“These innovative forms have allowed me to discover new ways into story, especially about difficult subject matter. I’m excited and honoured to be joining Nicole in mentoring writers as she has mentored me.”

~ Rowan McCandless


I first came to know Rowan in early 2016, when she enrolled in the very first session of my CNF Outliers course.

Since 2015, Rowan has emerged as a true luminary on the Canadian literary scene, telling stories that push boundaries both in terms of subject matter and form, offering a unique and under-represented perspective in fiction and personal essays.

Rowan has been nominated for a host of awards for her fiction and creative nonfiction over the past five years.

In 2015 she won second place in Room magazine’s fiction contest. The following year she won second place in Prairie Fire’s fiction contest, and in 2017 she won Room’s CNF award — the same year she was long-listed for PRISM International’s CNF contest. In 2018 Rowan was long-listed for The Journey Prize for fiction, and in 2019 an essay she wrote in my Outliers class won the Constance Rooke Creative Nonfiction prize. She is a 2x finalist for Canada’s 2020 National Magazine Awards in the one-of-a-kind storytelling category.

In my Q and A with Rowan, she shares her thoughts on:

  • why it’s important to tell hard stories
  • the role form and structure play in her work, and
  • her advice for writers who are a few steps behind on their journey to write a memoir.

Q + A with Rowan McCandless

N: Rowan, all of your personal essays that I’ve read have confronted very difficult, sometimes traumatic, experiences. The essays included in your upcoming memoir include stories about intergenerational trauma, being mixed-race and racism.

What have you found are the greatest benefits of writing your stories? When it feels hard, why do you keep going?

R: One of the greatest benefits is that writing allows me an avenue to elevate the ugliness of trauma into something artistic and beautiful; work that, hopefully, vibes with readers and writers alike. Writing my stories gives me a way to process past life experiences. When the writing feels hard to do, I keep writing because marginalized voices need to be heard. I keep writing for that one person who perhaps can find some solace and connection through my work. I keep writing as a way to show readers and writers that there are numerous ways to tell a story and perhaps it might help another writer to tell their personal truth. I keep writing to break the rule of silence so many of us carry.

N: We met because we both appreciate storytelling that pushes the boundaries of form, and I love the way you use form in surprising and innovative ways to tell raw, vulnerable stories — like “Found Objects”, which used the frame of archeological field notes to tell a multi-layered story about land, colonialism and exploitation.

What is it about form that helps you tell the difficult stories you feel called to tell? What are your favourite forms to play with and why?

R: Different forms allow me to write about difficult subject matter. These forms provide a layer of distance between myself and the material which helps make writing the tough stuff easier. In order to marry form with content, I’m given a structure to contain the depth and breadth of the story being told.

Some of my favourite forms are:

* The diptych and triptych: I love the tension and interplay that can be created between panels.
* The hermit crab essay, including the graphic hermit crab: I love the marriage between form and content, the process of discovering just the right structure to support a story.
* The photo essay: I’m intrigued with creating an essay that makes use of text and photographic imagery. I appreciate the balance needed between show versus tell.
* The interactive essay: I find it fascinating to make use of visual images and interactive hypertext. This form is next on my list to work on and play with.

N: Who are some of your favourite writers, the memoirists and CNF writers that inspire you and/or that you would include in your chain of influence?

R: Jane Allison, Randon Billings Noble, Eula Biss, Nicole Breit, Alexander Chee, Chelsey Clammer, Alicia Elliott, Eufemia Fantetti, Beth Anne Fennelly, Sierra Skye Gemma, Jenny Heijun Wills, Leslie Jamison, Austin Kleon, Chelene Knight, Carmen Maria Machado, Sarah Minor, David Mura, Erica Trabold, Ayelet Tsabari, Elisa Washuta, and Tara Westover.

N: If you could offer writers aspiring to tell a hard story, or a whole collection of them, advice to help them get started, what would it be?

R: I would first suggest having elements of self-care at your disposal and also to remember that it’s not required for you to bleed on the page. Respect your process and remember that writing is in the rewriting. Take time to consider form; you need the support of a structure to tell your tale. It’s okay to work on more than one essay at a time. Sometimes the back and forth provides the writer with breathing space so as not to become overwhelmed by either work. Build writing community. I don’t know how I would have finished my manuscript without the support of other writers. If the overall scope of an essay or essay collection feels daunting remember to take it step by step. My favourite strategy in completing my manuscript was to write 500 words per day. The words add up quickly.

N: I’m so honoured and thrilled you’ll be teaching the next session of my visual storytelling course! What are you most looking forward to as you get set to mentor writers who are curious about form and looking for new ways to tell their stories?

R: What I am most looking forward to is having the opportunity to meet and work with other life writers ready to dive into these amazing forms. I can’t wait to see where these visual forms of storytelling lead writers as I act as a facilitator, helping to nurture and support another way into writing creative nonfiction. I look forward to meeting all of you and being with you as you discover new visual forms of storytelling through openness, experimentation, and curiosity.

Rowan McCandless lives and writes from Winnipeg, which is located on Treaty 1 territory, the ancestral and traditional homeland of the Anishinaabeg, Cree, Dakota, Dene, Métis, and Oji-Cree Nations. She earned her B.A. and B.Ed. from the University of Winnipeg, and her creative writing certificate from SFU’s Writers’ Studio (2019). In 2018, Rowan’s short story, Castaways, was long-listed for The Journey Prize, and her essay, “Found Objects” won the Constance Rooke Creative Nonfiction Prize. Rowan’s creative nonfiction embraces social justice and celebrates hybridity as a way into story. A tangential thinker, innovative forms fit the way she catalogues and understands the world, and she is proud to be a creative outlier. In 2020, she was selected as a two time nominee in the “1 of a kind category” with the National Magazine Awards. Her essay collection, Persephone’s Children will be published in 2021 with Dundurn Press. Her fiction and creative nonfiction has been published in print and online journals such as The Fiddlehead, The Malahat Review, Prairie Fire, Room, The Nasiona and in the anthology, Black Writers Matter. She is a member of The Fiddlehead’s Advisory Board.