It’s always the chance word, unthinking
gesture that unlocks the face before you.
Reveals the intricate countries
deep within the eyes. The hidden
lives, like sudden miracles,
that breathe there.
— Bronwen Wallace
At the end of the current academic year, one of Canada’s most quietly effective creative writing programs is losing its heart. Carolyn Smart has run the undergraduate courses at Queen’s University — coded CWRI — since she took over from Bronwen Wallace in 1989, following Wallace’s death from cancer at forty-four. I was Carolyn Smart’s student in the early 2000s, and, for a time, I thought she had offered me terrible advice.
As I was finishing up my English degree and thinking about my future as a writer, I asked if I should pursue a master of fine arts degree. She advised against it. “There used to be teaching jobs,” she explained, “but there are no jobs anymore.” If I couldn’t teach, the chances of making a living off books were slim.
Years passed, and as the MFA came to loom over literary culture, I figured I’d been steered wrong. The first time I met with editors at a publishing house, they asked me where I’d come from. I told them the subway, not understanding they wanted to know my credentials. Successful writers were supposed to have advanced degrees, but I hadn’t pursued one right out of school. And now that I was in my twenties, already beholden to Toronto landlords, I couldn’t afford it.
Over time, I had some jobs that involved writing and some that didn’t. I took on debt and built a family, working on fiction when I could. In 2019, the year I turned forty, I published my first book, a collection of short stories. At last, I thought, I’d shrugged off the albatross of being untrained, an amateur among the certified; I had achieved success, in spite of missing such a big part of a writer’s formal education.
It took almost no time after publishing that book to realize that I’d been wrong about Carolyn’s advice. First, on surveying those who were now my peers on bookstore shelves, I came to see that her workshop had provided me with much of what people get from MFAs — and had arguably done it better. Second, I understood that literary success in Canada is a phantom, provided it is measured by the number of copies one sells or the amount of money one makes. When I was promoting my book at the Toronto International Festival of Authors, I struck up a casual conversation with the director at the time, Geoffrey Taylor. “Do you know how many there are?” he asked, as we took in the crowded scene he’d helped create. He meant those who can survive off their fiction alone. I shook my head. The number, he whispered, was under twenty.
With Carolyn Smart passing on the torch in Kingston, I reached out to some of those who have spent time with her — as students, as protegés, as award winners — and asked them about the advice she’d given them over the years. Inevitably, they responded with a variation on the same theme.
Anna Maxymiw, whose debut novel, Minique, comes out next year: Carolyn was and is still the patron saint of undergrad writers. I cringe to think about some of the stuff I submitted in her class, because who’s doing good writing when they’re nineteen? Not very many people, and definitely not me. But her feedback was never cruel and never abrupt. She guided us through the ups and downs of receiving critique with absolute grace, which I realize now is a virtue that not so many creative writing instructors have.
Tanis Rideout, who wrote the novel Above All Things: Carolyn Smart taught me how exciting it could be to get criticism. My first experience with her was rejection. I applied for her class, and I didn’t get in. I was pretty upset, but I wanted to know what I could do better, in hopes that maybe I would get in next time. So I called and asked for feedback. She told me that she’d look at my work again and get back to me. When she did, she invited me to join her class.
That was one of the best lessons I ever got: That a writer needs to be willing to take feedback and criticism. That such willingness was the most important thing. When someone gets what you are trying to do and brings something to your work — a suggestion, a question, a concern that you don’t see.
Omar El Akkad, whose second novel is What Strange Paradise: One of the things Carolyn had us do early on in her class was spend a lot of time responding to the writing our peers produced. It was a way to think carefully about what it means to critique, about why a piece moves you in a particular direction or prompts a particular reaction. But, more than that, it was an education in what language can do. You’re put in a position where you’re writing something critical about another person’s work, something you know came from a very vulnerable place, and suddenly you become intimately aware of the power of words.
Grace O’Connell, who has published two novels and who teaches creative writing at the University of Toronto: Carolyn guided each of us to develop not just a thick skin, but a keen instinct about our own work. To be able to take criticism and find it useful, not discouraging, but also to hold to a core of our work and purpose, to know when and why if we want to stand firm on something.
Carolyn taught us balance and thoughtfulness around revision, and, most importantly, to revise, revise, revise — to carve away until we found the thing of beauty buried in our drafts. And she was fun as hell while she did it all.
A good teacher, especially at the undergraduate level, must transform criticism into an invitation. This is not the same as solicitation or enticement — although, done poorly, it can turn into that.
The modern MFA has become a fundamentally transactional system. Despite the continuing erosion of financial stability for writers, these programs offer ample enticement: Come join the ranks of masters! Acquire a key that will open gates! Be good enough, and you will be allowed to buy passage through a vetted stream — one you will pay to traverse, both financially and mentally. The system is also, necessarily, solicitous. Businesses compete, and a program’s reputation must be burnished and advertised. The condensed nature of communications in our digital culture means the sales pitch must be brief enough to fit into the first line of a Google search: optimized language urges you to “study with award-winning writers” and to “fast-track your skills.” The lineup to get in the door is long and the competition notoriously tough.
