December 12th, 2016
A reader named Nedda recently commented on my most popular post ever, Should I Get a Masters in Creative Writing? to ask me about seeing my application portfolio. Sadly, I put that thing together and sent it off in fall 2004, 12 years and 3 computers ago, so I no longer have it–and Nedda actually didn’t leave me any contact info anyways. But since I’m thinking about it…
The advice I’ve generally gotten is that porfolios should contain a variety of work. Even if you have a single piece that is the full page count required by the portfolio and that piece is REALLY GOOD, you should still consider sending only an excerpt of that, and some other stuff too. You want to show range and breadth of interest, because the worst thing in a classroom where everyone is supposed to be learning and exploring and growing as writers is someone who just cares about this one kind of thing and doesn’t really want to explore or grow. I believe UBC actually requires multiple genres in their portfolio (I keep thinking it’s portfolii, though I know it isn’t) and that’s kind of a good idea even if not required, if you can swing it.
Portfolios should also be existing polished pieces that you maybe tweak or fine-tune for the submission of your portfolio. This one is going to have exceptions, people who thrive under pressure or like to create artificial deadlines for themselves, but in general writing new pieces for the portfolio is an additional challenge you don’t need. You want to have made the piece as good as you can, with feedback from friends and mentors. Yes, workshops thrive on messy, half-finished writing, but the application process is about showing the best you can do–so the assessors know where you’re starting from and in which direction you are going. Submitting portfolio pieces with flaws you could have fixed–or even typos–does not present as accurate a portrait of your skills as you would want.
Think about what you want the grad program to do for you when selecting pieces for the portfolio. This is less about the portfolio itself and more about why people actually want to go to grad school. I have been asked multiple times if fan-fiction is ok to include in a portfolio, and while I guess it’s possible to include it, I wonder why. If what you honestly want is to get better at writing fan-fiction, which has a specific goal of matching in tone, content, and characters something your mentors and classmates might have never seen, is grad school a good fit? Ditto submitting text version of spoken word to a program that doesn’t emphasize spoken word, or multimedia pieces ditto. Basically, look at the program and see what it can offer you and if your portfolio addresses that. If not, it might not be a question of changing the portfolio but changing where–or to what–you send it.
Anyway, this is just advice from one person’s standpoint–I’ll bet there’s quite a few successful folks out there who did the opposite of all of the above. But this is how I’ve found things, anyway. And at least one piece from my portfolio got published, in edited format, so I offer it here to read if you care to.
February 27th, 2016
There’s definitely people in the literary community who would crucify me for saying this, but I sometimes describe writing as a lucrative hobby rather than a job. I do this not because I think writers should not be paid for their work–I absolutely do–but just for personal morale purposes. If you line up writing income beside other jobs, like bank teller or physiotherapist, and compare incomes, you’re going to feel really really bad about writing. Whereas if you make the comparison instead to other hobbies, you feel like you’re coming out ahead. Knitters I know spend hundreds of dollars on wool, needles, and patterns and what do they end up with–some sweaters. Skiers are constantly buying clothes and equipment and paying for travel, and they don’t even get a product. Whereas all I need is the laptop I would own anyway, an internet connection, and a few pens–and I’m well on my way to writing the stories I love, and maybe, sometimes, as few bucks. It’s a cheering way of thinking about it–I assume the skiers, knitters, and I all have fun, but my fun is the cheapest, and the only one that’ll put the fun-haver occasionally in the black.
That said, there are a lot of products and services targeted at writers for a hefty cost. Many of these are fun, some of them are helpful, none–beyond a decent dictionary and the aforementioned computer–are really necessary. There’s always a way round, and I would encourage anyone who is worried not to feel pressured into paying money for something just to feel more “writerly.” If you want something because you think it would bring you joy or convenience or be helpful in your work and you can afford it, great–go for it–but assume that buying writer stuff is the same as any other capitalist transaction: once the money is spent, it’s gone. The worry I have is when folks tell me they’re going to spend x on a thing for writers that is guaranteed to pay for itself when they sell their movie option or whatever. Don’t do that–those things might not be scams, but there’s no such thing as a guaranteed return on investment in this crazy game called literature.
