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Mastering the fine art of writing

MFA programs in creative writing are nurturing Canada’s next generation of authors.

By DIANE PETERS | February 9, 2016


Jason Murray loves writing. And school. After graduating with a degree in journalism, he worked for several years as a reporter before moving on to teachers college. From there, Mr. Murray balanced his occasional teaching with correspondence courses from Humber College’s School for Writers in Toronto and managed to produce a novel and 100 pages of poetry. Emboldened by his progress, Mr. Murray decided in 2014 to once again return to school – this time enrolling in the master of fine arts in creative non-fiction program at Halifax’s University of King’s College.

The two-year “limited residency” degree allows Mr. Murray to work from his home in Moncton with periodic class meetings in Halifax, Toronto and New York. Through the program, Mr. Murray’s book proposal was sent to Whitney Moran, an editor at Nimbus Publishing in Halifax. He soon found himself signing a publishing deal – before he even graduated from the program. “The whole grand idea of getting an MFA is to get your writing to the place where you want it to be, and figuring out how to get a book published,” Mr. Murray says.

It worked – really worked – for Mr. Murray. While precious few writing MFA students nab a publishing deal mid-degree, most come out of these programs with almost publishable work, and contacts in the writing community and publishing industry – what most wannabe writers would see as a fast track to a writing career.  As one established non-fiction writer told the King’s students during a networking trip to New York, “It took me five years to find the people you’re being introduced to over seven days.” One could lock oneself in a Paris garret or hang out in the Brooklyn slam poetry scene to hone skills and make connections, but a degree is faster and, rents being as they are, possibly cheaper.

The ranks of Canada’s established and emerging authors are full of MFA-holding writers and graduates of that degree’s cousin: the creative writing-stream English MA. “These programs are all producing writers, and very successful ones who are winning major prizes and getting book deals with major publishers,” says Ross Leckie, director of creative writing at the University of New Brunswick, which offers a creative-writing option English MA (a blend of lit courses, writing workshops and a creative thesis option).

The MFA has been called the fastest growing graduate program in the United States. It’s a popular degree in Canada, too, though we offer notably fewer options than the U.S., the U.K. and Australia. “We’re really far behind per capita,” says writer Darryl Whetter, an associate professor of English and creative writing at Université Sainte–Anne, a francophone university in Pointe-de-l’Église, Nova Scotia.

Next fall, UNB will join the University of Calgary as the only institutions in Canada to offer creative writing PhD programs in English (Université Laval has a creative-writing option PhD in French literature). Meanwhile, the U.S. currently offers dozens of PhD programs on top of approximately 300 master’s-level writing programs. In Australia, a country with a far smaller population than Canada, at least nine universities offer PhDs in writing. Program growth here is being tempered by universities’ reluctance to fund these relatively pricey programs and the persistence of the old bias that you can’t teach writing. By staying small and specialized, however, Canadian graduate writing programs are remaining competitive.

Creative writing has a relatively short pedagogical history. The illustrious University of Iowa first offered writing classes in 1897 and began accepting creative work for a grad thesis in 1922. Its Writers’ Workshop followed in 1936, and with it came Iowa’s first graduate degree in writing. That MA morphed into an MFA program that has educated 17 Pulitzer Prize-winning authors to date, including poet Rita Dove, novelist Michael Cunningham and journalist Tracy Kidder. The workshop accepts 50 students a year from thousands of applicants.

In Canada, the oldest writing classes date back to 1940 at UNB, says Dr. Leckie. The school added a writer-in-residence in 1965 and the creative-writing stream MA in 1968. It was 1948 when poet Earle Birney convinced the English department at the University of British Columbia to let him run a creative writing workshop. In 1965, he broke with the English department and founded the first creative writing department in the country, complete with an MFA.

Four decades later, in 2005, UBC added an optional residency program and doubled intake to an average of 65 students. A year later, Canada got its second player in the creative writing MFA game at the University of Guelph. That program accepts a dozen or so students annually and offers classes out of the University of Guelph-Humber campus in Toronto, where it still has no direct competitors. In 2008, the University of Victoria started an MFA with six students per cohort, positioning itself as a boutique degree in contrast to its large, established neighbour in Vancouver. The University of Saskatchewan filled the gap in the literature-rich Prairies with its MFA, which began in 2011 and accepts about seven writers a year. The newest program in Canada started in 2013 at the University of King’s College. Housed in the King’s journalism school, it’s the country’s first MFA program to concentrate exclusively on non-fiction and its second limited residency program. The program began with 20 students and in its second year doubled that to 40.

Rounding out Canada’s graduate programs in creative writing are MAs at the University of Regina, University of Toronto, University of Windsor, Concordia University, U of C and UNB (these last two also offer PhDs). Most of these programs are a decade old or less.

