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August 7, 2018
The Word On The Street Festival is a great way to get to know Canadian authors and our literary landscape. But the festival is also a great way to get to know the professionals who keep the publishing world turning. We sat down with Robert McGill to talk about teaching new writers.
WOTS: You’re a writer, a Professor of Canadian Literature, and the Director of the University of Toronto’s Creative Writing M.F.A. How do you find your different roles inform and support one another?
Robert McGill: There’s a lot of complementarity and mutual influence. I get to teach great writing, think about it, talk with other people about what makes it tick, help them to write better, and then I get to work at making my own creative contributions. I try to change things up sometimes by going for a run—but by mile two, I’m usually thinking about writing.
WOTS: A big question in the writing community is whether writers should enter a Creative Writing program—it comes up over and over again. When do you think a Creative Writing program is the right choice for a writer?
RM: Do you want not only to publish your work but also to learn how to improve as a writer? Will you value talking about writing—yours and others’—with other writers and becoming part of a literary community? Will you benefit from being encouraged to write and share your work regularly? If your answer to all three questions is yes, then a Creative Writing program is something you should consider.
WOTS: Can you tell us a bit about the University of Toronto program?
RM: We have a two-year MA program: there’s a workshop along with English courses in the first year, then one-on-one work with a mentor—a Toronto-area writer—on a creative project in the second year. We also offer our students teaching experience in the field and bring in editors and agents to speak with them. In that regard and others, we’re fortunate to be right in the middle of a world-class literary city.
WOTS: You’ve taught creative writing classes for undergraduates, too. What should students know when they’re applying for undergraduate writing workshops? What makes an application stand out?
RM: Applications stand out when the writing sample stands out—when it isn’t quite like anything I’ve read before. So my advice is for students to submit their best work and, in order to make the writing stand out, to do the same things that all writers should aim to do: read widely to see what’s been done and how it’s been done, and write a lot to master the conventions and to gain practice in messing around with those conventions in exciting ways.
WOTS: You’ve published two novels, the first of which was named one of the top five Canadian novels of the year by Quill and Quire, and your short stories are widely published in Canadian literary magazines. How does your process change and adjust based on medium? What work do they each do respectively?
RM: I can have a whole short story in my head before I sit down to write it. With a novel, before I begin to write, there’s a lot of planning, figuring out plot points, developing characters, that sort of thing. I’ve tried writing a novel like I write short stories, just starting on page one and going from there, but I’ve written myself into corners that way. I’m a believer in a solid outline.
The short story is fantastic for experimenting—for trying out new ideas, styles, ways of narrating. If a particular experiment doesn’t work out perfectly, well, you haven’t sunk two or ten years into it as you might have with a novel. Starting a novel, I think of myself as getting into a relationship—a relationship with a set of characters and a world that are going to be big parts of my life for some time. Love, patience, and humility are essential.
WOTS: Do you have any advice for anyone who’s just starting out, either as an emerging writer or an aspiring workshop leader?
RM: One thing I’d say is that workshopping is a great thing to do in pursuit of both goals. As a writer, you’ll gain the advantage of having other brains go to work on your writing. You’ll also get to think in meaningful new ways about writing by responding to others’ work. And you’ll get to establish supportive relationships with other writers. The writing life can be tough; it’s easier when you have friends.
If you’re keen to lead workshops, participate in a few first and pay attention to how different facilitators do things. There isn’t only one way of workshopping; the more styles you encounter, the better equipped you’ll be to facilitate in a way that works for you and for others. And be prepared to put others first. Successful workshop leadership is much less about dispensing wisdom than about ensuring productive conversations in which everyone feels safe and heard.