The Canadian Writers' Collective

Writing, and writerly tangents

Monday, June 05, 2006

How Writing School did not Fail Me

by Tamara Lee


In 1998, Lynn Coady wasn’t a fan of writing schools or their workshops, and somewhere else out there, there’s a rage-against-the-writing-school-machine she wrote that elicited a knowing smile from me. Back then, I had often thought of myself as someone still recovering from writing school. Mind, Strange Heaven was recently-released and Coady had a ‘writing career’ of note, and I did not, so our bitternesses had different compositions.

But my general disillusionment with writing school turned full and has finally waned: I have howled at the darkness, watched my fur grow, and woken up in tattered clothes not knowing where I’ve been all night. And when I’m not yowling at the moon, I am finally able to recognise the many lessons learned while defending my work during spirited workshops in the blasé rooms of Creative Writing departments. Although that does not mean I will soon forget how long it took me to begin writing again following graduation. But that’s another story better left for the third-person.

Many seem to have gotten a great deal from the Creative Writing degree experience. For my part, I drank and argued and workshopped with an impressive number of writers who now get published in Canada and worldwide, who have ‘done things’ relevant to, and thus justifying, their expensive writing degrees. Right now, I could list a dozen whose careers are notable in some way, and whose writing in no way resembles what Coady once railed against: the cookie-cutter writing-school voice.

I remember reading some author—I suspect it may be Stephen King, which could completely undermine my point here—saying that it’s the B-students who would likely enjoy the most success after writing school. Not because publishers are fools (obviously that is relative, for those who’ve yet to publish their manuscripts), but because the B-students will have learned to work harder. My guess is he was a B-student. But don’t quote me, because I think I’m completely bastardising his words now. In any case, this is not really the case, in my writing school experience.

Most of my degree was spent in poetry and the pub, and part of my frustration with my experience was that I didn’t spend more time working on my fiction. Instead of UBC, I chose the program at UVic. Sometimes, when I read about the UBC alumni, I question my choices. Still, the poetry instructors at the University of Victoria were good, and I amassed a lot of advice about craft. From Lorna Crozier, whose approach could be rather intellectual at times, I learned to step out of the emotion of the subject to find the ‘it’ in the piece. In many ways, this suited me, for at that time I hid behind intellectualism and cleverness. But she also taught me how to embrace the editing process, and to take risks in editing. She was meticulous in her approach to poetry, and I’m grateful for her generous encouragement.

Lorna’s partner, Patrick Lane, on the other hand, was the tangled, rough and unruly sort of writer we all admired as much for his character as for his poetry. Lorna brought him into class and he raged at us, we the pretentious little writing students, daring us to forget school and live life and just write dammit. That kind of thing. Now he’s sober and tending his backyard gardens; the drunk-poet stereotype is passé, but Lane’s work still reads like he’s carving Alhambra out of roadkill bones.

Of all the writers that come to mind when I recall the us marking time in the cavernous UVic pub, each seemed to be some kind of ‘star’ at the school, though each had earned it, too, and all have since earned several significant publication or production credits. Did writing school do this for them, or was it my particular classmates’ wherewithal? It’s hard to tell. Maybe none of them are even satisfied with any of their so-called achievements. In a way, I’d expect them not to be: one thing I’ve internalised is that a writer is never fully sated.

Inspiration from my university peers wasn’t always tinged with writer’s envy. It sometimes tasted like awe. E.M.’s work unfailingly impressed me. It was full and complex, not pretentious, but rather like standing at the base of the tree in your friend’s cousin’s backyard, looking up, and wanting to climb it, looking forward to scaling its limbs toward the top. E.M.’s talent grew with every class she presented. At a workshop with her, you wanted to go first, get yours over with, because you just had to discuss that extended metaphor she devised, that was both tragic and funny and you really just wanted to get there, to somehow capture that, and dammit, “How did you do that?”

