Shirin Tobie-Paul found her voice through the written word.
It wasn’t an easy journey to get there. Battling through many difficulties, from abuse to parental abandonment to suicidal attempts, Tobie-Paul fought hard to get by.
But everything changed after she stumbled upon the Toronto Writers Collective while checking a local bulletin board.
“It was really a dream come true for me to find that space, to write my truth,” Tobie-Paul said. She attended every week for years since that day in 2017, pouring her pain out on paper.
“I chose to use that space for my healing,” she said.
Since its inception in 2012, the founders of the Toronto Writers Collective have stressed that writing can be a salve. The volunteer-run program has attracted thousands of participants through the years, from folks in homeless shelters to in-patient residents at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), giving them both a voice and a sense of community.
With the need for connection greater than ever, coupled with higher rates of deteriorating mental health as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the collective will be offering online classes throughout the holidays as a way to connect with people who may otherwise face the festive season in isolation. The classes are open to everyone and are free of charge.
“It’s an opportunity to connect with others in a meaningful, safe and empowering way,” said Doug Grundman, a long-time facilitator at the collective. “It’s an opportunity to take the day and put it on pause for the time that you’re with us.”
For Tobie-Paul, her time with the collective, first as a participant and later on as a facilitator, has been transformative — a form of catharsis that helped her make peace with her story and share it with others.
“It’s a safe space,” Tobie-Paul said. “What is written in the workshop stays in the workshop.”
The collective borrows from the teachings of American writer Pat Schneider, whose ethos was based on the belief that “everybody who writes is a writer,” Grundman said. The collective has long-focused on helping Toronto’s at-risk and marginalized individuals, but sessions are open to anyone who has something to share, Grundman said.
One of the many the collective has helped is Jobim Novak, who began attending writing sessions in 2015 when he was receiving addiction treatment at CAMH.
“I was having addiction and mental health struggles, and I realized I needed to find something to do in order to help me quit drugs and get into a better mental state,” said Novak, who struggled with schizophrenia.
His writing eventually blossomed through the collective, where he found his love for spoken-word poetry. He then became a facilitator and ambassador for the program, and has become a vocal mental health advocate, winning the Transforming Lives Award from CAMH in 2016.
“It would’ve been possible,” Novak reflected. “But it would’ve been a lot harder if I didn’t have writing, and that outlet that the collective provided.”
Research done on the collective in 2018 by Dr. Kelly McShane, an associate professor of clinical psychology at Ryerson University, has revealed the prominent mental health impacts it has had on participants, who said taking part has increased their sense of hope, self-expression, resilience, improved their mood and their connection with their community.
“Since many of the participants in this program are from marginalized communities, the long-term impact of the findings from this evaluation could be far-reaching,” said a report of the research published in October 2019.
Like many organizations in 2020, the collective has had to pivot the bulk of its operations to Zoom during the pandemic. But Grundman said it has provided unique opportunities for connection, and the ability to allow facilitators to host workshops whenever they had a few hours to spare.
Grundman added that 70 per cent of participants have access to internet and social media, and therefore are able to remain connected with the group. Some writers have been able to access workshops through their cellphones for lack of better means, but Jesse Cohon, director of programming, said the collective hopes to provide technology for those who need it in the New Year. Some in-person sessions have been possible in treatment centres, where strict public health protocols are followed, and the collective has discussed doing pop-up workshops at encampments in the city.
As for the holidays, two virtual sessions will be held on Christmas Eve and one will be held in the late morning on Christmas Day. Others will be available through the end of December and into Jan. 3.
Asked if he had advice for new participants wishing to join, Novak replied: “You’ll find quickly that you can write, and after a while it’s kind of an honour to say ‘I’m a writer,’” he said. “It counts for a lot.”
Above all, he added: “Keep an open mind.”
I used to live like I could never die,
I used to get high but I could never fly,
But now I feel proud that I’m a better guy,
Which is tiring and yet I don’t ever sigh,
See I could get tired of living, but never give in,
Running with a tank on E but stay driven,
Bound for success because I’ve seen it in my visions,
Accomplishing a lot with each new mission.
— Jobim Novak
Nadine Yousif is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering mental health. Her reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Follow her on Twitter: @nadineyousif_
Nadine Yousif, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star