When did you first know you were a writer? I was nineteen, in my first year of college at UMass, Amherst, and enrolled in Intro to College Writing. I’ll never forget how my instructor, novelist Maya Sloan, wrote in big, bold letters, “You are a WRITER!” on the autobiographical essay assignment I’d turned in, half-terrified of all the personal details it included, and how she pushed me to enroll in a creative writing course the next semester. Writing had been important to me for a long time at that point. In elementary school, I wrote Lois Lowry-inspired stories about teenage girls dying. In high school, I wrote brooding poems that I hid in shoeboxes in the corner of my room. I processed my thoughts through writing them down in my school notebooks, in decorative journals, on loose sheets of paper—but I certainly never thought anyone else would want to read them.
Every aspiring writer needs to be encouraged to value their own voice, and I think this is even more so the case for young women. Bombarded with conflicting messages from all directions about who they should and shouldn’t be—be well-liked; be independent; be thin; be pretty; love your body the way it is; don’t be lazy; be ambitious; don’t be too ambitious; don’t be slutty; be sexy; don’t be sexy, etc., et al—girls are taught from the get-go not to take themselves seriously as people, let alone as writers.
When I think about the challenges that girls face in valuing their voices as writers, I’m reminded—in typical 90s-alterna-teen fashion—of the Bikini Kill song “Bloody Ice Cream.” In it, singer/songwriter/feminist icon and 90s girl idol Kathleen Hanna sings, “They want us to think . . . that to be a girl poet . . . means you have to die.” I connected to these lyrics intuitively when I first heard them as a teenager. On a literal level, the doomed narratives of Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and even Emily Dickinson (namely the popular misrepresentation of her as lovelorn-girl-recluse-dressed-in-white) serving as primary models for female poethood make it hard not to equate being a girl poet with tortured solitude and inescapable depression. But on a more metaphorical level, I think this line speaks to a larger cultural message that’s aimed at girls, one of glamorized suffering, in which artistic expression comes from a tortured relationship with oneself. From Rihanna singing about how she “like(s) the way it hurts” in a song that’s touted as an anti-domestic abuse message to Lana Del Rey’s depiction of herself as a beautiful corpse in her recent “Born to Die” music video, someone does indeed seem to be telling us that we creative females are internally tormented creatures. It makes it hard to imagine that being a woman writer can mean having a successful, public life that’s immersed in and thrives on community.
Fortunately for today’s teen girls, there are plenty of individuals and organizations working to change dominant messages about girlhood and to teach girls that their voices and ideas are important. As a slew of women writers tell stories of girls and girlhood in their poetry, fiction, memoirs and more, organizations like Girls Write Now, WritersCorps, and Urban Word NYC are working on a grassroots level to actively arm the next generation of women writers with the tools to write their own stories, in their own words, one girl poet/girl journalist/girl novelist/girl comic/girl memoirist/girl ad infinitum at a time.
Founded in 1998 by Maya Nussbaum, New York City’s Girls Write Now is the first organization in the country to combine writing-specific instruction with mentoring in an all-girls program. Female students from NYC public high schools are each paired with a woman writer/mentor, with whom they meet once a week, and they also attend monthly workshops that are each focused on a different genre. The girls end each year with a series of public readings and a bound anthology of their work, and 100 percent of the girls go on to attend college—a pretty incredible accomplishment. I was a mentor for one year and had the great privilege of working with a brilliant 17-year-old musician, poet, and aspiring music journalist.
Sitting in Girls Write Now’s monthly weekend workshops, surrounded by women writers of different ages and backgrounds sharing their writing, and inevitably a lot of laughter, over bagels and coffee, the sense of community is palpable. The girls get a chance to hear from professional guest writers in a variety of fields—last years’ workshops featured comedian Megan Neuringer, reporter Marian Wang, and poet Kristin Prevallet, to name a few. The mentees performed their own comedy sketches, wrote haibuns about their neighborhoods, and took their stab at science fiction—effectively demonstrating that any genre is approachable and no writing experiment is out of their league—because they are writers.
While Girls Write Now is aimed at teen girls specifically, a number of co-ed organizations in the country also offer programs for girls. Founded in San Francisco—but part of a national alliance with sibling organizations in New York and DC—WritersCorps is well known for bringing creative writing programming to public schools and community organizations since its inception in 1994. Over the past few years, the San Francisco branch has developed two all-girls sites, one at Oasis for Girls—a local youth development organization—and another at Hilltop, a school for pregnant and parenting teens. According to Minna Dubin, a memoirist and a teaching artist at Hilltop School, sharing their stories in an all-girl setting gives her students the opportunity to connect with one another, replacing the animosity and insecurity that so often exists amongst young women with a more positive sense of solidarity. With the Hilltop population in particular, the classes offer an environment where the girls can focus on themselves, rather than on their children and other responsibilities. Students work on everything from poetry and memoirs to monologues and media literacy, creating a space where their voices are encouraged and their ideas are celebrated.
A central part of New York’s youth spoken word movement since 1999, Urban Word NYC is another great organization that’s working to empower inner-city youth. Known for hosting NYC’s annual Teen Poetry Slam, they also offer after-school and summer “wordshops,” including the teen girl-focused Women Reborn program, led by celebrated female DJ and poet DJ Reborn. Motivated by Reborn’s strong belief in community, the class aims to “critically examine the ever-evolving idea of womanhood and its expression through various artistic mediums.” Students analyze popular song lyrics, news articles and visual art, and practice DJing and creative writing, all within the context of a group dialogue about women’s contributions to these mediums. By closing the year with an anthology of student work and a DJ mix that the girls create together, the workshop puts an emphasis on the group’s shared experience and positions it as part of a larger history of women hip-hop artists, DJs, and poets.
Girls are so often socialized around what not to do; what they shouldn’t be; what they’re already doing wrong. Organizations like Girls Write Now, WritersCorps, and Urban Word NYC challenge negative messages aimed at girls, and they show young women that writing can be so much more than cathartic and brooding, journaling alone in their bedroom—that it can be silly, scary, bold, angry, surreal, dramatic, playful, experimental, interactive, and—above all—empowering. It can be a means for finding your voice within a community that values it and takes it seriously. In their day-to-day lives, girls are so frequently taught that it’s not enough to just be themselves, but these programs turn that idea on its head. As WritersCorps’ Minna Dubin puts it: “In writing, you can be you times a thousand.” What an empowering message for today’s teen girls and a bold vision to pass on to the next generation of women writers.