That said, I am finally finally nearly finished with my novel, and there are few things I’m going to buy my writer self as a reward. These things are fun for me and also, I hope, a bit helpful for the book–but if it turns out that they aren’t that helpful, ok, I’ll get some joy out of them and write off the money. I’ll put my hoped-for treats at the bottom of this list, after all the other ones I’m aware of.
Writing classes: So fun and valuable to me–I’ve taken half a dozen as an adult and learned a tonne. I’ve also met some wonderful other writers who are my workshop-friends now. I no longer take classes, but we still work together and offer each other feedback on our work, so what I got out of those initial, expensive classes was the ability to create free classes of my own. It was also a real blessing to just get out in the world with my stories and have people start to read them in a very supportive environment. While I no longer do these, writing classes were a really valuable first step when I needed them.
Books: This one is so obvious I almost didn’t put it on the list. Buy as many books as you can afford. When you run out of money, head for the library or borrow from a friend, but it’s really great to own the books you love best, so you can consult them or just reread for pleasure whenever you need a hit of high-quality literature. Buying books is also a good way to meet authors you admire, because everyone likes to be asked to sign their books (people who say they don’t are LYING).
Fancy notebooks and pens: I never buy these because I get them as gifts so often, but they are nice to have. I’m much less of a longhand writer than I once was, but I do like to have books to take notes in at meetings and workshops, and good fast-running pens. True confession: sometimes I use my nice stationary at my job instead, but it still makes me happy.
Manuscript evaluations and other editorial services: In general, I would recommend the first option on this list over this one–teach a man to fish and so forth. But some people learn better one-on-one, and some have issues with a particular manuscript rather than the craft of writing as a whole, and in those cases it does make sense to seek out a professional consultation and see if the editor can help you. My only advice would be to get a recommendation on this–there’s tonnes of people doing this kind of work in a variety of ways, so you want to find someone you can trust–and then consult on exactly what you need and can afford. Real, thoughtful substantive editing on a full manuscript is a huge job, something that often takes writers by surprise (though I don’t know why, considering how hard it is to write the damn thing in the first place) and can rightly be very expensive. A manuscript evaluation–an editor reads through your book and sends a few pages of notes on what’s working and what isn’t, but mainly leaves the how-to-fix up to you–can be a lot cheaper and still really insightful. If you want to go this route but are stumped at finding someone, hit me up–definitely don’t do this via google.
Writers’ retreats: Oh, my goodness, I want to do one of these. These are basically fun little summer camps for writers–you get food and a place to stay in (usually) a very pretty or interesting setting. There are other writers around to talk to in the evenings, and really nothing else to do but write during the day. How perfect does that sound? However, these are typically very expensive, and I don’t have a good justification for taking one. If I want to spend a week writing, I just take the week off from my job, sacrificing that income, and go write in my home office. To pay to write in a nicer place, while desirable, would be hard for me financially on top of the lost income from not being at work, and I really don’t have a hectic enough home life to justify it. BUT I WANT TO. If you do this, let me know how it goes–and send pictures! EDIT: Lovely Julia pointed out to me that there are fully funded residencies in the states, and even some that make up your income while you’re there. Obviously, I’m not too conversant in this stuff, but definitely I should be looking into it!)
Professional website design: I did this one–you’re looking at it! I love Rose-coloured and I spend a lot of time on it, so it sense for me to have a pretty, personal design that suits me and my work and accommodates the things I want to share in the ways I want to share them. I’ll go back to the designer (www.createmethis.com) for site refresh for the new book, and this is one of the aforementioned treats that I’m really looking forward to. It’ll be fun to have the site look different after half a dozen years of pink and the subway map. That said, I don’t think anyone needs to do this–you more or less do need a site of some kind, so that people can easily find you bio, events, and publications all in one spot, but you can totally do that with Blogspot or WordPress.com or any of the others free or cheap self-design sites. It can make you feel lovely and professional to have a lovely professional site, but it is totally a treat (can’t wait!)
