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Inside the University of Guelph Creative Writing MFA at Guelph-Humber, with Catherine Bush

Catherine Bush, novelist and associate program coordinator of the University of Guelph Creative Writing MFA at Guelph-Humber, talks to Open Book about their unique writing program, the award-winning mentoring authors on staff and the remarkable successes of recent graduates. If you think the University of Guelph Creative Writing MA might be right for you, there's still time to meet the December 15 application deadline. Visit the University of Guelph website for details.

Open Book:

How does the University of Guelph Creative Writing MFA at Guelph-Humber work, and how is it distinct from other similar programs?

Catherine Bush:

First off, we’re an MFA program rather than a Creative Writing stream in an English MA program as many of the creative writing graduate programs in Canada are (with the exception of UVic, UBC and the new program at University of Saskatchewan). That means we can attract students who don’t have English degrees and focus all our attention on the craft of writing (and reading). We’re a two-year full-time program located in Toronto — our classes take place on the suburban campus of Humber College, but much of the social life of the program takes place downtown amidst Toronto’s vibrant literary culture. Our course requirements include three semester-long workshops (offered in fiction, poetry, drama and creative non-fiction), two plenary courses, an individual mentorship with a professional writer and a thesis project. The plenary courses, “Writers on Writing” and “Writers in the World,” are reading-based courses that delve into issues connected to the writing life and bring in a range of professional visitors. We offer students a stellar faculty of writers (including our core faculty Dionne Brand, Janice Kulyk Keefer and Judith Thompson, and sessional instructors Russell Smith, Michael Winter, David Young, Karen Connelly and Lynn Crosbie), hold Master Classes with writers visiting the International Festival of Authors, run a student reading series, have hosted play readings and connect students in various ways with the literary and cultural life of Toronto.

OB:

Do students get to choose the mentors they work with on their writing? Who are some of the writers who have worked students recently?

CB:

Yes, during the summer individual study semester or mentorship, which takes place at the end of their first year in the program, students have a hand in choosing the writer whom they work with. Often the choice is made in consultation with the program coordinator. Students find these summer mentorships one of the most exciting parts of the program, and recent mentors have included Dennis Lee, Lisa Moore, Camilla Gibb, Pasha Malla, Al Moritz, Colleen Murphy, Brad Fraser, Sheila Heti and Nino Ricci.

OB:

The application process requires that prospective students submit a portfolio of their work. What sorts of things are you looking for when you consider the portfolios?

CB:

The portfolio must include a minimum of three separate works (or excerpts from separate works), and applicants are strongly encouraged to submit works in more than one genre, e.g. fiction and poetry, but what’s most important is that ineffable thing: the voice that stands out, that arrests our attention and surprises us as readers, doesn’t shock us but offers us a glimpse of something we haven’t seen before or have never seen described in precisely this way. Publication credits aren’t as important as talent that can be developed, and the sense of a writer prepared to devote herself or himself to the art of writing.

OB:

What changes do you notice in the students' writing as they move through the program?

CB:

We see students make huge strides in their writing over the course of their two years in the program. They’re pushed in new directions and challenged to take existing projects to new heights. One playwright, in his recent summer mentorship, ended up turning a multi-character play into an intimate two-hander while tackling the voices of characters he’d never imagined himself inhabiting. As thesis supervisor I oversaw the intensive revisions of recent graduate Grace O’Connell’s thesis novel, which she has just sold to Knopf Canada for their New Face of Fiction series — a huge thrill. One of our poets recently said to me that he never imagined having the chance to work in succession with Dionne Brand, Al Moritz and Kevin Connolly on a manuscript — but he has.

OB:

What aspect of the MFA do students tend to find most challenging?

CB:

I hope they find the whole program challenging in the best possible way: what would be the point of attending a graduate program that didn’t challenge you to aim higher, go deeper into the work? We want students to come away better and more thoughtful writers, with an expanded sense of their own possibilities as writers, having considered some of the ethical issues of writing and the writing life, having read more and having practised the craft of reading as writers — reading being an essential part of any writer’s training.

OB:

How does completing the MFA put students in a better position to publish their work?

CB:

They’re in Toronto, for a start, the centre of Canada’s publishing industry. We have a variety of publishing professionals visit our classes and we aim to connect students with people in the industry, including agents and editors — and we hope the writing itself will be stronger for having come through the program. I also think industry professionals are interested in students coming out of our MFA given that in our first five years we already have a great publishing track record.

OB:

Can you name some past students who have gone on to experience success in their writing careers?

CB:

Among our graduates are Zoe Whittall, whose 2009 novel, Holding Still For as Long as Possible (House of Anansi), and third poetry collection, Precordial Thump (Exile), were written while she was completing her MFA with us. Nila Gupta's first book of inter-linked short stories, The Sherpa and Other Fictions, was published by Sumach Press in 2008 and shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best First Book in the Canada & Caribbean Region. Sandy Pool’s first collection of poetry, Exploding Into Night, (Guernica Editions, 2009) was recently short-listed for a 2010 Governor General’s Award in poetry. Jacob McArthur Mooney’s first collection, The New Layman's Almanac, was published by McClelland & Stewart in 2008 and his second book of poems, Folk, is forthcoming from McClelland & Stewart in 2011. Playwright Anna Chatterton, still in the program, is one of the creators of the new opera Voice-Box, which just finished a hugely successful run at the Harbourfront Centre.

OB:

How does your involvement in the MFA program contribute to your own writing?

CB:

Most writers, especially these days, need jobs in order to support themselves, and, yes, this can require some strategizing on the time-management front, but I can’t think of a better job to have: the program attracts great students and I love being in their company. They’re smart, thoughtful and committed to writing, and their seriousness and commitment are infectious. They inspire me to immerse myself in my own work, read more, and think deeply about things I care most about in the world. Being with them is to be part of a fascinating ongoing conversation about how and why we write; I also love being involved in the creation of a community, which seems to me a vital part of an MFA program.

Claire's Head

Catherine Bush is the author of three novels: Claire’s Head (McClelland & Stewart, 2004), The Rules of Engagement (HarperCollins, 2000) and Minus Time (HarperCollins, 1993). Bush has a degree in Comparative Literature from Yale University, has held a variety of Writer-in-Residence positions and taught Creative Writing at universities including Concordia, the University of Florida, the University of Guelph, and in the University of British Columbia’s low-residency MFA. She coordinates the Creative Writing MFA at the University of Guelph and is at work on a fourth novel. Visit her website at www.catherinebush.com.

For more information about the University of Guelph Creative Writing MFA at Guelph-Humber please visit the University of Guelph website. Applications for the program must be submitted by December 15.

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