Looking south of our border, creative writing cohorts at some U.S. grad schools have ballooned to as many as 120 students, and taking the MFA to task has become something of a national pastime. The biggest target for criticism is a perceived sameness produced by the reign of Iowa’s workshop approach to teaching the craft, in which students and a prof sit in a room and pull apart a piece of student writing. The late writer David Foster Wallace famously argued, back in 1988, that these workshops are taught by instructors who would rather be writing. They end up rewarding well-behaved students who “play the game quietly and solidly, and begin producing solid, quiet work … stories as tough to find technical fault with as they are to remember after putting them down,” he wrote in The Review of Contemporary Fiction. A 2014 essay in The New Yorker by writer and professor Junot Díaz was among those that have claimed creative writing MFA programs are elitist, lack diversity and educate hordes of writers for which there is almost no market, graduating writers to simply take up teaching posts at other schools.

“Let’s not just swallow the workshop model whole,” says Catherine Bush, a novelist and program coordinator of the MFA at U of Guelph. Being late to the party means many Canadian programs have plucked some of the best qualities of the world’s MFAs and designed dynamic curricula that encourage diverse, risky writing, and that call on the resources and influences at hand.

At U of Guelph, the degree is housed in English and theatre studies, so workshop time is bolstered by classes on reading with a writer’s eye and on what it means to be a writer; theatre profs stop by to run sessions on movement and public speaking; students are encouraged to teach at a downtown Toronto public school and attend literary events. “We’re really trying to cover, both in practical and philosophical ways, how to lead a writing life,” says Ms. Bush.

Paul Vermeersch was planning his fourth book of poetry when he enrolled in U of Guelph’s program in 2009. The Toronto-based writer and editor credits the experience for helping him develop the complex concepts in his book, Don’t Let It End Like This Tell Them I Said Something, published in 2014. “In an academic environment such as an MFA, I felt free to try new things,” he says. “I’m more comfortable being uncomfortable.”

The University of Saskatchewan, meanwhile, calls its degree an MFA in writing – not creative writing – and runs it out of the Interdisciplinary Centre for Culture and Creativity. A big selling point: students get six months of focused time with a mentor, which they have a hand in choosing. “The students love that they get their own personal writing guru for six months,” says program coordinator Jeanette Lynes, a prof and a poet. “They come to this program not because they want to enter some elite ivory tower; they want to link to the writing community.”

“I learned to read my writing with a vastly more critical eye,” says dee Hobsbawn-Smith, who graduated with an MFA from U of S in 2014. She’d previously worked as a journalist, a chef and a cookbook writer, and already had a contract in hand for a book of poetry and a short-story collection when she enrolled. The degree still offered what she considered a “solid shortcut to help me with what has been my second apprenticeship.” She’s now writing a novel and has spent the last year as writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library. Her time in university workshops has come in handy for critiquing others’ work for that job, she says.

In Victoria, the country’s smallest MFA is located just hours from the largest one in Vancouver – and they are vastly different programs. “Our faculty members hand-pick someone they want to supervise,” says Bill Gaston, who heads the program at UVic. Since the institution has a sizable undergraduate writing program, there are enough faculty members to match one-to-one with grad students across five genres. All students get funded through a one-year fellowship, scholarships are available, and most get a paid TA gig in the second year teaching undergrad writing.

At UBC – where Mr. Gaston and many other creative writing instructors got their own MFAs – the program boasts about 20 full-time faculty and several part-time instructors, many of whom are big names in Canadian literature, including Annabel Lyon, Timothy Taylor and Susan Musgrave. The program’s clout attracts celebrity guest lecturers such as Miriam Toews, who recently served as writer-in-residence, and celebs often do guest lectures. “John Irving came through last week,” notes Ms. Lyon, the program’s acting co-chair. She says the choice of genres for workshops – 11 are on offer and all students have to take at least three different ones – enriches a writer’s genre of choice, and inspires some to change direction.

u.s. writer and creative writing professor Lynn Freed has called MFAs the “cash cow of the humanities.” That may be true in the U.S., where Iowa charges over US$25,000 annual tuition (and nearly US$40,000 for international students), but it’s in sharp contrast to Canada and the $3,800 per year it costs at U of S. Considering the ideal class size is eight (but can work with up to 12), these programs are expensive to staff, according to UVic’s Mr. Gaston. Degrees in engineering, tech and science, such as nursing and chemistry, are costly too, but these get better funding and more generous alumni donations.

The UBC MFA was nearly shut down in the early 2000s as it struggled to fund and justify itself. Two professors recently retired from the U of S program, and now its coordinator, Dr. Lynes, is doing most of the teaching because she can’t afford to hire replacements. “It’s just a condition of universities today that they’re rarely prepared to throw a bunch of money at one program,” she says.

While Canadian writing MFA programs are inundated with applicants that could fill more spots than available, expansion is a challenge. “We don’t have the resources to make the program bigger at this point,” says Mr. Gaston. “When it comes down to a vote for more courses or more money, creative writing doesn’t stand a chance.” Dr. Whetter at Université Saint-Anne says undervaluing these programs is a mistake. Many schools struggle to attract grad students, he says; graduate writing programs, including doctoral programs, offer a way to bring them in. This view, he admits, hasn’t been warmly received at some of the schools where he’s shared it. “I was looked at like I had two heads,” he recalls.