Headshots: This is the other thing I’m going to do soonish in support of the new book/because I want to. I was pretty much told I had to get professional head shots for my first book, and though that turned out not to be true, I loved doing it. Professional photographers are so cool and interesting, and so different from writers, and it’s fun to spend a few hours trying to look like a real writer. Not to mention stage-managing the shoot so that the mood suits the book, maybe buying new clothes or whatever. Totally vanity, but if you’ve spent a few years in your sweatpants writing a goddamn novel, you are entitled to a little vanity. Or so I believe. Anyway, if you don’t want to go this route, it is fine, but you should still put a little thought into it. Basically, don’t take a cellphone selfie and call it a day. Try to find a friend who has a nice camera and takes photography at least a little seriously (easy way to tell: ask your publisher to send you the specs of what they need in a photo, then ask the friend if they understand those specs–if yes, they’ve got the gig) and ask them to take the pic in exchange for dinner or something like that. Spend some time thinking about how you want to look and where you want to be in the photo, and ask the friend to take a whole bunch of shots so you have options. Then go to a nice restaurant.
There are so many more treats you could buy your writing self: business cards, specialize software, fancy writing hat (ok, that last one is not a thing, I don’t think). There’s also stuff I know nothing about, like the services of a professional publicist to promote your book. Sounds legit to me, but I know no one who has done it, so I can’t offer any advice. And there’s probably lots more that I’m not even thinking of.
So basically, write your book, do your drudgery, put in the long exhausting hours, and then buy yourself a treat or two. You’ve earned it.
March 16th, 2015
My article on children learning to read, “How to Learn to Read (if You Don’t Already Know)” is out in Canadian Notes and Queries. It’s a great issue, with reviews by some of my favourite people, like Mark Sampson and Kerry Clare. Even the pieces by non-close-friends are awesome, like an article by Stephen Henighan (he seems like a good guy, but we don’t often hang) on Mavis Gallant’s mother–who knew that was exactly what I wanted to read, but it was.
My own article was a big challenge for me, because it’s as near as I dare tread to journalism. I mean, it isn’t–it has way too much about my experiences in kindergarten to be legit journalism, but I did actually interview people and track down lots of interesting information. Teaching and learning are some of my favourite topics of late. It’s no surprise, probably, since I work in textbooks but don’t actually have a background in education. I see a lot of pedagogical talk going on, and I’m slowly piecing together how things work–at least a little.
The best thing, though, is talking to actual students. I got the chance to do so a couple weeks ago, when I went to visit the Writers’ Craft class at Watertown High. It was a fun group engaged, chatty teens and I enjoyed myself though I was a bit exhausted by the end of the hour. Standing at the front of a group 25 eager faces, trying to entertaining and engaging and actually share something useful is very very hard. The coolest thing was that the teacher of that class was MY Writers’ Craft teacher, someone who taught me a lot way back in 1997. I mentioned this fact to the class when I arrived and a murmur quickly went through the room–I heard someone whisper “birthday!” It turns out that is the YEAR THEY WERE ALL BORN. I am twice as old as the grade 12s of today. Alarming. But brilliant that they still have such a great class at their disposal in the age of disappearing electives, and such a great teacher there to teach it to them. Thanks, Waterdown High–and thanks, Ms. North!!
July 12th, 2013
This blog has been a bit quiet of late, and when I do post it tends to be vacation anecdotes or random rants, but here at last is a post with some actual literary news…
First off, in the ongoing adventures of the short film How to Keep Your Day Job, now a nomination for best short film at the Directors’ Guild of Canada Awards. I guess you can watch this space at the end of October to see who won, but it’s just so great to see the amazing cast and crew of the film getting some recognition!
In terms of my own literary accomplishments, my short story “Marriage” has been accepted for an upcoming issue of The New Quarterly. Longtime readers will know I have a long love of The New Quarterly and am thrilled that they like this story. Can’t wait to see it in their pages.
And finally, Monday of this week, I did a fun 75 minute class with Professor Rawding’s literature students at University of Waterloo. They’d read a dozen stories out of The Big Dream, then thought about their reactions and made lists of questions by theme. Each group took a turn asking questions–yes, I did over an hour of Q&A with people who a) knew their stuff (no softball “so do you write with a pen or on a keyboard?” questions) and b) had not chosen the book themselves and did not necessarily like it.
