Author Archive | Helen Picard

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On Tuesday, April 29th, 2014, the University of Toronto Law Faculty Alumni gathered at 155 College St. to listen to a panel of three alumni authors: Kate Hilton, Guy Gavriel Kay, and Andrew Pyper. Justice Rosalie Abella, also a U of T law alumnus, mediated the discussion. Their topic of discussion: How does having a law degree influence a writer?

In the past few years, an outcry has populated the media: “Don’t go to law school!” This outcry has been accompanied by statistics urging students to save their time and money, and apply elsewhere. Employment rates for law graduates have dropped. Law graduates are in an employment rut, and potential law students are discouraged from applying to law schools. In March 2013, Time named the law graduate situation a “near-depression-level job market.” A month later, U of T law graduate Kate Hilton self-published her first book, The Hole in the Middle, to critical acclaim.

Accordingly, during the panel, neither Hilton nor her two fellow panelists said they regret their law degree. Instead, they said their law degree equipped them with skills that aid their writing career. In Time’s depression-level job market, these three authors created their own employment. Of course, potential law students should take their success under advisement; each case is unique. But as discussed by Hilton, Kay, and Pyper, a law degree has its uses outside employment in the legal profession. The skills law school cultivates can be applied to any profession requiring methodology, intelligent research, the creation of logical arguments, and general mental discipline. Hilton says that the long hours she spent studying and researching cases helped her develop a mental rigour that she continues to apply to her current work.

Writing, especially in the world of fiction, is a natural extension of the skills required to succeed in law school. Crafting an argument from existing laws is difficult, but crafting a fictional narrative containing multiple storylines, which are themselves logical arguments, from scratch is perhaps even more demanding; especially demanding if the author is working without motivation from an employer, client, or business partners. Authors must self-motivate.

Despite the organic applicability of law school skills to writing, no profession is perfect: all three authors agreed that it is generally impossible to make a decent living as a writer. Writing is decadent, an indulgence. Without a strong readership, a rich spouse, or steady day job, the pen alone cannot forge a living.

Hilton, Kay, and Pyper all agreed that social media is a necessary evil for the modern author – particularly Twitter. Hilton says she soon acclimatized to Twitter after her agent convinced her it was a necessary tool to maintain a strong fan base. Hilton is the newest and least experienced of the three authors, having self-published her first book last year. Middle merited such an enthusiastic response from readers that HarperCollins Canada republished the book later that year. Hilton’s self-published start differs from Kay’s, who started his writing career with an agent.

Kay, a fantasy and historical fiction writer, has a consistent international following, and by this token is able to scrape a living. He is the only panel author to have published a series (his first was The Fionavar Tapestry Trilogy). During the reception after the panel, Kay’s autograph line was obviously the longest. In Kay’s undergraduate, he sold the first three chapters of The Summer Tree as a trilogy deal through his agent. He immediately flew to Greece and bought a used typewriter upon arrival. Hence, the Fionavar Tapestry Trilogy was born, and Kay’s writing career began. Given the economic differences between 1987 and present-day Europe, Kay’s manual Grecian method is not financially possible for today’s broke writers; even with newly earned book deal cash.

Andrew Pyper also has a noteworthy following which is admittedly more glamorous than either Kay’s or Hilton’s. Pyper has written five novels, two of which are being adapted into feature films. Pyper started strong with his first full novel, The Lost Girls, which made his name in 2000 and is set for release as a feature film this year. The film rights for his new book, The Demonologist, have already been sold to Universal Pictures. Pyper and Justice Abella discussed an incident in the ‘90s where he helped push a car blocking Margaret Atwood’s parking space. Atwood had parked in a covetous professor’s parking spot on a visit to U of T, under invitation from Justice Abella, and had been suspiciously blocked in by another car. Justice Abella always remembered the incident, but until then, the panel had not known who the helpful, muscled youth was who helped free Atwood’s car (a photo of Atwood and Pyper moving the car can be found on Pyper’s website bio).

The panel concluded that a law degree does not aid a writer’s ability to gouge a living out of the tough economy – some aspects of success are pure luck – although it does give you the tools to write a convincing novel. However, a law degree is not useless. Writing a novel requires more than commitment to an idea. It requires a methodical approach and the capacity to execute that methodology. To fabricate a fictional universe operating under fictional laws and featuring fictional narratives requires discipline.

The mental discipline required to complete law school, especially at a high caliber institution such as U of T, endows a law student with a lifelong capacity for self-discipline. A control that can be applied to many fields, including writing.

