VIU’s Creative Writing Program: A Graduate’s Review

I enrolled at Vancouver Island University during the summer of 2014.

I’d been diagnosed with chemotherapy-caused nerve damage – something I still deal with to this day. I was being medically released from the military and had been offered two years of postsecondary education as part of a payout package.

My disabilities from the nerve damage include sensory pain, digestive issues, fatigue, and cognitive challenges, including slower memory recovery and occasional slurred speech. I feel hung over every morning. My vision can become blurry and it can be difficult to concentrate. As fate would have it, I was also diagnosed with PTSD. I can be honest to a fault in social situations and will experience fearlessness and anxiety simultaneously – a type of hyper-vigilance that burns a lot of energy. Not as glamorous – and less common now – are depression, suicidal ideation, and insomnia. I have a damaged knee as well, which makes it painful to stand or walk.

I’ve never accepted any of these symptoms – physical or mental – as being permanent. But I knew they limited my options for future employment.

I’d been in Nanaimo for two years, so was immediately drawn towards Vancouver Island University. I already had a Criminology Certificate (one year postsecondary) from Douglas College in New Westminster. VIU said they would accept most of these courses as electives. This would reduce the number I’d need to earn a full degree, if I stayed that long.

I decided I was most interested in writing. I had a friend who was an upper level Creative Writing student and I liked how she presented herself. I decided to enroll, even though the word “creative” in the program title was a sticking point for me. How would it look on a resume? I asked myself, out loud and open mouthed, if I earned a degree in Creativity?

When I was younger, I’d dreamed of being an author as much as a soldier or detective. Going back to school for writing would be an opportunity for me to turn my disadvantages into the pursuit of a lifelong dream.

I wouldn’t be able to attend full-time because of my health. This meant being sponsored for two years made the prospect of earning a degree unlikely. I decided my primary objective – how very Tom Clancy of me – was to become a better writer, not earn a degree.

One the the biggest hurdles was convincing my sponsor – a military branch of Manulife – that taking writing courses was practical. Are there jobs? my caseworker would ask. Of course! I must have said, rolling my eyes with a smile that further implied – you really need to become more informed Mr. Sponsor, if you’re helping people like me reintegrate into society! He probably chuckled, as if he was letting me know – in return – that he’d only been joking. Because everyone knows becoming a paid writer is super easy and lucrative.

Somehow, I managed to convince him that going back to school in order to study writing was the best option I had. Maybe it really was.

Taking summer courses and continuing beyond my sponsorship, I finally earned my bachelor of arts degree this May “with distinction.” According to my online student-planning form, my GPA was 4.21. This didn’t include my final two A+ (4.33) grades.

As a writing student, I published a bestselling book, won two awards, became a member of the Writer’s Union of Canada, and learned additional skills in elective courses. All while struggling with multiple disabilities (hidden from professors and peers out of pride), a terminal cancer scare, and many personal struggles including a period without income and tragedy. I achieved this in my 40s, having come from a low-income background where no one in my immediate family had ever even earned a degree.

I believe many of my achievements would not have been possible if I’d attended another university or enrolled in a different program.

If you’re considering studying Creative Writing at VIU, I’d like to share my experiences and observations with you as a sort of program review. I intend to be brutally honest.

The Campus: Nanaimo’s campus is beautiful. There are multiple vantage points where you can see the Salish Sea and the Rocky Mountains across the water on the Mainland. The university is situated on the side of a hill – a mountain really. Because there are a lot of stairs, I would not consider it wheelchair friendly.

The lower parts of the campus are dedicated to trades; while the upper sections are where other programs are offered. To an outsider, this could appear caste-based, but it’s not.

The roots of the university – its history – are the trade programs. This is why trade buildings are closer to the city at the bottom of the hill. Trade programs are shorter and graduates often find immediate and well-paying employment (if they aren’t already sponsored). I’m not aware of any rivalry between the trades and academic programs, or between any of the programs for that matter.

Most of the buildings are modern looking with a futuristic vibe. The architectural choices are often cold – in a concrete and steel sort of way. In many cases, this is balanced out with an overabundance of windows showcasing amazing views or garden spaces.

The upper areas of campus have tree-lined walkways and small parks, flowers, wild berries, plants First Nations elders refer to as medicines, rabbits, songbirds, eagles, and the occasional bear sighting. The Island Highway is hidden behind a belt of trees at the top of the hill, which eliminates the sound of traffic.

VIU staff are friendly. Professors and administrators, cafeteria workers, librarians, book store staff… everyone really. It gives the campus a welcome, inclusive, and chill vibe. The school felt less militant or professional than Douglas College, for example, where some professors gave automatic mark deductions for coming late to class.

VIU is home to a First Nations program, has an Indigenous gathering place, several totem poles, and on-campus Indigenous elders who offer teachings and support. VIU event presentations often begin with an acknowledgment of whose traditional unceded territory we are on. In Nanaimo, this is Snuneymuxw. VIU takes a lot of pride in its inclusion of First Nations teachings and acknowledgments, something I appreciated.

