Their numbers are legion; their "word" is everywhere. They have written hundreds of poems, scores of novels, sheaves of short stories, stacks of children's books, reams of non-fiction, dozens of radio and television scripts, and rafts of plays. Over the past 40 years, they have won prestigious national writing prizes. including several Governor General's awards. They have engaged with all manner of ideas, both traditional and iconoclastic: they have imagined worlds ranging from a futuristic society where men are all but extinct to a rural community where a woman is impregnated by a swarm of bees.
There is no tidy acronym for them unless you will settle for WWOAUA (ISCOO) — Writers Who Once Attended the University of Alberta (In Some Capacity Or Other) — but their contributions to national literature are undeniable. They hail from Indian communities, prairie hamlets, farms, urban centres and other countries. They spring from diverse roots, including Metis, Ukrainian, Caribbean, Mennonite, African and Anglo-Saxon cultures. Many of them still live in Alberta, while others have scattered across the land, literally from coast to coast, to ply their trade. A few live abroad. Wherever they are, they are members of that wide-ranging Canadian writing community the late Margaret Laurence called "the tribe." These writers are a multifarious lot who, if you could manage to corral them all into one giant concourse, would likely cluster into disparate camps which would soon erupt into a joking, weeping, shouting, roiling mass of contrary opinions. Their work is not readily identifiable as reflecting a particular "school" of writing, but over the past 40 years, it has contributed to a larger entity clearly recognized as "Canadian literature."
Exactly how many of these writerly alumnae and alumni exist is problematic. No scroll is inscribed with names of all writers educated at the university of Alberta. However, according to statistics from the Registrar's office, approximately 1,600 students enrolled in creative writing courses at the U of A from 1939 to 1992. Of course, not everyone who takes a creative writing course becomes a published author; nor does everyone enrolled in an English course produce The Great (or Lesser) Canadian Novel or the perfect lyric poem; occasional students even fare badly in English classes and still publish books. Some students even begin studying profitable subjects like science, but somehow end up becoming writers anyway.
Here's an abbreviated list of published authors, all former creative writing students at the U of A: Byrna Barclay, Lorna Crozier, Lovat Dickson, Rita Donovan, Candas Jane Dorsey, Pauline Dube, Caterina Edwards, Raymond Gariepy, Beth Goobie, Leona Gom, Katherine Govier, Mary Howes, Glen Huser, Frances Itani, Sally Ito, Myrna Kostash, Karen Lawrence, Rhona McAdam, Nancy Mattson, WO Mitchell, Frank Moher, Bryan Moon, Scot Morison, Marie Moser, William Pasnak, Michael Penny, Darlene Quaife, Carol Redl, Monty Reid, Mary Walters Riskin, Helen Rosta, Eunice Scarfe, Neil Scotten, Allan Shute, Cora Taylor, Asong Linus Tongwo, Don Truckey, Aritha van Herk, Lyle Weis, Rudy Wiebe.
And here's another list, again, far from inclusive: Doris Anderson, Victoria Branden, John Chalmers, Joan Clark, the late Daniel Dancocks, Stan Dragland, Jacqueline Dumas, Marilyn Dumont, Floyd Favel, Susan Haley, Gwen Hauser, the late Jan Hudson, Robert Kroetsch, Tololwa Mollel, Kit Pearson, Bruce Allen Powe, Candace Savage, Don Sawatsky, Jan Truss, Alice Van Wart, the late Jon Whyte. Again, all are writers, all obtained part or all of their education at the U of A in fields as diverse as education, law, science, drama and history. For instance, Professor Emeritus John W. Chalmers, 82, began his studies in Alberta in 1931, earned two degrees in education, and then went on to complete a master's degree in English in 1990. The editor of a number of anthologies and the author of historical and educational works, Chalmers recalls a youthful W.O. Mitchell completing undergraduate studies and an education degree at the U of A. "He went his way, and hoped the professor would go along his way too," Chalmers says of the Calgary storyteller best known for his 1947 novel Who Has Seen the Wind and his Jake Van Luven and the Kid stories made famous on CBC Radio in the 1950s. Over the past 20 years or so, Mitchell also has won a name for himself as a writing teacher and is the originator of "Mitchell's Messy Method," which incorporates the "Freefall" writing process.