It was *intense* to say the least, but also thrilling–the best compliment is a careful reading, I say. And honestly, no writer worth his/her salt ever believes anyone who says “Great book!” and leaves it at that. But the thorough, insightful questions from these students made me feel truly flattered that the book inspired them. I hope my answers were as good (or nearly).
Here’s a picture with me and the class. I am slouching because I was worried about blocking the kids behind me, who were actually way higher so I just look odd. Professor Rawding’s on the left in the green check shirt.
And finally, a photo of me with the professor’s cat (of course!)
November 17th, 2011
This question has come up in my orbit a lot lately, and despite my inherent bias–I have one and I like it–I always attempt to answer the question usefully and honestly. Now that I’ve reheased my answer half a dozen times (seriously–it’s like the new hot topic) I thought I’d put it here, for posterity.
After I went through the University of Toronto’s Masters of Creative Writing program, someone asked me “But can you really learn to write in school?” and after so many years, I finally stopped that line of enquiry cold by saying, “I did.”
I was lucky that woman phrased the question that way, though; if she had said, “But can you really be taught to write?” my answer would be more dubious. But a masters program can be a wonderful stimulant, incubator, director, and fortifier of any inate ability one might possess. A masters can help some people get where they want to go, but it depends on a number of things–some people get nothing out of their creative writing education, or nothing but bitterness and alcohol poisoning. Here are some questions to ask–yourself and others–that might help you decide if grad school might be worth your while.
Do I want an MA or an MFA in creative writing? If you don’t know the difference, don’t worry; I didn’t either until long *after* my tuition cheque was deposited. Good thing for me I picked the right thing for me, albeit totally randomly. An MA in creative writing is, as far as I know, always affiliated with a standard MA in English, and you will have to take some of those critical reading/theory classes in the course of the program. This is great if you, like me, believe that directed reading, intense and critical reading, and writing about what I read totally feeds and inspires my writing. Not that I’ve ever tried to write like Virginia Woolf, Mavis Gallant, J. M. Coetzee, or Salman Rushdie, a few of the authors I studied in my MA. But I certainly believe those writers stoked my creative fires, and helped me strengthen my work.
If on the other hand, you don’t want to read in that way or write essays, then you could consider an MFA in creative writing like the one at University of Guelph. These programs concentrate on various workshop classes (UofT only had one) and professional development for writers. While profs might well ask you to read, it’s in a decidedly non-academic context.
Despite my marvellous fortune, I strongly encourage potential masters to figure out which of these programs you want. I knew folks in my academic program who saw the critical courses as a waste of time, and they take a lot of it. It’s extremely disheartening to struggle through classes you don’t care about. And it’s very hard to half-ass a graduate-level class full of critical masters students and PhD candidates.
MA students and MFA students also have different potential sources of funding: in MA programs you are eligible for the same sorts of grants (ie., SHHRC) that academic students are; it’s entirely different in fine arts programs, although honestly I don’t know the details. If that MFA sounds like the path for you but you are worried about money (more on this later), it’s worth looking into.
How far have I gotten in my writing on my own? Largely, the folks who haven’t gotten far enough on their own will automatically be selected out, because all masters in creative writing that I know about have a portfolio admissions process–you can’t get in without some good work already behind you. But honestly, if you’ve done barely any writing but happen to have enough pages of really good stuff to constitute a portfolio, I’d still advise against it. Grad school can only take you from where you are on the road to a certain number of paces more along. If you could’ve walked those paces alone just by bashing around writing more stories and poems, I think you should. It’s only when you see problems in your work and try to solve them and *can’t* that you should consider getting someone else’s help. I mean, I imagine grad school would be fun for some of us no matter what, but it is after all expensive–use it when you really need it.
