December 12th, 2016

Application portfolio advice for creative writing masters

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.

March 25th, 2013

A couple nice discoveries

Did you know there’s websites that review literary journals? Me neither, but there are and it’s pretty cool. Like New Pages, which reviewed the issue of Freefall Magazine that I was in, and a bunch more great stuff too. Neat!

Did you know there’s university courses on arts journalism? Me, neither, but there are and they’re amazing–I would’ve taken Ryerson’s Writing in the Arts course in a heart had it been available when I was in school. It wasn’t, but I did a short interview with a student named Julia Brunke for one of her assignments in the course and it cheered me up…read it here if you’re interested.

March 3rd, 2010

To Do

I haven’t posted any events in a while, in part because I have been, as I may have mentioned so busy I haven’t been going to many. But here are some I do plan to attend, because they are awesome and I will soon be (I hope, touch wood, fingers crossed, etc., etc.) less busy. If you are also less busy, perhaps you are interested in:

–the University of Toronto masters in creative writing showcase and gala tomorrow night. Should be some good readings, possibly some wine and cheese, and a nice opportunity to clap for Andrew when he is awarded a prize!

–Bad Dog theatre improva at That Friday Show, (appropriately) this Friday night. Hilarity, uncertainty, and pay-what-you-can–how ideal?

And if you are, sadly, too busy to go out, be comforted that I fully understand.


June 26th, 2009

What the last 10 years have taught me

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

February 26th, 2009

Let Us Compare Mythologies

Like all book-lovers, and I think a fair amount of those who aren’t even *that* bookish, I am certain my lens on the world is distinctly tinted by what I read when I was young. What I read now, too, but in those impressionable years I do think I internalized stories more thoroughly than perhaps I do now in my older jaded years. I feel those books formed my internal mythology.

Naively, perhaps, I assumed that school-inflicted part of this lens was semi-universal; that many if not most of the books I read in school were on syllabi all over the country. But then I asked around my friends of like age and station…and *no one* had read what I read in school. Did I go to a mutant school? I find it so odd to think that I read the world in the light of *Antigone* and most don’t.

So here is a list of all that I can remember reading in high school. I think some of the years are off, as there is more in some than others, but it’s a good approximation. The starred items are book-report books, chosen off a list of 3-4 (I don’t think we ever had free choice). I would love to see other people’s lists, if you feel like posting’em somewhere or in the comments or sending them to me. I’m once again really curious about something minor and irrelevant.

English Course Requirements, Wentworth County, Middle Nineties

Grade 9 English, Enriched

–Selection of Greek and Roman mythology (plus excerpts of The Iliad
Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut*

Grade 10 English, Enriched
–A short story collection about multiculturalism–the only story I remember being A Class of New Canadians by Clark Blaise
Obasan by Joy Kogowa
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
–A selection of ballads–the only ballad I remember being The Lady of Shalott by Alfred Lord Tennyson
The Diviners by Margeret Laurence*

Grade 11 English, Enriched
Everyman, a medieval morality play and my pick for most-hated high-school text
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
–a selection of sonnets, the only sonnets I remember being Shakespeare’s love sonnets
Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw (I remember nothing about this play)
Macbeth by William Shakespeare

Grade 12 English, Advanced
The Oedipus Plays by Sophocles–we read all three, but only studied Antigone in-depth
The Tempest by William Shakespeare
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
–something else that I am forgetting

OAC English
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (my pick for most-loved high-school text)
The Edible Woman by Margaret Atwood*
The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence

Never, sadly, anything by Leonard Cohen, whose work I didn’t read until university (and never the title work of this post, actually). But I sure did like the songs when I was a teenager!

There’s music on Clinton Street all the through the evening

June 1st, 2008


If you were worried–or have been forced to listen to my worries–know that yesterday’s presentation and reading at the UofT spring reunion went really well. Though I was v. v. pleased that my own part involved no falling over and a fair amount of audience laughter (with, not at), the greatest delight was hearing my co-reader, Elizabeth Hay speak. Her reading from Late Nights on Air was lovely, but I was particularly struck by her remarks on our topic, starts as writers. I can’t reproduce it here, unfortunately (I should’ve just been nerdy and taken notes) but I was heartened by her quotation of J. M. Coetzee‘s hopeful assertion that “there are no bounds to the sympathetic imagination” (from his rather dark essay, “The Lives of Animals,” in the collection by the same name or in his sort of novel, Elizabeth Costello).

