Monday, March 5, 2012

10 Weeks To A Literary Prize

The winner of the 2012 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction for his book The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary: A Canadian Story of Resilience and Recovery, Andrew Westoll spent just 10 weeks with 13 chimpanzees at a primate rehabilitation centre in rural Quebec.

From that scant two months of service Westoll felt the seeds of a story stirring in his brain and produced what would become one of the hottest non-fiction books of the year.

Many writers I know spend years researching their subject, decades even, trying to find the story they want to tell. This might be the wrong idea, especially if Westholl's success is any example.

It's not the time you dedicate to research that matters. After all, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Treasure Island long before he traveled to the South Pacific or even spent any time at sea. What you need is inspiration. If your journey does not inspire you to write a story, it doesn't matter if you spend a day, a week, a month or a lifetime on it, you will not find the words you seek.

Westoll clearly found inspiration in this place, surrounded by chimps which did not speak but still found means to impart their stories to him. Westoll might have spent a lifetime among them, or a half a day--the seeds of the story were no doubt germinating within him when he first set foot inside the sanctuary, or maybe even before. It wasn't how much time he spent in the sanctuary which affected the outcome for him, it was the inspiration he derived from his stay.

Granted, research is important, and depending on your subject you may need more or less time to do it properly and educate yourself well enough to write on it. But the long and short of it, the point I am trying to make, is the importance of finding inspiration in the journey you take to get there.

Imagine this: You visit the local library to research the people of the Lesser Antilles. While you are there, reading, studying and taking notes, you meet an old man who always wanted to travel there. He shares his story about growing up, maybe once as a boy reading a story about that same place in National Geographic; later fighting in a war, getting married, having children, finding a job at a local factory; living a decidedly different life than he ever dreamed and never getting a chance to take the trip he always wanted to take.

If you only ever had one conversation with him, what sort of story could you make from that? How might that impact the story you had intended to write?

Again, in most cases it's not the research which makes the story, it's the inspiration. Now tell me, where does your inspiration come from?

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