Do I like to workshop? As far as I know, there are no serious creative writing programs that do not have a workshop component, a sizeable one. If you think that a roomful of your peers telling you what’s wrong with your work might make you cry, or would simply be useless to you, I would say you should try one out, and if you still feel that way, maybe you shouldn’t go to grad school. In my program, the first year was workshop and critical courses; the second year was mentorship and long-project writing. I think many Canadian programs are the same and honestly, I know people at several who largely blew off the workshopping and waited to get to the good stuff, ie., mentorship. Obviously, I would say don’t do this. There are other ways to find a mentor. And if you’ve never done a workshop, try taking a continuing education or community college one in the evenings, just to see how you like the vibe. That’s a much cheaper experiment. I took a bunch before deciding I could commit to a full-time degree.
Can you afford it? You notice I mentioned money in all of the above bullet points? Well, it matters–higher education in the humanties in Canada is not the soul-destroying financial burden it is in the States, but the financial factor is worth considering. “Afford” means different things to different people; there’s nothing wrong with taking on student debt if you are comfortable with that, and the first thing you wanted to do when you graduate is not buy a house. I was fine with working 20-30 hours a week along with my studies, but not everyone is–you’re there principly to learn, and if your various part-time gigs get in the way of that, what’s the point of any of it?
I know people who have educated themselves by workshopping with friends, reading hundreds of books in their genre, going to the occasional seminar, and just writing a lot of the time. That works too, for the more independently minded, self-disciplined sort.
It basically boils down to what do you want to do? No one is ever going to say you *need* that creative masters to be a writer. It could very well help you on that path, but that depends on you, on the program, and on the path.
(But I had a lot of fun when I did it!)
March 8th, 2011
Going to The New Quarterly‘s Toronto reading at Tranzac (which I just learned right now stands for Toronto Australia New Zealand Club!) in the Annex, doors 7, musical entertainment 7:30, readings 8. Should be wonderful, and that venue (multicultural club) is outstanding. See you there?
This lovely review of Once, by Sheila Lamb at the Santa Fe Writers’ Project.
This fantastic grade 11 chemistry textbook. I know, this blog is not usually about stuff I do in my editorial world–that would really require a whole other blog, and who has *that* kind of time? But I just worked so hard on this book that I gradually got obsessed and now I think that as grade 11 chemistry textbooks, this is the best one in the universe. Seriously, everyone who worked on it was amazing and brilliant and not just because they were nice to me when I was very tired and stressed. My role in the project was actually quite minor compared to some, but that does not in any way diminish my love for it.
September 7th, 2010
Guys, today is back to school and I am rife with envy! Where’s my fresh start, cartoon-printed lunchpail, adorable first-day outfit? Where are my new mountains to climb and new textbooks to deface? I am stuck here with the same old mountains and although I did receive a kind offer of a packed lunch, no one has taught me anything yet today, let alone bought me 500 crisp new sheets of Hilroy. Boo. September for a reformed schoolaholic is very tough.
At least the Toronto lit scene offers me some fun in September, and without the social lottery of locker assignment. I am referring of course to the beginning of fall book season, where new titles seem to come out every few days and there’s always a launch/reading/party to attend. The excitement over the new books and the fun of all the events helps to fill the void of knowing my beloved chem lab partner now lives in England and teaches grade 1, and we are all stupid grownups and no one ever passes me notes while trying not to giggle or make eye contact.
Ahem. At the end of this post, there will be a list of cool events that I am looking forward to in September. But first, because why not, a primer on Toronto litsy evenings, in case you are entering this heady world for the first time.
1. Find out what’s going on. You can a weekly digest of events through the Patchy Squirrel litserv, or read about them on Open Book Toronto. You can also follow individual writers or publishers you like on Facebook or Twitter or on their blogs–but I recommend also at least giving a glance at the general listings, as there might be stuff you want to see that you never thought to go looking for.
2. Don’t worry too much about the timing. I have rarely been to a book-related event that started when it said it would. Book folk never seem to write on the invite, “Doors 7:30, reading 8:00,” seeming to assume that everyone knows if it just says, “Reading 7:30” that’s 1/2 hour ahead. But theeven if the the event is actually scheduled to start at 8 (in some people’s minds, anyway) it will probably slide a bitfor mike issues, the reader running late, nerves, or because everyone doesn’t have their drink from the bar yet. If you come early, bring a book–and don’t count on buying the thing being launched and reading that. The folks doing the merch table can run late, too.