My own piece was more nuts-and-bolts, about how I came to be at UofT at all, and how I write. I think I’m pretty practical about writing, really–in the Q&A, we got asked about writing at certain times of day, and all I could say was, “I write after supper, unless I go out.” Anyway, since I *have* my notes, I’ll post them below, with the caveat that of course I didn’t really say it quite like that.

After all that, I rounded up my beloved posse (consisting of my brother, and my posing-as-life-coach friend AMT) and then Lauren and her posse, and BBQ ensued. And then coffee, and strolling and park with AMT, and eventually I calmed down and was able to assess the day as, actually, having been pretty good. Whew.

Starts are difficult to pinpoint–you start with reading books and thinking you want certain stories to go on, you start with a red pleather diary and you write poems about the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather. You start in high school when you win a literary award and everyone claps. A story in the newspaper, and then actually a story in a literary journal when I was just 18. Is that a start as a writer?

I would say no, I think. As a kid, you do stuff: I wrote, I played the piano, I ran track, I made stuff out of clay. You have a lot of free time when you are a kid. Writing was the one I was actually sort of good at–the prizes and the publications and stuff–but being good wasn’t the central thing. My friends were into art and music, and I liked being with my friends, so I did way more of that stuff, and I was not good at it at all.

Even though I wrote stories throughout high school, took creative writing classes in university, joined writing groups and wrote semi-steadily when I began working, I certainly wasn’t a writer. There was some pride involved, but no identity. If someone criticized my work, I would back away from it like a bomb—“Oh, of course it’s very bad, it’s just a hobby, I don’t take it seriously, actually I was just kidding.” That first high school journal publication had been upsetting–they wanted to change the ending, they wanted me to improve the writing, they wanted to teach me something, and I just wanted to do what I wanted to do.

In taking classes and opening myself to feedback, I learned to chill out and accept criticism, to improve, but I still
half-believed that publishing was too much for me, a foray into a scary world of real work that I wasn’t really up to. Publishing fiction would make me accountable for it, responsible for making it good, and that was the last thing I wanted.

I’m going to count my start as my arrival at University of Toronto, because then when I actually made a choice to write instead of other things. I had a decent job, other responsibilities and interests, and a more or less ok habit of writing in the evenings and showing it to my friends or people in my writing group or no one. I tried to learn from the books I read, the evening classes I took, I tried to become a better writer, but if it didn’t work, if I wrote another rambling self-indulgent story or didn’t even finish it…eh. I was trying, but nothing was at stake.

The UofT Creative Writing masters is actually English and Creative Writing, there’s coursework, lots of reading and critical theory and discussion. But still, principally, you write, and everything else in service of that–what I read, I wanted to learn from, my colleagues, everything was the texts that were sitting on my hard drive at home. I had a lot of different jobs during my degree, but when I ran out of day I just wrote at night–the jobs weren’t the important thing. I wasn’t exactly a writer, but I wasn’t letting anything define me, either. I was trying really hard, and when something wasn’t working in a story, I went back to it and back to it and back to it. I didn’t just want to write, I wanted to write well.

May 29th, 2008

New Friends

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

May 27th, 2008

Moving Right Along

The new issue of Exile Quarterly is out (with a gorgeous flame-y cover) which means I had to take “my” issue off the “Now” list. The saddest moment in publishing, the no-longer-on-newsstands moment. But moving right along, there is the summer issue of The New Quarterly to look forward to. In addition to what I hear is an amazing line-up in the “Salon de Refuses” feature, there will be (in a separate section) an interview with me by the insightful and charming Amy King, as well as my short story “Linh Lai.” I am excited about the whole affair, utterly.