Like many universities, the political climate is left-leaning. It felt oddly curated and piecemeal though, often uninformed or hypocritical. You might be thinking, aren’t all universities like that? Well, maybe. But not anti prescribed medical marijuana policies, yet pro-tobacco and alcohol. Not pro-environment – lets fight climate change and all that – yet plastic obsessed (as Starbucks coffee cups rolled through classrooms like tumbleweeds). A place where banners protesting rape and violations of indigenous people are common, yet where almost no one – faculty or students – attends the well-publicized and heavily postered annual vigils for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) – some of them local women – held on their “Indiginized” campus. Yet many students protested Canada Day as a colonial celebration of stolen land one year, simply because it was popular and only required a social media comment or two to feel hardcore activist.

People sometimes identified as veterans or First Nations who probably shouldn’t have and would speak on their behalf. It was common to hear people use disability rights as a trump card over other people’s rights. I saw Indigenous elders and environmentalists being called “ableists” by students online, during a campaign to protect single-use plastic straws.

Disposable plastic straws should be easily available at every fast food counter, they had said, or it would embarrass and shame disabled people. No other type of straw would do. The movement had been started by a woman who said banning single-use plastic straws would be “inconvenient”. I asked one writing student to stop posting comments on my Facebook timeline attacking people who disagreed with him. He and his partner – a VIU writing graduate – unfollowed me and blocked me across social media platforms for being ableist. They aren’t even disabled.

As I took electives from multiple areas of study and attended several campus events, it’s important to state that I’m not speaking about the writing program, in particular, but am making general comments about VIU’s climate as experienced and witnessed firsthand. I liked seeing younger people become concerned citizens and activists, but would often question where their information was coming from.

The bulk of our Creative Writing courses were taught in Building 340, an older structure where English classes, Digital Media, and other Arts & Humanities courses were taught. It’s run down compared to other buildings on campus. The washrooms and classrooms were not cleaned often enough for the number of people using it. There were also temperature issues. Students had access to thermostats and were able to adjust the temperature without class consent. Sometimes, the heat or air conditioning wouldn’t work. It could become uncomfortable during heatwaves and freezing over the winter months.

Despite these shortcomings, Building 340 became endearing to me. It developed a personality with its own history, character, grit, and determination. This was where I would learn to become a better writer. It was a place where I could pursue my dreams.

The Program consists of five branches: Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, Script Writing, and Publishing. To earn a degree, a student must complete requirements in three of the five branches. I chose Fiction, Nonfiction, and Publishing.

Publishing is the only branch that isn’t about the actual craft of writing. It focuses on the business side of writing, such as the publishing industry itself and how to submit work. It includes an editing course, which is an invaluable skill. Fewer classes are offered in this branch than any of the others, making the time slots you can take them less flexible. If you plan on writing professionally, I highly recommend you include courses from this branch.

Nonfiction writing is a skill (a trade actually) that will pay you. It’s also the easiest type of writing to get published. Unlike the other branches, there will always be work available. You can attract an audience to your writing through a blog, get published in the university student newspaper, or post on Medium. Most VIU nonfiction writers achieved some level of success, writing for magazines, newspapers, or websites. Learning nonfiction writing also strengthens your ability to write proposals to publishers. Even if you completely give up on writing someday, your email prose and business writing skills will always be assets. Nonfiction writing strengthens other forms of writing as well. Unless writing is just a hobby for you, this branch is the most important one to study.

I chose fiction as my third branch. It’s what I dream of being paid to write someday. VIU has amazing fiction courses, which include genre and young adult writing. The genre course I took specifically looked at Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Mystery and Romance. Our assigned books for this class were Salem’s Lot by Stephen King and Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. Courses like these are less common at other universities, as they tend to focus more on books considered literary.

I could have taken courses in the other two branches, but I wanted to narrow my focus and study writing with a certain amount of realism. To make a living income as a writer takes years of hard work, networking, and serious good luck. Plus an interesting (marketable) product or personal brand. A Writers’ Union of Canada survey found that the average writer income in 2017 was $9,380. This was down from the 2014 results, which were $12,879. These numbers might be somewhat misleading, because there are technical writers, reporters, and online writers who make money, but this is why most writers work a second job. The only graduates I know earning an income writing are nonfiction writers.

The strength of VIU’s writing program is the department faculty. It isn’t just their awards and publications, which are collectively impressive, but how each of them offers such varied experience and perspective. The small class sizes means they will review your work personally. By the time you graduate, you’ll probably feel they are a part of your professional network (as long as you’ve been likeable).

In other universities, work can be marked by teacher aids and not by professors. Large class sizes might mean you never receive the mentoring you’re actually paying for. Every university I’ve looked at – as I start to dream of a masters – has all star professors, for sure, but VIU’s faculty is second to none. Especially if writing in pop culture interests you. I liked being assigned podcasts to listen to and having guest speakers come to class.

