Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Writers’ Workshops in Toronto

A Cure for the Classroom Junkie
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By Stacey Madden

Labour Day came and went this year — and my heart broke a little. It marked the first September in 24 years that I would not be going back to school, in some form or another. I’m 28 years old now, so for all you bookish people who haven’t kept up your math skills, it means I was only three the last time I wasn’t bound for a classroom at this time of year, and my memory, thanks to a childhood of minor hockey and an adolescence soaked with alcohol, doesn’t stretch that far.

You see, I’m one of those freaks of nature who actually likes school — the structure, the assignments, the prospect of armouring oneself with knowledge. I like the smell of 30 different kinds of coffee in a classroom, insanely long line-ups at campus bookstores and learning to imitate the quirks and mannerisms of my instructors. As an undergrad I liked the large and impersonal lecture theatres. As a grad student I liked being a tutor. As a high schooler I even liked cafeteria food.

You might also say, however, that I’m one of those poor souls who won’t be able to function in what my normal, school-hating and very successful peers call “the real world.” What am I supposed to read without a syllabus? What am I supposed to write without a list of topics? How am I supposed to measure my worth as a human being without a grade stamp? In this so-called “real world,” there are no guaranteed promotions every year. Success is measured by bizarre concepts like interpersonal skills, networking, cutthroat ruthlessness and your answer to the question, “Who’s your daddy?” (No naughty thoughts please! I’m being serious.)

So what will I do now that I’ve been turned loose from the institutional confinement that has guarded and nurtured me for over two decades? I suppose I can read. I can read whatever I want, in fact, though there was something studiously romantic about having a crotchety old professor lure me toward the difficult pleasures of Dostoevsky or Faulkner or Woolf — writers I may not have touched if left to my own devices. I could join a book club, but unfortunately I don’t enjoy reading novels about potato peel societies, knitting clubs or the lives of bees. I could start my own book club, but then I’d have to rent out a classroom, hand out assignments, punish people for not completing the readings on time and give out grades at the end of each session. Anybody want in?

Another option I have is writing. Like most cloudy-headed English students, one of my dreams is to become a world famous novelist, so why not get that plan started? But what should I write about? I guess I’m free to write about anything, but that’s too vague and too daunting. I could write about my childhood (barf!), my emotions (gag!), or an article about why I’m sad I’m not going back to school, but nobody wants to read that kind of self-indulgent garbage, do they?

What I really want is a job as a perma-student — someone who gets to go back to the classroom every September for the rest of their life, and to get paid for it. I wouldn’t ask for a large salary, just enough to survive, and maybe a closet-sized room in a dormitory with a desk and a mini fridge. Somewhere cozy where I can read the books on my syllabi and write the subsequent papers in a series of coffee-fuelled all-nighters. I have no interest in applying my knowledge — I just want to keep gaining more. I want to pile degree upon degree and never put them to use. I want to remain in my embryo of education.

Or maybe that’s not right at all. Maybe I’m just copping out, or afraid to face the cold reality that all things must come to an end, that there comes a time for graduation and initiation into something new. A time to move forward.

Somewhere along the way, the prospect of education stopped being a pathway to success and became a self-defeating addiction for me. I have almost no interest in doing anything else in life besides “bettering” myself in an academic environment. It’s almost like I’ve caught a disease — and I fear I’m not alone. In fact, when I look at the high rate of unemployment among recent college and university graduates, I know I’m not alone. For many people of my generation, school has become a sort of sanctuary — a place to return to when the professional workforce greets you with icy indifference.

As I walked to my part-time job — and not to school — on the day after Labour Day, passing flocks of kids in oversized knapsacks and department store-scented clothes with unclipped price tags dangling behind their necks, I experienced the most intense surge of jealousy I’ve ever felt in my life. The nostalgia was physically painful. I spent my lunch break scouring the Internet for PhD and Continuing Studies programs, international exchange courses and private workshops. Anything — anything — that would allow me the smallest taste of the life I always want to live.

The good news is that, if you do some digging, you’ll find there are a lot of interesting and useful workshops for writers out there, just waiting for school junkies like me to sign up. For starters, there is Roxanne Snider’s 8 Week Creative Writing Workshop at Bloor Street United Church, beginning October 5th at 7pm. The Toronto New School of Writing is holding a five-week course beginning October 12th taught by Victor Coleman, on the life and writings of British post-modernists such as Basil Bunting and Lee Harwood. On October 28th and 29th, the Humber School of Creative and Performing Arts is holding an intensive workshop dubbed The Insider’s Guide to Getting Published, with instructors Cynthia Good and Jennifer Murray.

Want more? The Toronto Public Library offers courses year-round on various writing-related subjects, as does the Toronto Writer’s Centre and the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. Now Hear This!, a Toronto-based literacy organization, offers a series of workshops called Write On! for children in grades 1 to 8, youth aged 14 to 18, and for writers of any age. They also host a bi-monthly reading series called HEAR/HEAR, which takes place at the Free Times Café and is always free to attend. You can even attend workshops without setting foot out your door with Writers in Electronic Residence, a great resource for when the temperature sinks. Susan Musgrave is currently serving as the program’s WIR this fall.

All of these great workshops are no more than a point and a click away. If you miss school as much as I do, and want to recapture the stress and thrill of assignments, due dates and the sharing of ideas within a communal creative outlet, don’t just sit there and reminisce. These workshops are out there — and they’re waiting.

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Stacey Madden lives and writes in Toronto. He works at Book City, holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph, and is currently at work on a novel.
1 comment

I sympathize completely. I, too, am one of those poor souls struggling from school withdrawal. If you ever do start that book club, I'm in. In the meantime, thanks for advice on where to get my classroom fix.

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