Writing It Downtown: A Word and Heart Primer

John Mavin couldn’t resist an opportunity to continue volunteering in the Downtown Eastside - photo by Martin Dee
John Mavin couldn’t resist an opportunity to continue volunteering in the Downtown Eastside – photo by Martin Dee

UBC Reports | Vol. 54 | No. 8 | Aug. 7, 2008

By Meg Walker

Before he taught a creative writing workshop in the Downtown Eastside, John Mavin admits he was a little scared of the neighbourhood.

“My experience with the Downtown Eastside before this was driving through that part of town and never getting out of my car,” he says. “But spending time and meeting people there, I got way more comfortable with the area.”

As a first-year Masters of Fine Arts student last fall, Mavin decided to take the pilot Teaching Creative Writing course so that he will have an additional income-earning skill besides writing stage plays. The year-long course offers a theory-based semester and an experience-based one that incorporates a community service learning (CSL) component. The CSL aspect of the course was organized in collaboration with the Community Learning Initiative, a unit within the Learning Exchange. It aims to equip MFA students with the ability to teach creative writing and build community simultaneously.

The impulse for the Teaching Creative Writing course, now CRWR 522, came about through a chance meeting of minds. “I had been interested in the inherent learning opportunities of the Learning Exchange for a while,” says then-Creative Writing Program Chair Linda Svendsen, noting that Margo Fryer, Director of the Learning Exchange had studied non-fiction in the Creative Writing program.

“Margo and I met back in spring 2007 to discuss the idea of a pilot course in Creative Writing pedagogy and the Learning Exchange,” Svendsen continues. “I had Alison Acheson in mind for the course as she had studied pedagogical techniques at Antioch College and was a highly rated and popular Creative Writing faculty member.”

For their CSL projects, the UBC students taught workshops in fiction, poetry, life-writing (also known as creative non-fiction), and even blogging. They worked with small groups of new writers in several community settings including the Learning Exchange storefront, the Dr Peter Centre, the Kettle Friendship Centre, the Canadian Mental Heath Association the YWCA Crabtree Corner’s single moms group, and some East Vancouver schools – all placements chosen to nurture the community-minded component of the course.

Mavin says the community-building aspect of the course reaffirmed his basic belief that “no matter where you are, people are people and should be treated with respect.” He met surprises, too: “The people I’m teaching are the most open I’ve ever taught,” he says. he Where many creative writing students, including himself, usually start by being nervous and hold back their work, the writers at the Learning Exchange were eager to jump in and share openly.

In terms of learning to teach, Mavin and fellow MFA student Grant Barr learned to develop a syllabus as well as how to teach it. Their course focused on how to revise a piece of fiction. Students edited their own work and also got to see the revising process of some published writers.

“The six-hour workshop experience with UBC was fantastic,” Mavin says, “but all of those taking it thought — this isn’t enough, we want more. And I thought the same thing.” When Learning Exchange Storefront Coordinator Dionne Pelan asked if any of the MFA students wanted to continue the workshops, Mavin said a big yes.

As Mavin volunteer-teaches for 12 weeks this summer, he’s excited for several reasons. For one, Acheson had asked her students to create a “dream syllabus” — in Mavin’s case, a workshop that moves in stages from the blank page to a polished, potentially publishable draft — and he has already had a chance to use it.

But the relationship part of the Teaching Creative Writing course drew Mavin back, too. By returning to teach fiction writing again, he’s responding to the new community he is now part of — a group of enthused writers who don’t want to let him go, not just yet.