I want roots in a space so I can do all the things I love to do in one location – and invite everyone to share the space with me! – Vanessa Shields*
Set up the ‘famous-author-themed’ chairs, open up the front door, and roll out the literary welcome mats! She did it!
“A gathering place for writers.” That’s how the website describes Gertrude’s Writing Room, a Windsor-based venture created and run by Vanessa Shields, local editor/mentor/instructor/poet and author of several books including the Black Moss Press poetry collections I Am That Woman (2013) and Look At Her (2016).
Shields is no stranger to this blog. Back in 2016 in a Q and A post featuring her second poetry collection, she reiterated her long-time dream of opening “a space for creative writing, book launches, reading series, storytelling series, reading…with delicious coffees/teas and fresh pastries. I have no idea how to life this dream to life, but it’s there and very real in my mind.”
Fast forward several years! Shields is indeed realizing her long term goals. Not only did she “life” a modified version of her dream, but over the summer her business Gertrude’s Writing Room celebrated its first year anniversary with an open house in a new location inside Willistead Park, 1899 Niagara Street.
A few days ago, Vanessa and I chatted about her latest news and thoughts.
Congratulations Vanessa! You did it! What a journey it has been for you. How does it feel to finally be rooted in a place that you can share with other like-minded writers?
Most days, it feels surreal. I walk in the door and look around at everything – the art, the dress, the books, the chairs…and I feel like I’m stepping into a different dimension. Knowing that this is the location that I can stay in for the next ten years makes my heart burst and makes my soul feel peaceful – two very different feelings at once. But the inner peace is really what I feel in my body when I’m in the space.
Rooted is a great word choice too. Certainly, to cultivate anything, strong roots are necessary. I feel like this space has a rooted energy. It’s existed for over a hundred years without me being it, after all! The history alone…the witnessing the space and the park that the space is in, really lends a deep rootedness. It’s quite difficult to leave the space most days!
I can feel your enthusiasm! Initially you offered workshops in various locations including the basement of a Windsor library. Then you settled in your space at 638 Monmouth and in mid-June 2019 you moved Gertrude’s to the Stable Yard of the Coach House (across from Willistead Manor). How will this new space enhance what you were already offering?
That the space is 100% Gertrude’s Writing Room allows me to really create an energy/vibe (using art, books, plants…décor and such) that I believe enhances the quality of the creativity that actually happens within the space. If that makes sense! A large part of what I am attempting to offer at GWR is an experience.
When you walk in the door, I hope you feel welcome in the embrace of the things that fill up the space. I hope the tea cups call to your belly, the books call to you soul, the art calls to your heart, the food calls to your belly too! So this layer of welcome and comfort wraps you up.
Add to that another layer of what I hope are unique and challenging classes and workshops that enable you to discover who the writer within you is and how she needs to be cultivated, nourished, inspired and motivated to write – which was also the goal at the previous location – I think shifts the possibility of what can be achieved in the space in a different direction. I felt as though I was holding back a bit in terms of what I would offer and how I could share it with writers in the other space…simply because the space was shared. It’s not worse or better – it was just a different vibe.
Now, I have the ability to take responsibility for what I offer in this space that is all for GWR. And, I also feel less of an urgency to get all my ideas out and into the world. I know I’ll be here for a many years, and that gives me pause to reflect and take my time in creating this special experience for writers.
Back in the early eighties, few writing programs were offered across the country. Now a plethora of writing classes (in a variety of genres) are sprouting everywhere. Perhaps, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. How does Gertrude’s Writing Room fit into this mix of offerings? What makes it unique in comparison to some of the other classes that writers can take across the country?
I’ve taken many wonderful, inspiring, educational and important writing workshops and classes over the years. I’m a student too! I think it’s great that a plethora of classes/workshops exists across Ontario and Canada (and beyond!). It’s important for writers to gather together to write and share. Really. We are often alone doing the ‘work’ of writing so, I believe, we should weave into our process gathering with other writers. Be it to learn new things, to share what we’ve written, to get critiques or to simply, be in the same space writing. It makes a difference and allows the creative process to bloom in different ways.
