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Writing off the map

Without any graduate creative writing programs in town, aspiring young writers must seek other options to hone their craft.

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Godspeed, sojourning storytellers.

Some learners go it alone and against the current of students coming back to Halifax for school. These eager young minds seek out new surroundings and challenges in all manners of study. They’re to be commended for hitting the books in cities where they often don’t know a soul.

The aspiring young writers among these sojourners, these out-migrants, perhaps command the greatest respect. Writing is already an intimate and solitary pursuit and yet here they are, going to give of their hearts and minds in front of complete strangers.

It’s enough to make you start planning the care packages for these literary adventurers. Swallow hard against the lump in your throat and take heart: These storytellers are going to be just fine. In fact, they relish the opportunity to practice their craft away from friends and familiar distractions and among the like-minded and -hearted.

Jaime Forsythe left Halifax for Toronto last week to do graduate studies in creative writing. She’ll actually take her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing through the University of Guelph, at its Humber campus in Toronto’s west end.

“Studying at that level helps you articulate what you want to do, come up with a goal and how to reach it,” Forsythe says.

While that sounds simple enough, it requires intense self-discipline, says Forsythe, something she knows the two-year program will help solidify early in her career. Forsythe—who is also editing Transits, the first short story anthology from the Halifax-Montreal independent collective Invisible Publishing—left for Toronto with a high commitment to the craft, particularly short fiction. In Halifax, she waited tables to get the cash flow. On her own time she wrote and worked and hung out with a writing group that sprang from a fiction writing class she took more than a year ago with Sue Goyette at the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia. Goyette, it turns out, will teach poetry as part of a slate of new creative writing courses available as a minor option offered for the first time at Dalhousie this year.

Forsythe’s no stranger to sailing off on her own. At 18 years old, she left for Montreal to take her undergraduate degree in creative writing at Concordia University. It was a “grad-school style” program with small class sizes—hers had 15 students—and one-on-one attention from teachers.

“It was really scary at first, having that focus on you,” Forsythe recalls, “but it was really, really helpful. I feel like those classes are where I grew a lot in terms of writing.” She evolved especially in terms of “verbalizing my ideas,” a key to turn before you start drafting, she says, adding: “I went in wanting to improve my writing, but also to connect with other people. can be such an isolating experience.”

In Toronto, Forsythe looks forward to a balance between the “quiet time” to refine her writing and connecting with similar sojourners. She says that having teachers such as poet and novelist Dionne Brand, whose novel What We All Long For provides any newcomer to Toronto the perfect primer, will certainly help occupy and inspire her mind.

<@BTS intro bold>Danny Jacobs can relate. He’s just days away from starting his Masters in Creative Writing at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, and looks forward to classes with one teacher in particular: Mark Anthony Jarman, author and editor of several editions of Oberon Press’s Coming Attractions, anthologies of new writing.

“I recently read his newest short story collection, 19 Knives, and was blown away,” Jacobs says. “The opportunity to take classes under , an amazing and accomplished writer who writes wild, dark, lyrical and hilarious short fiction, will be very valuable.”

Like Forsythe, Jacobs will look to his teachers, but also to the environment to stoke his creative fires and self-discipline. “Being around other writers who take fiction seriously will be very exciting,” he says. “I tend not to write as much as I could during the summer so it will be great to be back in that academic environment, writing more and surrounded by people who write.”

At just 22, Jacobs received some serious money to attend UNB, a scholarship worth more than $22,000 to help cover costs of the 20-month graduate program. He credits his experience at Saint Mary’s University, where he studied English with a concentration (or minor) in Creative Writing, for helping him nab the scholarship and prepare for the rigours of graduate studies.

Jacobs took poetry courses with SMU professor and poet Brian Bartlett. Though he writes fiction now too, he explains, “ has helped my fiction in terms of writing fresher, more compelling images and more lyrically. Poetry teaches you about economy, which can be a good thing in any kind of creative writing.”

This summer Jacobs combined his love of verse and short fiction in a 50-edition chapbook—a small, self-published book printed and bound by hand—called The Very Thought of You & Poems.

<@BTS intro bold>Amy Jones has published short <@BTS intro bold>stories prolifically while formally studying. Her stories have appeared in journals across Canada, from The Antigonish Review to Prairie Fire, and she’s netted a couple awards too.

Her path to writing has involved, at once, standing still and moving away. After taking an undergrad theatre degree at Dalhousie, she attended University of Toronto for graduate theatre studies. A prose voice still rose above all else, even as she wrote plays. Finally, once back in Halifax, she let the short fiction reign.

From then on, Jones wrote and read with determination. She enrolled in the Writers’ Federation of Nova Scotia’s mentorship program two years ago. She was paired with Linda Little, author of the novel Scotch River (out earlier this year), and they’d meet every two weeks for several months.

“I wanted everything I gave to her to be new. That was really good at helping me…produce,” Jones recalls. “Just talking to her made me feel like a million bucks.”

Last September, the 29-year-old Jones began an optional residency program at University of British Columbia. Along with her classmates, who live across Canada and in the US, Jones participates in class discussions, receives reading and instruction online. “You obviously don’t get to go for a beer after class with your friends,” she laughs.

Still, Jones points out, “When you’re online everybody gets their turn, it’s very equal. It’s definitely mediated. You have time to think about things before you respond, especially when you’re discussing someone’s writing. It ends up as a conversation.”

Even something as simple as conversation with other people who “get it” makes a huge difference in the formative years of writing careers. Maybe we don’t have to worry about these three authors as they make these solo trips to find their voice.

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