John Orpheus is sitting and holding a book while he is looking directly at the camera.


As of Fall 2023, students at the University of Waterloo can opt to major in Creative and Professional Writing. The four-year honours degree is offered through the Department of English Language and Literature.  

Creative writing courses, offered in the department for decades, always fill up with students from many programs across the university.  

“We have a really large number of students that come from STEM and are amazing, amazing writers,” Lamees Al Ethari, a continuing lecturer in the department of English language and literature, said.   

With the new major, faculty are also seeing more arts students in their classes. Sarah Tolmie, a creative writing professor, sees the legitimization of being able to major in creative writing as a catalyst for students taking the plunge.  

“I would say I have found that the moment it was actually possible to sign up for a degree, a sort of recognizable entity, then there was an opening for them to kind of gather their forces and tell themselves and probably their parents, ‘look there’s a program’,” Tolmie said.   

“It was very different teaching in those creative writing classrooms this fall from last fall. Students…feel that they have a kind of professional way forward that is very pleasing to them and kind of identity forming for them,” she said.  

The program is also creating an important hub in the thriving local literary scene. Despite not having a Creative Writing major until last fall, the Department of English Language and Literature has produced many high-calibre writers.  

One notable alumnus, Antonio Michael Downing, regularly speaks in creative writing classes at Waterloo. Downing, alongside Lamees Al Ethari, did a reading at the UW Grad House on Mar. 6, 2024 as part of the unofficial launch of the Creative and Professional Writing major.    

Downing said the education he received in literature was formative in his training as a storyteller.  

“Everything that I studied, I tried to copy and that’s really the genesis of me as a writer is reading all of that stuff and wanting to copy it,” Downing said.    

As a follow-up to his critically acclaimed memoir, Saga Boy (2021), Downing’s literary agent made the surprising suggestion that he turn part of the story into a children’s book.  

“I’ve never had children and, as a kid, I skipped Doctor Seuss and went straight to the plagues of Egypt because I learned to read from my grandma basically using me as her eyes because she couldn’t read her King James Bible. So when my agent suggested that the first act of my memoir Saga Boy would make a great children’s book, I was kind of like, what do I know about children’s books?” Downing said.  

This year, Downing released the children’s book Stars in My Crown. The book is a fictionalized account of a child struggling to process his big feelings. His grandmother tries to teach him patience, which he does not understand until after she passes away and he moves to Canada.   

In the process of studying children’s literature, Downing was surprised at the sophistication that this genre could embody.   

“The more I read, the more I realized that I didn’t really understand how sophisticated they could be and how you could tackle big topics, difficult topics, even sad or tricky topics,” Downing said.  

Downing’s debut novel, Black Cheroke, is also coming out later this year, and a second children’s book, Mangoes is slated for release in 2025.  

As a University of Waterloo English Language and Literature graduate, he is in good company. Authors like Rupi Kaur, Carrie Snyder and Nadia Hohn are all graduates of the same department. They found their way into a creative writing profession without the benefit of a creative writing degree.  

“So many writers have come out of the program almost by accident, you know. So, I think the program, it represents an opportunity to kind of crystallize that energy, which is already there and give it legitimacy, give it voice, give it gas in the tank. I think that that’s what I didn’t have,” Downing said.