Square Peg - Dundurn
Nov 04, 2021

Square Peg

“Our strategy should be not only to confront empire, but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness . . . and our ability to tell our own stories.” Arundhati Roy

In 2015, my eldest daughter issued a challenge to her sisters and me. “We have so much creativity, but no one is making use of their particular talents. We should be using our creativity rather than letting it go to waste.” Wanting to be a good role model and to offer my daughters encouragement, I returned to writing.

It turned out to be a demanding task. I found it difficult to write personal stories and wound up with a drawerful of first drafts that I ignored until abandoned. My voice was a square peg that I was trying to jam into a round hole. No way was that going to work.

Then in 2016, I became aware of creative nonfiction and the lyric essay after reading Eula Biss’s “The Pain Scale.” In this essay, Biss uses a medical pain scale to discuss the nature of pain (physical, emotional, spiritual). Reading her work was a pivotal moment for me. I understood that the essays I had languishing in a bottom drawer could be resurrected. Rather than trying to fit my stories into a traditional format, I could use unorthodox storytelling methods.

Online, I was fortunate to discover creative nonfiction workshops that furthered my understanding of the many structures under the umbrella term lyric essay. I delved into the collage, the braided, the hermit crab, the diptych and triptych, the prose poem, the visual essay, and the decentered hermit crab essay. I began writing creative nonfiction. I was fortunate to meet fantastic mentors along the way. They encouraged me to submit my work for consideration to literary magazines. I won contests, including gold and an honourable mention with a National Magazine Award in the category of one-of-a-kind storytelling.

Writing the chapters for Persephone’s Children, I used various structures, such as a religious primer, a legal contract, a crossword puzzle, an archeological field study as examples. For me, it made sense to write Persephone’s Children as a hybrid memoir in essay form. It made sense to chronicle my leaving a domestic abuse situation as a black and biracial woman and how writing sustained me during that difficult process by using outlier forms. To write using structures that mirrored the fragmentation of memory due to trauma made sense to me. The ones that weren’t stored in a linear fashion and needed to be written in a nonconformist way. I was pushing back on imposed silence. I was pushing back as a divergent thinker. I had a story to tell.

Rowan McCandless is an award-winning author of fiction and creative non-fiction. She has been longlisted for the Journey Prize and has won the Constance Rooke Creative Non-Fiction Prize. She received gold for One of a Kind Storytelling at the National Magazine Awards. Rowan lives in Winnipeg. Learn more here.