Because the Creative Writing department is small, students will likely have the same professors more than once. My disability meant I could be unintentionally outspoken. I’ve probably annoyed every professor I’ve ever had, at least once. This has never been reflected in my grades, which to me demonstrates a high level of professionalism. If a student dislikes a professor, there will be no prof alternatives for some courses though.

Even though the program is small (twenty-some of us graduated this year), there is a writing community vibe. This is created through events like readings or panel discussions. The student newspaper, the Navigator, and VIU’s annual literary magazine Portal are both opportunities for students to work for a publication. Every year, the newspaper is looking for staff – or at the very least regular contributors.

Portal magazine is an upper level two-semester publishing course. The class does everything from calling for submissions to launching the fully printed magazine. The magazine launch is where Creative Writing awards are also given. This year, the Portal class created a reading series. Well-known authors would give readings after emerging student writers shared their own work.

There is also an online nonfiction magazine called Incline. This is produced by an upper level class as well. Online writing is the most promising opportunity for emerging writers, making this an essential course and another opportunity to work in a team environment.

Workshopping courses make up a large portion of the writing classes. Due dates rotate, usually chosen by the students themselves through sign-up sheets. Several students’ work will be due every week. Each student submits enough copies for everyone in class to take home, including the professor. Everyone reads the stories and prepares feedback for the following week. In most classes – definitely after the 1st year – feedback includes a line edit.

The class will workshop stories from the week before, usually following a lecture. The time is divided by how many students submitted. If someone dropped the class or didn’t submit on time, there might be longer discussions on fewer pieces. This can be helpful if it is your work. If a couple of people were a week late, the workshop sessions might be much shorter the following week, as everyone had to read more stories and do more work. Students tend to dislike it when someone claims to be sick or confused about when their work was due. The sign up sheets make due dates clear at the beginning of the term, far in advance.

Everyone sits facing each other. The professor becomes the facilitator and time keeper. Each person has a chance to offer criticism and feedback on the work being discussed – until the time runs out. Professors expect this to be constructive.

By the time you graduate, you will have heard everything imaginable about your work. This is helpful in that you will eventually realize most of it is just opinion. The value comes when multiple people say the same thing. As far as your craft goes, it will make you level up as a writer in ways you never thought possible. You’ll also become a better editor.

Many first year submissions are poorly written. Students from other programs take introductory writing courses as electives. Others dream of being writers someday, but never imagined it involved anything more than wearing a beret, sipping coffee, and smoking cigarillos outside of cafes and microbreweries. For most of us, becoming a better writer just takes time and practice.

I hated first year writing workshops. Many of the fiction stories had no substance. Writers thought they were being edgy because there was swearing in their stories, drugs, sex, and over-the-top gore. It’s part of the process, I guess, but I’ll never forget the story about the family who was forced to eat their own feces. Why? you might ask. Because the villain was pure evil of course.

There were definitely diamonds in the rough, don’t get me wrong. But workshopping felt like hard work. The feedback I received was sometimes condescending or lacked tack. Peer edits could be completely inaccurate. Dialogue tags were changed from correct to incorrect, for example. I’m not sure if mine were any better.

The nonfiction workshops – if I remember correctly – didn’t occur during first year courses. These students were better writers and generally more mature. They were writing about actual events, so the content was only outlandish if the story itself was.

Second year workshop courses were some of the best. Part of this might have been the group of students I took these classes with. The wheat and the chaff had been separated, so to speak. Writers had a lot of fire inside of them. They had stories they wanted to tell in new and unique ways. Activist minded stories. Tales that would blow your mind.

Upper level workshopping courses were disappointing in new ways. Over critical peer reviews sapped a lot of the passion out of student writers. There was often a student or two who liked to condemn others through Shakespearean-like speeches. Some students would try to change another person’s writing voice into their own and would make excessive unwarranted corrections. This style of editing is outdated, but it’s still being taught.

Many of the courses I took had low-key bullying. The most critical students were using the forum as a means to lift themselves up. Professors either didn’t notice or pretended they didn’t. In some cases, they encouraged it by saying the feedback was great. Some of the bullies were given awards. The perception was often that these students were esteemed by professors. Two of my favourite student writers graduated broken – separate years. Both were amazing writers, but were stripped of their confidence by those who were not as skilled as them.

I once overheard two students badmouthing me and my writing during the break, right after I’d been workshopped. I was nice, apparently, but not very smart. They were both given awards that year. Another student around my age wrote on a story I’d submitted about my military service that all soldiers were psychos. There was nothing in my piece that warranted this. I addressed her calmly in front of everyone the following week, using others as witnesses. I didn’t want her to accuse me of being threatening.

