Writing off the streets

This week, I held a writing workshop for the Servant’s Anonymous Society, a Calgary non-profit that advocates for former sex-trade workers. I first heard of SAS after reading a copy of their regular newsletter, Cry of the Streets, which contained some poetry from SAS participants. I contacted the society and offered to hold a workshop for the women if they were interested in writing prose, especially memoir or other kinds of nonfiction. The coordinator at SAS thought it was a good idea and soon I was booked for a Monday visit to the SAS offices.

The anxiety that followed surprised me. I’ve spent the last dozen years traveling through foreign cultures and engaging with people that I have very little in common with: Refugees. Illegal migrants. Benedictine monks. Nomads. Ex-militants. Female soldiers. Holy men. Crazy men. I thrive on the excitement that comes with contact with the Other. Yet there was something about meeting these women that made me nervous. I don’t really know anything about prostitution. I know the stereotypes, but I didn’t know anything real about the lives of these women. I didn’t know where they came from, how they ended up on the street and how they managed to pull themselves off. I didn’t know if their experience would make them hard and fierce, or shy and withdrawn. I didn’t know how they would relate to me as a writer. Or as a man.

When the SAS coordinator gave me some of their writing, I became even more nervous. To prepare for my upcoming visit, the women spent a session writing nonfiction for me to read and critique. All the women wrote episodes from their own life, and some of the stories were harrowing. Many wrote of abuse, violence, and despair. Some of the details they included were heartbreaking yet, from a writer’s perspective, quite marvelous. Much of the writing itself was fantastic. Two of the women in particular wrote with such a wonderful and poetic rhythm that I read the lines over and over again out loud. I wish all writing, including my own, had that sort of cadence. Their work saddened, impressed and intimidated me.

I don’t know if the women were nervous to meet me, too. The coordinator said that they might be, but I saw little evidence of this when I walked into SAS on Monday afternoon. One of the women mock screamed when I came in. Another mentioned how rare it was to have a man in the room. Everyone, though, was cordial and their good spirits put me at ease. I told them a little about myself, and about writing nonfiction, and gave them a couple of exercises to work on. We only had 90 minutes and I spent that time meeting with some of the women individually to talk about their writing and give advice on how to write memoir. Whatever trepidation I had about my visit quickly dissolved. The women were gracious, welcoming and funny. They were no different than the budding scribes who book consultations with me at the University. And, quite honestly, some of them were better writers.

Their willingness to share their stories with me was a great gift. I felt honoured. I hope to work with them again soon.