CBC Nonfiction Prize Jury Member Sharon Butala Wants Every Writer to Find Their Own Voice

Sharon Butala is a Calgary-based author of 21 novels and non-fiction books. (Photograph by Chipperfield)

Sharon Butala is one of the jurors for the 2022 edition CBC Nonfiction Award. His collection of essays, This strange air visiblereleased in September 2021.

Butala is a Saskatchewan author of 21 novels and non-fiction books, including Morning perfection, where i live now, Zara is dead, Fever and wild rose. She has been nominated three times for the Governor General’s Literary Award and received the Marian Engel Award in 1998. She became an Officer of the Order of Canada in 2002.

the CBC Nonfiction Award recognizes original, unpublished non-fiction works up to 2,000 words.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 Banff Arts and Creativity Center and publish their work on Radio-Canada Books.

The 2022 CBC Nonfiction Award is open for submissions until February 28, 2022 at 11:59 p.m. ET. Finalists will be announced in fall 2022.

In This strange air visible, Butala reflects on how her life changed as she got older. She tackles ageism, loneliness, friendship and camaraderie, writing about dinner parties, health issues, complicated family relationships and the pandemic. This book is an in-depth look at the complexities and desires of aging and the elderly, a stark contrast to the often stereotypical and simplistic portrayals of the elderly in our culture.

Butala spoke to Robyn Burns on CBC Radio All points west about the inspiration behind her collection of essays and the qualities of a story she can’t put down.

Radio-Canada Books7:42Sharon Butala wants every writer to find their unique voice

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

What inspired your essay collection This strange air visible?

I think it’s mostly because I’ve aged. When you’re old, you start spending a lot of time thinking about your past and trying to make sense of it. I think it was those two things put together. I never thought I was ready until I wrote essays on myself.

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

I just decided to try. I felt more confident than I had ever felt, so I sat down and started writing an essay. Very quickly, I had a whole collection. It was just time and I felt pretty wise.

Was the process a self-discovery or was it more or less just putting it down on paper?

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

It’s being much more distant from them, which also means 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 really make sense of the important things in your life.

In your experience and in your writing, what makes a non-fiction story or an essay about self captivating to read to an outside audience?

I think the usual answer is that a story has to have an unusual aspect or a strong sensational aspect or something like that. I’m not denying it, but if you don’t have the craft, you’re not going to get the most out of this story. The story will diminish in impact.

So, I’m also looking for someone who has control over his craft. And I think the writer’s voice is almost as important. How to tell the story? How do I want it to sound? What is the combination of how I want it to sound and what I actually look 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 perfect your style and art, the pure voice begins to emerge. And that’s what [nonfiction] is usually written in — the common tongue. It’s engaging and it gives the impression that I’m doing my best to tell the truth.

You are on the jury for this year’s CBC Nonfiction Prize. So looking at this as a reader, what are the qualities of a story that you just can’t put aside?

Well, I mean, there are no new stories. I think that’s an accepted idea. So it’s the angle that makes it different. It is the voice that makes its originality. How the story is structured can also make a huge difference if the reader says, “That’s boring” or “Oh my God, what happens next?” So it really behooves a writer to seriously think about the most powerful way to tell a story in terms of structure.

How the story is structured can also make a huge difference depending on whether the reader says, “That’s boring” or “Oh my God, what happens next?”​​​

Do you think that participating in literary prizes like the CBC Nonfiction Prize could help people become better writers, or make a contest accessible to someone who has the craft, enjoys it and has perfected it but would not seek not to be published?

Well, that’s certainly true. It’s a wonderful way for many up-and-coming writers to make a name for themselves, should they be one of the winners or runners-up. But I think before you get into anything like that, a good thing to do is go read the winning stories from previous years. You go [get a feeling for] the kind of thing judges seem to be looking for.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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