Much of this administrative apprehension has to do with outdated opinions. “Creative writing looks like a bird course,” says Mr. Gaston. “But schools find the most popular courses are the creative writing options.” Both grad students and undergrads want more writing courses, but the myth that you can’t (or shouldn’t) teach writing – that you either have the talent and the creativity or you don’t – persists. “That always baffles me,” says UNB’s Dr. Leckie. “We have this idea that writing can’t be taught, but no one in painting or music would ever think that.” What’s more, says Mr. Gaston, “one of the main struggles is convincing people that creative rigour is just as rigorous as academic rigour.”

Detracting from the push for greater respect in the academy is the fact that there’s no prevailing model for teaching creative writing in Canada. Dr. Whetter has called writing pedagogy “wildly scattershot.” The diversity of approaches only reinforces the concern that writing instruction has no gold standard. In response, program heads promote their award-winning students and graduates. It seems to impress administrators at some universities, though others just want to talk dollars and cents. So Don Sedgwick, executive director of the MFA at King’s, highlights the program’s low overhead. “We don’t use a lot of the resources of the university,” he says, because students in the limited residency program only visit the campus for two weeks in August, when classroom space is abundant. But their networking trips to New York and Toronto are pricey, he admits, as is running a one-to-five ratio for mentors – at least the professionals in these roles are paid as freelancers, which helps keep payroll costs trim.

At U of Guelph, undergraduates clamour for creative writing classes, and that’s good for graduate students, says Ms. Bush. “Expanding undergraduate creative writing can be a way to support a smaller graduate program.” At UBC, 10 percent of undergraduates take at least one creative writing class. The financial health of the master’s program now rests on courses such as Introduction to Creative Writing, a second-year, lecture-hall survey course with 300 students per section. UBC runs six sections a year of the course and two or more sections each of intro courses in eight writing genres (MFA students serves as TAs for these large courses). Upper-year undergrads can get more one-on-one mentoring in third-year lecture-seminar courses, often capped at 30 for the seminar portion, and final-year workshops max out at 14 or less.

While many writing grads go on to vibrant literary careers, almost all must bring home the bacon through other pursuits. MA grads may pursue academic PhDs and seek teaching posts, while MFAs are generally able to take up instructor posts with any number of creative writing programs. (MFAs are often terminal degrees, though some grads are able to pursue PhDs.) Still others tap away at screenplays and poems in their spare time, stay active in the literary community and make money at other careers.

Perhaps that’s just fine, and the ultimate goal of these creative degrees can be graduating a few literary hotshots, more part-time writers and many expressive people who use their advanced degrees in various roles. “Within the humanities, we all need to step up and say why reading and writing matter,” says Ms. Bush. “Being able to tell stories and to have empathy and understand writing with all its ethical complexities, these things are valuable.”  

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  1. Cassidy / February 17, 2016 at 10:10 am

    Re: “That may be true in the U.S., where Iowa charges over US$25,000 annual tuition (and nearly US$40,000 for international students), but it’s in sharp contrast to Canada and the $3,800 per year it costs at U of S.”

    Iowa (and many US MFA programs) actually offers full tuition remission and a stipend to all MFA students, including international students, a sharp contrast to most Canadian programs.

  2. David Leach / February 18, 2016 at 1:02 pm

    Thanks for a thorough and timely overview to the MFA landscape in Canada.

    A couple updates for any readers interested in learning more about UVic: I am the new Chair and Maureen Bradley is our Graduate Advisor ( — we are both always happy to answer any questions about our different programs. Deadline for applications is December 1 every year. Funding roughly averages out to a $7,000 award in first year & $8,000 teaching assistantship in second year, with other scholarships available and a high success rate for SSHRC master’s applications.

    A few other things that make our program unique: We are a five-genre department (fiction, poetry, stage drama, creative nonfiction, and screenwriting with an emphasis on film production) situated in a Fine Arts Faculty (Music, Theatre, Visual Arts, Art History & Visual Studies) rather than a Humanities Faculty, so there are even more opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborations across the arts. Our Faculty has just added a Minor in Digital and Interactive Media in the Arts to capitalize on strengths and interests in this area.

    And our MFA also focuses on teaching writers how to teach writing, with a grad seminar on pedagogy and instructional design, directed studies in teaching with faculty mentors, multiple teaching opportunities from large first-year lectures to small fourth-year workshops, and the chance to combine the MFA with UVic’s LATHE Certificate in teaching in higher education…. all of which are advantageous in a competitive job market.

    We are in the midst of hiring a new professor in poetry — who is guaranteed to be a rock star in Canadian writing. And I would post a photo of the view from our windows overlooking Vancouver Island and the Salish Sea, but that would be cruel to colleagues snow-bound in the rest of Canada!

    David Leach

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