Many people have lifted me up and have given me a helping hand in my career. And, um, I wouldn’t be here without them. And so the more I can do to kind of, you know, pull up the next generation, the more I will do. And that’s what teaching is all about, right?
You’re listening to Parallel Careers, where writers who also teach, share the big ideas and practical tips that they take into the classroom.
My name’s Kathy Friedman. I live in the West End of Toronto, and I’m a writer of fiction and creative non-fiction. I also teach creative writing in the Open Education Department at the University of Guelph. And I’m the co-founder of Inkwell Workshops as well as the Artistic Director.
So my first creative writing teaching gigs came about through Workman Arts, which is an interdisciplinary arts organization for artists with a lived experience of mental health and addictions. And I happened to go to an event that they were putting on about creativity and Madness. This was back in 2013 and I went with my friend, Eufemia Fantetti to this event. And I just had this light bulb moment when I heard about Workman Arts and the work that they were doing and the way that they were pairing sort of community with mental health, with the arts. I went up to one of the speakers after the event, and I just almost like shook her. And I was just like, “Tell me about Workman arts! You know, how can I get involved? Because this is everything that I want to do.”
You know, I wanted to teach and I wanted to be able to put sort of my own anti-oppression values into practice. And I ran about three writing workshops with them. In 2015, I got hired to teach a short fiction class at the University of Guelph and Eufemia was also hired to teach a creative nonfiction class there. And so it was basically like as soon as we had that teaching experience under our belt, we felt like we could apply to the Ontario Arts Council, the Toronto Arts Council to start Inkwell. And we started looking for a community partner and then started the process of grant writing.
We run free drop-in creative writing workshops every week for people with lived experience. Right now, we’re running them on Zoom. Previously, we were running them out of Roots, which is close to Dufferin and Eglinton.
And we try to have as few barriers to participation as possible. So registration can be a barrier, for example. We’re free. We give out snacks and TTC tokens. We use spaces that are wheelchair accessible. And nut-free, scent-free. We work with a peer support worker at each workshop, so there’s always somebody on hand who, you know, if somebody is triggered, if somebody needs some emotional support, either during or after the workshop, there’s someone there that they can get that support.
The fact that all our staff and our instructors have lived experience, I think it helps to break down hierarchies. It helps us to cultivate empathy and to really build a sense of community. Like the sense that Inkwell is something by us and for us, and the project that we’re all doing together is to build Mad literary community in Toronto, and to really build Mad literary arts.
I think the main thing that I try to do in terms of being trauma-informed is to make everyone in the room feel seen. And again, wherever I’m teaching, it’s like, that’s the main thing is just like, I see you. I hear you. I value you. I appreciate you. I’m glad you’re here. And what you’re contributing is important. It’s so disempowering going through the mental health system in so many ways, there’s so many ways that people are told, you know, this is what you can do, or this is what you’ll never be able to do, or this is what your symptoms are. And we’re going to give you this medication to, you know, ameliorate your symptoms. But actually being in a space where you’re like, “you have stories to tell, and your voice is powerful and what you’re doing is really awesome,” I think is incredibly powerful.
The other value is choice and control. So we never make people do anything that they don’t want to do. And I keep that pretty consistent for my, my classes in an academic environment as well. You know, like if somebody doesn’t want to write, they don’t want to write that day. Somebody doesn’t want to share, they don’t want to share. Their participation is voluntary. And that they really have choice and control over what they do.
So we’re just always sort of really conscious in everything that we do, that it’s safe, that it’s predictable, that we are trustworthy, that we’re acting with integrity, that they’re never made to feel ashamed. You know, I think that there’s been so many times in classroom environments where I’ve felt ashamed and we’re really trying to not have people feel that way as much as possible because it’s not—ultimately it’s not conducive to learning and it’s not conducive to creativity.
Excerpt from All the Shining People
Lindy used to take us to the zoo in Mitchell park. She’d thump down on one of the benches meant for her kind, slip her feet from their rubber sandals and fan herself with a magazine. If there were other children, she’d talk in her clicking language with her nannies and we were left on her own. Our mother tells the story of how, when a huge gray bird seemed to think I wanted its babies and swooped and clawed and pecked me, someone else’s nanny had to step in and drive it off. I needed six stitches to sew my scalp back up. Everyone said I was a brave boy because I hardly cried. That night, from the top of the stairs, we saw Lindy, head low, having a talking to from our father in the entrance hall. And by the end of the month, she was gone. She left her pale pink uniform, folded in her Kaia at the bottom of the garden. Dreams where the uniform floated around the house, made me wake up yelling for her. Lindy still didn’t come back. Our next nanny was gap-toothed and lazy, always giggling over the gate with her boyfriends. And finally Lindy did return to us, walking sway-hipped and proud across the garden again, with a basket of clean smelling laundry on her head.
