Humber College’s new undergrad in creative and professional writing strives to nurture skilled creative professionals.
I always wanted to be a writer. Or maybe it’s that I always wrote. I took the being a writer part for granted.
For me, the way to writing has always been through reading. So I figured the best way to become a writer was to go to university where I’d be exposed to all the best reading. I entered the English Department of Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, in the late 90s and did a whole lot of reading. But here’s the thing: I didn’t do much writing. At least not the kind of writing I wanted to do. It turns out that English degrees are not about writing at all. As related as reading and writing obviously are, they are also obviously not the same.
After Mt. A., I decided to enrol in creative writing in the University of Victoria’s Fine Arts Department, picking up another undergrad and the all the debt that came with it. There, I actually learned to write, creatively anyway. And while skills used in crafting strong scenes in fiction and telling dialogue in screenplays are transferable in the same way that shaping well-supported arguments in essays are, there is a limitation to how far these skills can go without guidance on how to put them to use.
Enter Humber College’s new Honours Bachelor of Creative and Professional Writing (BCPW), which will redefine what we think of as undergraduate writing instruction.
If you are reading this site, odds are you probably already know who Meaghan Strimas is. Well known as a Trillium Award winning poet and editor, she’s also worked as an administrator and teacher, first as the program administrator for the University of Guelph’s Creative Writing MFA and then as the coordinator for Humber College’s Professional Writing and Communications graduate certificate and a mentor at the Humber School for Writers. Now, she is the founding program coordinator of the new BCPW program, which will welcome its first cohort in September 2022.
I talked to Meaghan about how, among other things, this new program came to be and the decisions that went into its development.
“I know so many published authors (me included) who’ve spent years cobbling together a living by working arts-admin jobs or waiting tables,” Strimas explained. “I hope this isn’t a spoiler for too many readers, but the truth is that for most writers, writing and publishing books doesn’t pay the bills.”
And she’s right, of course. I made $800 from the first two pieces of fiction I published after graduating from UVic. However, I quickly learned that this was not the norm. It would take nearly a decade of sobering $100 and $50 publication payments to double what I’d made. The modest book advances that most writers can expect from small and mid-size publishers also don’t fill the coffers. Only a tiny group of writers make real money from their creative writing. The rest are left to find other ways to support their creative lives. But these writers do have skills that can be put to practical use.
“Communications-based writing careers (think work that involves the crafting of press releases, creative briefs, explainers, social posts) are varied, plentiful and lucrative,” Strimas says. “So a combined professional and creative writing degree, such as Humber’s new BCPW, makes perfect sense.”
Strimas explains the logic that went into the creation of the program: “We want emerging writers to see that they can have the best of both worlds: fulfilling creative and professional lives. So many creative people are led to believe that they must settle for one or the other, but we are here to show a new generation of writers that they don’t have to be broke to create good art.”
Another difference from traditional creative writing programs, is that this one will focus on creating career-ready, socially engaged writers. “With this is mind,” Meaghan explains, “we’ve created courses like Cultivating Inclusive Writing Practices, a space where students will explore issues of representation and language, especially as they relate to equity-deserving groups, accessibility, BIPOC and LGBTQQIP2SAA communities. In our Community Engagement Through the Arts course, we’ll be partnering with not-for-profit organizations so students can explore the leadership role the artist can play in community building and social change. Here, students will be encouraged to reflect upon how the writer can meaningfully engage in public services as an artist-educator-advocate.”
Along with more traditional writing workshops, there will also be workshops in graphic-novel making, ghostwriting and feature writing. Other courses on offer include Emerging Writers & Hybrid Forms, Researching to Write, The Business of Writing, Content Marketing & Copywriting, Project Management, and Multimedia Design & Web Development.
The focus on working in multimedia seems particularly important in 2022. “Employers expect writers to be exceptional not only at what they were hired to do (write), but also at putting together a wide range of content, including graphics and videos,” Strimas explains, noting that in first-year, students will be taking foundational media writing courses along with Photography Fundamentals, Video & Audio Fundamentals and Multiplatform Storytelling.
In the final year of the program, students will be paired with an established writer to work on a book-length manuscript, providing the kind of “one-on-one attention that is usually only reserved for students in graduate-level programs,” Strimas points out.
Along with her pursuits in academia, Meaghan has also worked in marketing, editorial, publicity and project management, and her connections to these industries were key in developing the program, and she describes how “in the early phases of the program’s development, we had a whole team of industry/content experts working on curriculum,” which also helps to explain how this program will differ from others like it.
Full disclosure: I teach in and am the program coordinator for Humber’s Professional Writing and Communications graduate certificate, where we teach a lot of creative writers (among others) how to put their writing skills to good practical use. It’s the kind of instruction that, in hind sight, I’d wished I’d had during my time as a creative writing undergrad. The kind of instruction that a whole new generation of undergrads will now be able to get through this new Honours Bachelor of Creative and Professional Writing program.
To celebrate the launch of the new program, the BCPW program is running a contest for young writers. High school students based in Ontario can submit either a short story or essay here by March 31. Contest winners will receive prize money (first prize is $750) and publication. The Judges are Naben Ruthnum, Zoe Whittall and Meaghan Strimas.
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
D.D. Miller is a Toronto-based writer, editor and teacher and the author of two books. He is the program coordinator of Humber's Professional Writing and Communications graduate program and is also the co-editor of The Humber Literary Review. Additionally, he is the co-chair of the interdisciplinary academic conference, Humber@TIFA, a collaboration between Humber's Faculty of Liberal Arts & Sciences and the Toronto International Festival of Authors.