25th Trillium Award

On Writing, the CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize Edition, with Mohan Srivastava

Share |

There's a reason so many readers love creative nonfiction. Fact, as they say, is stranger (and stronger) than fiction, but when it's paired with exquisite writing, complex emotion and keen observation, these real-life stories are utterly captivating. The ten finalists for the CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize / Prix du récit Radio-Canada have been chosen, and each of these talented writers has an incredible story to tell.

Open Book is pleased to feature each of the English language finalists in this week leading up to the announcement of the Grand Prize winner on Monday, July 22. In our final installment, Mohan Srivastava tells us about the joys and challenges of writing his nominated essay, "The Gods of Scrabble". You can read his essay here.

Check back with us on Monday for the announcement of the winning essay.

Open Book:

Tell us about the essay that's been selected as a finalist for the CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize.

Mohan Srivastava:

“The Gods of Scrabble” is a story from my 20s, one I’ve often told over drinks and dinner to friends. With it now being on the shortlist for the CBC Canada Writes Creative Nonfiction Prize, I feel obliged to make it sound as if I know what the story is about; but, to be honest, I don’t. It’s a story about naïvete, about a young man (me) who underestimates older women. It’s a story about superficial differences, and how it’s easy to make wrong assumptions about others. It’s a story about the pleasure of language, and about the joys and frustrations of Scrabble.

It revolves around a game of Scrabble I was invited to play with three women, all immigrants to Canada from Hungary, all much older than me, and all strangers. I’m an avid Scrabble player, and was happy to have been asked to join them. But the game was a raucous affair, with a lot of banter between the women who were keen to understand new words, and who were quick to challenge any unfamiliar or improper word. I ended up passing on a chance to play a really good word, one that would have scored lots of points, because I chickened out, fearing that I would have to explain the word. I quickly learned that my assumption was wrong, and that the word was well known to all of the women.


When did you realize that you needed to tell this story?


My first plan for the Canada Writes competition this past February was to try to write about the death of my younger brother. Even though that piece never came close to working the way that I wanted it to, I still really wanted to submit something to Canada Writes. I’d made a promise to myself, on turning 50, that I would push forward with trying to be a writer; the Canada Writes competitions have been a great vehicle for helping me to keep my promise. So when the piece on my brother’s death collapsed into a big pile of tortured and useless fragments, I had to put that aside in January and choose a different story, a completely different kind of story from the one about my brother’s death.

This particular story was one of several I considered when I was casting about for a Plan B. Two of the others also involved language, so the themes of communication and understanding must appeal to me.


What was the biggest challenge you faced in the process of writing this piece?


I decided to write this piece because I think of myself as being clumsy when it comes to dialogue. It usually ends being “Blah, blah, blah,” she said and “Blah, blah, blah,” he said … cringe-worthy stuff. This story depends on dialogue, so it was a great way of holding my own feet to the fire and forcing myself to work at improving a weakness in my writing. With this story, the many oral retellings made the narrative arc of the story easy, and allowed me to focus on trying to render the dialogue in a way that sounded authentic … or, if not “authentic”, then at least “plausible”.

When I started into writing this piece, I realized quickly that I affect an accent when I tell the story to friends, and felt this was essential to the story. So I had to figure out how to convey accented dialogue, and that was much harder than the cheap trick of adopting a faux accent for the oral version.


Are you tempted to expand this essay into a longer project, or do you feel it's complete? How do you know?


I doubt that this would work well as a significantly longer piece. I think it’s the humour that makes this story succeed, and humour is often related to surprise, which is easier to deliver in a short story.

I have thought about how the story could be better, with an extra word here and there, or a change in phrasing. But I think that the wish-for-perfection is something that holds writers back; it certainly holds me back. The success of “The Gods of Scrabble” has taught me that I should try to push pieces out the door when they’re ready, not when they’re perfect.

I’m not sure how to tell if it’s “complete”. But it does feel entirely self-contained; I can’t think of any extra bits of information or background that would improve the story. I suppose it could have some explanation of how the game of Scrabble works, for the benefit of those who don’t know the game. But my sense is that the gist of the game is so well known that this is unnecessary.


Can you recommend a great work of creative nonfiction that you've read recently?


I love the essays of E.B. White, who is probably best known as the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little, and not so well known as the White of Strunk and White, or as a superb essayist. He brings to his essays an evident love for the natural world, and a sharp eye for the details of our modern technological world. His essay “Here is New York” bears many readings. In addition to being stunningly prescient, warning more than half a century before 9/11 of the madman for whom the destruction of that one city would be his ultimate prize, it is also a beautiful (but not fluffy or sappy) reflection on a remarkable city.

When he was staying at the King Eddie in Toronto in his 20s, White also wrote “Natural History”, one of my favourite love poems, three simple ABAB stanzas to his wife Katharine in which he uses a spider to spin a reflection about the ties that bind us to distant loved ones … more than 20 years before he wrote about the spider named “Charlotte”.

When people are struggling to develop their essay-writing skills, I’ve often pointed them to White’s essays as great examples of clear and simple prose. He excels as an essayist without being clever or complex in his phrasing. I often encounter skepticism when I recommend White; we tend to assume that successful writers of children’s stories aren’t able to hold an adult’s attention. With White, this is a mistaken assumption.

Mohan (“Mo”) Srivastava decided, at 50, that it was time to make a serious attempt at discovering whether or not he could write anything that others would enjoy reading. Being a writer appealed to him as a teenager, but was less appealing to his father, who counseled in favour of a career that might actually pay the bills. Mo has enjoyed success as a consultant who specializes in geostatistics, the application of statistics to earth science problems. His discovery of a flaw in an instant-scratch lottery game was covered by The Fifth Estate in 2006, and by Wired magazine in 2011. His first attempts at writing for public consumption have all been non-fiction: personal anecdotes and essays and letters. In 2012, he was longlisted for the “Close Encounters with Science” competition of CBC Canada Writes.

Find out more about the CBC Creative Nonfiction Prize / Prix du récit Radio-Canada by visiting their website.

Post new comment

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

More information about formatting options

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Advanced Search