Small intimate class sizes. Delicious local food/desserts and beverages. Collaboration. Open-heartedness. Equality-driven atmosphere. Safe space. These things are the roots of everything that happens at Gertrude’s Writing Room.
We strive to offer classes and workshops that are uniquely themed…that means learning about a genre but with some sort of twist or gathering teachers who are experts in genres that I think writers want to try on and play inside. What makes us unique is just that – our unique ideas/themes and the space in which we gather. As mentioned above, the ambiance and energy of the space is critical to the creativity that happens within. There’s a word we like to use that describes what happens at GWR – magic! Skin-rising, mouth-covering, squealing-out-loud kind of magic that can only happen in the special space we create together when we gather to learn and write.
I think that our country/province has some outstanding class/workshop offerings – not to mention all the amazing panels and workshops that happen at the many literary/spoken word festivals we can attend as well.
I say – YES! Yes to all of it! The literary/spoken word communities in this fine country are incredible, and I’m grateful to be a part of Canada’s southern-most writing community! (Don’t forget about us Windsorites!)
Your creative flare for words shows up in many of your course titles and offerings?, For example, Write Your Body Right, Comic Book Writing for Kids, Raising Your Voice Classes, The Prayer Box: Daily Writing for Your Spirit. I believe you’ve even offered a laughter, yoga, and writing class. How do you decide what to offer? Who is your main audience?
I’ve been dreaming of teaching at Gertrude’s Writing Room for years, so I’ve been banking up quite the list of classes and workshops! Honestly, I think about workshops or classes that I’d love to take – and that’s always a great starting point. I ask writer friends for input or do research on what’s trending in the literary world. I also think of writers who I admire or would love to collaborate with – and I basically cold call or email them to see if they want to meet to talk about creating something together. Sometimes people contact me with an idea and there is typically a face-to-face chat that happens.
I always take the workshop or class that we offer, so it’s important to me that I can be challenged, learn new things, gather with other writers – and these things help me decide what to offer.
Some things we offer have a specific age group attached. For example, Comic Book Writing for Kids or Powerful Prompts for Teens or Youth Poetry Class. Otherwise, the majority of our offerings are for adults.
Our main demographic is writers 45-years-of-age and up, but everyone is welcome. That’s the group that registers the most. I think it’s because often these writers are retired or their kids have grown up or they have careers that give them some freedom with their time. Diversity is important to us, and we have had diversity in our classes/workshops thus far. We are open to all! That includes experience in writing as well. We’ve had multi-published writers attend classes and writers who’ve never said out loud that they are writers until they say it in class. Everyone mixes together in a delicious recipe of creativity!
In your opinion, what was your most successful event so far?
We’ve sold out several Laughter Yoga & Writing workshops as well as Comic Book Writing for Kids workshops. That’s one way of measuring success, however, success is a slippery word! I think that every workshop or class that runs is successful – writers gather together to write. That’s the ultimate goal and that always happens. Writers share their work – that is a success. Writers learn how to critique – give and take – and revise their work – that is success. Magic happens at every gathering. It’s true!
You’re getting busy preparing for your fall slate of courses. What are some of the new or popular classes that you will be offering and how does one register?
The fall session of classes and workshops is posted on the website. I’m really excited about all of our offerings! They include a wide-range of genres, teacher collaborations and new themes. Our The Intuition of Creativity Class (co-present with Candice Allen) already has writers registered. Our Writing with Dick & Jane Workshop takes place at a winery (including one free glass of wine!) and features Windsor’s newest Poet Laureate Mary Ann Mulhern as one of the workshop leaders (she’s joined by Peter Hrastovec and me). Our Poetry of the Masters Series: Singer/Songwriter Poetry is also getting some traction.
Registering is super easy. Just head to the website and click on the links that say: TO REGISTER CLICK HERE! All the details are there. There are two important things to remember: a) each workshop/class has a register by date (b) to confirm your spot, payment must be made.
Your family and friends have always been a priority. How do you maintain that balance between work and home life?