Image by Phil Whitehouse, Flickr

Image by Phil Whitehouse, Flickr

Office politics are unavoidable. Where there are people, there will be conflict. Optimistic, inexperienced young people entering the workforce can be vulnerable to workplace tensions. Many working students simply want to prove themselves and work hard. That may not be enough to succeed at work. If students do not heed their workplace’s political landscape, they can unintentionally offend co-workers in their endeavor to impress their superiors, risking conflict and possibly their reference and/or paycheque.

Temporary summer employment presents a special case of office politics. Perhaps vying for employment the next summer, or after graduation, or in trying to show their work ethic to improve their reference, summer interns can irritate permanent staff by working at a different standard than expected.

I’ve heard several stories from friends and family about how, during summer employment, they were told by permanent staff members to work slower, or less efficiently, so as not to raise standards.

I recently learned my lesson in office politics during a summer job. I found a summer job with a real estate management agency as an office assistant. I signed a contract stipulating I would work downtown at their newly acquired property from May until August. The real estate company recently bought an old apartment building, and I was to help the existing resident manager revamp the building’s office.

An introductory meeting at the company’s head office provided welcoming words and a briefing about duties, when fellow summer student workers and I eagerly showed up for our first day. Head office was in an impressive marble and glass building. The meeting was held in a sunny corner conference room with friendly vice presidents to greet us, and several fruit plates. We (the summer students) were given individual portfolios containing information about the company, and contact information for the resident building managers we would be working with. According to my portfolio, my resident manager’s name was Valerie. The next week, on my first day of work, I arrived at Valerie’s building and buzzed her apartment from the directory. I wore a blazer, collared shirt, and dress pants. A grumpy woman, around fifty years old, emerged from a ground-floor apartment wearing cutoff sweats, a holey t-shirt, and a look of confusion. She opened the door halfway.

“Who are you?”

“Hi, I’m Helen. Are you Valerie, the building manager?”


“I was sent by Realty Management Inc.” She stared, unresponsive. “I’m working here for the summer.” Further confusion. “I’m a summer student, they hired me to help with the office until August.” Still no response. “Is that the building’s office?” I pointed to a closed, unmarked door off the lobby.

Valerie turned, seeming to see the office door for the first time. “Er – yes.” She let me in the front door and led me to the office, withdrawing a bulging, rusty set of keys. While she jangled the ring looking for the right key, I pondered the power of a fruit plate, and how official it could make a meeting seem.

Despite the legitimate impression last week’s meeting gave, the certainty of the HQ administrators, and the neatly organized folders, Valerie had no idea I was arriving, or even that I was assigned to work in her building for four months.

The office door swung open, revealing a dark, dank room with dust coating every surface. Ah. The disused, cluttered office accounted for the miscommunication. It seemed that Valerie hadn’t been using the office, and instead had been conducting business out of her ground floor apartment. The phone, desk, and computer lay dusty and unused.

“So, you will work here all summer?” Valerie asked, lowering herself into the desk chair, stirring up dust.

“Yes, until August. I’m here for anything you need in the office. Filing, organizing, helping with the computer.” I sat down opposite the desk in a metal chair similar to those kept in church basements. She simply stared at me from across the desk, creating an silence far too awkward for such a small, dark room. I smiled, trying to ease the tension. “So, anything I can help with, just let me know.”

She continued staring, unmoved. “I don’t need any help.”

I don’t remember how I responded, but I know I could not conceal my overt shock at her blunt insensitivity. Within five minutes on my first day, I was plunged into workplace politics – the real estate company wanted me to help modify Valerie’s office, but Valerie didn’t want to change her managerial style (or lack thereof), and she certainly did not want a new style taught to her by a random student. Valerie likely thought that with the new company buying her building, I could have been sent to work with, learn from, and eventually replace her.

It seemed I had signed away my summer to work with someone who didn’t want my assistance and who disliked me on principle, even if my intention was only to work hard and do a good job. The former building owner had allowed a “hands-off” managerial style, while the new company wanted an involved, hands-on manager. Judging by the dusty state of the apartment building’s office, Valerie was dedicated to the former “hands-off” managerial style. Many times, when I pried too far into office logistics, or tried to improve efficiency, she would shut me down. Due to our disparate motivations, throughout the summer, the awkwardness between us never fully dissipated, and there were several incidents where she purposefully prevented me from doing my job, likely to retain her own job security. However, I never pushed back hard enough to spark conflict when she isolated me from administrative business. As a senior employee, she was more trusted and valuable.

If a conflict arose between us, as a temporary employee I was more disposable.

Fortunately, with some extreme patience and unrelenting cheerfulness, Valerie eventually warmed up to me. We parted with a hug.

During summer employment, students have to adapt to workplace politics quickly in order to succeed – to do a good job and exit with their deserved compensation without stepping on too many toes during their brief time working. As passers-through, their obligation is not to point out the faults of their co-workers, even if they are less than friendly. The goal of a summer student employee should be to depart with experience, a solid, good quality reference, or even just a full paycheque for their work. Thanks to Valerie’s rudeness, I learned my lesson: professional enthusiasm is best applied in combination with political awareness – check office politics to secure your paycheque.

