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From student to author: A Canlit rising star and his UVic Experience

by Richard Van Camp (BFA ’96)

I was the first student to receive my Certificate of Native Creative Writing from the En’owkin Center and move on to successfully complete my Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree at the University of Victoria. This may sound like I’m blowing my own horn but I was terrified the whole time.

It is an honour for me to share with you my memories. If you don’t know, the University of Victoria offers a partnership program with the En’owkin International School of Writing for Native students. I began my degree in 1993 in Penticton taking writing, poetry and English courses from such amazing First Nations writers and instructors as Jeannette Armstrong, author of Slash and Breath Tracks, Lee Maracle (Sun Dogs, Raven Song), Maurice Kenny (Last Nights in Brooklyn, The Mama Poems) and Gerry William (The Black Ship). I was honoured to be in a program with other students from across Canada and the United States. I learned with students from the Beaver, Blackfoot, Cree, Micmac, Apache, Blood, Chipewyan, Nishga’a and Okanagan Nations—just to name a few. It was at the En’owkin Centre that I gained confidence in who I was as a member of the Dogrib Nation. I was encouraged to share my stories with the world. My instructors showed me how to pack plots with velocity and forge characters to make them unforgettable.

Growing up in the small town of Fort Smith in the Territories provided me with a lot of time to read. I fell in love with the poetry of Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier. I knew they taught at the University of Victoria and I wanted to learn from both of them how to write such powerful prose. Yet when I arrived on the University of Victoria campus, I was too shy to tell them how much their writing had inspired me to pursue my own. I think I said maybe five words to Patrick the two and a half years I was there. I tried to bluff my way into Lorna’s poetry class but, because my major was in fiction, I could not attend her classes. You’d think with all that opportunity I’d take the time to say how much I admired Patrick and Lorna’s writing and their dedication to the craft, well, I didn’t. I was too shy and nervous all the time around them so I just stayed away.

But all was not lost! I realize now Patrick and Lorna had led me in a “Celestine Prophecy” kind of way—a spiritual adventure—to the University of Victoria so I could learn from such accomplished authors as Marilyn Bowering, Bill Valgardson, Jack Hodgins, Dave Godfrey and Stephen Hume who nurtured my hunger as a writer. Their command of the English language and their dedication to the structure and magic behind a story was contagious. It was at the University that I learned about theme, that sacred thread that binds characters, intent and story together. I also learned about tone and I learned how to tighten dialogue to make it snap with energy. And I learned the hardest lesson of all: Writing is rewriting. I had heard this so many times before but I had to learn it myself when I sold my first novel, The Lesser Blessed, while in my third year. Working on my rewrites over my summer holiday in Yellowknife was a dream come true. I sold my first children’s book, A Man Called Raven, in my fourth year. I know I could not have done any of this without the support of my family, my fellow students and my instructors from both the En’owkin Centre and the University of Victoria.

A true compliment to both schools is their students as I feel I learned just as much from them as I did from my instructors. Sharing time and classes with Lorne Simon, author of Stones and Switches, before he passed away, Chris Paul, Teresa McWhirter, Billeh Nickerson, Aislinn Hunter and Heather MacLeod, just to name a few, was inspiring, invigorating and humbling. The University can already boast of instructing such great Canadian writers as Gail Anderson-Dargatz, Eden Robinson, W.P. Kinsella, and William Chalmers. En’owkin graduate, Michael Paul-Martin, recently celebrated his first book of poetry entitled: She Said Sometimes I Hear Things. UVic graduate Heather MacLeod recently sold her first book of poetry to Coteau Books entitled Speaks With a Bleeding Tongue which should be out next year. I have absolutely no worries about the future of Canadian writing. I know En’owkin and University of Victoria alumni and instructors will continue to grace bookstore shelves and bestseller lists with their writing.

As for me, eight months after receiving my degree I bought a little trailer in my home town and am currently finishing off my next novel, Come a Little Death. My next children’s book What’s The Most Beautiful Thing You Know About Horses? is just about finished. Both are due out in the Spring of 1998.

I also got to tell—in this roundabout way—how much I admired Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier. Thank you both for leading me to where I am today. Thank you all, as well, staff and students of the En’owkin International School of Writing and thank you, University of Victoria, for giving me the training and confidence to work in any genre. I could not have done it without you. As we say in Dogrib: Mahsi Cho! Thank you very, very much.
_______

Richard Van Camp won the 1997 Canadian Authors Association Air Canada Award for most promising writer under age 30.

Contents | Grading Technology | Space Studies |
Editorial | Eureka! | Around the Ring |
Call for Nominations | Alumni News | Development News |
Travel | Keeping in Touch | Where are You Now? |
Robin Skelton | VOX Alumni