Toronto writers draw inspiration from fellow artists

It’s small, black and bound with leather. A couple of pages are torn, and there are a few ink smudges here and there, but most of the work inside consists of scribbles. It sometimes even gets lost. Cavel Janel has carried this journal around since she was a teenager, and last month she took it to a library in Toronto.

“It has all of my best and worst work in it,” Janel said. “I take it with me wherever I go. Whenever I feel like I have an idea about a story, I know I can just take it out and write in it.”

Janel attends the East End Writers’ Group at the end of every month at the S. Walter Stewart Public Library in East York. At each meeting, writers receive feedback and have their writing edited.

“My journal has always been something personal to me, so when I bring it to these meetings, I bring that bond with me,” she said. “All that personal writing and stuff is read by strangers and honestly, it gives me a fresh perspective on my work.”

Co-ordinator and founder of the group, Sharon Crawford, initiated these meetings at her house. When she wanted to make them more professional, she moved the meetings to the library’s auditorium. Writing has always been at the centre of Crawford’s life. She started writing poetry when she was younger, then went on to become a journalist for 35 years. Now, Crawford is the author of a book called Beyond Blood.

“All I write is fiction,” Crawford said. “I write personal essays and memoirs too, and that’s one of the reasons I love these group meetings. There’s a great variety of pieces that are brought in.”

At the beginning of each meeting, the members attend meetings just introduce themselves and talk about what kind of writing they like. While some group members attend meetings just for the experience, most do it so that they can become better writers. Another group member, Taqi Hassan, has been writing poetry for quite a while, but he feels as though his writing still needs some work.

“I write poems because it really helps my thoughts sound better on paper,” Hassan said. “You know, whatever I’m feeling or whatever I think I should be feeling, I put it into poems. I come here because I know my stuff isn’t perfect, but I definitely want it to be.”

Crawford has chaired these group meetings for over 10 years. She has seen work from hundreds of writers. Not only has she edited their work, but she has also learned from them. During the meetings, Crawford goes around to each member offering advice about what she thinks should be fixed or improved. There are new members who arrive every month, according to the co-ordinator, and each has a unique piece of writing to be edited. Crawford said the biggest barrier to group members’ improvement is arrogance.

“A lot of them think they’re work is really great and that they don’t need any editing,” Crawford said. “They don’t want to change small errors in their work like a comma or a period, and it shows that they’re definitely not open to constructive criticism.”

After giving her feedback around the circle for about an hour, Crawford calls for a 15-minute snack break. She uses the pause to connect with each member to discover why each writer has attended that day. Although some of the group members appear headstrong when it comes to their writing, poet Hassan said the experience is rewarding.

“I didn’t know what to expect, to be honest,” Hassan said. “But after being there, I realized that these meetings are actually an opportunity that a lot of writers don’t really get to have. Our work gets to be edited and torn apart and ultimately, perfected, even before it’s finished.”

But writer Crawford draws inspiration from the meetings as well.

“My favourite part in all this is knowing you’ve helped someone further their passion or career,” Crawford said. “I don’t do this for me. I do this for the writers who need it.”