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Ian Brown and the broccoflower cartel

Journalist Ian Brown has changed. It took six months in the clear mountain air, immersing himself inThe Banff Centre, observing the Alberta way of life and fine-tuning his canoeing skills, but he’s definitely changed.

Ian Brown canoeing with The Banff Centre's Jim Olver

Ian Brown canoeing on the Bow River with The Banff Centre’s Jim Olver

Brown was the first Banff Centre Globe Canada Correspondent, and it invariably lobbed some interesting scenarios at him, but essentially it was the cultural exchange at The Banff Centre, set against the backdrop of pure mountain life, that helped shift his worldview.

“It’s definitely made me more ambitious as a journalist,” says Brown. “Banff is a place where you step out of your door and immediately encounter nature. I think people need beauty in their lives – you need to see something beautiful or to encounter something beautiful every day, if only to remind you that it’s there and that it’s important. Being here made me remember that the best art is the art that gives people pleasure, makes them feel stimulated, makes them feel engaged. And you have that every day here. I think it’s made me want to be a more engaging writer.”

Brown, who’s also director of the Centre’s Literary Journalism program, was the inaugural Globe and Mail correspondent for The Banff Centre, starting his tenure back in February. In the six months since he moved from Toronto to the Alberta Rockies he has encountered his fair share of obstacles (in the form of legendary dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov), insults (a concert violinist commenting that musicians are “gods compared to writers”) and delights (the best curry Brown has ever tasted was at Vista’s).

“I have yet to have a boring conversation in Banff,” he says. “A huge part of this is the immersive experience of being around artists and art all the time. I’ve encountered writers, painters, thinkers and mathematicians.  And what being in the immersive situation does is makes you not judge anything. You can’t judge it, you’re part of it.”

For every challenging encounter there was also an equally rewarding one. “I really loved talking to Jeff Melanson on what he plans to do with the Centre. The way he connects up nationalism and culture and the environment, he understands the connection between the mountains, the mind and the body politic. Those were ideas I hadn’t heard till I got out here.”

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Finding the literary in journalism

Ann Silversides, a writer in the 2012 Literary Journalism program.

Author Ann Silversides, a writer in the 2012 Literary Journalism program.

I like to joke that I was the oldest participant in the Summer 2012 Literary Journalism program, but the only one not writing a memoir. It wasn’t true (the memoir writing bit), but I’m certain that, of the nine of us, I had the most difficulty using the personal pronoun in my writing. More than two decades have passed since I was a newspaper reporter, but I absorbed the lessons of hard news training very well, and back then there was no place for the personal pronoun.

I applied to the Banff Centre program to help me break from the hold that newspaper training had on me. At the Leighton Colony, I shared the Painter House with Drew Nelles. At 26, he was the second youngest participant (and, yes, he was working on a memoir). I was astonished to overhear Drew tell someone that he reads every issue of the New Yorker magazine cover to cover. As an on-again, off-again subscriber, I often don’t make it past the cartoons. Drew worked upstairs and I was downstairs. When we arrived in Banff, his writing was at a more advanced stage than mine, so I spent more of my time hanging about the house — reorganizing and rewriting, reorganizing and rewriting. It became apparent, as we critiqued each other’s work, that Drew is a precocious master at structure, no doubt aided by all that New Yorker reading.

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One tree at a time: Charlotte Gill on how words and trees are similar

 Eating Dirt: Charlotte Gill

From tree planter to creative writer to literary mentor – Charlotte Gill has not followed a conventional career path. The British Columbia author’s 1988 decision to trade her urban undergraduate lifestyle for a summer spent planting trees in northern Ontario was a crucial turning point in her life. It led to 17 years work as a seasonal tree planter and, ultimately, to a best-selling book. It also, curiously, led to The Banff Centre.

Gill’s Eating Dirt – a personal exploration of both the lived experience and the science of tree planting – won the 2012 BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction and the CBA Libris Non-Fiction Book of the Year Award. Gill sat down with Inspired to talk about her journey from the clear cut to the printed page.

