Coaching project gives a voice to DTES writers


By Monica Miller
Photo by J. Paxon Reyes (Flickr)

Organized by members of SFU Continuing Studies, the project’s mentors give students individual attention over three months 

Addiction, transphobia, and oppression were just some of the heavy-hitting topics of the script readings at GritLit, which took place on July 5 at the Rhizome Cafe. Over 30 people attended these readings, which were the outcome of a new writing program aimed at writers living in the DTES.

This is the DTES Manuscript Coaching Project, the brainchild of Betsy Warland and Katherine McManus, the writing and communications program director for SFU Continuing Studies.

Warland, the founding director of the SFU Writers’ Studio, had approached Joan Flood, a previous volunteer with Thursdays Writing Collective at the Rhizome, to coordinate the project.

“I was absolutely thrilled to be a part of it,” says Flood, who was surprised by how many writing groups are in the DTES. Many of these writers have already had experience with sending out submissions to magazines, and been published in anthologies, but needed one final push to create a full manuscript.

“[What has always impressed me] was all these writing groups that met weekly without fail, the sheer number of groups in the neighbourhood, and that the people running them are all volunteers,” says Flood, who says that perhaps the circumstances of our lives are unimportant, and what does matter need to express ourselves. “It’s what makes us human.”

Fiona Tinwei Lam, one of the project’s mentors, has heard firsthand the kind of dedication her students have to writing. “Even when they were homeless, they would write — on napkins, scraps of paper, anything — to communicate to themselves and understand their own self.”

Lam, along with two other mentors, came together to discuss six potential students from a pool of about 15 manuscripts. “We looked for pieces that touched us or that we could offer something to,” explains Charles Demers, an SFU alumnus, comedian, and author of Vancouver Special.

Each coach selected two writers and spent three months working together. Each pairing had nine one-on-one meetings and set individual goals from the collaboration. Demers knew his two pupils wouldn’t be able to put together a full book-length manuscript in three months, but it would be enough to put together the skeleton for one.

“It sounds awkward to say ‘student’ and ‘teacher,’ and even ‘coach’ seems too strong,” reflects Demers. “What we really did was editing and advising, offering an outside perspective to a solitary endeavor.”

Working on this project has even helped the coaches, Demers says. “It has helped reinforce the fundamentals, and reminded me of this exciting phase. It’s an inspiring place to be, with a lot of creative energy.”

The future of the program is up in the air at the moment, as funding for a 2013 edition has yet to be confirmed. Flood says they want to be able to offer the program to more people, but its intensive nature limits the number of students that each coach should take on.

Wayde Compton, the director of SFU’s Writer’s Studio, hits the nail on the head. “So often people talk about the neighbourhood. So it is important that we have people speaking from the DTES, that these voices get heard.”