One of the coolest things about Twitter is the potential for serendipitous discovery of interesting and important projects going on in your own community. A week or so ago, one of my “online friends” re-tweeted a link with a call to action: a book drive for a reading and writing group in Vancouver’s downtown east side neighbourhood. I was intrigued, and wanted to know more, so I contacted the organizer and asked if she’d tell me about the project.
Amanda Grondahl is freelance writer/editor who began volunteering her services to the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre. What started as a business writing tutorial and resume workshop grew to include a writing group and book club, eventually becoming Intrepid Pens.
What is Intrepid Pens?
Intrepid Pens is a Reading & Writing Program for women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES), and it includes a Book Club and Writing Group among other things, like a Professional/Business Writing Seminar and a Resume Writing Seminar for new job seekers.
The women who participate in my program [are] highly marginalized and particularly vulnerable to exploitation. They are sex-trade workers or former sex-trade workers, active drug users/alcoholics or recovering addicts, homeless or socially-housed physically or mentally disabled.
But they are also (and far, far more importantly) mothers, sisters, daughters, fighters, survivors and fabulous artists with an awful lot to say. The women who take advantage of programs like mine are looking for a group with whom to find safety and purpose; they’re looking for ways to heal through art and sharing; they’re looking for ways to grow and evolve and improve.
Some of the members don’t yet read or write, and are just now opening up about their struggles. Some of them have written their very first stories with us, and it’s as if we’ve opened the faucet and writing and stories are just pouring out — they can’t stop writing!
How does the book club work?
The book club has been — by far — the most successful of the program’s offerings. We meet every Saturday evening (over a hot dinner and tea) and have between 12 and 18 regular members. We read a new book every month and short stories and poetry in between. We’ve recently begun learning about literary devices so that our discussions about what writing we like and don’t like are even more complete.
On our blog you can see what we’ve read and what we plan to read, as well as feedback from group members. Each book, whether liked or disliked, always inspires writing, so that’s become a big part of the group. Even group members who don’t think they’re writers write very well — really, very beautiful, raw stuff. It’s awesome.
The Book Club/Writing Group hopes to put out a chapbook in the next few months — a way to show everyone what we’ve been up to, and to raise money for the writers.
As a group, we explore as much as we can, and look for things to do that connect what we’re doing in the club to other local arts/culture/education activities. We’ve been to the Museum of Anthropology, the Art Gallery, parks and gardens, the movies, open mic nights, poetry readings and book launches, and have had authors come and speak to us.
Any success stories to share?
The magic that happens every time we get together is staggering. I am moved to tears and applaud every few seconds. We laugh and cry and learn and share and grow together, and it’s incredible.
As more people learn about what we’re doing, and we receive more support, we’re able to do more together. One of our favourite things to do is take a trip somewhere inspiring outside of the DTES. Yesterday, we went to VanDusen Botanical Garden and it was magical. In the formal rose garden, a group member said, “This is heaven to me. I’ve never seen anything like it. I feel so inspired to write. Life really can be beautiful.”
Can you beat that?
What’s next for the Book Club?
We’ve just finished reading Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club and will start Alice Munro’s Runaway: Stories in a few weeks. We’re particularly excited about this upcoming event — Evelyn Lau has agreed to come and speak to us, and we’ve decided to make it a little fundraiser. We plan to open it to the public (women only) and can’t wait to see what magic takes place. I’m hoping that women from all over the Lower Mainland will attend — and show their support for our group, as well as for arts in the community in general.
How can we help out the book club?
The easiest way to help is to donate books — scour your shelves at home for things you’re willing to part with, and send them in. Intrepid Pens is not a registered charity, but what you get from us is our huge thanks and a nod on our blog.
Larger donations can be made to the Book Club care of the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre. (They are able to offer receipts.) The current reading list is posted on our blog so people know what titles we need. This is such a wonderful way to participate — to put a book into the hands of someone who’d not be able to afford it.
We need much more than books, though, and I look to friends, family and social networks to help get the word out. We need notepads and pens, bus tickets and event tickets. And we need cold hard cash, of course. Donations can be made via PayPal on our blog or through the Women’s Centre.
Other ways to participate that don’t involve a monetary investment of any kind:
- Hop onto the blog, read a few pieces submitted by group members, and offer words of encouragement in the comments section. This is a powerful way to participate, and they love to know their work is getting out there!
- If you write, publish or teach, and would be interested in leading a seminar for the group, get in touch!
Wow. Thank you, Amanda, for sharing the inspiring story of Intrepid Pens!
Learn more about Intrepid Pens on their website, and help get the word out — blog it, tweet it, tell your book-loving friends. And if you donate a book to Intrepid Pens, leave a comment below. I’ll match the donation book-for-book for the rest of the week.
I’m inspired to make Book Hero a regular feature of Brain Candy Books, so if you know of a reading- or book-related program that’s making a difference in the community, leave a comment to let me know and I’ll profile a new organization each month.