3. Worry a little about the timing if you’d like to sit down. The thing that often surprises people about Toronto book events is that so many people show up and they get crowded, especially given that often the most genial (and affordable) venues are a little on the wee side. I think it’s super to see such a crush for books, but if it’s been a long day, sometimes I wish that things were a little less popular so that I could have a chair. That’s when I show up at the time actually listed on the invite.
4. Chat. I sometimes hear rumours, largely among people who have never been to one, that Toronto readings are somehow…not friendly? Which is nearly 100% contrary to my experience (there is an extremely short list of snarky things people have said to me at readings; unfortunately I have memorized said list). It’s scary to talk to strangers wherever you are, and it’s not like bookish people are automatically so incredibly nice, but most of them can manage a few lines of credible dialogue at the bar (“I love this poet/author. Have you read her stuff yet?” is a great place to start). And many bookish people *are* incredibly nice! If someone is a jerk to you, keep moving–it’s just that one dude. I also find readings pretty easy to attend alone–it’s not at all awkward to be by yourself at these things if that’s what you prefer. (For heaven’s sake, don’t chat during the reading!)
5. Pay what you can (and bring cash). Some readings and especially snazzier series have cover charges, which should be advertised clearly and pretty much (in my mind) get you off the moral hook for other purchases in the course of the evening. Many more cas readings just are Pay What You Can/pass the hat, and they do mean it. Put in what you can afford ($5 is awesome, but a loonie is still nice) and if you can’t afford anything, don’t sweat it. Believe me, writers and organizers are still glad you came to fill a spot with your friendly face and contribute to the energy and excitement of the event.
Hat-pass cash usually goes to the writers, so you might decide to just buy a book instead. At launches, there probably won’t be a hat or cover, so book-buying is your primary way to pay, if you so desire. Again, you should really feel zero pressure to purchase, but if you *do* want a book, try to remember to bring cash (though some launches are book-tabled by bookstores, and then they *might* have credit/debit machines). It’s silly to waste a chance to get a signature and a smile from the author and then go buy the book later and give Indigo or Amazon a cut.
Finally, buy beer/wine/jello shooters. No, this money doesn’t go to the writer, it goes to the venue, but that’s the venue’s incentive to host and keep hosting: a roomful of bookish drinkers on a Tuesday night. So if you are thirsty and able to afford it, drink up!
6. Compliment. I’m perhaps more needy than others, but I’m pretty sure there’s no one who *doesn’t* like to hear, “Hey, great reading,” even if they’re totally famous. And it might open the door to a conversation with an author you admire–I have certainly had some good ones that started there.
7. Stay late. I never do this, because I always need to get up early and save the world (note: sarcasm), but apparently some of these book parties rage long into the night. Go, stay late, and then tell me what I am missing.
Feel free to add to the list above with more advice and/or contradictions to what I’ve said. Also feel free to add to the list below if you know of more awesome upcomings we should be aware of.
Thursday September 9–Coachhouse Books Wayzgoose: A wayzgoose is a party given by the printer for the workers in the print shop, but Coachhouse extends it to all friends of the house. I’ve gone to this evening a few times and it’s always a delight: no readings, but an occasional speech, food and drink and tonnes of people. Pretty much the best party given in what is essentially an alleyway.
Sunday September 19–Eden Mills Writers Festival Six hours of reading, writers, sunshine and fun in a pretty little village outside of Guelph. This is not a TO event at all, it’s about an hour’s drive, but I know many of us city folks make the trek for the joy of listening to literature while sitting in the grass beside a little river.
Tuesday September 21–Launch for *Light Lifting* by Alexander MacLeod. I’ve been eager for this book since I heard Biblioasis was doing it–one of the stories, “The Miracle Mile” was in the Journey Prize collection that I helped adjudicate. I love that story. And I hear the launch will have music, too!
Saturday September 25–A reading with the Vagabond Trust, not yet posted on the interwebs, but reliably promised to actually occur. Featuring, among others, me!