I’ve been working on a collection of short stories for a really long time. The short story collection is called All the Shining People. And it’s a collection of stories about Jewish South African immigrants to Canada, much like myself. And with that project, really wanted to explore my own background and what it kind of meant to have been born under Apartheid. I really wanted to explore what that meant. And I really was interested in exploring what it means to kind of be Jewish in a, in a white supremacist society, which, you know, Canada is, is also kind of founded on. Just wanting to understand, because of course, Jews didn’t used to be white, we’ve become white and we’ve adopted and sort of taken on a lot of the benefits of white privilege.
And yet there’s a disconnect. My uncle and my, uh, my grandfather were both judges in Apartheid, South Africa, and I was always really interested in what that would look like to be upholding this kind of white supremacist apartheid law when you’re a Jewish man. Uh, what is that, what does that mean? And how do you, how do you reconcile that?
Then I was interested in the ways in which Jewish people in the diaspora, we kind of live imaginatively in Israel a lot of the times. Or we’re taught to live imaginatively in Israel. I mean, I grew up going to synagogue and we pray towards the East. We pray towards Jerusalem and always, you know, at the end of every Seder at Passover say, you know, next year in Jerusalem. And, you know, things like that, there’s just a way in which the, the, the religion itself is oriented to, to that.
Um, and then, so I was interested in that, and then I was interested in learning about really Jewish South African identity. Cause I felt like I knew so much about Jewish identity growing up, and I didn’t really understand what it meant to be South African. What did it mean to be a white South African? And it was really through the research and the reading that I did in this project was first of all, understanding what it meant. And second of all, understanding why I didn’t have a conception of that.
Something that I read for example, is like there’s, an insult in Afrikaans, uh, called, uh, “soutpiel,” which means like salty, salty dick, salty penis. And the idea is that English speaking South Africans, like are so oriented towards Europe and are kind of living imaginatively in Europe, um, that they would have one foot in Africa and one foot in Europe. And so their legs were spread so far apart that things were dangling into the ocean.
I thought this was great. This was a great way of sort of describing this predicament. My family is very English, sort of more English than English, more British than British because of this kind of colonial South African identity. And yet we’re not actually British at all. You know, we’re from the shtetl, right? Like my, my background is Eastern European.
So I was really interested in, in this idea of kind of centers and peripheries, geographically. And that was really where like wanting to capture a sense of place. Again, where you live in your head, where you imagine yourself living, where you imagine yourself belonging and where you actually are and exploring some of the disconnects there.
Excerpt from All the Shining People
Soon, Uncle Noah and Auntie Cheryl took our cousins, Sam, Rachel, and Levi to Australia for good. It was raining the day they went. Hard slashes that scoured the leaves from curbs and the dirt from flower beds and pushed our cousins into a rented hatchback bound for Jan Smuts Airport. We stood under the dripping eaves of their empty house and waved and waved. The following Sunday, our father made a l’chaim into the severed limb of our family’s tree, his face red with whiskey and from the smoke off the bri and everyone talked about the time Levi licked battery acid off his arm, thinking it was marinade and how shickered Uncle Noah was at our parents’ wedding until our mother said, “Oh, for heaven’s sake, they’re not dead. I just talked to Cheryl this morning.” And even the birds and the pawpaws went quiet.
One day during a family meeting at the kitchen table, our father announced we were moving to Canada. He was a judge and his decisions were final. Men started coming to the house to pack our things into boxes. My mom’s best friend kept teaching me to write with her thick red pencils until one afternoon, she said this was our last lesson. And she knelt down, wrapped her freckled arms around me and leaned her chin against the top of my head. When our granny and grandpa came for Pinky, he nearly chomped grandpa’s handoff. “Isn’t it incredible,” my mom said, while granny bandaged up grandpa, “how a dog just knows these things.”
Sometimes when I’ve done interviews about inkwell, that I kind of bristle about a little bit, is where people assuming that it’s art therapy. Or that because we have mental health issues, that’s like, we’re broken and we need fixing, you know? And I want to say actually like, as artists, we’re not broken, we have wonderful stories. Um, we have wonderful experiences of resilience and it’s really about just, um, just getting that out there. And when folks come to Inkwell, we’re there as writers and we’re there as artists and we’re there in creative community together. We’re not there–it’s not a therapy group, you know? It might be therapeutic for folks. And folks have certainly said that they find it healing. Um, but that doesn’t mean that that’s, um, that we’re doing it because we need healing or, you know–everyone needs healing, our world is pretty messed up—but it doesn’t mean that our words and that our stories are not completely brilliant. And on fire.
