Bronze Quill Judge's Report
Bernice Barry

 

Non-fiction embraces such wide-ranging possibilities, across so many genres, that its boundaries are almost limitless. Even within the parameters of ‘creative non-fiction’, we might expect to see memoir, journalism, biography or personal essay. The writer might choose to use exposition or argument. Style can be sombre, lyrical, provocative, humorous. Subject matter may be contemporary, historical or look to the future. The latest experimental writing expands the boundaries further, melding genres in exciting new ways. There’s another reason for such variety. Even if we assume we can trust the content of non-fiction as factual, a pure telling of truths, we also know that given the same source information, different writers can tell very different stories. I learned during the years of researching and writing my own book that an author curates the available information in a very personal way simply through the choices she makes. I strove to avoid bias in my representation of Georgiana Molloy but I know that readers see my affection and admiration. It’s there between the lines, in the quotes I selected to use and the viewpoints I offered.

The range in this year’s entries did not disappoint.  Although there was an unsurprising weighting towards memoir, the differences in mood, style and length meant that the criteria I used to make judgements had to focus on the success of each one not just as an example of effective non-fiction but also as an example of good writing. The winning entries share something that goes beyond the ‘bare bones’ of successful non-fiction. They have that special ingredient that’s more difficult to define because it comes from the way the writer manages everything the reader experiences within and behind the text. When you know you’re in the hands of an accomplished writer, it’s not just the vocabulary used, the shapes and cadences of the syntax, the descriptions of people, places and feelings or the way ideas are conveyed. It’s all those at the same time. Although the outcome can seem rather like magic, it usually comes down to authorial skill, a kind of writerly empathy that anticipates the effect of every word and every space, every shift in pace and viewpoint. It’s this masterly juggling of many plates that lifts perfectly adequate writing to wonderful writing. It creates a connection between author and reader, and it’s as important in non-fiction as it is in fiction.With all that in mind, I ended up with a rather long shortlist, a testament to the overall high quality of the entries.

The winning pieces are very different from one another but they have something in common. They did not just inform me through good writing, they also connected with me as a reader, sparked my imagination or hooked my interest. I have great pleasure in announcing the following awards, beginning with three Commended entries then moving on to two Highly Commended, a Runner Up and finally the First Prize.

Currently there is no media on this page

                                              

Commended                       ‘Afternoon Escape’ by June Smith

In a series of vivid images, the story of a country town and its people is lovingly rendered in a style that mirrors the apparent simplicity of the events being described. At first, the small memories of daily life (shared at a local reunion) are recounted in short sentences that echo the rhythms of conversation. ‘We were all young again.’ ‘Everyone had a story.’ Longer sentences begin to build and roll in like a rising tide, carrying the reader towards the last, sad event in the town’s history.

 

Commended                       ‘Perceptions’ by Astra Warren

An account of one small, puzzling incident during a short plane flight, a moment expertly described through the sharpness of remembered detail. ‘The plane made a gentle curve across the slanting beams of the rising sun.’ ‘Bright sunlight suddenly dimmed as misty veils trailed across the windows.’ The language is pared down, bravely unembellished, leaving only what matters. We’re invited to wonder, as the writer herself did, whether ‘time only exists in the mind of man’.

 

Commended                       ‘Breaking Full Circle’ by Helen Iles

Recurring patterns of domestic violence are dealt with here through an effective combination of an individual case study and extracts from research findings. ‘She is eight years old, and luckily has few options available to achieve her self-destruction.’ Careful writing emphasises fact not emotion, trusting in the reader’s own response, and balances the effect of shocking details by pulling back to a wider viewpoint. The whole piece is subtly connected, its main point signalled in the title, embedded implicitly within the tragic story of the unnamed girl and stated explicitly in the last sentence. ‘… breaking the cycle of abuse.’

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

 

 

The styles of the two Highly Commended awards show how varied non-fiction can be.

Highly Commended          ‘Are We Enlightened?’ by Jan Altmann

‘Are we enlightened?’ takes us on a pacey journey through the Enlightenment. This entry dares to present mysteries that have perplexed great thinkers for centuries. The writer’s boldness works because she never loses the thread of purpose that winds through the text. Her main point becomes satisfyingly evident when the ‘dead white males’ mentioned in Line 10 are referenced again at the end, like a matching bookend. ‘And just perhaps, we may discover that aristocratic, educated white males are not the only ones to be enlightened.’

 

Highly Commended          ‘Natural, Unnatural and Supernatural’ by Pat Fletcher

The style of this memoir piece imbues it with a sense of loss and mystery, not least because the old house on the hill that sits at the centre of the writer’s memories seems like a character in a story. It ‘gazed benignly down at the myriad saplings which, in time, would become a forest’.  The descriptions of the setting and the changes that occur over many years are well written in melodic, poetic narrative. ‘Closer, no higher. And strangely, no noise. Across the swamp it came…’ ‘We stood transfixed and watched as the saffron edge of the full moon appeared.’

 

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

 

Runner Up                           ‘We have a Bridge’ by Wendy Stackhouse

One of the most unusual entries in the way it’s organised, this uses a simple repeating pattern to provide information in blocks. The structural base allows the writer to give us a wealth of intriguing details about bridges around the world while leading us almost imperceptibly to a central theme, our sense of place. It’s a journey of facts and figures but it never bores because it moves quickly. The poetic use of the refrain, ‘We have a bridge’, reminds us that pride in the place we call home is not uniquely Australian and the repetition of the pronoun is a gentle allusion to the social connectedness of human beings. ‘WE have a bridge.’ On our welcome arrival back in Perth after the world tour, the understated but warm affection shown for ‘our bridge’ is the reader’s delightful reward.

 

1ST Prize                                ‘Losing Sight’ by Rose van Son

‘Losing Sight’ is a good example of what non-fiction does so well. There was new learning here for me, about the eye condition ‘glaucoma’, but this is not just an information piece. It draws on the writer’s own experiences through family and friends, and these emotional connections are used skilfully to give depth, to build empathy and to make what could easily have been an impersonal exposition into a moving account. There’s a directness and an honesty about the writing here, achieved through prose that manages to feel both literary and informal, like the voice of an accomplished presenter. The use of present tense throughout is consistent and well-chosen. The musicality of the sentences, sometimes layered clause upon clause and sometimes simple, is refreshing to read. ‘Losing Sight’ lingered in my mind for a long time after reading.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………

 

Finally, I congratulate all the writers who entered this competition. I know from personal experience how very rewarding it can be, this craft of writing, and also how vulnerable we make ourselves when we go public with our work in any way. In the end, we write for readers and it was both a privilege and a delight to have been your reader this year.  Keep writing!