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
“These programs are all producing
writers, and very success ful ones who are
winning major prizes and getting book
deals with major publisher.”
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 choos-
ing. “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 apprentice-
ship.” 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 work-
shops 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