Poignant and powerful. Solemn and entrancing. These are just a few examples of the high praise critics have heaped on Ken Murray's Eulogy, a 288-page debut novel about a reclusive protagonist who is forced to confront his family's past after his parent die in a car accident. Mr. Murray's book about grief, wrote one critic, "has no right to be a page-turner, but this one is."
Yet there was a time when Murray didn't know how to even begin writing a chapter of fiction, let alone an entire novel. While he describes himself as a keen fiction writer during his high school years, as a working adult he built a career as a fundraiser and relegated writing to a hobby.
A decision he made just over a decade ago changed everything.
"I enrolled into an introductory writing course at U of T (School of Continuing Studies) in the fall of 2004 and went on to do the full six-course certificate program," recalls Murray. "The portfolio I developed at U of T was what got me a scholarship at The New School in New York and became my thesis project in graduate school. That eventually became the novel that got published this year."
Ken Murray's life-changing education was delivered through the creative writing program at the University of Toronto's School of Continuing Studies. Launched 20 years ago, the program is the largest in Canada, with more than 55 courses and about 2,000 students registered each year.
"The courses in the program cover a huge range of genres, from poetry to science fiction to popular fiction, screenwriting, non-fiction, and humour," says Lee Gowan, creative writing program director at U of T's School of Continuing Studies. "And because the program is non-credit, it's accessible to anyone who's interested in learning how to write."
While some students enrol into the program out of curiosity, many do so out of a desire to become published writers in a particular genre. Gowan says the School's creative writing program was created from the start to help students go from dabblers to career writers.
*Results since 2001
For starters, the program's roster of instructors – which includes Ken Murray – is an impressive list of well-known Canadian writers, many of whom are winners or nominees of prestigious writing awards. Howard Shrier, for instance, won the Arthur Ellis Award, the country's top award for crime fiction. Dennis Bock, who teaches the introductory creative writing course and a master class in writing the novel, boasts a slate of awards that includes the Canadian Authors Association Jubilee Award, the British Betty Trask Award, the Commonwealth Writers' Prize for Best Book for the Caribbean and Canada, and his last novel was on the short-list for the Giller Prize.
"In addition to being great teachers, our instructors are great writers," says Gowan.
Thirteen years ago, to further open the door to the writing world for its students, the School of Continuing Studies asked Random House Canada to support its creative writing program. The Toronto-based publisher stepped up with a $30,000 endowment, which it doubled to $60,000 three years ago to create the largest endowment in creative writing at the School.
Using the interest from this endowment, the School launched the Penguin Random House Canada Student Award for Fiction – an honour that comes with a $1,000 prize. This prize, says Gowan, is set to increase in the near future as the larger endowment starts to yield greater returns.
As part of the award, Penguin Random House Canada publishes a chapbook featuring the works of the top three finalists are published. Many award winners and finalists have gone on to become successful published writers, says Gowan. These include Djamila Ibrahim, one of this year's finalists who just had a book accepted by House of Anansi Press, and Bianca Marais, who recently secured an international book deal.
In addition to the Penguin Random House Canada award, the school offers two author-sponsored awards, each offering a $1,000 prize: the Marina Nemat Award for Creative Writing Students and the Janice Colbert Poetry Award.
Leah Sandals, winner of this year's Penguin Random House award for her short story, Reunion, says the recognition marks a significant transition in her writing career. After working for the past 10 years as a writer and editor of art magazine features, Ms. Sandals – who took a summer creative writing workshop at the School last year – says she's ready to focus more of her energies on writing fiction and poetry.
"It's something I've always wanted to do since I was a kid, but I was always putting it off, putting it off," she says. "Self-doubt in my ability to write fiction and poetry has been an issue for me, so getting the award and seeing my work published in a book was really something special."
For Lana Pesch, who won the Penguin Random House award in 2012, the prize and the instruction she received through the School of Continuing Studies' creative writing program were important stepping stones on her way to being published. Her first book, a short story collection entitled Moving Parts, was published in October by Arsenal Pulp Press.
"I did one class at (the School) called Writing Short Fiction II, in the winter of 2012," says Ms. Pesch, who also works as a video producer, writer and director. "Even though it was only that one class, it was the right class for sure. And once I saw my name in print in the chapbook, it was like 'hey this means something, this is a big deal. If I'm being recognized by U of T (School of Continuing Studies) and Penguin Random House, that means I really am a writer.'"
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