A couple of times, there were harsh comments on my returned work without that person’s name on it. I once narrowed down who it was based on whose feedback hadn’t been returned. It was between two guys who were both nice to my face and soft spoken in class.

I tried to get along with everyone. As an older student I was spared much of the drama, but not always. One day, a student who’d been giving others a hard time in workshops tried to move past me in the washroom in an intimidating way. I was expected to step aside. I’d seen his workshop etiquette already, and had heard he was like this, but I’d thought it was likely exaggerated. For a moment, I forgot I was a student and looked at him in a way he probably wasn’t used to. He was nice to me after that. I sometimes wonder if I misread the situation, but I don’t think I did.

It bothered me seeing this happen to others, especially the youngest students. As someone who has served in the infantry and managed teams of people making arrests in a civilian policing context, I found this part of the workshopping experience particularly pathetic. Students trying to be be alpha and degrade some of the nicest and meekest people imaginable, just because they could. Character-wise, it doesn’t get weaker than this.

There are ways to cheat at workshopping and some students do it. They mark up the first page, so the professor will see it in front of them during the workshop. The following pages will be blank and lack line edits. If that person is asked to give feedback first, they might say they didn’t get to the submission. If they’re asked for feedback after a few other people have spoken, they will fake their way through it by restating what others have already said. Sometimes, a student will say their computer crashed, which makes no sense because they were given a physical copy. People have earned good grades and awards without doing the workshopping assigned. A few of us brought this up with professors who started to do spot checks – at least in the classes I was in. Hopefully, things have changed for the better.

Workshopping can cause a lot of social anxiety for the person being workshopped and for the person giving feedback. Some students have a hard time public speaking, but will return amazing written feedback. After you’ve had a class with someone, you’ll know what to expect from them. I’d often worry I’d hurt someone’s feelings when I gave feedback, especially if they were already being treated poorly. By my final year, I didn’t care what some students had to say. Others made it worthwhile, but I still couldn’t wait to graduate.

In my opinion, workshopping culture needs to be better curated by professors. Feedback should be more encouraging than critical. It needs to be thorough, of course, if there are world-building problems or unanswered questions in a news story, but if it’s good work – especially for that person – then a pat on the back might be more valuable. A team mentality never hurt anyone. It builds confidence, which is what many writers need.

Submission Packages are handed in at the end of every term. These might be called something different, depending on the course or professor, but they’re essentially the Creative Writing equivalent of term papers.

Each package will include the best work you submitted during that course, “significantly” edited and improved based on the feedback you received during the workshops. Following the cover page, you will usually add an opening statement or a mock letter to a publisher.

The image above is of my final submission for the “Experimental and Speculative Fiction” course. It was the only time we were ever allowed to be creative with our font and titles. Many students lost marks in other classes for not following basic guidelines including spacing, font size, and indentation.

You will rarely, if ever, have an opportunity to submit work this polished, after having had so many people/editors give you feedback. If you are a fiction student or a poet, your goal for graduation is to prepare a body of work. Stories and poems you can submit to magazines or literary contests.

Students sometimes lose sight of their graduation goals as writers. They hand in something they feel is good enough for a passing grade. Their focus is on the degree and not on their future as a writer. It can be easy to become a lazy writing student, because we don’t have heavily-sourced term papers or exams to study for.

I chose to demonstrate professionalism by carefully preparing my submission packages. I completed all of my weekly readings, contributed to classroom discussions, and attended class. My intention was to show my professors I was a serious writer.

This level of professionalism helped me secure a book deal. A publisher came to speak to our class and I pitched her afterwards. My professor, who was standing nearby, said something like, this is the writer I was telling you about. Our submission package assignment in that class was to write a mock pitch with samples to a book publisher. Mine was the actual submission package I used that resulted in my book deal.

Some of the chapters of my book, The Haunting of Vancouver Island, were workshopped in class and had been part of my course submission packages (I thanked the workshop students in the “Acknowledgments” section of my book).

The Creative Writing department paid for my book launch on campus. They were more supportive of me than I would have ever imagined. I believe this only happened because I was treating my time at university with deadly seriousness. In my mind, I was attending university as a writer, not as someone training to become a writer someday. My submission packages were the real deal.

When I was giving readings in order to promote my book, I ended up scheduled at an event alongside one of my professors, who is a world-renowned author. It felt like one of those moments where everything had come full circle. She treated me as a peer that night – as a professional – and not as a student. It was something she did not have to do.

In the small upper-level writing classes at VIU, you will be given the chance to prove yourself professionally. Submission packages are your best opportunities.

Electives are just as important as writing classes. Many people treat them as an opportunity to explore new interests or only take what’s available, but this is a mistake.

Writers are often self employed. Getting published means you’ve secured a business deal. You’re responsible for getting these contracts, promoting yourself to the media, and to potential readers. Most of this happens through networking and personal branding.

