Sandra Birdsell is the university’s newest writer-in-residence. Photo: Provided by Sandra Birdsell.
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Writer Sandra Birdsell wants U of O students to bring her their work

Student writers take note—the University of Ottawa has a new writer-in-residence, and she wants to read your work!

Sandra Birdsell is a Canadian novelist and short story writer who has been publishing since the 1980s. She has become a force in fiction about Mennonites and has been the recipient of many prizes, including the Order of Canada. She has also been shortlisted for the Giller Prize and Governor General’s Award.

Birdsell is serving as the writer-in-residence in the Department of English at the U of O until April, hosting office hours every Thursday. While she’s here, anyone in the community can come and ask for her opinion and edits on their own creative writing.

“Come and see me, let’s talk about writing,” is how Birdsell summarizes her job here as writer-in-residence. The position, which the Department of English has maintained since the 1970s, offers students a chance to have one-on-one conversations, workshops, and advice from a professional writer.

“The role is to put a real live writer in the midst of students who are reading books, thinking about writing books,” Birdsell said.

As much as it might seem like an enrichment program for students, Birdsell admitted that the writer-in-residence is often the one enriched by the job, because it affords the opportunity to meet so many creative students.

“Getting to meet students and hearing about some of the things they are struggling with or aiming for or find challenging is really illuminating for me,” she said.

Birdsell considers her role one of encouraging budding writers and giving them advice.

“I wish for them to know that it’s an opportunity to sit down and talk to someone who has lived a long writing life, and if anyone’s interested in writing poems or have a stack of short stories someplace and they want to talk about them, bring them to me,” Birdsell said.

As for writing advice, Birdsell stressed the importance of a writing community and mentors in her own writing. She credits her creative writing professors in university with helping her get her work out there when she got serious about writing at 35.

Birdsell explained most stories are divided into two camps. Some writers start their books based around an event and then create a character to live that plot, while others create compelling main characters and make a story around them. Main characters in fiction are people who struggle and overcome some conflict, said Birdsell, and who tend to go through a process and come out changed on the other side.

Birdsell views the writer-in-residence role as an opportunity for someone in the field to spot the talent of up-and-coming writers, a sort of literature coach.

“I always thought there was so much training for people who were sports-oriented … and for artistic people, people with music, but there was nothing there for writers. It’s a creative art form and there’s nothing to nurture them, no one to spot them and say, ‘Oh you’ve got talent,’” said Birdsell.

The best advice though is to simply write, but even Birdsell admits that for students, the time commitment can be hard. However, it’s once you start  writing that the best ideas come, according to Birdsell. Even if you have only a half-formed, murky idea, she’s always found that ideas will come once you start typing.

Birdsell’s office is located in Hamelin 323 and her hours are Thursday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.


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