Angela Misri (left), Marsha Barber (middle), moderator Suanne Kelman (right) and Waubgeshig Rice (on screen) during the My Double Life panel on March 26. (Courtesy of Ryerson Journalism Research Centre)

For new journalism students at Ryerson University, the steps leading to the Rogers Communication Centre look like you’re walking into a world of promise and creativity.

Most journalism students come into the program with a passion for writing but, once lectures begin and story days become a weekly occurrence, creativity is often trumped by CP style and inverted pyramids.

According to journalists Angela Misri, Marsha Barber and Waubgeshig Rice, however, this need not always be the case. In fact, the three journalists present at Ryerson School of Journalism’s panel “My double life: Journalists who also write fiction and poetry” on March 26 say that the worlds of journalism, fiction writing and poetry can sometimes intertwine.

CBC journalist Waubgeshig Rice says creative writing came first for him. What started off as an artistic outlet for Rice became a way to tell stories he came across on the reserve as an Indigenous youth.

“I knew they were unique experiences,” he says. “And there were a lot of compelling things to explore about my upbringing on the reserve and the things I saw happening around me.”

Rice says he fell into journalism a little later, but the worlds of fiction and hard facts intertwined, often with each medium influencing the other.

For Ryerson journalism professor Angela Misri, the story about whether journalism or creative writing came first isn’t clear, although, if you ask her mother, it was journalism.

Misri’s first experience with journalism was when she was 10. She became obsessed with the Hindu religion — which is what her family was — and, one day at Temple, she witnessed a priest pouring milk over a shivling.

“I wanted to know what the shivling was — what was its significance and everything,” says Misri. “I drove everyone insane and I needed to know all the details — I went into investigative reporter mode — and I was demanding, I was ‘Show me the evidence, what is this about?’”

After her own research and reporting, Misri uncovered that a shivling was a phallic symbol and, from that, never partook in the Puja ceremony again.

According to Misri — who, on top of being digital editor at the Walrus, is also an author — although journalism and creative writing can sometimes intertwine, there are rules that apply in each medium.

She references her own pieces of work, from young adult and adult novels, to her work in journalism, noting that each form of writing has its own requirements.

“As long as I know which rules I’m writing for, I don’t have any trouble sitting and writing those words,” she says.

Ryerson journalism professor Marsha Barber agrees with Misri but, as a poet and documentary journalist, she sometimes sees a parallel between the two worlds.

“I’ve seen broadcast scripts that look like poetry,” says Barber. “They’re sparse, the writing is concise, clear. And in some ways, in terms of the writing, I don’t think the worlds are that separate.”

Barber makes the argument that when you write poetry, you’re a witness and you’re striving for truth, the same way you are in journalism.

“It’s my lifeline,” Barber says about writing poetry. “It’s how I process life. I think we all have our forms of self expression and creative expression and, for me, it’s always been about words.”

Barber, Misri and Rice’s experiences in both worlds can provide solace for the budding journalists who worry about losing their creative minds upon entering journalism school. The fluid nature of fiction writing and the hard facts of news reporting often feel disconnected but, according to Rice, practice in both mediums can make for a skilled writer.

“Having the opportunity to do both has enhanced my skills as a storyteller and as a more well- rounded journalist and author.”

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