Winterburn, Alberta children's author Cora Taylor credits Mitchell with "helping me to find my voice," when she took his advanced creative writing course in the early 1970s. "I never really knew where I was coming from," recalls the award-winning writer, author of Julie, The Doll and Julie's Secret. "His Freefall method helped me to tap my own strong points. Before, I tended to write like the last writer I had been reading," says Taylor.
The first actual writing course offered at the University of Alberta was taught in 1939 by F.M. Salter, from 1950 to 1953 the third head of the university's English department. In his book The Way of the Makers, published in 1967 as a "new rationale on the art of writing," Salter sets out firm guidelines for both writers and teachers. "A teacher's job, " he writes, "is not to pander to self-expression, which could make instruction but vanity indeed, but to aid students in self-creation. Every really wise teacher sees in what his students are, a stepping stone to what they might become; for the attainment of that becoming, no discipline is so helpful as that of writing."
Although Salter actually taught a composition course, "you could write anything you pleased," recalls his former student, Rudy Wiebe, who retired from teaching in 1990 after 23 years as a U of A professor. Raised in rural Saskatchewan and Alberta, Wiebe began writing while an undergraduate at the U of A, received an MA in creative writing in 1960, and returned as a faculty member in 1967 after studying abroad and teaching in the United States.
As the University of Alberta's first full-time creative writing teacher (Kristjana Gunnars is the second), Wiebe has influenced scores of students, and was himself strongly affected by Salter, a former Cape Breton miner (among many other things) who came to the U of A as a lecturer in 1922.
"When I arrived (in Salter's course, 1955-56), I thought I knew what poems and stories were, but having an affirmation by someone like him was vital˜. He taught me how to listen for patterns in language." Wiebe's own adventures in language encompass about 20 books, including The Temptations of Big Bear, which won a Governor General's Award in 1973. In 1989 he published Playing Dead: A Contemplation Concerning the Arctic, and his first children's book, Chinook Christmas, will appear later this year. When delivering the 1992 F.M. Salter Lectures on Language, Wiebe described his former mentor as a "vital influence," an inspiring teacher who possessed a "great mind" and was "a superb reader."
Novelist and poet Robert Kroetsch, born and raised in Heisler, Alberta and now an English professor at the University of Manitoba, recalls being a callow youth of 19, "just a boy from the farm," when he walked into a Salter class in 1947 and found it teeming with veterans of the Second World War. "I was totally intimidated by these older guys with all that exotic experience — one was a former fighter pilot! After one day in the class I dropped out," he says, adding, "think how much better I'd have done if I'd stayed a week!"
Nevertheless, Kroetsch has "done" just fine: he completed his BA in 1948, went on to attend the University of Iowa (where he did manage to screw up his courage and take a creative writing course), has about two dozen publications (poetry, novels and literary criticism) to his name, and this fall is publishing a new novel, his eighth, entitled The Puppeteer. "I was the first person from my community to get a BA. Anyone actually being a writer was unheard of," he recalls. "It's very romantic to think you just grow up and become a writer," Kroetsch notes, adding that a creative writing teacher, "can't turn a student into a genius, but can teach him certain skills˜. One of the sad things in being an editor is seeing how many people have a richness of experience, have the stories, but just don't know how to tell them."
Although the occasional critic (mostly from Eastern Canada, it must be admitted) has claimed that there exists a "U of A school" of writing, few former students agree. "I have heard that idea discussed," says Edmonton novelist Caterina Edwards, who completed a thesis in creative writing at the U of A, was a graduate student of Wiebe's and now pursues a career as both writer and teacher. "People claim Rudy Wiebe's students tend to write alike, but I'm always surprised to hear that when writers as different as Katherine Govier and William Pasnak were in the same class I was." Wiebe himself scoffs at the idea, noting that when some of his former students began to win lucrative national awards for their writing, "people actually wondered if I got a percentage. It was as if they thought I had a share in a race horse, trained it and got some of the money."