What came first, tree planting or writing?
I am sometimes described as a tree planter turned writer, but more accurately those two things mutually evolved. I began tree planting when I was 19, and I also began writing when I was 19. My first book [Ladykiller] was published in 2005 when I was well into my planting career, so in a way I feel that tree planting was an excellent psychic training ground for me as a writer. As a tree planter, you spend a lot of hours by yourself trying to accomplish something large that is composed of a series of very tiny pieces. In a way, that is not dissimilar to writing a book – one word at a time, one sentence at a time. Continue Reading →

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Weekly podcast #7: Charlotte Gill, Don Giovanni, Dr. James Feng, more…

We talk about what goes on under the surface and what these hidden processes can reveal scientifically, motivationally, and artistically.

Author Charlotte Gill discusses why she came to write about her experiences as a tree planter. We meet Dr. James Feng, the organizer of the Banff International Research Station workshop on morphogenesis. And we take a look backstage in the Banff Centre Costume Shop to find out why Don Giovanni’s waistcoat has a red lining.

The Banff Centre Weekly Podcast brings you stories of the diverse projects that artists from around the world are working on, here in Banff.

Subscribe to the weekly podcast on iTunes here.

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Charlotte Gill: reading about eating dirt

Literary Journalism alum Charlotte Gill brought her book Eating Dirt back to the Centre last month. Photo: Meghan Krauss.

“I lost the afternoon in a wet smear of movement and sensation. At the end of the day I felt as if I’d been blown and beaten by the slaps of a car wash,” Charlotte Gill read from her book Eating Dirt to a packed house at Canmore’s Communitea cafe. It’s an account of Gill’s many years as a tree planter, and I’m feeling a little guilty about my cleanliness and the cushy office chair waiting for me at my job. But Gill has the skill to bring all of us into the clear-cut with her – which she does at one of the popular reading nights for Literary Journalism.

My experience with The Banff Centre has really gone hand in hand with the growth of my career over time.

In 2001, Gill brought the manuscript for her first book, Ladykiller, to the Centre. Since then, she’s been back for self-directed residencies, and she was also in the Literary Journalism program herself five years ago, making a graceful switch from fiction to nonfiction writing. “I knew I had this experience that lent itself really well to a first person story – a true story,” she says about the genesis for Eating Dirt. ”It just seemed that narrative non-fiction, literary journalism, was the right way to tell it.”

A self-proclaimed urbanite who leads a tea-drinking, cardigan-wearing writer’s life, Gill wondered why she was so attracted to tree planting, something that on the surface was so uncomfortable and unpleasant. “I decided that although I couldn’t think of an answer I would somehow let that inform the writing. If I had to encapsulate it in a nut shell I would say that for every bit of physical discomfort there is, there is an equal opportunity for an incandescent experience and I think that a lot of people really get hooked on those extremes. It’s almost like there’s no way to live in the middle.”

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Masa Takei: “I don’t trophy-hunt”

Masa Takei paddle-hunting.

Freelance writer Masa Takei just wanted to build a cabin and write about the adventure. In July he spent a month in the Literary Journalism program after a year living off the grid on Haida Gwaii, and it gave him the opportunity to look back at the year he dropped everything to build a cabin from scratch (with zero cabin-building skills) and live off the land. He documented his entire adventure on Masa Off Grid, but his advisors here suggestedthat instead of compressing the whole experience into an 8000-word piecemaybe he should focus on one aspect. Takei began to narrow his focus down to one experience over that year – hunting.

Living off grid in Haida Gwaii gave Masa the chance to attempt hunting his first fossil-fuel-free deer. Biking to the hunt was fine, but loading up the deer on his bike and pushing the load back to his cabin was a bit more strenuous. Luckily the deer in Haida Gwaii are quite small. Although hunting wasn’t his entire focus over the year, it became an important part and consequence of his mission.

Masa Takei’s cabin on the edge of the surf in Haida Gwaii, British Columbia. Photo: Masa Takei.

In this audio clip, Takei reflects on his relationship with hunting. Check out the full interview in The Banff Centre’s Weekly Podcast.

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Check out the podcast on the blog or visit iTunes to subscribe.

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