Sublime Banff awoke the literary me
A board member’s experience at this year’s Literary Journalism residency at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity
Here is a sample of my usual journalistic style, made extra boring for the purpose of demonstration:
Jim Olver, director of customer services for the Banff Centre, took Jay Whetter on a canoe trip down the Bow River. Olver gave Whetter paddling tips for fast water, and pointed out a few geological features along the way.
This straight style may satisfy “just the facts, please” readers, whereas literary journalism, which takes more time to write and read, rewards the reader with scenes and sensations. Here is an example:
Jim Olver meets every last person enrolled at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. I say “every last person” because “most” doesn’t capture the scope of his welcoming. Nobody forgets meeting Jim. He’s a tall guy who wears an Indiana Jones hat and blue blazer, and greets you with a big smile and slight southern Ontario drawl.
Olver, the director of customer services, joined the Banff Centre 40 years ago. When Olver took me and the other attendees of the Literary Journalism program on an introductory tour of the campus, he had a lot to go through: restaurants, the pool and fitness room, climbing wall, artists’ studios, backstage at theatres, our base at Vinci Hall. He ran out of time to mention that he is an expert river canoer and a geologist.
I found out about Jim the canoer and Jim the geologist from one of our three mentors in the Literary Journalism program. I had this knowledge in my back pocket when Olver walked up to me a few days later to ask how things were going. I was under the morning sun in a Muskoka chair reading Michael Harris’s All We Want, listening to the cheeps of Columbian ground squirrels, and looking at a mountain. Multitasking—Banff style. I got up and said, “Hey, I hear you’re an expert canoer.” We talked, he slowly and me quickly, about canoeing, and it led to a surprise email at 5:30 a.m. the next morning with the subject: “Canoeing today?” Jim Olver, river canoeing specialist, invited me to canoe with him. I replied two hours later, hoping I wasn’t too late (I wasn’t), and we arranged to meet at his house at 11:30.
And…scene. I took up a lot of space there, and I didn’t even get to the parts about canoeing and geology. But with those two literary paragraphs, you know more about Jim and the origins of my canoe experience. As a friend described, “Literary Journalism sounds like novel writing,” which is appropriate. Many literary journalism articles evolve into non-fiction books.
The sublime beauty of the Rocky Mountains puts our wants in perspective, inspiring us to do good work for ourselves and for the Earth. Photo by Jay Whetter.
Literary Journalism was my reason to be at the Banff Centre. It wasn’t canoeing or geology. The residency program gives people an escape from their everyday lives to “explore new ideas in journalismand experimentation in writing,” as the website says. Applications require a three-page article pitch, a resume and a small portfolio of work. If selected, applicants have to arrive with a draft article researched and written so their time at Banff can focus on the intense crafting of a 3,000- to 5,000-word masterpiece.
I applied to the Literary Journalism program after seeing a notice on the SWCC website. Michael Harris, of All We Want and a mentor in the program, encouraged me to encourage you—Canadian science writers—to apply next year. “We’d love to get more science article pitches,” he said. The program is open to any topic, not just science. Mine was about Indigenous farming.
My two weeks at the Banff Centre in July were basically a crash-course in Masters-level literary style, as my mentor Carol Shaben said. Carol was ruthless in a loving way. I told her I hadn’t had an editor in over 20 years, and she made up for lost time.
She challenged me to describe people, how they talked and what they wore. She asked me to dig into the messages beyond the words. She wanted my writing to show what I saw, to express emotion, and to pulse with poetry. All the while she demanded a message in the work and a purpose to every word. Why should people care?, she often asked. As you might expect, the draft I arrived with on July 3 was completely transformed by July 16. On my last day in Banff, I told the centre’s Director of Literary Arts that “every word of my article had changed, except for a couple of ‘the’s’.” It was a good thing.
While in Banff, I also had time to get to know the other participants. We ate together, had campfires, hiked Sacred Buffalo Guardian Mountain, had a few drinks, and talked about all kinds of stuff. I also had time alone to sit in a red Muskoka chair and read.
In All We Want, Harris argues that unnecessary ad-driven consumption will not scratch our itch for fulfillment. Retail therapy just fills the world with stuff we don’t need and leaves us looking for the next fix. Harris lists three alternatives for true fulfillment: craft, care and the sublime. I got all three in my two weeks at Banff. I worked on my craft as a writer. I enjoyed the care of Carol, Michael and Charlotte Gill (chair of the program) and my seven new writer friends—five from Canada, two from New York City. As for sublime—extreme natural beauty that puts all other “wants” in perspective—I got that in spades at Banff, and it crescendoed in a red canoe on the Bow River with Jim Olver.
Jim dresses differently for canoeing. He wore maroon light-weight pants, a mint green long-sleeved shirt, canoeing shoes—waterproof, high tops with a lot of laces—and a Tilley hat. Then, for bling, he clipped two red hankies to his hat to protect his ears and neck from the sun. It was the Jim-Bow version of a fascinator. By contrast, I looked amateur, with Adidas shoes, jeans, raincoat and Winnipeg Jets cap.
I canoe a few times a year on lakes around Kenora, Ontario, but the fast flowing rain-swollen Bow of July 2022 is a different beast. We forward-ferried on an upstream angle, then Jim leaned into a turn and from there we let the current carry us. Jim steered us down the middle of the river while I took photos. I had my phone in a knotted baggie to keep it dry and each time I put it back, he suggested I take it out to capture another sublime moment. While I tied and untied baggie knots, Jim answered my questions about the Rockies.
Jim the geologist graduated from the University of Toronto in 1974 and worked for Cominco for the first part of his working life, traveling most of Canada looking for potential mining sites. Here are a few details I gathered from him:
The Rocky Mountains are made primarily of limestone and clastic sediments. Limestones accumulated at about two centimetres per thousand years; clastic sediments about two metres per thousand years.
The mountains were once the bed of the Pacific Ocean, and sediments seen from the Banff Centre campus date from up to 500 million years ago.
The Rocky Mountains began uplifting about 125 million years ago when two tectonic plates collided, pushing the sediments skyward. That is why the layers are now at angles.
Banff National Park, with its Rocky Mountain high, is a Canadian gem. So is the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. I encourage anyone with a good idea for a science article—or any article—to apply for the Literary Journalism residency. Sign up for the Centre’s newsletter for programming and application deadlines. Successful applicants get tuition, on-site accommodation, and on-site meals paid for. And most importantly, all that sublime beauty and expert mentorship do wonders for the writing skills.
Learn more about the Literary Journalism Residency, and the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. For questions about the residency, contact Jay at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author Bio: Jay Whetter is an agriculture journalist and editor of Canola Digest magazine. He is on the board of the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada, and a member of the Canadian Farm Writers Federation.
Social media: @kenorajay