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Faculty Spotlight

Lauren Kirshner








Favourite book?

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath.

What university/universities did you go to?

I went to the University of Toronto for three of my degrees – my BA, MA in English (in the Field of Creative Writing) and for my degree in teaching. I did my doctoral studies in the joint Ryerson-York Communication & Culture Program.

What is your area of expertise?

Creative writing, community arts education, and cultural studies.

Why English?

I have always made sense of the world through stories. When I didn’t understand something, I would make up a story about it. When I was about six, I overheard someone say that leather jackets were the height of cruelty to animals. Somehow, I explained this comment to myself by developing a private story that leather jackets were the cruel patchwork of the noses of hundreds of dogs. That notwithstanding, story from credible sources has taught me how the world works – socially, politically, and economically. And it has taught me about my own emotional life. And whenever I have changed my mind about an issue, story was usually responsible. Story can illuminate new ideas, challenge traditional ones, and build compassion and empathy. But it can also be used to spread intolerance and obscure the conditions of reality. For me, the more we understand about story, the more active and empathetic we become. And English is all about story – how to listen to stories, how to dissect stories, how to question stories and, of course, how to tell stories.

What creative writing projects have you been working on recently?

When I’m not at my desk writing, I’m involved in community arts education, which is a term that describes all of the ways that creators make art and build community through art beyond the doors of traditional institutions. My longest running community arts initiative is Sister Writes. I founded Sister Writes in 2010. It’s an intersectional creative writing organization for cis and trans women marginalized by factors such as trauma, mental health issues, poverty and social isolation and other extraordinary circumstances or life transitions. It began as weekly program, but has grown to include literary events, mentorship with professional women authors, and the publication of a print and digital magazine. Since 2010, Sister Writes has mounted over 300 workshops across Toronto communities and published and launched seven magazines that are circulated in The Toronto Public Library and sold in bookstores. My hope when I started Sister Writes was to create a platform for diverse women to connect with each other and represent their stories in the community at large. Sharing your story in a group and having people listen is powerful – it is proof that you are not alone. At the same time, our public launches educate the community about issues that touch women’s lives. One of the central features of the program, and the one that’s key for me, is that the participants are involved in running both the weekly program and in our Community Program, which brings our workshops to other agencies that serve women. Our latest initiative is a creative writing program for young mothers at Jessie’s, The June Callwood Centre. We’re also working on a magazine and exhibition about work, specifically, the joys and challenges of jobs that women have traditionally held – the unsung and often underpaid forms of service work that we need to talk about much more.

You are also the editor of the White Wall Review. Can you give a brief description of what it is?

White Wall Review is the Journal of Creative Writing in the Department of English. We’ve been around since 1976 and published a print issue annually since then. Excitingly, last June we launched our new website, which features an archive of past issues and a lot of new work we’ve published this year. The magazine is edited and operated by students and we’re always looking for new members to join our editorial team.  Also, check us out on Facebook and Instagram!

What do you look for in submissions to the journal?

We look for writing that sounds like it’s coming from a real person who sees the world in a unique way. The topic doesn’t matter as much as the writer’s treatment of it. Do you have an angle on your topic? Do you chase that angle to every corner? Do you tell an old story in a new way? I think our editors like writing that is focused, lucid, feeling, and fresh. We care about language and craft, the musicality of a sentence, the swing of a paragraph, but we also want writing that is connected to the world. We want writing that is edited, well thought out, and honest.

What are your favourite resources for learning to better your writing?

My favourite book on the emotional side of writing (persistence and how to deal with self-doubt) is If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. A few of my favourite books on writing craft are Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction, Mary Karr’s Memoir and John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. But I think that reading novels and short fiction, the best in every genre, old and new, is the best resource for writers. Carve out time to read every day. Block out the world. Phone away. Like, in a box or on a high shelf. Read like a writer. Keep asking yourself: how did the writer achieve this effect? If writing makes you laugh, ask yourself why you think it’s funny. If the ending made you cry, figure out how the writer used pacing, constructed the plot, and built characters, to achieve that effect. We learn about who we want to be as writers by noticing how the writing we admire most works. Writing regularly helps too. Alone or in a group. Eventually we all have to face the blank page, but attending writing classes or writing in groups can be so helpful because they give you deadlines and a community.


Creative Writing at Ryerson