Interview: Curtis LeBlanc and Kate Fry of UBC's New Shoots

For the past 30 years, UBC has partnered with the Vancouver School Board in growing the New Shoots program. Each year, Masters of Fine Arts students in the Creative Writing Program at UBC become mentors to Vancouver School Board students and teach the craft of creative writing both in the classroom and after-school clubs. These wonderful pieces are then published in an annual anthology.

SAD Mag interviewed mentor and Masters of Fine Arts student Curtis LeBlanc and Vancouver School Board student Kate Fry’s to talk about the New Shoots program and what writing means to them.

Cover art for past editions of New Shoots by: 2005-2006 - Jennifer Sarkar; 2006-2007 - Louisa Tsui; 2008-09 – Oscar Kwong; 2009-10 – Kimberly Chan; 2010-11 - Naomi Sonobe

Cover art for past editions of New Shoots by: 2005-2006 - Jennifer Sarkar; 2006-2007 - Louisa Tsui; 2008-09 – Oscar Kwong; 2009-10 – Kimberly Chan; 2010-11 - Naomi Sonobe

SM: What drew you to New Shoots?

Curtis LeBlanc: It was 2014 and I had just started my Master of Fine Arts at UBC. During an orientation presentation, Laura Trethewey got up to talk about New Shoots—a program whose name I had heard thrown around as an undergrad. This was the first time I’d ever had someone explain to me what New Shoots was. I went to Laura right after the meeting and told her, “I’m in.”

As a writer, there are a number of things you can do on the side that are related to your craft that will help pay the bills. Some writers also work as editors, others are in the communications field, but I’ve always been drawn to the idea of teaching writing. I’ve had a few instructors over the years, dating back to high school, who really steered me in the direction I’m still headed in today. New Shoots was one of the first opportunities I was given to do exactly that.

Kate Fry: For me it was circumstance really, as this year I took Creative Writing 12 as an elective and one of the mandatory projects was to submit to the New Shoots anthology. Although having now gone through the program, I enjoyed the opportunity enough think I would have been interested even if I hadn't taken the course.

SM: What have you learned so far with being a part of New Shoots?

CL: That these kids are so much smarter than I am. The teaching aspect, the act of getting up in front of a class and attempting to illuminate a topic, has been a lot of fun and has come, I feel, fairly naturally to me. What writer wouldn’t want to talk shop with a group of young adults who are excited and willing to do the same? But with every single session in every class I have students challenging me and teaching me new things about writing and their own experiences. That’s an invaluable education for me, personally, as a teacher, a writer and a human being.

KF: Probably the most significant thing I've learned is how to workshop pieces of writing with peers. I feel like in high school there's very little attention paid to creative writing, so students end up feeling uncomfortable whenever they are put in situations where they're meant to critique a classmate's work of writing. They feel it's too subjective or personal and so the standard feedback becomes "oh it's good" and the class moves on. Working with Curtis was great because he not only gave us guidelines on how to critique creative writing, he also taught us to be comfortable giving and receiving those critiques.

SM: What does writing mean to you?

CL: Writing is something I’ve wanted to do on some level since I was about fourteen. Right now, it’s one of few things I find completely fulfilling. To me, there’s nothing better than finishing a poem or a story or a song and feeling that you’ve really said what you meant to say, and you’ve said it in such a way that’s going to surprise people and speak to them. It’s a feeling I felt a lot growing up listening to music and reading and it’s one I’ve always wanted to replicate in others.

KF: It's not unlike any other art form, it's simply a means of expression. It comes with its own advantages and setbacks compared to other art forms, but really at it's core it's no different than music or painting or theatre.

SM: What is your favourite genre to work in?

CL: I grew up a songwriter, but that’s taken a bit of a backseat in recent years. I’m working on a novel as my thesis manuscript and it’s coming along alright, but what I’m really excited about is poetry these days. I feel maybe that’s partly because it’s the genre I’ve gotten the most external reassurance in as of late, and confidence is one of those things that’s so important as a writer. There’s also something so cathartic about completing shorter works (like a poem) that maybe calls back to my experience as a young songwriter.

KF: I tend to write a lot of blank verse poetry. I really enjoy how it can be played with both orally and visually.

SM: If you could give advice to someone wanting to write creatively, what would it be?

CL: I tell this story a lot and I’ll tell it again here. When I was eighteen, I up and left St. Albert, Alberta, my hometown that I loved and still love, to come to Vancouver and study Creative Writing at UBC as an undergrad (and though I didn’t know it then, as a Masters student). I took an introductory Creative Writing course in my first semester and for the first assignment I handed in what was basically the accumulation of a year’s worth of micro fiction. I was so proud of those stories, and when I got that assignment back there was a big 50% written in the top righthand corner. That killed me. I couldn’t help but think to myself, Did I just move to Vancouver to pursue something I’m terrible at? And sure, that thought persisted for a while, but I got over it and I kept writing and now I’d like to think I’m better at it. That’s my long way of saying, “Don’t quit.”

KF: Write a lot! It's no different than any other skill, you have to practice and you need to learn from the mistakes you make in order to become comfortable with your abilities. It's also helpful if you read frequently too, particularly works within the genre you're writing in. I play in an orchestra, and I remember once my conductor became frustrated with the ensemble and burst out "It's so hard to teach classical music to people who don't listen to it!". I feel that same concept applies to writing, it's hard to write something if you are unfamiliar unfamiliar with the genre.

The New Shoots Anthology Launch and Celebration will be held on June 17th at the False Creek Community Centre. Be sure to check it out!