So You Want to be a Famous Writer

One of Susan’s students talks about the creative writing biz:

So You Want to be a Famous Writer

By: Cheryl Runke

When Susan asked me to write a guest blog for her blog site I panicked because I still have so much work to do on my novel.  And I have a very short time – three months to be precise – to write like hell (rewrites included).  You see, I’m in the second and last year of the MA in English in the Field of Creative Writing (MA CRW) program at the University of Toronto.  This means that my novel is my Master’s thesis, and I must defend it sometime in April 2013.  So far I’ve written some 70 pages, and must complete 150 to meet the program requirements.

Although I had entered this program with a great degree of naïve enthusiasm about the possibilities of my “creative” writing, I quickly learned that the rigorous academic demands were often overwhelming.  We are required to complete 2 full courses or 4 half courses in literary criticism along with the academic MA and Ph.D. students (aka, those people who intend to become university professors).  Thankfully, in the first year of the MA CRW, you are required to take the Creative Writing Workshop, which meets weekly and focuses only on creative work.  In my case, it was led by two very fine writers and professors:  Rosemary Sullivan and Richard Greene, both Governor General Award winners.  I would have gone mad without this class although the academic courses, gave me a wake-up call – I had no interest in studying literary criticism and producing the concomitant 20-page research papers; I was there to write literary fiction.  My perspective toward literature had changed in the 10 years I’d been away from the academic world.  Oh, and did I mention, I returned to do this MA at the age of 45.

Cheryl Runke

My life was already undergoing a major transition.  The year I applied to the program (on a whim, who really expects that they will be one of seven people accepted into a program that has, on average, 90 applicants) I had called it quits on a 20-year career as a speech-language pathologist.  My decision to move on had a lot to do with an extremely dysfunctional relationship I had with my mother, and is best explained in the novel I am writing right now.  But once I entered the program, and began to feel that I was being truer to myself than I’d ever been in my entire life, and, with the support of the other six writers (some of the most talented, genuine and infinitely warmhearted people I’ve ever met), I decided to thrust myself into even greater change.  In May of 2012 I initiated divorce proceedings against my husband of 17 years.  By the end of September I was divorced.  By mid-December I’d moved out with my two daughters, ages 9 and 11.  But I digress . . .

Rosemary Sullivan asked the members of our class why we wanted to be writers.  She gave many reasons but I will always remember her saying:  “Maybe you want to be famous, that’s a valid reason too.”  I found that admission refreshing; I’d never heard anybody say anything as shocking.  I’m not saying I write because I want to be famous.  Of course that’s insane, but just the possibility of thinking such a thing, for me, was life-changing.  The idea of being famous appealed because of its association with self-confidence.  A repeated comment, during the workshop last year, was that the more I wrote the more comfortable my prose seemed to be.  So I suppose that that’s what I’ve been gaining over these last two years, confidence in myself and trusting my prose, when written simply and honestly, to tell my story.

If I had to apply to a graduate-level creative writing program again, would I choose this one?  Truthfully, I applied to U of T because of its physical proximity.  I need to maintain the well-established life I have with my daughters in downtown Toronto.  I didn’t want to have to move away or travel some long distance every day.  But I wonder if maybe an MFA program might have been better suited to my needs .  A Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program in creative writing focuses on the practice of the art (i.e. creative writing), while my hybrid Master of Arts (MA) program requires that I study the already produced art (i.e. the study of English) and the practice of it.

I also discovered during my first day at the MA orientation meeting was that I’d have to fit my writing into other graduate school and English department matters.

For instance, all seven of us were advised to apply for a  Social Sciences and Humanities Research Counsel grant along with the Ontario Graduate Scholarship (OGS).  I could see their point, I mean I knew that I would be next to penniless for the next two years of my life, and both awards are a hefty amount ($17, 000 and $10,000.) However, I had no idea that I would spend the first two months of the fall semester on research and writing applications.  The SSHRC and OGS deadlines drove the entire English department into a frenzied grant application obsession.  During this time I didn’t write a word of prose, didn’t reread a page of my fiction and didn’t have a moment to even consider it.  And then after I’d spent countless hours and sleepless nights preparing these applications, it seems I’d overlooked some fine print about being ineligible for the SSHRC because I already held an MSc.  Finally, although I made the final competition for the OGS, I didn’t win it.

Susan Swan in her library-den

Lately, in addition to writing prose fiction, I’ve been jotting down ideas, scenes and dialogue for a television script.  I know that many MFA programs require students to take workshops in several genres and I wonder if that could have benefited me.  That’s something to think seriously about when researching these programs.  If you’re going to spend time and energy applying, and the money to enroll, you should be sure your program can help you succeed.

In the second year of the MA, CRW students are paired with an established writer with whom they will meet in person ten times to discuss their major writing projects.  I drew novelist Susan Swan who has provided me with generous and constructive feedback.  Susan is helping me to shape my novel and understand the intents of my characters.  My novel begins with a suicide note, in which my protagonist’s (Kimberly’s) mother (Pearl) blames Kimberly for her death.  This prompts Kimberly to reflect on the events in the year leading up to her mother’s suicide, her lifelong dysfunctional relationship with her mother.  Just when I don’t expect it Susan throws a question at me that allows me to get closer to my story.  Once she said, “We can see how Kimberly feels about her mother, but what does Kimberly’s father think about his wife?  For example, in Pride and Prejudice Mr. Bennet thinks Mrs. Bennet is stupid.  And how does Kimberly’s boyfriend, Bo, feel about Kimberly’s mother?  You don’t have to write these thoughts and feelings into the novel, but it’s important for you to know what they are.  Then they will come through in images and actions.”

Susan says these good things to me at her home, in her floor-to-ceiling book-lined study, because that’s where we meet.  Usually, just as I arrive, she’ll come running up the street with a box of yummy muffins for us to eat.  Then, once inside, she’ll offer me an herbal tea or some sparkling water mixed with cranberry juice.  And in the hall I might pass, on his way out, a famous poet, like Christopher Dewdney, who’s been visiting Susan’s husband.  And it’s easy to settle into the big leather armchair, and pet her cats, where everything feels so wonderfully literary, even salon-like.  Then, any criticism she gives, is just a little easier to take.

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