Image by aherrero, Flickr

Image by aherrero, Flickr

In the big apple, New York University enrolls more than 50,000 students. The University of Toronto has more than 50,000 students at its St. George campus alone, and more than 300,000 students attend the University of Phoenix. Carleton College, a small liberal arts university in the town of Northfield, Minnesota, enrolls just over 2,000 students – a big step back from Phoenix’s 300,000. North American universities have a broad range of size.

How does size affect the average student experience? Many urban universities are large and can seem intimidating. Smaller universities in rural areas can seem friendlier, but may not present as great a challenge. Here are some positive points defending both proportions:

Pros of a large university:

1. Anonymity

You may not know anyone in your classes, but that means you can focus on yourself and your own learning pace without distraction.

Large universities offer bigger student populations and a wide variety of people from around the globe. If your new friends turn out to be jerks, you can disappear into the crowd. Instead of being stuck with one group of people that you may not get along with, you can eventually find the right group of friends through trial and error.

2. Interesting Campus

A large campus allows you to carve out your own niche. You can mix it up and keep your favourite spaces and commute interesting. Instead of having only a handful of options for study spots, you can find your favourite pockets within a larger campus.

3. Programs and Classes

Although online academia is growing in popularity and accessibility, larger universities can offer a more extensive variety of programs and/or specializations. Not all universities offer Celtic Studies, The History of Maple Syrup, or Elvish 101 (and yes, some do).

Larger universities need more professors to service their student population. Each professor is a unique link to their respective academic field. More professors means a broader range of opportunities and experiences you can tap into.

4. Extra-curricular Opportunities

At a small university, you might be the only Doctor Who fan. At a large university, there could already be a Doctor Who fan club that meets every week. A small university might have only one or two student publications, but a large university can have dozens of official and unofficial student publications. You can comfortably stretch out your interests and share them with your peers.

Pros of a small university:

1. Social Security

In your dorm, your classes, walking down the street, you feel at home. You will rarely feel alone or abandoned amongst the masses because you will always have someone to hang out with since there’s probably only a handful of people in the same classes. You might even know all the undergraduates in your residence, or those in your program.

2. Familiarity

Figuring out the campus takes less than a week. And by the end of first semester, you know the surrounding town inside out, including all the best places for takeout. If you’ve fully explored your campus environment, you may be more encouraged to go on international exchange.

3. Access to Resources

As one in a small body of students, you will get priority and easy access to all of the university’s resources. This includes one-on-one time with professors who might not have time for you in larger classes. If your grades slip, your professors or TAs might check in or take you aside. At a larger university, you might just get an impersonal warning from the Dean’s office. Getting references for graduate school will be a lot easier than at a large school, where you might not have as much face time.

4. Trailblazing Opportunities

No Doctor Who fan club? Make one, be a trailblazer. The same goes for student publications – no student historical journal or poetry magazine on campus? Found one, and it will look great on your resumé.

In conclusion, while there are definitive pros and cons to both large and small universities, all of the above observations are generalizations. Your happiness depends on your own personality and academic preferences. Have faith in your ability to find happiness in an overwhelmingly large university, and your creativity in a small one.


Photo by Carmen Rodriguez NSP, Flickr

Photo by Carmen Rodriguez NSP, Flickr

This weekend marked the end of the Sochi Olympics. Athletes around the world will return to their training regiments in anticipation of the next competition. Many of these competitive athletes are young students. Athletes must start young, as it takes years of training to reach their peak level of skilled fitness. How does the average young athlete balance schoolwork with their athletics? In honour of the Canadian gold medal hockey wins, I interviewed several Varsity athletes from the University of Toronto to investigate the balance between professional athletics and schoolwork.

Two things were mentioned by all athletes interviewed: time management. If you want to invest the time to be a professional anything while remaining a full-time student, organization and planning are key. This especially applies to student athletes, as their bodies are an entirely different syllabus to manage. Training, nutrition, and rest are equal to studying for a midterm. This means micromanaging study sessions, social life, and everything in between.


Elizabeth Benn is on the Varsity Blues fastpitch team (a version of softball with a windmill pitching style), studying philosophy, English, and French. During fastpitch season she practices for 20 hours a week – not including travel time, administrative work, fundraising, and meetings. Benn has missed class for her sport, but says different practice time slots allow for leeway. She plans her weekly schedule in advance every Sunday, although,

It’s common to fall behind and have to miss out on things that ‘normal’ students get to do.

As a student athlete, she recommends taking a lighter course load and courses with reduced workloads.


