Features  Where is creative writing at McGill?

Professors share their views on the other side of writing culture

Over the past several years, students in the English department have seen a decline in the number of creative writing courses that are regularly offered, largely due to a series of budget cuts enforced by the provincial government. Particularly in the last four to five years, such courses have started to trickle away, with only one course per year alternating between poetry writing and playwriting. But why is it that every time a budget crisis comes along, creative writing is one of the first subjects to be cut?
Professor Brian Trehearne, who has previously taught creative writing, cites the lack of personnel hired specifically to teach creative writing as the main reason. Professors like Trehearne and Thomas Heise, who have taught creative writing courses in the past, were hired as specialists in Canadian literature and American literature, respectively. As such, creative writing classes have been introduced as “add-on courses” and are thus seen as less significant compared to the required courses that fulfill the department’s main programs.

Among English students, opinions are divided. On the one hand, there is a small group that believes that McGill should implement a creative writing program for the many students who are interested in pursuing writing for a living after graduation. Trehearne points out, however, that a creative writing program “will never happen in the foreseeable future because it will cost a lot of money that the University simply doesn’t have.” On the other hand, the larger, majority group believes that the department does not necessarily need an entire creative writing program, but rather a stronger presence with a more consistant number of courses offered every year.

“I think that there are a lot of creative writing programs out there and if we wanted to go into a specifically creative writing-oriented program we could have gone to any number of other universities,” says Matthias Lalisse, a U3 English Literature major. He explained that it was beneficial for him not to learn writing as a craft but rather as an analytical tool to use for literature, something that he believes not a lot of creative writing programs would teach.

Trehearne agrees with the majority, adding that “the ideal likely solution would be something like three to four creative writing courses per year, spread out across the three streams in the department…. For me, I think it’s possible for McGill to mount more creative writing courses than it does. I’ll say that quite bluntly. I don’t think the political will has been there to make that happen and I believe it should happen.”

The Department of French Language and Literature, by contrast, has a much stronger creative writing scene within its curriculum. While it has always held a strong presence within the department spearheaded by Professor Yvon Rivard (now retired), last year a new program called Les études pratiques et littéraires (“Practical and Literary Studies”) was introduced, in which one to two creative writing courses must be held every year. Interestingly, this new stream treats writing as a “writing culture.” It does not simply focus on the form of creative writing itself. Courses also deal with history, philosophy, defining the nature of writing and literature, and even information about the editing and publishing fields. Professor Alain Farah, who has since taken Rivard’s place, has emphasized that the stream, in essence, tries to define what it means to be a writer through awareness of writing as a part of a collective whole.

In comparison, the English department’s programs are determined by its streams of literature, drama and theatre, and cultural studies, making it difficult for creative writing to be given precedence. It is clear then, that what McGill’s English department needs is a stronger and more definite presence of creative writing.