I can’t really try to find a balance between the two – that takes too long. What I mean is that it’s easier and less stressful for me to stay on top of lists of ‘things to do’ and be clear on what my priorities are in both worlds (work & home life) and then get things done one at a time. This is what is being in the moment and mindfully so. It’s a good, good challenge – especially for me because my mind is always traveling to other places than where I actually am! But, over the years, I’ve been practicing being able to ‘be here now’ (even have it tattooed on my wrist!). It takes practice. Some days I fail. Some days it works. Most days, I find balance in just that – living in the moment and thinking of all the other things I know I have to do. Like writing, being in the moment and doing one thing at a time takes practice!
When it comes to friendships, which are extremely important to me, I schedule lunches/dates in like I would any other appointment! My family and I love going to the movies, so we often go to the theatre together.
I’d say the going out-esque I miss the most is dancing. I used to go out and dance so much! It was a great workout, but it also was a great stress reliever! I haven’t gone out dancing in years. Does dancing in the kitchen count?! I hope so…
I’d like to add also that spontaneity does play a part in my life too. I have a few friends who text or call when they have some free time – in that moment. We get together in spurs of the moments. So, each day isn’t super rigid and fully planned. Life needs time to play and be spontaneous too, right?
Yes, we do need time to play. When I first met you in 2013, you were editing books for Black Moss Press in Windsor. You had a non-fiction parenting book behind you and over the years you’ve had two poetry collections on the themes of body, femininity, motherhood, family, and power published. What are you currently working on to nourish your creative spirits between those busy moments?
I’m working on a new poetry collection with a wonderful editor from Palimpsest Press. The launch date will be in the spring of 2021 so we have lots of time to get this manuscript into the best it can be – and we are doing that. We’re taking our time and that means I don’t feel any pressure to rush, which definitely affects how well the writing process goes.
Vanessa Shields is the author of several books including two poetry collections I Am That Woman and Look at Her.
I love creating posters for classes. Finding templates that match the vibe of the class then re-branding for Gertrude’s is really, really calming for me! I also love writing the e-blasts and coming up with ways to call writers into action – that is, to register! These two things are extremely creative parts of running a business that I love.
I’m still reading a lot. I read for pleasure – to escape into other worlds and fall in love with other writers’ writing! I also read for research and that is an on-going occurrence. Currently, I’m reading for research for three upcoming classes. I love this! I also read work that I’m editing for others – whether we’re meeting face-to-face or whether it’s more of a one-off situation. But I read, read, read…It’s essential.
I’m still working on the novel-that-never-ends – my YA dystopian that I started nearly six years ago. I have one more re-write in me. I’ll be hammering through that this fall as well as working on two other novels – one is women’s crime fiction and the other is women’s fiction. Oh, and I’m also working on two new children’s books that I hope to submit for some grants in October. Phew. So, yeah, I’m working on many writing projects!
What are your long term goals for Gertrude’s and/or your own life?
Keep reading. Keep writing. Keep teaching. Keep sharing. Keep gathering. These goals have been part of my life for years and I don’t foresee any changes in still hanging on to them in the future.
I hope Gertrude’s stays alive and well for many, many years and keeps its intimate, vulnerable, creativity boosting energy.
I’d love to travel, if I can. For writing retreats that I attend – not that I’m in charge of planning! I do my best to have at least two of these a year. I just get so much work done!
I definitely need to add some sort of physical fitness to my days. Not sure how to make that happen – but when I’m being physically active in some way, it affects my body which affects my brain and then my soul is happy.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Thank you for asking these great questions Deb! They made me stop and think about things that are always zooming in my mind – and write them down! I feel like we just had a super catching-up conversation!
I guess the only thing I’d ask those reading is to send me their email if they’d like to be added to our e-blast list. J
Thanks Vanessa for the interview and for inspiring and helping so many writers. You are one of the hardest working women I know. As you told me close to three years ago: “Think about what you love to do. Do that. A little every day.”
I look forward to hearing more about your future adventures. Keep in touch.
Check the website for additional information about Gertrude’s Writing Room. Or follow GWR on social media: Facebook: Gertrude’s Writing Room; Twitter: #gertrudeswritingroom; and Instagram: gertrudeswritingroom
If you’d like to be added to Vanessa’s e-blast list, e-mail the request to her at shieldsvanessa (at) gmail (dot) com.