HB's Writing and Teaching Manifesto


There is something you find interesting, for a reason hard to explain because you have never read it on any page; there you begin. You were made and set here to give voice to this, your own astonishment.

-- Annie Dillard

I believe in the importance of teaching writing as a permission-giving practice. I operate under the assumption that storytelling itself – giving a person the freedom to find their authentic voice, their most sincere stories, whether or not these stories are destined for publication – is a radical and deeply humane act, and one that should be given space to breathe and thrive.

My teaching practice has been enriched and informed by writer Natalie Goldberg, cartoonist and writer Lynda Barry, writer and professor Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, spoken word artist and teacher Andrea Thompson, and poet and teacher Stuart Ross. I have also learned from my teacher colleagues at the Toronto District School Board, and my many students, of all ages, past and present.

I use free-writing and other exercises that emphasize both form and play, along with an atmosphere of affirmation, to allow students (whether they are high school students or professionals returning to school) to access what Allen Ginsberg called 'the muck of the mind' and consequently generate authentic work.

There is something about both the privacy and the openness of the page (whether it be writing or reading) that is near revolutionary in our lives today; it provides respite from the noise of technology and the sameness that pop/corporate culture demands.

And I think it does us such good to keep noticing and giving voice to our astonishment!

And she points out that she has had many other important things to do with her time, such as raising children and participating in politics. “Art,” she explains, “is too long, and life is too short.” 

-- Grace Paley, in The Paris Review, when asked about the meagerness of her writing output

Paley got this right: art is too long and life is too short. How do I justify the quiet solitude and exile required by the writing life when the world seems to be crying out for a more active and noisy commitment? Shouldn’t I spend my energy dismantling capitalism, the patriarchy, planting more trees?

My answer to this? The work of noticing, of reading someone else’s words carefully, of crafting your own sentences with attention is in itself a positive – even subversive – act…

My work as a high school teacher, creative writing instructor and mother has forced me to grapple with how essential storytelling is to the formation of self for young people and how vital it is to be exposed to a multiplicity of voices – perhaps especially for those who feel they have lost their means of expression. My experience with mental illness (and especially a recent acute episode of Pure OCD and anxiety/depression for which I was hospitalized) has taught me that we are all vulnerable to both our circumstances and our bodies’ frailties.

Storytelling and poem-making represent a way for me to overcome some of those vulnerabilities and to bridge my various selves. Teaching writing, and reading works that inspire me, allow me to connect to humans in a way that both transcends and elevates the everyday.

Student Voices

“Heather was my creative writing instructor for a week-long immersive creative writing course through the University of Toronto’s Continuing Education Program in July 2014. Heather skillfully facilitated a diverse group of novice writers. She created an environment that allowed the students to write, to share their writing, to thoughtfully appraise the writing of others and receive criticism from the group. Not an easy feat, considering that many of us were still at the stage of feeling insecure about our impulse to write. Heather gave us “permission” to write and provided some great tools to help access what is lurking in all of us, ready to be spilled on the page. One of these tools, a timed free-writing exercise, is nothing short of a liberating experience that frees you from the constant and paralyzing editorial impulse. Within our group, free-writing generated many original and authentic pieces. In my work as a palliative care clinician and researcher, I have begun to see the possibility of applying it as a tool to help my students jump-start their scientific writing.”

“But my view on school changed in my writer’s craft class. On the first day, Mrs. Birrell told the class to get out a sheet of paper and a pen. She put a prompt on the board. And then she said “I want you to write your interpretation of the prompt on your paper.” She told us to go for the “jugular”, to take the prompt wherever we wanted to go and no crossing out or erasing words. The most important rule was to never stop writing. It was only for 10 minutes but to me it felt like an eternity. I had never done something so demanding and liberating before. Then Mrs. Birrell asked the class who was brave enough to share what they had written and my hand was one of the other 25 hands to rise. There on my desk was my raw and personal invention and I’d never been more satisfied with my work.”

“Such a motivating class. I learned so much and the teacher provided such a positive and supportive learning environment. Everyone at different levels felt comfortable. The work was so interesting, I faced no difficulty staying present and focused. It's inspired me a lot - too bad it's not one more week! The teacher provided very helpful feedback and was very communicative and engaging. Thank you so much for this opportunity!”

“The instructor was amazing and inspiring. I loved the structure of the course, it had the right balance to make it a great experience.”

past Workshops

Back to School Yoga & Writing Retreat In Prince Edward County 
September 27-29th, 2019

The Birrell sisters believe in making time and space for our messy, mysterious, creative selves. Come experience a weekend free of city noise, inhibition, and distraction. We'll eat great food, stretch our bodies, and stretch our writing muscles too.

This just might be the school of your dreams! 

past events

Creative Writing Introduction at the Summer Writing School: U of T School of Continuing Studies.
The details…
July 8-12, 9:30-2:30 – University of Toronto – St. George Campus
Improve your writing skills in a five-day intensive workshop. Part of the U of T Summer Writing School, this course introduces you to a wider writing community working in many different genres. Part of each class is devoted to some aspect of literary technique (character, setting, plot, point of view, structure or revision) and the rest is a workshop session where supportive and constructive feedback will help you focus, polish and deepen your work.
Summer Writing School: U of T School of Continuing Studies