I wish I could include some of her poetry here, but I don’t have that permission, and I have no idea where she is now. But take my word, even the most exacting instructors at the school could be moved to barely-concealed envy; there were certainly no B’s on her assignments. And she would give as good as she got, in her readings of others’ work. She was practical, honest, and always offered advice recognising your personal style and struggle. It is not surprising E.M. became a counselor, maybe, as I remember her saying she wanted to do. What is surprising is that she has never published any of her work, and indeed once told me she never would, that she never really wanted to be a writer, was certain she just didn’t have it in her to keep it up. So her talent lives on in a sort of mythic reverence, alongside those of my peers whose writing ambitions exceeded E.M’s.

Like any Bachelor degree in a creative field, students' reasons for being there vary vastly from those who push on toward MA’s and PhD’s. By then, one may simply be buying oneself the opportunity to finally finish the novel under the tutelage of someone impressive, or her addiction to words (or institutions) keeps her in those halls. But in those first four years, it’s more about learning to yowl and finding your footing. If nothing else, you’ll learn whether or not you still want to write. Those who survive the first four years, like couples say of marriage, are likely to stick it out for a while. And if your voice isn’t shot and your spirit isn’t completely snuffed, you may come to realise you have something left to say.

So what does it mean that shortly after his memorable rant in my fourth year, Patrick Lane decided to take up a position at the school? I say those students should count themselves lucky. Perhaps his teaching, and hopefully his ranting, at the pretentious little writing students on their way to who-knows-where inspired more E.M.s to share their gorgeous words beyond the confines of those blasé walls, further disproving Ms. Coady’s theory--who is herself now recovered enough to be teaching writing workshops and writing what she knows in her new novel about surviving writing schools--and inspiring the B-students to continue to work just a little harder.

Word up to the B-students!

A sampling of my talented peers, all worth reading/watching for:

Suzanne Buffam
Tamas Dobozy
Judy Macinnes
Lyle Neff

9 Comments:

Anonymous Anna McDougall said...

Very interesting Tamara, from someone who didn't study this field at school. thanks for the llinks too, very cool peer group1

Mon Jun 05, 08:45:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Andrew Tibbetts said...

I enjoyed reading this. Despite your honesty about the warts, your affection for the people and even the process comes through. And it's so well-written: A+! I think they should still have detentions in university, though. And recess.

Mon Jun 05, 11:11:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Patricia said...

This is verrrry interesting, I reallly like Lynne Coady's work too!! and found this very motivating, what you wrote, I would love to go back to school, I won't, and I won't say I can't, I could, if we won the lotto..so...lololol...this sounds like an amazing time Tamara...

Thank you for sharing your journey. xo

Tue Jun 06, 03:23:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Patricia said...

I am totally in awe of the seven sisters writing group!!

Tue Jun 06, 03:40:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger Anne C. said...

This is the first time I've read about the school debate from a Canadian perspective.

Anne, who is having her own school debate

Tue Jun 06, 08:46:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger tamara said...

Cheers, all. In my defense, I wasn't really a B-student... I sometimes made it over the wall to the A-side :)

I still consider going back to school for my MA. And I've even looked into that Humber College week-long workshop. Some great writers involved in that.

Tue Jun 06, 05:13:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Anne C. said...

I was just doing a book cull and found, of all things, Super Socco...and other Super Stories(!) by Judy MacInnes (Jnr.), circa 1994. The cover is made out of a Shredded Wheat box. I only noticed, because I wondered where she was now, and then I realized that, um, that name sounded familiar and hey, didn't I just visit her web page today?

Tue Jun 06, 05:50:00 pm GMT-4  
Blogger Myfanwy Collins said...

Great post.

Wed Jun 07, 08:19:00 am GMT-4  
Blogger craig said...

Thank you for this, Tamara. I have heard a lot about Coady, but never read her work - I certainly want to now.

I've been considering the Humber thing as well. If not the workshop, then the correspondence mentoring that goes on - I know David Bergen is doing some of that.
Great post.

Sun Jun 11, 11:02:00 pm GMT-4  

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