If we were to list all the awards Omar Mouallem has won for his ability to make words pop off a page, we’d be using up some serious space on this magazine’s website. We might not have any space left for photos or, well, any other stories.
But, Mouallem, a former member of Avenue Edmonton’s editorial team, faced the same sort of challenges most of us have been dealing with through the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the accomplishments, as COVID-19 shut down major parts of the economy in Canada and abroad, he was losing work. Assigned stories were shelved. Magazines and other media were cutting freelance budgets, and some had cut off assigning work entirely.
If the change in the economy can be that tough on one of the more accomplished magazine writers in Canada, what did it mean for other writers? What about the grads fresh out of school? What about those who had recently been laid off?
In the spring, Mouallem went from writer to what he calls a “fake dean.” He launched Pandemic University, an online series of seminars featuring some real heavy hitters from our industry. A commencement address came from Peter Mansbridge. The spring “semester” featured 14 classes, the summer “semester,” which just kicked off, features another amazing cast (including past Avenue contributors Russell Cobb and Max Fawcett).
The next class goes July 22, with Hala Alyan, award-winning author of Salt Houses, speaking about “demystifying the publication process.” The July 26 class, featuring Israeli-Canadian writer Ayelet Tsabari, is a fundraiser for the Writers’ Trust of Canada. The U. has already raised about $2,000 for the WTC, and Mouallem notes that Mansbridge donated his honorarium to the cause.
And, while this is a made-in-Edmonton idea, Mouallem said that of the nearly 700 students and 1,000 people on the mailing list, the enrolment comes from a wide area.
“In the spring, I’d say it was 90 to 95 per cent Canadian; but in the second semester, we’re up to about 50 per cent Americans.”
Past classes are archived and can be accessed for a fee.
As well, established writers can go on the site and sponsor a student in need. And don’t think everyone attending these courses are just out of school. It’s a wide mix, from recent grads to writers/editors who have recently lost their jobs and are looking to freelance, to writers looking to broaden their networks. There’s also an alumni group via social media.
While Mouallem doesn’t see the multi-class “semester” system continuing past this summer, he sees PU shifting to a model where it delivers specific classes or programs, one at a time. This will allow him to keep the program running while getting back to his “real” job, interviewing, researching and writing.
There are no guarantees in the writing business. No matter what you learn, you need to make great pitches. You need to meet deadlines. It’s a complicated road map, with no one path to success. But, the first step to climbing the ladder is, well, finding the ladder.