Post MA Inspiration

When I look up at the date of my last entry I cannot believe those many months have gone by. Nay, not only months, but entire seasons.

Summer of 2012 had me completing my portfolio and thesis––defending the relevance and use of landscape in fiction. Tip #1, for any undergrads or MA students reading this–– start practicing the art of footnotes now. The bindery in Lancaster did not accept email word docs. Ever try to find A4 paper in your local, non-UK stationary shop? While most Canadian and US universities use the standard 8 ½ x 11, The International Standards Organization of professional presentation is 8.27 x 11.69. Of course, I knew this from being on campus the year before. Needless to say, I could have saved myself a lot of aggro by ordering the paper months in advance.

Paper received, thesis printed, mailed (80$ to the UK), well in advance of due date. Tip #2––work ahead of schedule whenever you can.

I am proud to say that I have earned my MA in creative writing. Finishing was bittersweet, and to extend writerly classmate relationships, we’ve started our own Facebook page. Alex O’Toole is also creating a site where we can continue to critique our work, offer tips on writing competitions etc., and generally inspire and prod each other. After all, as the man said, ‘the hardest thing about writing, is to keep doing it.’

Dissertation safely in the hands of the lovely Elizabethan-era printing press, I set out on holiday. First stop, visiting farming friends in Saskatchewan and walking the land. On an old homestead I visit now and then, there are seven sloughs where once there had been only two, and I wondered about the topsoil that had washed away despite eco-friendly farming practices. My thoughts on farming will appear in a longer piece down the road.

It rained while we were there, and after taking some photographs of houses falling back into the earth, we pushed back the seats of the rental car and let the wind through the grass and green wheat lull us to sleep.


Next up was a trip to Boston and Concord Massachusetts. Concord was the home of Louisa May Alcott (Little Women), Ralph Waldo Emerson, and is of course the home of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond. I signed the guestbook in his cabin, dipped my feet in the waters of his pond, and also visited the house where transcendentalism began.

Thoreau lived and wrote in a 10 x 12 cabin, often hosting as many people who could stand and spill out of its space. In the humidity that dragged on that afternoon, I could understand a need to escape to the woods.


The grave sites, as you can see, are places where pencils, coins, and notes of thanks are deposited.


The autumnal Vancouver Writers’ Festival never disappoints, and the highlights were hearing–– as The Guardian put it–– the ‘mesmerizing,’ Junot Díaz, my constant bench mark Alistair MacLeod, and the inspiring Kate Mosse. In the 30 seconds you are allotted at a signing, I nervously asked Mr. Díaz if he was taking PhD students, and blubbered something to Mr. MacLeod. Student writers are such devoted fans.


Kate Mosse related the events of an historical evening from which the Orange Prize sprang, and shortly after that presentation, it was announced that Canada would be initiating a women’s prize for writing. I have read all of the pros and cons, so please do not reply with your thoughts on the prize. Suffice to say, I was not the only one surprised by the meticulously gathered stats on who gets read, reviewed, and wins prizes in this country.

In December, I watched my grad via livestream, and by all accounts did not miss anything for not attending in person.

I have finished up a freelance assignment, worked on two short pieces I hope to submit soon, and sadly managed only a few walks in my mountain forest. Within a few weeks, I hope to begin facilitating an adult writing course for those who are looking for a productive and supportive place to explore the writing process.

One of the requirements of the MA was to try and figure out who you are as a writer. I have discovered that I need to stay focused on the big work, and, therefore, have spent almost all of my post-MA time going over the entire manuscript/ novel-in-progress, one leaf at a time.

There is a lot of pressure to publish once you finish a body of work, the urge to just get the thing out there, but I am trying not be rushed. In his Paris Review article, ‘The Art of Criticism No. 4’, John Simon, said, ‘I have to feel satisfied that I have met the challenge of this piece of work, whatever that is.’ These words emphasize my own need to slow down and get it right.

Last, but not least, this has also been a time to catch up on some reading. I highly recommend Díaz’s This Is How You Lose Her and MacLeod’s ‘Remembrance’, Anakana Schofield’s, Malarky (this took her 10 years to complete, and she not only writes beautifully, but also knows how to present her work––we’ve all been to great authors’ inaudible and inanimate readings), Erin Morgenstern’s, The Night Circus, and I am still trying to absorb the disturbingly amazing work of Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s, The Shadow of the Wind.