I love teaching with objects, especially in person. I can bring objects in from my house that are sort of tactile. And so I get them to think of, you know, however many objects they can in five minutes, let’s say, or in three minutes or whatever the time is that I’m giving them. And then I give them a little bit longer to pick some of those objects and write memories that are associated with, with them. So let’s say I’ve given them five minutes. I might give them 10 minutes for the second, uh, list. And then for the third list, I ask them to choose three of those memories and write sensory details that are associated with the memories. So they have three lists.
And again, this is something that I use for poetry, and it’s there for poetry, but I find it works really well with prose as well.
So once they have their lists and Anne Hood has this great podcast with Tin House where she talks about like the ten things you need for writing an essay or something like how to, how to write a kick-ass essay– something like that. I love this podcast. She uses two readings. One is “The Money” by Junot Diaz. And the other is, I think it’s called “At the Movies” by Jonathan Lethem. And they’re both short pieces of CNF, uh, that are available online. I think both through the New Yorker. And she talks about the objective correlative, which is something that T.S. Elliot–I think it was Elliot—who talks about that. You want to use an object in your work that takes on the burden of the emotion.
So I’ll give them an example. There’s another essay that I love that I use from Brevity Magazine, “Blue” by Maggie Pahos.
I’m not sure how to pronounce her last name, but, um, it’s a beautiful piece about a father and daughter who are planting blue flowers at midnight while the narrator’s mother is dying.
So I give them an example of where an object carries the burden of emotion in the piece. And then I ask them to do the same thing with one of their objects that they’ve come up with. So I say, you know, “Make your object the title of the piece and use it to represent, to kind of carry this burden of emotion.” And I’ve just had, like, incredible results as well from, from that exercise. Yeah.
I like to start a lot of exercises with brainstorming just to give folks that material, rather than just being like, okay, you know, “Go! I’m throwing you into this.” I think just having a few minutes to just sort of brainstorm and then choosing from that list. And of course when, when you’re brainstorming as well, they can always go away with those lists that they’ve created in class and work with those object lists or imagery lists, or, you know, first time, last time list.
I think there’s something really powerful as an instructor, in general, about bringing kind of your own vulnerabilities. Just what we share as instructors. What do we share about our own writing journeys? What do we share about our own insecurities? About our own battles with wellbeing and wellness? This is how we connect as, as humans, I think, is to share some of, some of these things that, um, yeah, that make us vulnerable.
And I think having had a lot of really disempowering experiences in the mental health system personally, in spite of all the privilege that I have in the world, you feel really down about yourself, right? When you’re depressed. And like you feel really down about yourself when psychiatrists or nurse practitioners, when people are treating you really poorly. And unfortunately, people in the mental health system routinely get treated very poorly. And so to be able to turn around and say, I’m actually going to use this to build community. I’m actually going to use this as part of my professional life. I’m actually going to use this to strengthen, um, the ways that I’m able to teach writing.
I find it incredibly powerful. This wasn’t just time that I have quote unquote, “lost,” lying in bed, being depressed, going to doctor’s appointments, being hospitalized, you know, whatever it is. But that these were experiences that I can later transform into something that gives hope to people and into something that, that builds a sense of community connection.
You’ve been listening to Parallel Careers, which is produced by myself, Claire Tacon in partnership with The New Quarterly literary magazine. Erin MacIndoe-Sproule is our Technical Producer and Story Editor. Financial and in-kind support was provided by the The Region of Waterloo Arts Fund, St. Jerome’s University and the Government of Canada. The music you heard on this episode was composed by Amadeo Ventura. You can hear more of his music at amadeoventura.weebly.com
Visit tnq.ca/parallel for more information on Kathy’s work, including her forthcoming book All the Shining People. There, you can also listen to outtakes from this episode and check out more teaching and writing tips. Thanks for listening.
In this episode, Kathy Friedman discusses offering students choice and control in the classroom. She discusses:
0:27 | Building Mad literary arts and Inkwell Workshops
3:09 | Being trauma-informed and making participants feel seen
5:57 | Her forthcoming collection All the Shining People and exploring Jewish South African identity during and after apartheid
11:18 | Teaching with objects and the importance of brainstorming
13:46 | The power of bringing your own vulnerabilities into the classroom
This is the only pedagogy book I own, and I’ve used it tons. The exercises are fun, varied, playful, and effective, and with a few nips and tucks, work very well for adults.
A craft book about race and identity in narrative writing. I’m only about halfway through reading it, so maybe I shouldn’t be recommending it yet, but I’m finding that Mura gives concrete and practical arguments for the indispensability of BIPOC perspectives on writing craft.
These anthologies are perfect for teaching because they contain excellent flash fiction and nonfiction by local emerging writers. Plus they were both edited by Dionne Brand, which gives me a chance to swoon over her work and add that absolutely everyone should read thirsty.
InkWell’s next anthology, featuring poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction by 28 local writers with mental health and addiction issues. It’s going to be our best yet. You can also check out our other offerings here.