Helen Humphreys, UTSC's 2015 Writer-in-Residence. Courtesy of Helen Humphreys.

Is Toronto a creative city? If so, the University of Toronto would be wrong to claim much credit for such a distinction. This is not for lack of enthusiastic artists within our community. U of T’s extra-curriculars are bustling with dance, drama and writing.

However, among choruses hailing the school’s many research feats, the successes of the university’s creative programs are seldom celebrated. The University of Toronto Scarborough (UTSC) is making a move to change that, with a new program dedicated to creative writing.    

Writing prestige comes to UTSC 

In the winter term of 2014, Miriam Toews, author of the Governor General Award-winning A Complicated Kindness, became UTSC’s inaugural Writer-in-Residence. The creative writing program arranged for Toews to visit classes during the semester, and gave students the opportunity to work alongside the renowned author.

The rapidly growing program now organizes numerous events for students. The recently developed minor offers an array of courses not necessarily found on other campuses, including screen writing, creative writing and performance, and creative non-fiction.   

The University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM) campus also boasts a professional writing and communications program, while St. George offers a writing and rhetoric minor. The program at UTSC, however, stands alone for its exclusive focus on writing as a creative endeavour. According to associate professor Daniel Tysdal, Scarborough has accomplished something unique and sought-after in their program. 

Tysdal is currently on sabbatical to conduct research and add to his already impressive collection of creative work. He is an award-winning author and has most recently released a poetry collection entitled Fauxcassional Poems along with a textbook published by the Oxford University Press entitled The Writing Moment. When I spoke with Tysdal, his enthusiasm for teaching was clear.

“The program has really expanded,” explains Tysdal. “When I started teaching at UTSC in 2009, there were only two creative writing courses — poetry and fiction. But they weren’t necessarily offered in the same year.” 

Tysdal explains that the number of creative writing courses at UTSC has increased due to the interest of students from many different academic backgrounds. “We have students from neuroscience, health studies and anthropology in our creative writing classes,” he says. “Writing gives them the chance to explore intimate experiences and emotions. The environment at UTSC is not too competitive and students want to help each other.”

A collaborative approach to learning

Tysdal has taught UTSC’s poetry courses for several years. These courses delve into the creation of free verse and experimental forms of poetry as well more traditional forms such as sonnets and sestinas.   

Now, additional courses offered within the creative writing program also give students the chance to work closely with a professor and share constructive criticism with their peers through weekly workshops. It is a welcome change of pace for many students who become bogged down in the detached lectures and homogenized evaluations which are often associated with large university classes.

One such course, taught by Tysdal, teaches screenwriting. The course  was offered for the first time at UTSC in the winter term of 2015, and was described by English  graduate Leanne Simpson as “eye-opening.”

“I thought it would be easy because my stories are dialogue heavy, but it was a challenge and it was enriching,” she explains. 

Simpson goes on to say that collaboration is what sets this program apart from others. “The coolest part was pitching ideas in class. We had to learn not only how to create screenplays but also how to make people take interest in them.” 

Building a network of creative minds

For Trevor Cameron, an English specialist, the creative writing component of his degree has been formative. This is as much because of the classroom culture, as the course content, he explains.

“I doubt I would have ever put pen to paper – or rather, fingers to keyboard – if not for a certain bearded, multicolored sock wearing professor,” says Cameron. “Professor Tysdal is the only person I know who can take a room full of silent undergrads sitting in a circle staring at their feet and get them all laughing.”

Cameron describes a classroom experience nestled somewhere between academically enriching and curiously spiritual. “Expect to be nudged in whatever direction your intuition takes you. In class, nothing is sacred but the creative process itself,” he explains. 

Andrew Westoll, author of the national best seller Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary and a UTSC creative writing lecturer contends that the Scarborough campus is on track to become a creative writing hub in Toronto. Central to this predicted transformation is the continued success of the Writer-in-Residence program, which Westoll leads. 

As part of this initiative, students were able to work with internationally acclaimed author Nino Ricci, author of In a Glass House and The Origin of Species, during the past school year.

UTSC’s current Writer-in-Residence is Helen Humphreys. An acclaimed author, Humphreys has won the Rogers Writers Trust Fiction Prize and the City of Toronto Book Award. When asked about her goals as UTSC’s Writer-in-Residence, Humphreys said that she aimed “primarily to encourage students who are interested in writing to continue with it.”

“I think the most useful thing when you want to be a writer is to be a reader,” she added. “I would recommend reading as much as you can and learning as much from published writers as possible. When you’re a young writer you have years to develop. Try different genres and it doesn’t matter if you fail.”   

The presence of these writing experts on campus marks a definite move toward a more creative UTSC. In addition to being available to give feedback during regular office hours, the Writers in Residence have also been deeply involved in the UTSC community, attending events and engaging with students. 

The program recently added offerings in creative non-fiction, and plans to soon add an advanced creative writing course entitled “Creative Writing as a Profession.”  The course will be a practical introduction to the techniques, abilities, and knowledge necessary to publish in the digital age, and to sustain a professional career in creative writing. 

UTSC intends to have a new Writer-in-Residence each year and hopes to eventually develop an English major in creative writing, in addition to the flourishing minor.      

Campus space meets creative space

Creative writing enables students to experiment with different types of expression and to explore a wide variety of topics.  Works by UTSC students often address misunderstood subjects such as mental health issues and discrimination, shedding light on difficult realities and to give a voice to marginalized communities. 

In UTSC’s most recent creative writing contest, Simpson won first place in the creative non-fiction category for her short story on living with a mental illness. Simpson was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at a young age and she uses her writing to share her experiences of living with the disorder and surviving a suicide attempt. 

For students like Simpson, creative writing cultivates mental wellness on campus, because it provides a platform for people to share real life narratives and the difficulties they experience on a daily basis. Simpson has performed several readings of her writing at UTSC, and says that her peers have been very supportive of her work. 

Creative writing has the power to challenge stigmas and celebrate the true narratives of people who overcome difficult circumstances. It can give a voice directly to people within disadvantaged communities and elicit understanding and empathy in ways that academic readings might not.   

See the creative writing snippets here.

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