alone? These are unanswerable questions, at least at a broad level or a collective level. They’re questions we all have to answer for ourselves, but without the conversations, it would be a lonely and difficult debate. One writer said at the conference that she felt in the CNFC that she had found her people. I think that’s a lovely thought—and true, if finding your people means finding the people who are engaged in the same quest as you are. I find the collective a marvelous way to engage with the world. I’ve just volunteered to be on the board, something I realized I’d missed. Teaching and writing can both be lonely jobs. Meetings. Could I really say I missed meetings? Ask me again in another year. I may have a different answer. But yes, I missed meetings.

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