David Urness, a Varsity Blues rower and Nordic skiier studying engineering, also time manages by planning his semesters far in advance. He says,

This gives me the chance to plan strategies to survive the stressful times.

In times of high pressure, Urness micromanages.

If I’m really pressed for time, I’ll schedule my days hour by hour.

Heather and Sophie

If a normal student finds themselves overwhelmed by schoolwork, they can stay up late to cram. A Varsity athlete cannot afford to lose sleep and experience drowsiness at their next practice or competition. Varsity Blues figure skater Heather McHugh, who studies political science, says,

It’s hard getting up for 6:00am on Friday mornings if you’ve been out late the night before.

Negotiating with professors is also a necessary nuisance. Sometimes a championship can coincide with a midterm, and a professor’s understanding is imperative for the student athlete to participate and achieve the necessary grades. Although most professors are accommodating – McHugh has never conflicted with a professor – some can be difficult. She says,

Last year a girl almost missed the [figure skating] championship because a professor was resisting letting her reschedule a midterm.

Sophie Ryder, a Varsity figure skater studying social sciences, says,

I have personally been lucky that all my professors have been super understanding, but I have heard stories of the Dean being involved.

Tips for Athletes, from Athletes

Sometimes students must appeal to the next level of authority to accommodate their athletics. To avoid this, Benn recommends showing professors your commitment to the class and that you are capable of maintaining your workload.

I try to do little things to show that I am still doing my work for their classes, like handing in sheets with notes from the past week’s readings; that way they’ll know that I’m still doing my work and do care about the class.

Along with other U of T athletes, Urness cites attitude as key. Overbooked student athletes must find play in their work. The support and attitude of fellow teammates is vital. As Urness says,

Attitudes are contagious: sure, Debbie Downer can ruin practice if you’re not careful, but a smile can also make it.

A team’s temperament can affect an athlete’s ability to cope on and off-field. Team spirit is essential, since, as McHugh says,

Unless you’re in residence, I find that the team is your social life.

Ryder says that despite the stress,

I personally do it because I love the sport. At the end of the day as long as you’re happy with your decisions and life, that’s all that matters.

Urness says,

I’m proud to represent the University of Toronto as a rower and a Nordic Skiier, and being a student athlete is the best decision I made after choosing to attend U of T.

The U of T Varsity Blues experiences tell us that being a student athlete takes more than one kind of discipline. Not only physical and academic, but logistical: the ability to formulate a schedule and follow through. Of course, students make mistakes. Life cannot be fully planned for. Schoolwork and sports are a balance that only passion can steady and Olympic resolve can maintain.

Image by Camera Eye Photography, Flickr

Image by Camera Eye Photography, Flickr

Stuck on campus this Reading Week? With most students away on holiday, it can be hard to stay positive and productive on an empty campus. Get out of bed and make the most of your vacation with these eleven tips:

  1. Find people.

  2. You’re probably not the only one left on campus. Find out who else is on campus and make plans to see a movie, study together, or just hang out.

  3. Having trouble focusing on that paper due Monday? Set a deadline.

  4. Email some friends and family members asking them to edit your work, and tell them you’ll send it to them at a certain date and time. Accountability will push you to get it done.

  5. Stay on track.

  6. If some of your professors or TAs are still on campus, this might be the perfect opportunity to check in with them and discuss your schoolwork. Email to set up an appointment.

  7. Get started on the summer job hunt.

  8. Your university website probably has a job board page. Also try government sites or company websites for internships. Buy a nice notebook and fill it with options. Refine your resume, and make a cover letter template. You’ll thank yourself later when your friends are scrambling to apply for jobs during spring exams.

  9. Finally get to the gym.

  10. Endorphins will make you feel positive and energized. Try out the pool, if there is one – it’s the closest thing on campus to a warm beach!

  11. Explore.

  12. Check out that one café you haven’t been to yet. Print out a map of your city and circle three locations with a marker – museums, cafés, stores – and draw a line connecting them. Bundle up, and go!

  13. Get out.

  14. If your university is smaller, in a rural area, try a nature walk or hike. If you’re snowed in, try building a snowman, snow fort, or having a snowball fight with your friends.

  15. Set up camp in a coffee shop.

  16. Bring your reading materials and let the java jive. If you’re with some friends, bring a few board games.

  17. Try a technology detox.

  18. You don’t have classes or as many obligations as you usually do. Put aside your gadgets for a full day.

  19. Take yourself out on a date.

  20. Dinner, movie, the works. If you’re not comfortable eating alone in public, bring a book or an iPad. The time of day when restaurants are emptiest is between 10am and 3pm.

  21. Read a new book.

  22. Not a school book – a fantasy, adventure, or mystery. You’ll have a refreshed mindset after reading about another literary world.