All of which is to say that the majority of those students entering MFA programs have already decided to be writers. Indeed, focused as the degree is on concentrated learning, it offers little time to be other things. The path is set: once you have spent thousands of dollars or gone into significant debt to certify yourself in a particular calling — and top programs typically run between $10,000 and $25,000 — it becomes difficult (and, I can imagine, not especially appealing) to justify pursuing an alternative course.
Thus, the MFA functions beyond the realm of invitation. For many of those who show up, the hardest decision has already been made. Whereas those who take creative writing as part of their undergraduate degree may still be exploring the deeper question: What is it, exactly, that I am?
John Elizabeth Stintzi, a poet, novelist, and writing teacher at the Kansas City Art Institute: I believe that undergraduate workshops can actually be the most valuable in terms of a writer’s career. That experience is where we’re the most challenged and free to play, which I believe is integral to the discovery of one’s voice. I also firmly believe that undergraduate writers are the most vulnerable to poor instruction, as many have not developed a sense of conviction, because they have not yet found a voice they are comfortable writing through.
Omar El Akkad:I studied computer science, though I was terrible at it, and to this day I can’t program my way out of a paper bag. I hardly ever went to class and spent most of my time writing for pretty well any student publication that would accept my work. I applied to Carolyn’s prose class as I was heading into second year, which would have been 2001. The very first time that class got together, the first time I met Carolyn in person, was a Tuesday — September 11, a few hours after the planes had hit the towers.
In the following years, I took her advanced prose class, in which we produced the very first edition of the Lake Effect anthology. From Queen’s, I landed summer internships, first at the Edmonton Journal and then, the following year, at the Globe and Mail, where I was eventually hired full-time and spent the next decade of my life. My writing education was essentially Carolyn’s class and newspaper work.
Anna Maxymiw: I did a medial degree in English and psychology and took Carolyn’s workshops in my third and fourth years. I hadn’t heard about her classes — it was my friend Carly Watters, who’s now a literary agent, who told me that she was applying and that I should too. We both got in. And all of a sudden, we were thrust into this world. Carolyn brought in fabulous guest lecturers — Billeh Nickerson, Genni Gunn, Sheri‑D Wilson — who helped critique our work with the same tact and patience that Carolyn showed. We also met Laurie Lewis of the Artful Codger Press, which published Lake Effect 4. We had a wild book launch and took all the leftover wine back to a classmate’s house and put on records and danced to Bowie.
Moez Surani, whose most recent poetry collection is Are the Rivers in Your Poems Real: I went to Queen’s to study biology. After taking Carolyn’s class as an elective, I switched to English literature. Some teachers can get so absorbed in the style of different periods — be it modernism or the Renaissance or ancient Greece — that they look for work that conforms to those ideals. This approach implicitly conveys the belief that literature is written in some mystified and exalted “elsewhere.” But for Carolyn, great writing can be contemporary and local.
Mark Medley, who spent many years as the books editor of the National Post and of the Globe and Mail: Unlike every other course I took at Queen’s, Carolyn’s workshop was one you had to apply for. When I wrote the story I applied with, it was probably the first time since high school that I’d written something new. It was called “Grace” (ugh), and it was about a nun living in Las Vegas (double ugh). I think it was magical realism. In any case, Carolyn let me in. I can’t remember everyone, but Moez Surani, Omar El Akkad, Gillian Savigny, and Kate McQuaid were all there.
Carolyn introduced me to writers and forms of writing of which I’d been completely ignorant, despite being an English major. She pushed me outside my comfort zone, made me write in ways I never would have done if not for her class. But, most of all, it was the first time I felt a part of a writing community. Before I took her workshop, the idea of being “a writer” was this hazy, nebulous concept. It was what I’d always wanted to do, but I don’t think I knew what that would entail. Her class provided me with a passport to a country I’d always wanted to visit.
Michael Crummey, author of The Innocents: In 1994, I won the inaugural Bronwen Wallace Award, which Carolyn helped found, organize, and administer. She became a mentor and a champion of mine for years afterwards. She was someone who made me feel like I had a shot, and that was a rare gift through my twenties. There are endless opportunities for humiliation and embarrassment in a writer’s life, especially in the early going. Carolyn offered a constant bit of shelter from that steady downpour.
The idea that writing is hard is easy to scoff at. It’s not rocket science or banking or dentistry or any other profession that requires extensive, rigorous training. The profusion of online publications that blur the line between writing and so‑called content has done nothing to clarify what it means to be a writer, or what one must do to be considered one.
For those whose motives and expectations of self are shaped by conventional metrics of success, being a professional creative writer appears a ludicrous decision. If you grow up understanding you’ll become a lawyer or an engineer with a guaranteed financial return, it takes a leap to give up those aspirational eidolons and commit yourself to an activity that is uncertain at best, and increasingly detached from the notion of sustainable income. The carrot of artistic epiphany might have been enough of a lure long ago, but the idea that aesthetic perfection at any cost is its own reward has fallen out of fashion. What good is your masterpiece if you had to hurt others to create it? And whose definition of perfect are we using?
