Marginalized women find the ‘write’ stuff

Pens and pencils fly across the pages as the students concentrate on their work. The room is quiet until the teacher announces, “OK, let’s share.”

It sounds like a typical classroom, but it is not. On this Tuesday morning, Lauren Kirshner leads 10 women through creative writing classes at the Sistering drop-in centre in the west-end neighbourhood of Parkdale.

The women, mostly middle-aged, are eager to share. One woman reads her passage about eavesdropping on her mother, as Kirshner corrects her pronunciation.

Though they don’t look the part, they’re students enrolled in a creative writing program called Sister Writes. It’s designed for marginalized women, who are battling drug addictions, homelessness or mental health issues.

And yet, when they pick up their pens, whether  to write from experience or create fictional works, they are all just here to express themselves.

“These women are trauma survivors and have invisible wounds, but they are also ordinary women affected by extraordinary circumstances,” Kirshner said.

“But I don’t ask them where they are coming from. I treat them like I would any other student,” she added. “This is a not a therapeutic course; it’s designed as a creative writing course.”

Kirshner, 27, is the author of Where We Have To Go, for which Toronto’s NOW Magazine named her the Best Emerging Author of 2009. She graduated with a Masters in creative writing from the University of Toronto where Margaret Atwood mentored her.

She also ran a poetry salon in 2005 at the Centre for Addictions and Mental Health (CAMH). She said that experience inspired her to bring her teaching skills to other venues.

Sister Writes is the result. Funded as a 10-week pilot program by the Toronto Arts Council and the Lawrence Foundation, it also has the support of Sistering, the drop-in centre that supports marginalized women.

The program, which started in mid-January, is designed to give these women the literary and creative writing skills to express themselves. The meetings take place at Sistering on Bloor Street near Ossington Avenue.

At the end of the program, the women will design and publish a magazine to showcase their efforts. During one session, the participants decided on a name for their magazine.

“I like ‘Roots to Branches,’” one of the participants said. “You know, the idea of where we started to where we can reach.”

Kirshner added that her students appear to be devoted to their work and the program.

“I think they see that their voices and opinions are really valued here, and I’m really impressed by how brave these women are … how they share their work with so little inhibition,” she said.

Kirshner hopes the program will grow. She’s already begun to apply for additional grants to extend the 10-week pilot into a year-long project.

“I will do whatever it takes for me to continue this program. There is a definite need for it,” she said.