By Ben Cohen
Are fiction and journalism compatible? Can a journalist also be a fiction writer or poet?
My Double Life: Journalists who also write fiction and poetry, a panel hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre last month, showed that yes, some people really can do both.
The panel brought together three journalists with side careers in creative writing: Angela Misri, Waubgeshig Rice, and Marsha Barber. Professor Emerita and well-known literary reviewer Suanne Kelman moderated the discussion. You can watch the whole panel below:
How do you manage the work-work balance?
Angela Misri, who writes YA detective fiction while also working as digital director at the Walrus, drew a parallel between news and creative writing: Both mediums have their own logic and structure. The key to switching between them, she says, is to “apply different rules when you’re writing different things.”
Misri’s book, Pickles vs. the Zombies, about house pets who fight the undead, isn’t grounded in reality, but its world still has rules – cats can’t fly, and animals can’t talk to humans.
“I’m working within the rules of that fictional world. When I do journalism, there are very distinct rules about that,” she said.
“As long as I know which rules I’m writing for, I don’t have any trouble sitting and writing in those worlds.”
Novelist and CBC radio host Waubgeshig Rice says going from writing hard news to fiction is all about changing his environment.
He’s been in a CBC newsroom for more than a decade, he said, and “in that space, it’s always about the facts, the truth and getting things done properly.”
But “once I’m out of that, when I’m sitting down to do my creative writing at home or in a café or pub, it’s a much different environment, so I can switch gears more easily.”
While Rice’s creativity flourishes in certain spaces, Barber’s is tied to time. She says she always writes her poems late at night and revises them in the morning. The rest of her day is devoted to teaching and journalism.
Creativity in journalism … and journalism in creativity
Philosopher Albert Camus once said, “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” Journalism achieves the same ends, but operates under a strict anti-lying policy.
But Ryerson Professor and poet Marsha Barber said there are parallels between poetry and some forms of broadcast journalism.
“I’ve seen broadcast scripts that look like poetry,” said Barber, who was formerly a senior producer with CBC TV’s The National. “They’re very sparse, the writing is very concise, very clear. In terms of writing, I don’t think the worlds are very separate.”
Barber says writing poetry is about “striving for the truth, the same way you are in journalism.”
“I don’t see them as completely opposed worlds by any means,” added Barber, who most recently published the poetry collection, All the Lovely Broken People. “I think there are places where the worlds come together.”
Rice says working in journalism has helped his literary storytelling. With the encouragement of his editor, he drew on his broadcast skills, which helped his new thriller, Moon of the Crusted Snow, move at a quick pace.
“(Moon of the Crusted Snow) had to focus on the action, which is what we tend to do in broadcast journalism,” he added.
What can fiction do that journalism can’t?
Rice says journalism hasn’t allowed him to dive as deeply into historical issues as he would like, specifically as they relate Indigenous people.
“We’re at a crucial time now where Canadians are learning more and more about history and what has happened to Indigenous people on this land,” he said. “We need to be able to offer up that context. Telling a story in 1.15 minutes on the radio or two minutes on TV, it’s nearly impossible to get to the proper context.”
Although the characters, settings and surroundings are made up, Rice says it’s the real historical context that binds his work together. Moon of the Crusted Snow is about a displaced, post-apocalyptic Anishinaabe community that endured residential schooling and the trauma of the Sixties Scoop. Rice says telling real stories through fiction allows him to more creatively highlight colonial injustice and extend historical understanding, rather than just “rehashing dates, legal issues and historical facts.”
Processing, representation — and fun.
For Barber, poetry is her “lifeline,” and how she processes the world.
“We all have our forms of self-expression and creative expression,” said Barber. “For me, it’s always been about words. In poetry, there’s a lot of revision, so you’re polishing and you’re polishing, and that’s part of what I get out of it; taking something that’s very raw and processing it until it’s something that, occasionally, on a really good day, I can be proud of.”
Fiction writing is about representation for Misri. “Growing up I didn’t know I could be an author,” she said. “As an Asian woman, I assumed I’d be a doctor or an engineer. I think seeing me on stage is important for my group of humans, who I can encourage to come on stage as well and write.”
Fiction also allows total narrative freedom. “(Fiction) is fun,” says Rice. “Especially when you’re writing about the end of the world. You can blow everything up if you want to. You can’t do that as a journalist.”
ANGELA MISRI is a journalist and fiction author based in Toronto. She has written for the Globe and Mail, CBC, and The Walrus and writes the popular Portia Adams Adventure detective series. She has taught at Ryerson for six years, in the journalism program, and she is the Digital Director at The Walrus. Her latest book is called Pickles vs the Zombies and will be published by Cormorant in the fall.
WAUBGESHIG RICE is an author and journalist originally from Wasauksing First Nation. His first short story collection, Midnight Sweatlodge, was inspired by his experiences growing up in an Anishinaabe community, and won an Independent Publishers Book Award in 2012. His debut novel, Legacy, followed in 2014. A French translation was published in 2017. His latest novel, Moon of the Crusted Snow, was released in October 2018.
Waub got his first taste of journalism in 1996 as an exchange student in Germany, writing articles about being an Anishinaabe teen in a foreign country for newspapers back in Canada. He graduated from Ryerson University’s journalism program in 2002. He’s worked in a variety of news media since, reporting for CBC News for the bulk of his career. In 2014, he received the Anishinabek Nation’s Debwewin Citation for excellence in First Nation Storytelling. He currently hosts Up North, CBC Radio’s afternoon show for northern Ontario. His proudest roles are as dad to Jiikwis and husband to Sarah. The family splits its time between Sudbury and Wasauksing.
MARSHA BARBER is a professor at Ryerson University’s School of Journalism. Before that, she was a documentary maker at CBC’s The National. Her third poetry book will be published by Borealis Press later this year. Her work has appeared in such periodicals as the Literary Review of Canada, The Antigonish Review, FreeFall, The New Quarterly, The Walrus and The Prairie Journal. She has won many awards for her writing and is on the FreeFall Poetry Contest winners list for 2017. She has also been longlisted for the national ReLit prize and shortlisted for the international Bridport Poetry Prize and the Montreal International Poetry Prize.
SUANNE KELMAN is Professor Emeritus at Ryerson’s School of Journalism, where she taught for 21 years. Before joining Ryerson, she worked at CBC Radio and Television, and the Globe and Mail. During her years of teaching, she continued to freelance at those outlets and many others. She still writes for the Literary Review of Canada, and has a review in this year’s January/February issue. She is the author of All in the Family: A Cultural History of Family Life.