Also upcoming–this blog is being “syndicated” at the University of Toronto alumni community website (not live yet, hence no link) starting on Thursday. If you are already reading this blog, this means very little to you. It’s just another place people can read a slightly abbreviated version of Rose-coloured. Anyway, it’ll be cool to encounter my fellow alums on the interweb, and I liked the idea of community, as you know, very much. So on Thursday I’ll be posting the link (I hope) and the “Welcome, new friends!” message, and then probably, business as usual.

Moving right along…

Where’s the tenderness? / Where’s the girl I miss?

April 25th, 2008

Rebecca Has a Bad Week

RR–I’m such a loser, I think I’ve called you every day this week.

Mom–That’s not true. I haven’t heard from you in ages. I’ve missed you.

RR–I called you on Sunday, and another day besides today…


RR–And today is Thursday.

Mom–That leaves lots of days you didn’t call…well, several.

This weekend will be better, not least because I’m going to see my Mom (and Dad), because Kerry was wearing a spring skirt yesterday, because I am booked solid with frivolous things to do. So in case I don’t get a change to post before then, I just wanted to say that my brothers-and-sisters in educational trajectory, the masters in creative writing crew ’08, will be reading on Monday evening, and they are charming and I’ll be there and maybe you’d like to come, too?


Monday, April 28
Bar Italia (582 College Street, between Manning and Clinton)
No cover

See you soon!

Don’t worry girl you weren’t around

January 5th, 2008

What You Could Read

I know everyone adores playing “1000 Things We Like,” but I thought I’d post about something else for a change. Like some things that I have been reading that you might like.

For example, I would suggest reading Prism International. If you live in Ontario, this will be very hard, as they did not send our province any fall issues for some reason, but that’s the issue I’m recommending you order it because contains the beautiful story “Some Light Down” by S. Kennedy Sobol. It was my privilege to read that story in very early form, and it was heart-stopping then, and it’s thrilling to me now to see it having evolved so far. Of course, this means S. Kennedy and I know each other, but we didn’t when I first read the story, so you should take my word when I say it’s brilliant.

Another recommendation I have for the literary-minded is Jim Munroe’s mega website, No Media Kings. If you move in Toronto indie circles, you may have heard the name Jim Munroe before even if you’ve never read his books or comics, seen his movies, been to his shows or readings, or played his video games. I once had a strange job wherein (a) I often had no work, (b) I was not allowed to read books or magazines, (c) I was not permitted to surf the internet unless the sites pertained to books. These rules made no sense, but I got around them in large part thanks to Mr. Munroe, who bills his site as an “indie culture site.” Basically, if you work in one of the above media and don’t want to let your get caught up in corporate R&D, promotion, editing, distribution, etc., Jim will tell you how to do it yourself. Even if you are willing to go a little corporate, there’s still useful reading on the site–for authors, there’s stuff on grant-writing, touring, etc. that’s very practical, friendly, and go-go-go. There’s stuff on there that’s not at all practical unless you are the dynamo that is Jim Munroe–book tour via bicycle, for example—but it’s very entertaining.

Of course, all this partically obscures the reason I was curious enough about the guy to google him in the first place, which is that he is a pretty good novelist. I read his first book, Flyboy Action Figure Comes with Gasmask when I was a kid and got hooked. That was his first book, published with HarperCollins Canada, the experience that so annoyed him that he declared himself the anti-Rupert Murdoch, or, I guess The King of No Media (heh). He went on to write a number of novels: *Angry Young Spaceman, Everyone in Silico, Roommate from Hell* (all available at the above link) and to publish and distribute them himself. No small feat, though it helped I’m sure that the novels were good (if you like semi-sci-fi and silliness, and PCness–I do). Still the sheer number of hours, and the force of will to overcome not only self-doubt but the logistical nightmares… Impressive.

I interviewed Jim Munroe in the summer of 2003 for a school project (would that that transcript still existed–stupid dead hard-drive). He did it because I emailed him and said if he talked to me I’d buy him lunch. He wrote write back and said ok, showed up when he said he would, and tried to pay for his own sandwich, so obviously I was more than a little impressed. I guess there’s bias all over this post, really, but still, these are reccommendations worth checking out–it’s not my fault I’ve met so many talented people.

Smoking the same damn cigarettes

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