The man also said ‘all writers have to go it alone eventually,’ and so my last bit of post-grad advice ––

Take your inspiration where you can find it.

MA in Writing. Is it worth it?

I have just submitted my last assignment in my MA. That makes 12 tutorials averaging around 3700 words per tutorial-approximately 2500 words per chapter and 1200 words examining the reasons, literary, theoretical, and creative for the submission. There were also six peer conferences or workshops at 2500 words per conference and 500 words of context, six research modules of around 1000 words per to complete, a journal reviewing term progress, and a continuing bibliography. You can add up the word count.

Was it worth it? I had to borrow the money to do it. But in terms of the writing support, creative inspiration, and expansion of my own knowledge, work and goals, I would do it again with no hesitation. Of course, it has a lot to do with the fact that I chose to do my MA at Lancaster University in England.

My main tutor is the inimitable Conor O’Callaghan, and my peers are Irish and Ugandan poets, Nigerian, Greek, and British short story poets, writers, and novelists.

The outstanding teachers in the program are Michelene Wandor, Sara Maitland, Brian McCabe, Jane Draycott, and George Green. Graham Mort and Lee Horsley coordinate the program. All of these instructors are accomplished award winning writers in their own fields.

There is still the portfolio of 30,000 words and the 3,000 word thesis to tweak by September 1st. So you can see why I have been missing from this blog.

I will post more about the details of the program another time.

My few experiences on stage can be compared to the work I have done in the MA. It is all about the day to day work, or practice and rehearsal. This is where the connections are found, the nuances learned and relearned, the trials and joys are born. Of course, the difference between a collaborative stage production and writing is that 99.9 per cent of the time you are on your own. Finishing the degree is a little like opening night, exciting, but it comes with more of a whimper than a bang. It is too close to the end, and the question what next? looms.

For now I am deep in revisions of not only the thesis, but the entire novel, trying to make it worthy of submission to an editor and agent.

I did get some very nice pictures the other evening of mist over the mountain. It made it look as if the mountain were on fire.

That’s me these days. Misty. On fire.

Fellow MA ers

Mt. Doug hiking and thesis writing

We are half way through the second year of this MA course and I am nowhere near where I want to be with the completion of the thesis, but two friends wanted to be introduced to Mt. Doug’s trails, and I could not refuse.
Oh look, some new boardwalk and tarmac-like material to ride over the once muddy paths. What do I think? I like some of the boardwalk, and it does the job of making the trail more accessible in winter, but the tarmac-like spongy, cementy stuff they have paved into the forest is intrusive and, honestly, quite ugly.

Can I live with it? Let me compare it to the thesis.

Two years should be enough to complete a long narrative, but I wish I had more time. The more you learn, the better, hopefully, the work gets. I could always use more time for research, refining, and a deeper exploration of the topic, but there is a deadline and I have to complete the project.

For most of us who hike Mt. Doug for the natural beauty, some of the new trail covers are less than an organic addition. It makes me wonder how much time and effort was taken to research, explore and refine the best material–and if the Friends of Mt. Doug were consulted. Perhaps there was a rush to a deadline.

Tree-hugger friends breathed in the forest air and were surprised at how deep into a forest you can go while still being 10 minutes from downtown. They joyfully took in the Douglas fir and spruce and green buds, despite the renovations, and now I am back to the solitary work of the long narrative. Trying to do the best work possible, without feeling rushed.

First Hike of 2012

A bright sunny morning and I head up the mountain for my first hike of the year. (Lucky I did so then, for now the sky has returned to its depressing gray.)

I check in on a few familiar spots and then find a path I had either forgotten about or haven’t been on.

It surprises me how quickly my body forgets how steep the climb is, and the small plateaus and trees which I, from habit, use as landmarks. The sky is clear and from the east side of little Mt. Doug, I can see the Saanich observatory and the Straight of Juan de Fuca. There are a few frosty patches but the paths are fairly dry. It would be fun to play a little longer on this plateau, but I have other work to do.

I stop to film a woodpecker, take in the Gary Oaks. Mostly, I’ve longed for some Vitamin D and the forest air. There are some brilliant spots of green, from the moss to the lichen ladies.

Back at my front door, I see the green of a daffodil poking its head up out of the ground. Won’t be long now.