As the mid-list disappears in the rear-view mirror, and as publishing becomes a matter of a few celebrity voices floating a few big houses while everyone else ekes out a readership in the indie presses, it’s hardly reasonable to imagine being the kind of novelist found on the back of hardcovers from the 1980s, posing on a boat, with expensive jewellery on display. Modern Canadian publishing no longer offers that kind of payout, if it ever did; consider that Margaret Atwood’s total net worth is estimated to be roughly what the Toronto Raptors’ Fred VanVleet will make for the 2020–21 NBA season.
What’s left is the circle. This comes with no formal definition. It might be best defined not as an industry or even a community but as an ongoing conversation, an ever-shifting cluster of smaller, overlapping rings. Often, it is writers talking to writers, sharing ideas and opportunities, offering emotional and business support, commiserating about crap book deals, figuring out how to keep going.
Many professional sports have the concept of the coaching tree. A head coach whose assistants go on to lead their own teams, taking their philosophy with them, is said to have a large coaching tree (the NFL’s Bill Parcells is a classic example). In literary circles, there are trees of influence, but typically they originate with editors whose highest esteem is reserved for their own visions; think of Gordon Lish in the United States or John Metcalf here. Perhaps as a symptom of this trend toward egomania as pedagogy, Canadian MFA culture over the last few years has been rattled by highly public reckonings over physical and sexual abuse at some of what are supposed to be our best programs, by the very people who would deign to influence the next generation.
While this system has functioned, brokenly, in graduate studies programs, where people have worked very hard and paid large sums of money to be included, it does not function the same way in undergraduate programs. The professor of a prestigious MFA program might have a large public profile and corresponding self-regard and might feel entitled to berate the students — operating under the assumption that “you asked for this.” But, typically, undergrad skin is not yet thick, many big life decisions have not yet been made, and imagining oneself as a particular thing, especially something as daft as a writer, is no easy feat. A timid nineteen-year-old economics student who decides to experiment with creative writing is unlikely to be encouraged by a teacher who screams profanities.
The qualities that denote not just a good teacher but a good mentor and steward of careers in their earliest stages reverse the power dynamic at play in this broken system. Carolyn Smart put many of these qualities — listening, kindness, critique that builds rather than destroys — at the centre of her pedagogy. It’s the reason her coaching tree of connected circles is so large. Her focus points outwards, toward others and the ways she can uplift them. She practises literary success in its most Canadian form: as a refutation of ego.
Catherine Hernandez, who was the 2018 writer-in-residence at Queen’s University:Carolyn offered me a place to dig deep into the story I wanted to tell. It was healing for me to be given the opportunity to research and develop my novel, about the rise of white supremacy in Canada, with the unconditional support of a white woman, who kept asking me, “What do you need? How can I help you?” She was like this delightful anomaly at Queen’s, a spry and cheerful person in this formal institution who wanted to give me, this queer brown woman without a degree, a chance to dream big.
Iain Reid, who wrote I’m Thinking of Ending Things and Foe: I was in Carolyn’s workshop during my last year at Queen’s, and we met up again about six or seven years later, when I moved back to Kingston. She has invited me to talk to and meet her students several times since then. I really admire how much work and effort she has put into it over the years. She really has been such an integral and positive part of the Queen’s and Kingston literary communities.
John Elizabeth Stintzi: I first talked to Carolyn when I got a random call from an Ontario number two years ago; she personally informed me that I was a finalist for the Bronwen Wallace Award (a duty which she said was her favourite part of the award). I remember her telling me, after I won, that Bronwen would have been so happy to see me win, which meant a great deal to me. It was hard to fight the imposter syndrome in that moment, to feel as though I deserved it. It was a strange and emotional day, but Carolyn really did pull me into the present by telling me that. And I believed her, because it was clear she believed it, too.
Omar El Akkad: As a teacher, Carolyn has mentored thirty years’ worth of students, who have gone on to win just about every literary award in Canada. God knows how many times I’ve managed to strike up a conversation with a far more talented and successful writer than myself by mentioning how we’d both once been Carolyn’s students. She’s created an entire constellation of opportunities. How do you begin to measure that kind of impact?
As it turns out, there are still teaching jobs. Many CWRI alumni have gone on to teach creative writing, demonstrating how far and wide the coaching tree can grow. Perhaps, then, the true masters are not those authors who immediately come to mind as commercial and critical successes but rather those who convene and nurture the circles. Perhaps CanLit belongs to its teachers.
My own teaching resumé doesn’t yet include a creative writing gig. But that’s fine by me. Thanks to Carolyn Smart, I understand this is an honour one must earn. Unlike rocket science, banking, or dentistry, creative writing has no absolutes, no immutable rules. What’s considered good is dependent on context, and as styles and habits change, the shape of mastery shifts. So writing is an easy field into which one may walk and proclaim expertise. But proclamations call attention to the self.
A teacher who is truly invested in developing new writers is one who listens for the whispers under the noise, hears their potential, and offers them a place to resonate. In the grace with which they conduct and amplify the results, you will find the future of Canadian literature.