If you’re a successful writer, you’ll need to know how to deliver a speech, often in the form of a reading. I took two public speaking classes at VIU. One was offered by the English department and the other by the Theatre department. I took a Theatre course “Acting for Non-actors” because I had a panic attack just reading the title of it. I hated the fear I’d felt for something so non-life-threatening. I signed up, learned a few things, and conquered new levels of anxiety. Now, speaking in front of large groups doesn’t usually bother me. These courses helped me get better marks for presentations in other classes.

Knowing how to use social media is essential. I requested permission to take an upper level Business social media course. If you don’t have a social media presence as a writer chances are you will fail. Facebook doesn’t count. Neither does Instagram (unless you’re writing includes art or photography). Twitter works well, but it takes a while to understand and build a following. By the time you graduate, you should have a blog with followers.

I took Digital Media courses to help me prepare online content, primarily visual and audio. I intended to launch a podcast after graduating, but have since changed my mind as I don’t enjoy the work. I’m still glad I took these courses as I can now edit audio and video files.

English courses are sometimes very specific. The “English Ghost Stories” course was especially helpful for me. A certain number of English courses are needed to earn your Creative Writing degree. All of them will benefit your writing. If you look at the assigned texts in the bookstore you might be able to guess when a vaguely named course is especially suited to your work.

Because I write about folklore and mythology, I took two courses in Greek and Roman mythology and one in critical bible study. As Folklore studies are rarely offered in Canada, I found all three of them helpful when I work with folklore academics.

I took several First Nations courses for the same reason. These began as upper level courses after I wrote a letter to the chair asking for permission. “Land as Life” consisted of elder teachings from several different nations. The course was unusual, as each week was a full day. We harvesting medicinal plants, stripped cedar in the forest, sang in the Cowichan Big House, had a beach salmon barbecue with stories, and another story session on Penelakut Island. It was life changing. I also took a field school course where we went to Alaska to study recording oral history at the University of Fairbanks. I enrolled in the First Nations “Representation and Misrepresentation” course specifically to help me prepare my book manuscript. I could have declared First Nations as a minor, but it would’ve meant going back and taking several lower level courses to qualify.

I mentioned already that I had one year post secondary schooling. These were Criminology courses and electives including Psychology and Sociology. Without the First Nations courses and these, I believe I would not have graduated from VIU with a true education.

An educated person should understand the difference between cause and correlation. Not knowing the difference is how people become pawns to trends promoting misinformation. They should be able to make two opposing arguments at the same time – which is what a true academic paper essentially does (even though a stronger argument is being made for one position). An educated person should be able to be think critically about news stories, history, statistics, and their own personal beliefs and/or religion. They should be able to question who funded a study and why – who stands to benefit and who might pay the price.

Some of our professors assigned readings that were designed to inspire critical thinking. I’m grateful for this. Investigative journalism taught us a high level of independent thought and scrutiny as well. Ultimately, the Creative Writing department will only teach you the art of writing, not how to think critically. It will be up to you to decide what kind of education you want. This will be based on your choice of electives.

Internships and Directed Studies: Upper level students can ask a professor for one-on-one mentoring. This is called a directed study. The student will propose what they want assistance with – like a manuscript – or the professor might suggest a topic for the student.

I never knew about directed studies until after I’d published my book. I was told then that I could have received course credits as a directed study but that it was too late. After I graduated, I learned I could have also challenged a publishing course as another option, but I didn’t learn about this until after the fact either.

A few students had multiple directive studies while others – like myself – never knew they existed. This caused bitterness amongst some of the students. The feeling was that others were gaining easy credits for writing they had already done, such as a manuscript or screenplay. It was also thought these students were more likely to get chosen for an award. Students were given directed studies repeatedly while others never had an opportunity. For this reason, I agree that directed studies should be managed better and made fair.

One upper level Creative Writing course is a year-long internship program. The first semester is preparation for the actual internship and the second is the hours worked as an intern. This can be fulfilled over the summer if the student is not graduating in the spring.

An internship is an opportunity for a student to approach a business that might not normally be open to them and offer themselves as a volunteer. For some, this has led to actual employment.

Several students have criticized this course, because we were responsible for finding our own place to intern. I had an amazing experience. I did worry at first things weren’t going to work out for me. I did not want to waste the opportunity and just work anywhere, so I had held out. Nothing had felt like a good fit for me. Everyone else had found their internships. I was getting frustrated and began to consider dropping the course.

Our intern prof had good news for me one day. The university’s Elder in Residence was looking for someone to help her record her life history as a survivor of residential school. She also had First Nations teachings to share. It was perfect. I was registered for that summer’s oral histories field school and had already taken the “Land as Life” course.

I applied to Elder Geraldine Manson and was accepted. Vancouver Island University decided they wanted to show her their support by paying me, which was a nice surprise. The whole experience was intense, beautiful, and humbling. Auntie Geraldine shared her experiences and it changed me. I’ll never forget the ghost stories she told me.

