The phrase “publish or perish” was coined to describe the perennial pressure professors find themselves under to keep careers afloat by having their work appear in academic journals.
At UBC’s Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing, the make-or-break maxim applies to students just as much as their teachers, although their own published material isn’t limited to dry academic circles and instead runs the literary gamut from short stories to screenplays, magazine features, comic books and even the occasional bestselling novel.
It’s been 50 years since Canadian poet and novelist Earle Birney sold university administrators on the idea of creating a special program where aspiring writers could hone their craft through workshops and peer review instead of by the usual solitary trial and error.
The first creative writing program in the country has since become Canada’s biggest and most successful, regularly producing a wide variety of award-winning writers, which in recent years include Zsuzsi Gartner (Better Living Through Plastic Explosives), Kevin Chong (My Year of the Racehorse), Lee Henderson (The Man Game), Madeleine Thien (Dogs at the Perimeter) and Lynn Coady, who last November won the $50,000 Giller Prize for her short story collection Hellgoing.
The program’s instructors and guest lecturers, many of them former students, includes names more likely to be found in a Contemporary Can Lit aisle of a Chapter’s bookstore than a faculty directory.
Acting department chair Steven Galloway says some of the credit is due to the policy of making writers study in at least three different disciplines. Options range from specializing in fiction, non-fiction, poetry, children’s literature, screenwriting, playwriting, translation, writing for radio, songwriting and libretto, manga and graphic novels, and new media.
“One of the things we do here that is very hard for a writer to get out in the world is the multi-genre thing,” said Galloway, a boyish, bespectacled 38-year-old who first came to UBC two decades ago and never left.
“I took poetry when I was an undergrad and I hated it and I’ve never written another poem again, but it made me a better writer. Most writers, left to their own devices, do the thing they are good at and avoid the thing they are not good at. Forcing people to eat their vegetables, so to speak, really does help them become a better writer and we have a pretty wide buffet to choose from.”
Classes are located on the top floor of an ugly four-storey building with wonky heating where rooms facing east are generally too warm in the winter and the ones across the hall too cold. Out of nearly 200 applications each year, only 25 are accepted, although there are also numerous writing courses offered at the undergraduate level and through distance education.
While it’s not easy to make the final cut, Galloway said students are encouraged to leave their egos at the door.
“It is competitive to get in, but once you’re in we work really hard to foster a non-competitive environment. You never do well as a writer because someone else didn’t do well. Just because I got a book published, it doesn’t mean you won’t and vice-versa. Sometimes we get students who come here because of the perception that it is a fast-track to publication or for networking and those students tend to be disappointed.”
The program also has its critics. Coady famously charged several years ago that UBC was taking a bit too much credit for its graduates’ literary accomplishments (she politely declined to comment when contacted) while others say the emphasis should be on mastering the craft of writing rather than trying to score lucrative book or movie deals.
“I love it here but I sometimes feel like I’m in that old TV show Fame,” said a young BFA student who didn’t want to give her name. “There were all these super-talented kids going to this big artsy school but you only ever got to know the names of a few of the main ones. Everybody else just sort of toiled away in the background hoping to get noticed.”
Writers, who tend to be anti-authoritarian by nature, also sometimes chafe at the formal academic structure. Galloway, a Giller nominee for his 2008 bestseller The Cellist of Sarajevo, says being open to learning from others — teachers and fellow students alike — is crucial to gaining the most from the program.
“We can help writers who have hit a wall with their writing and are trying to get through that, we can provide them with opportunities to help them, but we can’t make anyone a better writer. The analogy is like coaching elite athletes. You can’t turn me into Sidney Crosby, nothing on earth can do that, but I guarantee you Sidney Crosby is better because he was coached.”