Write, girl

Years ago, while I was living in Los Angeles, I got involved with an organization called WriteGirl, which paired women writers with teenage girls from mostly low-income, minority backgrounds to help them develop writing skills and discover tools for self-expression. I was matched with a 15-year-old named Anna, who’d recently emigrated with her family from Seoul. Every week, Anna and I would meet up at a cafe in Koreatown and drink Boba while doing writing “experiments” in our journals, then read them aloud to each other. I loved our tapioca-fueled creative sessions. Anna never knew how much she helped me write some great stuff, even though it was supposed to be the other way around.

The experience also forced me to think about what writing meant to me as a teen, testing my voice and really just trying to figure out who the hell I was, and what I wanted. My writing back then made up the first steps along the path to eventually becoming an author, but it also helped make me me. I’m so grateful I had that, and that now so many other young people have outlets like Figment.com to share their writing, support one another, and generally celebrate the twin powers of imagination and literacy.

WriteGirl has grown into a super-successful organization, having just celebrated its 10 year anniversary and published several anthologies of work created by mentors and “mentees.” I’ve been thinking about them a lot lately, now that I’m meeting and corresponding with young writers eager for advice and encouragement. I asked Keren Taylor, WriteGirl’s founder and director, to talk about what they do and share some thoughts about why writing matters, even when it seems like everything else in life is working against it.

Why is writing important? Even if you never intend to make a living at it, what can it add to your life?

Keren: Being able to write and effectively communicate your ideas and perspectives is an extremely valuable skill in nearly any profession you can name. Even in your personal life, writing is a powerful way to understand and express yourself, as well as explore your own creative ideas. Writing can be a window into yourself, helping you shape your goals and your future. Perhaps the most wonderful thing about writing is how it is entirely malleable for what you need. Writing can give you solace, inspiration, clarity, energy, new direction,s and much much more. Even five minutes with pen and paper can set you on a new path!

What kinds of obstacles do you see girls overcome on their way to discovering their writing selves?

Keren: Many of the girls we work with don’t write regularly and don’t have anyone encouraging them to write. For many, the first journal they’ve ever had is the one we give them when they join WriteGirl. At home, they may not have a desk or a space to write. Most don’t own a computer. Most haven’t visited the library in their own community, and many don’t have a safe place nearby where they could go to write, like a coffee shop or community center. Those are some of the physical challenges. They also face challenges within their families and schools where their creativity and their individual voice isn’t cultivated and encouraged. What we see happen when girls join WriteGirl is that they literally bloom before our eyes…They’re exhilarated that people want to hear what they have to say, and they make daily discoveries about the intensity of their own views and ideas on everything from music to politics. We have a soapbox at our monthly workshops where we give girls a 30-second time slot to rant or rave about anything on their minds. It’s been a very effective way to get even the most shy girls to open up and speak up!

Some of the girls who were part of the program during its first few years must be done with college by now. Have you heard from any of them? Can you share a particularly inspiring “success story”?

Keren: Oh, there are so many wonderful stories to tell about our girls who have graduated college. One thing that they all seem to have in common is that they all want to give back — they want to work in the nonprofit sector, or assist an NGO (non-governmental organization), or launch a program in their own home community. It’s amazing and wonderful, and truly the most rewarding thing about my ten years with WriteGirl. Somehow, the act of having been mentored in WriteGirl has really inspired them to want to be of service to others, and I’m thrilled to hear that!  One of our alums, Lovely Umayam, is now getting her Masters at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, with a focus on nuclear security. She was the first in her family to go to college, and we helped her secure a full scholarship to Reed College after 5 years as a mentee in WriteGirl. She’s incredibly articulate and poised, and we look forward to seeing her make her mark in the world.

Can you talk about a piece of writing by a mentee that particularly affected you?

Keren: In our second anthology, Mariana Vasquez, age 15, wrote a short poem called “@9:56.” It’s just a moment in time, a slice of home life where she describes what she sees, hears, smells and feels, and it is very powerful to me. It is a great demonstration of how writing can pull you into someone’s world and let you see something new. The writing is clear and strong, and I feel like I was there with her, watching a movie with her mom, surrounded by sounds of her neighborhood.

What’s your advice for a young person who wants to write, but just doesn’t have the confidence or support they might need? Without a program like WriteGirl or even the encouragement of a teacher or another adult, what can someone do to forge their own path into writing?

Keren: Write a little bit every day. Write on anything — napkins, receipts, envelopes…whatever is handy. Just the act of writing regularly can be very helpful. Don’t be worried about form and structure at all. Write a list, write questions, write phrases, write a string of words. Writing has its own way of evolving, the more time you spend with it. There are also writing “experiments” in every WriteGirl anthology.

What are a few of your favorite writing “experiments”?

Keren: Well, some of my favorite ones are rather complex group writing activities that we have done at WriteGirl workshops. For example, we re-created a labyrinth at one of our workshops – we had an artist bring in a room-sized painted labyrinth on a large canvas laid out on the floor. One by one, girls received a written question, then walked the path of the labyrinth, while contemplating the question. Afterwards, girls sat around the edges of the darkened room and wrote their response to the question. The questions were things like, “What is something you are very proud of?” or “What is a quality you want to develop for yourself?”  It was a wonderful writing activity that really allowed girls to go on a journey in answering the question. You certainly could do this for yourself, investigating a question or writing prompt on a walk or even in the bathtub!

Thank you, Keren!

Uh, yeah…She is pretty amazing. Can you see why teens are so lucky to be part of the WriteGirl program and others like it? Just reading her comments inspired me to get off my ass/computer and do some journaling with my favorite flowy pen. Sometimes I think I’m always that 16-year-old in the corner with her notebook, scribbling like my life depended on it…because it pretty much did.

For more information about WriteGirl, including the book “Pens on Fire,” which includes over 200 writing experiments you can do with students and friends, visit www.WriteGirl.org.