Perhaps the best known of Wiebe's students in the 1970s was former Edberg resident Aritha van Herk, now a professor at the University of Calgary. In 1978, van Herk's novel Judith won first prize — and $50,000 — in a first-novel competition, focusing national and international attention on the U of A. "Good lord, that was almost 20 years ago," notes van Herk, recalling her year as a creative writing student in 1973-74. Then a determined 19 year-old from Edberg, she saw university as a place to "read all the great books ever written," and viewed a creative writing course as just another challenge.
"No one is ever prepared for the kind of criticism levelled at their work, but it got me thinking seriously. Up to then, I'd been writing a lot of passionate poetry, the stuff most adolescents do." Van Herk also studied with Doug Barbour, who taught the poetry component of the creative writing course. "I started out thinking I'd get more out of the poetry section and ended up writing prose," she says. Van Herk is working on a fourth novel and in 1991 published In Visible Ink, a series of "cryptofictions," which she describes as "weird stuff I'm thinking about now."
Van Herk also doubts a U of A "school" of writing exists. "I think the people are wildly different — look at the work of Bryan Moon and Monty Reid, both of whom studied with me.
"What I learned from studying creative writing is that constructive criticism — this doesn't work, maybe if you tried that' — is most useful. And I struggle to do that with my own students."
U of A English professor Bert Almon has been teaching creative writing courses for poets since 1972 and finds it constantly rewarding because, "it's good to see people grow, and many have gone on to be quite successful." He recalls a course where "one out of three" students went on to publish books, and cites such emerging Edmonton writers as Beth Goobie, Sally Ito and Pauline Dube as proof that creative writing programs "offer the matrix and atmosphere" to help writing develop their writing.
"We had good students," Wiebe notes of the halcyon 1970s, when there were four sections of creative writing classes, some taught by such guest luminaries as Dorothy Livesay, Elizabeth Brewster and Margaret Atwood. And for such students, he notes, the instructor's key role is "affirming the kind of subject matter," helping students recognize "the world they need to write about˜. Salter always said, you write about this because this is who you are."
Caterina Edwards says University of Alberta courses "taught me to be highly critical of my work. I'm never satisfied, and that's both a positive and negative." Her first novel, The Lion's Mouth, came out in 1982, followed by short stories in a variety of publications and, in 1990, a play, "Homeground.". This fall, NeWest Press of Edmonton will publish two of her novellas, Becoming Emma and Whiter Shade of Pale.
Edmontonian Marie Moser, whose 1987 novel Counterpoint was recently translated into French, started writing after achieving bachelor's degrees in both science and arts at the U of A, specializing in chemistry and history respectively. "I know people say you can't teach someone to write," admits Moser, "but I wouldn't have been aware of problems in my work if I hadn't had someone criticizing me every step of the way."
Moser, who studied with both the late Marian Engel and with Wiebe, thinks "it would have taken me longer to develop my own writing style," without writing courses. "When I'm asked to judge writing, I see that about 10 out of 200 entries have a real spark, but the writers have absolutely no idea how to go about developing their ideas." And Edmonton poet and playwright Norm Sacuta, who in the 1980s studied both English and playwrighting (with drama professor Ben Tarver) at the U of A, praises the kinship found in writing courses where he met "other people starting to write, some of whom I have kept a circle of friendship with over the years."
Saskatchewan-born poet Lorna Crozier, as of 1 July a professor in the creative writing department at the University of Victoria, says a writing instructor must "create an unthreatening atmosphere. And, of course, you have to be very careful not to encourage students to write your kind of poetry, but to discover their own voice and style." Crozier, whose ninth book of poetry, Inventing the Hawk, was published in March, completed an MA in creative writing at the University of Alberta in 1980. "You can't teach creativity," Crozier notes. "What you can teach is craft." And in a writing workshop, a skilled instructor can lead students to "learn how to become better critics of their own work." In her own writing, Crozier strives for "poems as clear as a wonderful pool where you can see all the objects resting on the bottom."
Poet, novelist and translator Kristjana Gunnars, the U of A's current full-time professor of creative writing, says that one of the primary roles of a writing instructor is to undo anything that's gone before.
"You want to destroy perceptions that narrow the mind," says Gunnars. "Creativity is being open and sympathetic to the world. Part of a writing teacher's task is to get people to appreciate other readings, communities and personalities˜ sometimes a creative writing class seems like a centre of unlearning." She maintains that students in writing courses inevitably undergo "a lot of personal development" as they learn to "take criticism and use it constructively," to assess both their own and others' work. "Professors have done a poor job if students come out smug and arrogant," she adds.