Christmas Eve Thanksgiving

Come with me on my Christmas Eve walk.
Over the last half dozen years, I have given myself a Christmas tradition. I head out at dusk and take a walk. No mountain excursion this year, just a walk around my neighborhood.
In the west, the contrail of a jet spreads overhead (Santa’s sleigh?) and in the east Jupiter sits above a collar of pink horizon. The evening is clear and rainless, and I am not the only one walking.
‘Merry Christmas’ I share with passerbys. And at another house, a young couple is packing their car with parcels. ‘Safe travel,’ I add.
I head up Torquay and stop in front of a friend’s house, stand outside looking at her lit tree and say a silent prayer for contentment and stability for her and her children after all of the upheaval of the past year.
The lights on houses twinkle and I think of what my daughter said about liking Christmas lights because they never change.
I run over the year in my mind giving thanks for the challenges that have helped me grow spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally, and for my family and friends, especially my children who never cease to inspire me with their grace.
I head back down Longacre looking toward home feeling Blessed.
Merry Christmas to all and may you find bliss in the New Year.

Cool Water–Expanded Book Review

The recommended reading lists for postgraduate writing students, or any literature students for that matter, include everything from academic texts to classics, and prize-winning novels. The postgraduate reading choices are limitless. Time is not.

Working toward completion of a thesis or writing project submission within a two-year framework, while making time for research (not counting tangential adventuring on Google and JSTOR) and the writing itself, means that some judicious reading choices have to be made. It is exciting when the research, reading, and writing come together in a book that also captures your imagination and is difficult to put down.

Cool Water, by Dianne Warren, the 2010 fiction category recipient of Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Awards– known affectionately as the GGs–was one such novel.

Appointed Governor General of Canada by George the V, Lord Tweedsmuir initiated the prestigious awards in 1937. The GGs, the Giller, and the Griffin Poetry prize encompass the trifecta of Canadian literary awards.

This is Warren’s first novel. She has previously published and won awards for her short stories and plays. She has also received a “woman writer in mid-career” award.

My MA project is a long narrative partially set in Saskatchewan, that oddly-shaped rectangular province, seemingly in the middle of the map of Canada, once home to Archibald Belaney, better known as Grey Owl. In addition, according to the online Encyclopedia of Saskatchewan, “the province of Saskatchewan received its name from the Cree word kisiskâciwan, which describes the ‘fast-flowing’ Saskatchewan River.”

Cool Water introduces you to southern Saskatchewan, but its themes connect with all farming communities who are struggling with their own history and change. It also offers a study of the successful crafting of a novel’s form.

I was curious to discover how Warren would tell a modern story about this place and its people in light of what has already been written by authors like Wallace Stegner, W. O. Mitchell, and Sharon Butala. Reading as a writer, I wanted to see how Warren’s specificity expands to universal themes, and to examine her use of multiple voices.

Warren’s book explores the history of a farming community in the midst of difficult times. It begins with a 100-mile horse race through the “dunes and the grasslands of the Little Snake Hills” near the fictional town of Juliet, Saskatchewan. Following the riders in a 100-mile square track, Warren drops us into a land now empty of “great woolly herds of buffalo” and being “divided into townships and sections and quarter-sections for men with one-way plows.”

While echoing the past, the subsequent chapters take place within a 24-hour period in present day Juliet. Among the characters we meet are Lynn, the Oasis Café owner, and her perhaps unfaithful husband Hank, Vicki and Blaine who have sold all but the “home quarter” to survive, Lee the adopted 26 year-old who gave up a university scholarship for farming, awake on a night “rife with the presence of ghosts,” and Willard and Marian struggling with unrequited love.

Warren writes flawed characters without falling into stereotypes of harried mothers, adulterous lovers, or poor farmers. She skillfully portrays people who, as Vicki’s character says, try “to see the best” within their own consciousness and the changing environment.

Applying the third person limited omniscient point of view to a set of characters in rotation is an often-used form, but in the hands of less skilled writers, you can find yourself rereading chapters or flipping back and forth trying to recapture the narrative thread.

Warren successfully manages this technique by subtly linking each character’s story to the past or next tale, moving back and forth, embedding fates, and carrying people, animals, and objects through time in a landscape that is at once magical (complete with camel) and contained.

With all that needs to be read and written within the next year, this book was a gratifying way to pass a weekend while adding to my bibliography and academic research.