Tuesday September 28–Launch of *Combat Camera* by AJ Somerset, 5th winner of the annual Metcalf-Rooke Award (a proud lineage). The event will be a staged interview with Russell Smith. I’m very excited about the whole affair.
And don’t even get me started on October!
Hope to see you guys at some of these. I’ll be the one eating a well-balanced snack out of a Ziploc.
June 26th, 2009
What I mainly did on that dock, as I said, was read *The New Yorker* fiction issue, which I had been waiting for with avid enthusiasm (because I can’t read magazines out of order, natch). Obviously, I was rabid for the stories, but I had also been forwarned by Facebook friends that there was an article on teaching creative writing that I would want to see.
The piece turned out to be a review by one of my favourite critics, Louis Menand, of a book called The Program Era by Mark McGurl. I haven’t heard more about McGurl than what Menand wrote, and I have little intention of reading the book (beyond the vague miasma of “oh, yeah, I should probably read that” that I feel about most books). So on the one hand, it’s pretty presumptuous and glib for me to respond to the article. On the other hand, Menand’s piece is one of *The New Yorker*’s rambling “Critic at Large” pieces, which encompasses a lot of general thoughts on the issue. So maybe I’m responding to those general comments. Or, on yet another hand, this is a blog, and maybe presumptuousness/glibness is the least of the worries of the blogosphere.
The book, and to some extent the article, deal with the rise of the university creative writing class and degree, and simply the increasing presence of the “certified” writer on the lit scene. It was indeed edifying and maybe mildly shocking to see how many names got listed here (nice to see Bharati Mukherjee’s name in *The New Yorker*, whatever the reason). An interesting thesis of the book, and one that Menand deals scantly with, is how creative writing programs shaped the evolotion of later-20th-century prose–in fact, the subtitle of the book is “Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing.”
Menand has concentrated much more on the ever-scandalous question, also inherent in McGurl’s work, “Can creative writing be taught?” Both offer lots of fascinating “well, maybe” answers, well worth reading at least in the short review form. I’ve written about this here before, and so I’ll add only my usual quotation of the immortal Judith Viorst–help helps–plus: Creative writing classes, and eventually an MA in the subject, helped me so much with my writing. The classes gave me the discipline, focus, friends, inspiration, connections, snack foods, mentors, party tricks, informal workshop groups, cold terror, and cheerful ambition to take the writing I was already doing to the next level. If that’s not learning, I don’t know what is.
But I also know there are other kinds of learning, and this is something Menand leaves to the very last paragraph. This is moving, but I think it elides something else:
“I stopped writing poetry after I graduated, and I never published a poem—which places me with the majority of people who have taken a creative-writing class. But I’m sure that the experience of being caught up in this small and fragile enterprise, contemporary poetry, among other people who were caught up in it, too, affected choices I made in life long after I left college. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
The majority of people who take a creative-writing class in undergrad don’t continue to write after graduation, he says. Well, I don’t have the stats, but judging by the folks I know, that sounds about write (ahaha. I actually wrote that accidentally.)
So, maaaybe, if impermanent writers–elective takers, dabblers, interested experimenteers– is who is in the classes, Menand and McGurl are missing the boat. Maybe what creative writing classes in universities do is not (only) shape the national fiction style or create silken prose out of sow’s ears, but *teach 20-year-olds to think creatively and write coherently*. Transferable skills if ever there were.
I think this issue is actually larger than creative writing; it stems from a larger misunderstanding of liberal arts education, although I don’t know that one is mine or society’s. When I was wee, but after I figured out that being intelligent was not a profession, I asked my liberal-arts-professing father what he taught people to do–like, medical school taught people how to cut open bodies and fix them, and police school taught people to shoot guns. My father’s response was that his sort of teaching wasn’t about learning to *do* a thing; he taught people how to *think* about things in a certain way, and then they could apply that way of thinking how they liked.
Revalatory, when you’re ten and trying very hard to learn to do a lay-up and spell “persimmon.” (And the author will allow that she may recollect her childhood as slightly more Socratic than it actually was.)
