Lisa Moore on Memorial University’s Creative Writing Program
Lisa Moore is an author who needs no introduction. Her fiction has been a finalist for The Giller Prize, has won the Canada Reads competition and shined a light on numerous other Newfoundland authors simply by their proximity to her talent. Lisa also teaches creative writing at Memorial University. WANL’s St. John’s/Avalon board representative Terry Doyle sat down with her to talk about the courses offered at MUN and why writers might enroll.
What kinds of classes are offered at Memorial?
LM: We offer classes at different levels in creative non-fiction, which I like to say is exactly the same as fiction except it’s true. So you’re talking about memoir, exploring the essay form, biography, autobiography, making a story out of the truth. Rob Finley teaches this, and he’s also developing a course about writing and place. Rob is amazing.
The kinds of things that are coming out of those classes are often deeply touching and experimental and really pushing the boundaries of stories in new directions.
We also offer fiction courses where people experiment with form and craft. They sometimes write in response to prompts that get people thinking about technique and style. We talk about creating dialogue, plot construction, imagery, setting, timing, everything that goes in to writing fiction.
Poetry with Mary Dalton – one of Canada’s best poets, with an international reputation.
Then we have a playwriting class, taught by Robert Chafe; of course he is one of Canada’s best playwrights. I’ve heard nothing but fantastic things about his class; he’s a great teacher.
Sometimes we offer a screenwriting course. I am hoping to develop a podcast writing course and, in a couple of my classes, we’ve developed a couple of podcasts already. I’m learning about editing podcasts this semester, so I want to get people thinking about that way of telling stories: oral stories, drama for the radio. So, those are just some of the creative writing offerings. We have an introduction class [this summer] for students who will do all of those genres in that class – a 2000 level course. This is an opportunity for anyone starting out with creative writing classes. I’m also teaching a third year Creative Writing Fiction course this summer. Teaching in the summer is really fun, and sometimes people can take advantage of these time slots, who otherwise might not be able to attend, during the fall and winter.
Who teaches or has taught creative writing at Memorial? We’ve mentioned yourself, Robert Findlay, Mary Dalton, Robert Chafe, who else? I think in the past there’s been Michael Winter? Larry Matthews? Mary Lewis?
LM: Yes. Kathleen Winter, I believe. And we’ve had a number of writers in residence – Michael Crummey, Sara Tilley was writer in residence. We had John Barton who is an editor for the Malahat Review, so that’s really great because not only was he able to advise on all kinds of genres, he was able to give information about publishing, getting your stories out there. Sara Tilley did amazing projects, one of them culminating in the reading of a collectively written play, which was hilarious.
How does the writer in residence program work?
LM: There’s a writer who is available to the community, not just students, and those who have a manuscript or an idea or have writing questions that they want to ask a writer can make appointments with the Writer-in-Residence. Different writers in residence offer different kinds of services to the community. So, for instance, one of the projects that Ed Riche did, he’s done a ton of radio; he developed a little series of podcasts that were adaptations of Newfoundland short stories. That series then played on CMHR and other places as well.
Who takes your creative writing classes?
LM: Students, often, who are doing the creative writing diploma. Or grad students and then people from the community who know they have a story and they want to figure out how to develop it, there’s tons of those.
And what percentage do you think are from the community and what percentage are full time students?
LM: I think it’s probably half. Half and half. BUT, often the ones from the community get sucked into the university because once they’ve done one course they want to do them all.
Recently MUN hosted the Sparks Literary Festival. What was your biggest takeaway from that? Your most memorable moment?
LM: Well we were stormed out and had to very quickly re-jig the whole project and so innovation came from that experience. For the first time we had a visual artist: Philippa Jones. And her work is very narrative, so she was a tremendous addition. We had a lot of students reading. And when I say students I mean people who are pouring their life’s blood into being writers, so it’s not like they’re writers in waiting, they are already writers who are perfecting their craft, as we all are, but there’s no sense of anybody being a Sunday painter or anything, these are people who are really driven to make beautiful art and those pieces were fresh and vivid and exciting. And then we had a panel for the first time where the talk was about place. And that was exciting. We had Justin Brake talking about Muskrat Falls, alongside of Mary Dalton talking about cadence and dialect in Newfoundland, language, and how all of that coalesces into poetry. And we had Michael Crummey who read a powerful new piece about Zita Cobb on Fogo Island and Phillipa, who showed us a world in her artwork that playfully was conjoined with narrative in such a way that it fit in extremely well with this notion of place.
It seemed like at Sparks there were a lot of different kinds of writers. It really felt like in that environment there was room for all kinds of styles, which I found surprising. Do you think that sometimes the local literary scene can be intimidating or difficult to navigate for emerging writers?
LM: The way I entered upon a writing community in Newfoundland was through a creative writing course taught by Larry Mathews. After that class was over, we kept meeting, for almost thirty years now, in fact. The creative writing classes here at Memorial are also continuing to meet. But even within the class, a community forms because people work so closely together. Work-shopping also makes people less intimidated about sharing their work, because once you’ve been through that fire, a group advising you about your work, you become seasoned in a certain way. But you also recognize what’s at stake, that writing matters to a great deal of people, and it matters a lot. I would like to think that it’s not too intimidating, or if it is there are avenues in. Just like WANL, another good avenue into meeting people and getting to avail of the mentorships program and all of that, there are different ways in and it’s important that people recognize that everybody who is involved in writing wants to foster writing.
Are you ever surprised by your students?
LM: Constantly! Part of the great thing about being a teacher is that you get to see experimentation every day. You get to see people who are attacking a problem in fresh new ways, and also are on top of literature that’s new. I am constantly influenced by the things my students read, what they’re telling me about, what they’re trying to do with their writing. I see new approaches all the time.
How, if at all, does teaching affect your writing?
LM: I teach a literature course as well as creative writing and in that class I’m teaching other people’s work and it means that I really have to pour over novels that I read for pleasure and really take apart the nuts and bolts and see what they’re saying and see how they fit into a social, political and aesthetic context along with other novels. Creating lectures about these books really keeps me excited about literature. And it’s the same with teaching creative writing. If I have to come into a classroom and talk about writing, how it works, what it does and what it can do, how to solve problems, that’s very inspiring.
What aspect of writing or becoming a writer do you feel are teachable?
LM: Well… I’m trying to think if there’s anything that’s not teachable and I’m not sure if there is. I think people have a voice and they have a notion of the kind of things they want to say. Then there are all kinds of tools to help, that allow people to tell stories that are gripping, that make our hearts beat. There are all kinds of ways to play with language that we can talk about. But I know from writing myself that when I read it to other people and get feedback I am inspired by that feedback, as I’m inspired when I read. And that is what happens in a classroom. It’s being inspired to tell stories in new ways. And a sense of community – readers and writers together. You’ve got a lot of hands looking at where a story might be going off the rails and how to reign it back in. So I don’t think there’s anything that can’t be taught, and yet what I have discovered is that the stuff that comes out of creative writing classes is always unique to the writer. I see wildness everywhere. No two stories alike. I think the kind of person who’s interested in doing creative writing is already not interested in writing the same thing as the person sitting next to them. They’re already burning with a desire to tell the story they need to tell.
Information about Memorial University’s creative writing classes and the diploma program can be found at: www.mun.ca/english/dcw