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Writers in residence

When I first came to the U of Alberta in 1975, as an Assistant Professor of Eighteenth Century British Literature, it was fresh from four years living in the English countryside. In other words, I came here from another world. I had grown up in Toronto, but I had been in England for five years, this was the first time I had been to the Prairies, in fact the first time I had been west of North Bay. I wasn't quite sure where I was. That first year I lived in a second floor apt. on Saskatchewan Drive with no furniture, a door on blocks for a desk, and I spent most of my time preparing lectures. My only pleasure, aside from trips to Safeway, was hanging out with the University's very first Writer-in-Residence, Matt Cohen, novelist and short story writer.

One of the reasons I was spending most of my waking hours preparing lectures was that I had been assigned three subjects to teach that I had never studied before. One was Canadian literature, and I remember, before I left London, reading what I could of it in the British Library, at the end of five years in there reading eighteenth-century English prose, and Canada and Canadian culture seemed a very long way away indeed. Like a scene viewed through the wrong end of a telescope. But one book had come through to me loud and clear, and that was was a collection of short stories called Columbus and the Fat Lady by . . . Matt Cohen. And so it was a great pleasure to find him here when I arrived. It made me feel I had come somewhere where intelligent choices were being made, and the best people just might be.

As for Matt, he wore baggy jeans and plaid shirts and was himself fresh from two or three years of living on his farm in Ontario. He had also come from another world and also wasn't quite sure where he was. But in principle he approved very much of the academic life and of the university generally--which he saw as a collection of esoteric pools of knowledge in human form, for purposes of debate and the dissemination of that knowledge, a process that could only be positive, useful and hilarious. At the end of the school year we took turns driving back to Ontario a new used pickup he'd bought out here, where used vehicles are cheaper and in better shape than in Ontario, where they salt the roads in winter, as well as plow them, and as soon as I arrived there I wrote my first short story.

Matt Cohen, to me, here, at that time, was what, I think, many of our Writers-in-Residence have been over the past twenty-two years to our students and to writers throughout the province: a living lifeline to the life of writing in this country. A model, an editor, a critic, an advisor, an immediately present human being, a mentor. For 22 years now I've seen our Writers-in-Residence arrive and move in and pass through the year, posting office hours, continuing with their own writing, giving readings and talks, both within the University and around the city and the province, and I see their varying degrees of bemusement at this academic culture of ours, their varying degrees of creative participation and creative alienation; I see them trying to figure us out, to figure this place out, some of them more allied with their student writers than with the professors, some as professorial as we are, but all a pure breath of fresh air: literary people as we are, but from away, from outside the city, often the province, and certainly the institution, who help us to see ourselves as nothing else could, whose actual ongoing literary endeavours often provide a challenge or rebuke to our scholarship or our theories, whose perspectives meld and clash in very often fascinating ways with the rich commotion of ongoing debate that is the lifeblood of this place.

I'm talking about our Writers-in-Residence now in terms of what they bring to us as professors and scholars and critics and writers within the Department and the University. There is also what they do for the University within the larger community. Because just as they connect us to the outside, as it were, they connect the outside to us. They are a wonderful embodiment and symbol of the real connection of this University to this community. To come at the point another way, it is difficult sometimes for people who have little or no interest in literature to understand why it should be important to teach people how to appreciate it. It would seem comparable to teaching people how to enjoy opera or ballet. A necessity born of anachronism. A fillip of high culture. But teaching people how to write--and write well--that is something that most everyone will assent to the immediate importance of. This is obviously about expression, about communication, and about creating something of cultural and social value, in a way that teaching critical and aesthetic response to literature may not--to the man in the street--appear to be. Our Writer in Residence is the community connection of this English Department, and to a large degree this university, like nothing else.

And now to the primary connection: the one between the young--or old--writer struggling with his or her craft, and our Writer in Residence.

One thing about writing well is that it is in large part craft, and in the craft of writing, like any craft, the development of skill is enhanced immeasurably by a teacher/student relationship of trust and respect. I say teacher when really I mean something more like master, as in master craftsman, and I say student when I mean something more like novice, or apprentice, because it is, at its best, I think, that kind of relationship, involving the transmission of more than mere "craft", the full development of writing skills entailing as it does the whole person--mind and heart--in a way that mastering certain fields of knowledge does not quite, necessarily, to the same necessary degree. This is an unadvisable argument to make around the English department, where it sounds like special pleading for smaller creative-writing classes, or it sounds as though creative writers are more creative than other kinds of writers and thinkers, and so I am not used to making it, but it does apply here, in this context, not only because writing is a craft and literary writing is an art, but because when we talk about the WinR we are talking about a tutoral situation, a one-on-one consultation.

You see, there is the importance to a young writer of being seated face to face with, and spoken to by, and listened to by, and having his or her work read carefully by, a genuine writer, perhaps even a famous genuine writer, perhaps even a literary hero of the student's. That's one thing. And then there is the close operation of an intelligent, formally sophisticated, technically sensitive mind upon the student's own writing. And this second connection, the mind of the master responding with its own intelligence to the work of the apprentice is the deeper and more transformative one, and is the heart of this whole endeavour of the Writer-in-Residence program. Writers learn by keeping their eyes open when they are not reading good writing and keeping their eyes open when they are reading good writing. Beyond this, they need that rarest of all commodities--rarer than life, rarer than good books--: intelligent, objective, formally conversant criticism.

Here is the American short story writer Raymond Carver talking about his own writing "master," the American novelist and teacher John Gardner:

He'd take one of my early efforts at a story and go over it with me. I remember him as being very patient, wanting me to understand what he was trying to show me, telling me over and over how important it was to have the right words saying what I wanted them to say.

Any writer will tell you that what Carver got from Gardner is not most places easy to find. Friends and family are rarely any use at all. They are too close to the writer and usually blind to the formal dimension of literary work. Literary magazines and small presses tend to accept works they don't have to edit, usually because they can't. Either they don't know how, or they can't afford to hire more than a copy editor, if that. When magazines reject a story or a poem, they rarely say why. The only people who get properly edited are the few who are likely to make a publisher some money but not so much that the publisher is afraid to edit them.

The Writer in Residence is a living, working writer serving for a period roughly September to May, as an in-house editor available to any writer in the province with the courage to knock on the door or pick up the phone.

So. I would say that the Writer in Residence program is valuable to us within the Department; valuable to the writers who hold the position because most writers in this country, no matter how brilliant or famous they are, live at the poverty line and need the work; it's infinitely valuable to the writers who come in for assistance; it's infinitely valuable to the community; it's outreach in a significant way, and with our efforts it will continue to be so for as long as people take up pens or unfold laptops to express their thoughts and tell their stories. This is culture. A moment at the heart of culture.

 

------"The Writer-in-Residence: Tradition of Community." Address to Visiting Committee, Faculty of Arts, U of Alberta, Edmonton, April 1997.