I have a BA Hon. in English Literature and an MA in English and Creative Writing, and I swear to you, I use what they taught me every day of my life. No, no one has asked me about Grendel, Tess, or semiotics today. And yet, the skills of close and careful reading, of contextualizing what I read with as much related material as possible, of reasoned and elegant essay arguementation, and of clear and relentless questioning of whatever I think I know–well, thank you, liberal-arts education.
Of course, as you can see by my Facebook friends above, conversations about the nun’s priest or Samson Agonistes are likelier to happen to me than perhaps to most. But I really do believe that folks in advertising and marketing, in law and government and even medicine are able to use reading and writing skills they picked up in liberal arts classes. Not to mention the endless insights into the human condition we are given in reading about humans, in fiction or in non-fiction. And the ability to not only answer questions but ask them intelligently. And to empathize with people so foreign to us they actually don’t exist.
Most people know that learning to think in different ways is always to the good. But I worry they don’t prioritize that good. Having TA’d a little, and generally being around academic life, I do worry about the vocationalization of university education. I worried that my Effective Writing students wanted only to work on resume cover letters and mission statements that would translate directly into career skills, rather than work on the whole craft of writing and then make the cognitive connections in the work world for themselves.
I did actually go to vocational school too, so please know I don’t knock that course at all. It was interesting and stimulating and my publishing certificate leads more or less directly to me being able to eat food and sleep indoors in a relatively entertaining fashion. But those skills I learned there are rigid, specific, and date-able. Every time I switch software platforms, style guides or subject matter, I start over…not from square one perhaps, but certainly from a square nearby. Vocational skills are generally like this: welders certified to do stick welding have a fundamentally different skill than those who do pipe welding. The skills may have much in common, but you can’t just extrapolate one to the other; you have to go back and learn again.
Which is, as I said, a fine way to learn, but fundamental different than the fluid (or, admittedly, amorhphous) skills of the liberal arts education.
What a very long way of saying I think that evaluating university creative-writing programs by the famous writers they’ve produced does many students a disservice. I spent this spring trying to teach 90 teenagers how to write a short story, and although I can see perhaps a dozen of them pursuing the craft, I truly truly believe many of those kids were a least a little smarter for having tried it. I think creating strong introductory creative writing classes, as well as Intro Psych, Philosophy and Film, can help a lot of people think a little bit different, and better.
But then, I would think that.
The eventual downfall / is just the bill from the restaurant
January 22nd, 2009
My “Now and Next” list (at right) is all now and no next–I’ve gotten behind! Lest you think January has defeated me (it hasn’t, much), here’s what’s upcoming:
Starting in February–I’ll be participating in the very very cool Now Hear This/SWAT program through the Descant Foundation of Arts and Letters. SWAT=Students, Writers and Teachers, and what this means is I’ll be teaching high school creative writing classes one day a week for a couple months, in conjunction with an actual professional English teacher. This is a thrilling opportunity for me to learn about teaching and about teenagers, as well as (I hope) offer something useful about writing practice in return. I can’t *wait*.
Sunday April 5, Time TBD–I’ll be reading at the Gritlit literary festival in Hamilton.
Sometime in 2009–My two stories, “ContEd” and “Tech Support” will appear in The Fiddlehead.
Of course more to come eventually–there’s always something!
I don’t have a simple answer/but I know that I can answer
May 29th, 2008
If I’ve gotten my dates right, today is the launch of University of Toronto’s online alumni community, of which this blog is a part! Which is cool.
Although I am UofT class of 2007, and have therefore been an alumnae (is that the right noun? I never took Latin) for less time than I was a student, I am already profoundly nostalgic. No matter how much you like your grown-up job, there’s no seminar-style debate, no library borrowing-privileges, no deadline-extension pink forms.
Worse, even though I can’t see it, I *know* that UofT campus is May-time gorgeous right now, and somewhere on that big field in King’s College Circle (why did I never learn the name of that field?) someone is under a tree sorta reading a book, and sorta watching some other someones playing Frisbee. It’s enough to make you forget all about seminar-snark, dead printer cartriges at the last minute, and low-caliber coffee.
This weekend is Spring Reunion, which will take me back to campus to read, to mingle, and to embrace my nostalgic side. See you there?
Oh the sweetness that could send me flying