ason 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
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
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 litera-ture-rich Prairies with its MFA, which began in 2011 and accepts about