I put in more hours than I got paid for or that the internship required. I kept this to myself, because it felt like I was doing important work, something I would have done without being given course credits or pay. I’m extremely proud of my internship.

People have been interns for all sorts of people and organizations. Students have written for large and small scale newspapers, helped businesses with their online writing and social media, interned at publishing houses, and more. One interesting internship was a student who wrote scripts for live entertaining wrestling. How cool is that?

As far as locations go, there have been internships as far away as Toronto and Los Angeles. The possibilities are endless, really. The challenge is finding the right place to intern. There are people who come to speak to the Internship class every year, looking for volunteers, but it’s nice to find a placement that will compliment your writing aspirations.

Awards and Recognition: If you graduate with marks in the top 90% of your Creative Writing class (pooled over five years) your degree will state “with distinction” on it.

VIU has a low requirement to make the Dean’s List. Student’s only need to take four classes over one year (12 credits) and have a GPA of 3.67.

Most universities and colleges require the completion of 12 credits in one semester to qualify for the Dean’s List, making it only achievable for full time students. They usually require a minimum GPA of 4.0 – which is an A or 85% to qualify. Simon Fraser University has a lower GPA requirement of 3.5, but they still insist their students be full time.

Being able to make the Dean’s List as a part time student was something I liked about attending VIU. The low GPA requirement was disappointing though. It diminished how hard I’d worked to achieve my marks, which had included heavily researched academic papers, exams, and field schools in First Nations studies.

The Creative Writing Department gives away department awards every year. There are usually seven or eight of them, but this can fluctuate as they’re based on past donations. Some of the awards are for two students every year. For example, there are two Barry Broadfoot Awards given away each year.

In a small Creative Writing department, the chances to win an award are greatly increased. The negative side to this, however, is that some of the most deserving people are overlooked somehow, which must feel like a slap in the face.

There are people who have never won an award who worked their way through school as writers, who had high marks, did all their work, and who were some of the best writers in the program. This includes the most talented First Nations emerging writer I’ve ever had classes with and several high positioned members of the Navigator newspaper, such as the woman who edited my book, the mother of a high maintenance disabled boy.

On the other hand, sometimes the most undeserving people receive awards. Students with lower marks and poor attitudes. Writers who skip class, badmouth their professors and peers, hand their work in late, are disrespectful during workshops (or don’t do the work as I’ve mentioned), or who come to class hung over. It never made sense to me.

Faculty members choose award recipients by nominating a few students each. They then discuss the candidates and make their final selections, essentially arguing for or against students they might never have taught or even met. Even though I received two awards, VIU’s Creative Writing award selection process made me very uncomfortable.

One year, several people – including one award winner – stormed out of the room in anger as soon as the award ceremony was over. The professors’ choices had upset them that much. Some of the students never attended the Portal magazine launch and awards ceremony because it gave them too much anxiety.

The way it came across to me, was that professors were sometimes using awards as a sort of king or queen making opportunity. If a professor thought a student was funny, cool, or popular, for example – that student’s personal brand, if you will – or if they hoped to groom them into a more professional writer, they would just give them an award.

When a student hadn’t achieved their award based on merit, it sometimes gave them a false level of confidence and entitlement that harmed their writing. Their attitude towards others could shift in a negative way as well.

Awards should be given based on grades, attendance, attitude, and a writer’s skill. They should also be spread out between students more. This could easily be remedied by making awards only available for upper level students – those who have put in their time and are working on mastering their craft. As attendance is mandatory to participate in workshopping, students who miss classes should not qualify. Exceptions – like being asked to emcee a First Nations ceremony on campus at the same time as class – might apply.

As a prospective Creative Writing student, you will have a greater opportunity to earn an award at VIU than at a larger university. My only piece of advice, would be that you don’t expect it. Some of the best and most prolific writers have never won anything.

Conclusion: Living in Nanaimo wasn’t the only reason I attended Vancouver Island University. I could have applied for financial aid from the military in order to move back to Vancouver or down to Victoria.

There are three other universities in British Columbia that I have considered attending for Creative Writing: The University of British Columbia (UBC), Simon Fraser University (SFU), and the University of Victoria (UVic). They all have larger programs with more professional minded – likely more competitive – students and higher tuition fees.

UBC’s Creative Writing program has been heavily criticized in recent years. There have been allegations against their former chair for sexual assault and assault of students. He claims the sex was consensual. The fallout from these accusations has divided Canada’s literary community into several camps. For a primer, check out Refuse: CanLit in Ruins.

Several authors signed an open letter criticizing UBC’s treatment of the writing chair. Other writers were more interested in protecting the students who were possible victims of sexual assault. Most wondered why UBC hadn’t involved the police. Some questioned why emerging writers were being silenced by a group of self-declaring literary elitists. More students came forward, claiming they felt unsafe in classrooms of professors who had publicly supported the chair. It was in the news again this week. The chair’s suing twenty-some students for their allegations. How’s that for a culture of silence and entitlement?

