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Renowned writer Michael Helm is 2008 Snider Visiting Artist

Writer in residence Michael Helm (photo: Susan Carr)

by Mary Ann Gratton

Acclaimed Canadian writer Michael Helm is at U of T Scarborough this winter as a Writer in Residence and the 2008 Snider Visiting Artist. 

The novelist and essayist was a finalist for the Giller Prize for his novel, The Projectionist, in 1997. Helm’s novel, In the Place of Last Things, was a finalist for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize in 2004 and for a regional Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book. Helm is teaching a course on campus this term and is available to give feedback to students on their writing.

“We are really lucky to have Michael Helm with us this term,” says English professor Andrew Dubois. “Because of his success as a writer and editor, and because of his helpful and generous demeanor, Michael is a real asset for us. Students would do well to take advantage of this opportunity to discuss their work with him.”

Born in Saskatchewan, Helm has lived most recently in Michigan and Toronto. He studied literature and earned his Master’s degree from U of T. He has taught at colleges and universities in Canada and the U.S. Helm’s writings on fiction and poetry have appeared in North American newspapers and magazines, including Brick magazine, where he has been an editor since 2003.

This term Helm is teaching a class called Creative Writing: Poetry. He said he is pleased to be here. “Writer in residence programs allow writers to have some support through the government and arts council, but they do so by allowing the writer to be of some use to the community, so it’s a two-way dynamic,” he says.

He encourages students interested in the field to read and write as much as possible. “A writer in residence can offer editorial support and encouragement, as well as working up a directed reading list,” says Helm. “A lot of students have their reading directed by the courses they are taking, and they could perhaps benefit from a broader reading list that enables them to follow their enthusiasms.” 

The quality of students so far has been impressive, he says. “I’m always amazed that they are able to articulate things in such a way that I don’t know whether I could have done at their age,” he says. “They tend to be pretty receptive to new ideas and ways of thinking about what they are doing when they write.”

“The main advantage of having a practicing writer here is that he can talk to our students about writing,” Dubois adds. “This is just one example of the opportunities flourishing at U of T Scarborough. Learning does not stop outside of the classroom here. We have a lot of artistic and intellectual activities that enrich campus life a great deal for all of us.”

Helm’s current contemporary poetry reading list includes Karen Solie and Ken Babstock. His American fiction reading list includes Denis Johnson, Cormac McCarthy and Don DeLillo. Helm’s “CanLit” favorites include Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant and Michael Ondaatje.

Fiction writing is mentally demanding hard work that Helm compares to the challenge of driving a car in a foreign country. “You don’t know the roads or the terrain and so a day of driving is exhausting. At the end of a good writing day, I feel the same level of exhaustion.”

Writers who are just starting out should write about things that matter to them, Helm advises. “It’s perfectly okay for them to write about their own lives, and if they can get off the island later, that’s great, but in the beginning there’s an element of looking inward that can be useful to them.”

Helm also notes that fiction and poetry writing “can be therapeutic, but they are not primarily tools of self-expression. They are forms of communication. Writing is not just for ourselves -- it’s for others. A lot of young writers start out by writing to and for themselves, and sometimes, if they love language, they can get a bit word-drunk and stumble away from meaning.”

Helm says he invites students to think of words on a page as musical notations. “I always begin by hearing the first sentence, and I encourage students to hear the sounds of the words they are writing. Words represent sounds and certain kinds of rhythm, and they have a musical quality. This is of course followed by the old satisfactions of story, characters and events.” 

The whole point of creative writing is “to have a venturing imagination,” he adds. “As you grow as a writer, you want to be able to venture outside of yourself and develop empathy and understanding of other people. Fiction and poetry are the best things we have ever come up with for understanding other peoples’ experiences.”

A reading by Michael Helm will take place in the coming months and details communicated once a date is set.

The Snider Fellowship was established in memory of Fletcher C. Snider, a distinguished lawyer and U of T graduate. It is awarded to scholars whose work is of general cultural and intellectual significance and is relevant to a broad audience. This term, the campus has welcomed both a Snider visiting artist, writer Michael Helm, and a Snider visiting lecturer, Prof. Tariq Modood of the University of Bristol in England.

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