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New forms meet old at the Emerging Voices Creative Writers’ Conference

Writers set to their task at the student-led writing conference. (Photo by Clive Sewell)

As he pondered the future of the novel in the digital age, bestselling fiction writer Nino Ricci told a weekend audience: “I don’t know if my job is safe.”

Stories will survive—perhaps as video games, he said with a smile, or in serial TV shows—“they’re getting pretty good now.” But novels are a special art form, he noted, and the onset of digital formats is having “vast repercussions”, much like the advent of the printing press 500 years ago or writing itself in Sumerian times.

It was a highly appropriate topic for the event. Ricci, UTSC’s new writer-in-residence, was one of nine prominent authors, poets and content creators who led workshops at the first Emerging Voices Creative Writers’ Conference, organized by UTSC students and held at the Toronto Reference Library Feb. 7.

Other presenters ranged from Toronto poet laureate George Elliott Clarke, who talked about the poetic voice, to UTSC creative writing lecturer Andrew Westoll, who encouraged “non-fictioneers”. But the experts also included two people who don’t work with conventional print at all: comic book writer J. Torres, who described the team effort involved in the genre, and digital storyteller Trevor Haldenby, who creates interactive online scenarios.

“I do worry in a real way that people like me may be on the cusp of obsolescence,” said Ricci, as he surveyed the room after his workshop.  “What will be possible technologically in 50 years may eclipse what we’re doing now.“

The theme of the conference was “Fuelling Diversity,” inspired by Principal Bruce Kidd’s speech at the UTSC 50th anniversary celebration in which he said “Diversity fuels innovation.” The presenters themselves were a diverse crew, including Nova Scotian Clarke, who calls himself “Africadian”, and novelist and psychotherapist Farzana Doctor, who has won awards for lesbian fiction. But it didn’t end there.

“In choosing the participants, we also really wanted to focus on diversity of content and diversity of genre,” said Aakriti Kapoor, co-chair of the conference and president of its organizing group, Students of English Literature and Film (SELF). “That includes comic book writing and digital storytelling.”

Interdisciplinarity was also important. “We felt we needed an event that brought everyone together from multiple disciplines, whether you were studying Arts or Science,” said Kapoor, a third-year double major in English and Psychology with a minor in Studio. “Even if not everyone writes, stories are still at the heart of everyone’s life. Stories provide the space for human connection.”

There was plenty of practical advice, too, for the 170 attendees, who included UTSC students, faculty and alumni as well as some high school students. Fiction writer Richard Scarsbrook, who teaches at George Brown College, delivered the keynote address and led a workshop about discovering ideas.  Daniel Tysdal, UTSC senior lecturer in English, talked about the tools poets use. Lauren Kirshner, a novelist who teaches at Ryerson University, offered tips on eliminating writer’s block.

Kapoor said SELF, which works closely with the English Department, hopes to make the conference an annual event. This session was sponsored by UTSC’s Principal’s Office, Dean‘s Office, Department of English, Alumni Relations, Academic Advising & Career Centre, Department of Student Life and  Scarborough Campus Students Union, as well as the Toronto Public Library.

 




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