Poet, prosaist, professor: Amber Dawn guides writing students through the art of creating in crisis

By Zach Siddiqui, Communications Coordinator 

Last year, Amber Dawn was one of many authors whose book launches were complicated by a global upheaval. Though her latest poetry collection, My Art is Killing Me and Other Poems, did hit shelves, its promotion was quickly stifled as the world scrambled to adapt to COVID–19. What remained stronger than ever, though, was her dedication to the Creative Writing students under her wing at Douglas College during the pandemic. 

“I feel very honoured to be teaching creative writing,” Amber Dawn says. “We can’t really be launching a lot of books. There aren’t public gatherings, so we can’t publicly gather to appreciate literature. But it’s a wonderful time to be creating something.” 

The rhythm of adversity

Amber Dawn juggles author credits in poetry, fiction and memoir, along with experience in editing anthologies. Her debut work, the award-winning Sub Rosa, is known for its adept exploration of sex work through speculative fiction. My Art is Killing Me is her latest of several texts since then, deals with the pain that artists face in making their art, especially through the lens of the behind-the-scenes struggles in the publishing industry. 

At a time when many creatives are grappling with stressful transformations in their fields, the themes of her latest work may be more poignant than ever. In Amber Dawn’s eyes, the pandemic – and its aftermath – could be a moment for writers like her students to blossom under hardship. 

“Some of our favourite artists throughout time have created liminal or outstanding works during crisis,” she explains. “I try to remind my students of that. While many of us are managing crisis, the other side of that is that we’re in touch with ourselves. 

“Imagination and possibility are working at an all–time high, and it’s such a treat to be reading what they’re working on.” 

Read more: Creative Writing instructor transforms short story into whimsical, yet poignant, graphic novel

Putting pen to paper

Amber Dawn’s creative roots lie in the Downtown Eastside, where she started taking free community writing classes in her early 20s. After spending time in writing groups and developing an interest in slam poetry, she enrolled in courses at Douglas, where she was already studying in the Stagecraft and Event Technology Diploma Program

creative writing instructor Amber Dawn

“It was a really accessible place for me to start, and I gained a lot of skills,” she explains. Soon after that, she transferred to UBC’s creative writing program, completing her undergrad and graduate studies there. During this time, she began to design and teach courses at Douglas as an adjunct professor. She debuted as an official member of the department in September 2019.   

While Amber Dawn is an established author, she brings little discussion of her poems or stories into her classroom. To her, everything hinges on making space for her students and what they themselves create.    

“I want to feel to them like a clean slate,” she explains. “So that all of the focus is on them and what they want to do.” 

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Write and repeat

Amber Dawn teaches introductory and second-year classes in poetry, memoir and fiction, particularly speculative fiction and short stories. For students interested in pursuing creative writing long-term, her advice can be summed up in one word: practice.   

“Someone might have a certain charisma or uniqueness about them the first time they’re in their very first play. But to become a professional actor, you have to train, and train, and train. Same with music, with any of the art forms: practice is key.    

“So for students starting out in creative writing, I would say, let yourself be a beginner. Honour the newness of the craft. Know that through practice and through taking more classes, you’re going to see your craft improve and mature. Have patience with yourself.” 

As much as Amber Dawn’s own content factors little into her syllabus, there are still lessons she feels her students, current and prospective, can take from her journey as an author.   

“I worked very hard,” she says. “I worked for 10 years. I was writing actively and taking classes actively for a decade before I published my first book. 

 “And I believe in my students at the same level as I believed in myself at the time.”   

For more information about the Creative Writing Program, visit the Douglas College website.

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