I will never attend a university where professors are sleeping with students, even with consent. I work hard for my grades. I feel bad for honest professors working at UBC – including those who stood up for the students – but a university is a business. I give them my money so they can teach me. I’m not interested in joining a cult of literary groveling, where, if I say the wrong thing – being a combat vet and all that – I’ll be banished into a far corner of CanLit hermitry.

UBC is one of the main Canadian universities fighting to not pay authors for their work as well. They believe a writer should not be paid if less than 10% of their book is being used in the classroom. SFU is also in this camp. It’s ridiculous to me, that both universities offer Creative Writing programs. They’re essentially training writers not to be paid. Thankfully, recent court decisions have ruled against them and their “fair use” arguments.

Vancouver Island University and the University of Victoria both pay writers. I’ve never heard anything negative about UVic and hope to apply there for a masters one day – even if I change my field of study . VIU’s Creative Writing program doesn’t offer a masters degree.

Nanaimo has an excellent literary scene. There are regular readings on and off campus. These are organized by Read Local BC, Literacy Central Vancouver Island’s Well Read Books, Vancouver Island Regional Library, Strong Nations Indigenous bookstore, Windowseat Books, Nanaimo Chapters – which has a great community vibe – and others. Rebel Mountain Press regularly publishes anthologies, which have included emerging and established local authors. Many small businesses carry local author’s books. There are a lot of creative people in Nanaimo, many of them writers, making it a networking gold mine.

Nanaimo does have its problems though. I would not consider it a safe city to party alone in. I’ve interviewed several people – including victims and RCMP – while writing articles for the Navigator about rape, missing and murdered women, and child predators. Sexual assaults connected to establishments serving alcohol is a problem. When I’ve questioned locals who work at or frequent these places I’ve been told “boys will be boys” or that I was a negative person for talking about it. Having once been a bouncer, I’m still disturbed by these comments and the level of apathy shown, as well as the allegations themselves.

Since I moved to Nanaimo in 2012, Macleans magazine has reported drink dosings here twice, once after thirteen women came forward who had been targeted at multiple venues. Recently, one male went public after being tied up by another man. The overdose deaths have been especially high in the downtown area – stats that become skewed when they are presented in a report including numbers from a larger geographical area.

If you’re looking forward to becoming a student partially to gain the independence you need to party hard, I would consider a university in Vancouver or Victoria instead.

If you’re into the outdoors however, Nanaimo has more to offer than other cities in British Columbia. It’s centrally located on a sparsely populated – but massive – island, which has an unending array of day trip possibilities. There’s a bus to Tofino and Ucluelet, Canada’s hippest surfing communities. Outdoor clubs on and off campus will get you out hiking, foraging, or camping, even without a car. It’s not uncommon to find yourself alone on a beach, something that’s hard to experience in most cities of any size. Fishing, diving, whale watching, caving, and ancient tree viewing are all easily available experiences.

Nanaimo’s museum has always impressed me. My favourite exhibit of all time, Nanaimo Mysteries Exhibit, has just closed. They offer tours, which include cemetery, red-light district, and Halloween mystery walks (which I contributed research for). Snuneymuxw Nation offers a day trip and salmon BBQ to Saysutshun Newcastle Island. There are also several petroglyphs, First Nations totem poles, and carvings to see in the area.

All of this, and Nanaimo is only a ferry ride away from Vancouver, which has an international airport. This can be a huge advantage for students who have come from far away, or anyone interested in taking VIU’s international field courses as electives.

Vancouver Island University’s Creative Writing program was an amazing experience for me. The Haunting of Vancouver Island, which is an academic and inclusive collection of ghost stories, was published in October of 2017. The Creative Writing Department paid for my book launch and often advised me during this process. The campus promoted my book and events and sent notifications out to media, some of which resulted in interviews and articles. Many students were supportive of me, as were members of the community.

My book continues to sell well, having just gone to fourth print. Last week, I was interviewed for two and a half hours on Spaced Out Radio, a show with 177,000 North American listeners per episode. Chapters Indigo has asked me to do a ten-store book signing this October including six stores on the Lower Mainland. I’m scheduled to give a presentation and a workshop in October, and have another – I’ve lost count now – podcast interview next week. This is unheard of for a book that is two years old. NONE of this would have happened if I’d attended another university’s writing program.

VIU’s Creative Writing professors are the real reason the program is cool beyond measure. You want to teach me about vampires and ghosts? Okay. You want to nerd out about 1930s pulp fiction? or have us laughing out loud during one of your lectures? Hell yeah.

You want to win one of the biggest awards in Canada and act like it’s no big deal? Have your work turned into a TV series? or your play translated into Japanese and performed in Tokyo? You want to learn Halkomelem Coast Salish in your spare time, go on a pilgrimage to Antarctica, or adopt a child from a developing country? You want to travel to Nanaimo from your small island, or big city, life just to teach us wobbly-legged noobs how to write?