Despite all modern psychology can tell us about the creative impulse, why particular students are compelled to study writing remains a mystery, even to writing practitioners themselves.
"In a way, (the pursuit of writing) is a brutal kind of life," says White Rock, B.C. writer Leona Gom, a former Peace River resident who obtained an education degree from the U of A and then went on to complete an MA in English, studying writing with the late poet Jon Whyte in 1987-88. "I advise students to persevere if they want to write, but not to put all their hopes and dreams into it. If you put everything into it, then your heart's sure to get broken." While it is possible for writers to earn a decent living in Canada today, Gom says young students often "don't know what the odds are, don't realize how hard they'll have to work."
Over the past 20 years, Gom has alternated teaching and writing, and has published five books of poetry and three novels, the last of which, a feminist/futuristic fantasy entitled The Y Chromosome, has sold very well. Right now, she's focusing full-time on her writing. "If I could choose not to do this, if I could have a normal occupation, I would. Writing is a crazy-making thing in a way˜ but most of us feel driven to continue."
In addition to creative writing courses, the U of A's Writer-in-Residence-Program, begun in 1975, has brought talented writers to Edmonton to interact with both students and members of the public. The list of 18 writers of poetry and prose who have filled the position reads like a compressed Who's Who in Can Lit: Matt Cohen, Gary Geddes, Marian Engel, Tom Wayman, Maria Campbell, Phyllis Webb, Patrick Lane, Elizabeth Smart, Samuel Selvon, Monica Hughes, Daphne Marlatt, Ray Smith, Leona Gom, Fred Wah, Kristjana Gunnars, David Adams Richards, Sandra Birdsell and Merna Summers. Their presence at the U of A has afforded prospective writers the chance to consult with and learn from different critical perspectives each year.
Perhaps the dream of capturing in the amber of language a certain "transcendent" moment keeps every writer — whether neophyte or accomplished — going. Aritha van Herk recalls one early spring morning when, as a first-year student, she first comprehended literature's power. "I lived in this really cheap room near the High Level Bridge. I'd just finished reading Kroetsch's The Studhorse Man, and I got up and looked out the window, and there it was right in front of me — the place where Hazard Lepage had run his horses. And I realized that I could write about a place I could look at. It sounds corny now, but I wept to realize that."
A Future to be Protected
The Writer-in-Residence Program in the University of Alberta's Department of English is the longest continuously running program of its kind in Canada. Begun in 1975, it brings nationally and internationally recognized Canadian writers to campus for fall and winter-term residencies.
The program has two major goals: to provide all Alberta writers with access to the artistic and practical knowledge of well-known authors and to offer to the authors themselves a friendly, stimulating environment in which to pursue their writing projects.
Writers-in-residence at the University maintain regular office hours, during which they give advice and encouragement to aspiring writers both from campus and from the larger community. It is usual for writers in residence to meet with between 50 and 80 novice writers a year, many of the beginning writers returning for advice several times.
Writers-in-residence are also kept busy giving readings of their works on and off campus, making media appearances, visiting classrooms, judging writing competitions, and heightening the profile of the literary arts in Alberta.
The annual cost of the program, including salary and benefits, is currently about $35,000. None of this comes from the University budget, and now that the granting agencies through which the program has been funded are being obliged by economic conditions to reduce their awards, the Writer-in-Residence Program is at grave risk, says English professor Rob Merrett, who serves as the Faculty of Arts' director of external relations and fund development.
To help support the program, a Writer-in-Residence Endowment Fund has been established. At present, however, the interest available from the fund is, only $1,700 per year. To boost the yield and save the program, members of the English Department and Arts faculty have themselves been increasing donations to the endowment fund, says Merrett.
Others interested in protecting the future of the Writer-in-Residence Program are invited send contributions to the Development Office, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta T6G 2E8. Cheques should be made out to "The University of Alberta — Writer-in-Residence Fund." All gifts will be receipted for tax purposes and , in addition, will be gratefully acknowledged.
Published Summer 1992.