The way I see it, my best chance to obtain a certain level of success and dignity is to learn from people who have already achieved it. It’s a bonus if they’re people I’ve come to respect. I’m grateful for all of the professors I had classes with and for those I never had the opportunity to learn from. Collectively, they’re what makes VIU’s Creative Writing program both unique and special.

When doing something as difficult as writing, it’s necessary to look for opportunities and advantages that can help you achieve your goals. This is what Vancouver Island University offered me that no other Creative Writing program ever could. Being a small department, it’s not perfect by any means, but I accomplished more at VIU than I would have ever thought possible. All as a foot-in-mouth, busted-up veteran no less.

* this post has not been edited or endorsed by anyone. I apologize if my writing (about writing) isn’t as polished as it could be.

** top photo courtesy of Vancouver Island University, taken by Arrowsmith Aerial Photography. The pink doodle and edit marks in the workshopping image were done by Caileigh Broatch. The sidewalk chalk artist’s name is unknown.

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About Shanon Sinn

The Spirit of Vancouver Island. Nature Beings, Shapeshifters, Ghosts & Ancestor Spirits. The Earth is Sacred.
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8 Responses to VIU’s Creative Writing Program: A Graduate’s Review

  1. Liz J. says:

    I loved reading your detailed account of your experience at VIU! Your bluntness is much appreciated. My daughter is a high school student researching writing programs in B.C. Currently UVic is her top choice, though she hasn’t visited VIU yet. What is your best advice for a somewhat reserved young woman considering both schools? Proximity to nature is not a top concern. Congrats on your book deal!

    • Shanon Sinn says:

      Thank you Liz it’s been a great experience 🙂
      I’ve spoken with a few UVic writing students since I posted this. Here is the difference: At UVic they choose one branch of writing (fiction, nonfiction, poetry, etc) after their workshop year – not three like at VIU. They are specialists and not as diverse. The attention to writing skill is much more arduous and intense with a focus on high literature. Very serious! The students came across as much more professional and are probably better writers because of their style of schooling. More refined in every way imaginable haha. VIU are more alternative students or eccentric – or maybe that’s just me. All of the UVic students, however, expressed envy for genre fiction and two of them almost sighed when they heard about young adult fiction courses. One student said that in an upper level writing assignment they were allowed to add ONE magical item to their story. Just one. So, to me, VIU is more creative and free flowing. But probably more drama and unprofessional students. Because I wanted to learn Fiction and Nonfiction, VIU was a better choice for me. Plus I wanted to write about ghosts and monsters. I stand by what I said about our profs being awesome. If a student tries their best at VIU (and doesn’t take too many courses) they will stand out.

  2. Thanks for your writing – educational, inspiring, genuine. One can feel your writing comes from hard-lived experience – that’s what usually makes the stuff of great writers. Best wishes for your future writing endeavours.

  3. Martina says:

    Do you have any reading lists? I would love if you could share them.
    Great blogpost …Thank you!

    • Shanon Sinn says:

      Thanks Martina I’m glad you enjoyed it!

      On Writing by Stephen King, Making of a Story by Alice LaPlante, and A Passion for Narrative by Jack Hodgins are all books I kept. Another student gave me On Writing Well by William Zinsser. A great nonfiction writing book. It was assigned in a class I wasn’t in.

      A few classes assigned anthologies. The Creative Writing one I liked the best was The Art of the Story. Other classes used course packs, which are samples from several writers.

      Books I liked a lot were Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline (YA), Far From the Tree by Andrew Soloman (nonfiction), and Educated by Tara Westover (creative NF). Other NF books I still have kicking around are Fraud by Rakoff and H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. For fiction, Dew Breaker by Danticat, On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, and Chocolate War by Robert Cormier (YA). On my own, I’ve read work by every professor I’ve had. I don’t want to endorse one over another, but these were some of my favourite reads.

  4. Shanon Sinn says:

    I stand with Tlaoquiaht First Nation and Tofino, the comments of my friend Chief James Swan of Ahousaht, and those of my paraplegic veteran friend Trevor Green who wrote ‘There is No Planet B’ (who uses and once needed straws). To make no concessions or changes whatsoever because people might be embarrassed is not enough of a reason for me. I will make better choices.

    What upset me enough to say anything against the fight to protect single-use plastic straws was when people started calling First Nations people who view the earth as sacred “ableists.” White People can never call people of colour names, no matter how justified they feel it is, and expect me to be okay with it. In principle, it is unacceptable.

  5. Chad Legebebokoff says:

    Well done, well said and well written. Glad I took the time to read this today Shanon. Congratulations on all your hard work, your perseverance in university and your dedication to writing.

    • Shanon Sinn says:

      Thank you for reading it Chad! I appreciate your comments. I’m looking forward to the next phase of life, even if it shifts away from Creative Writing studies.

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