Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Girls Write Now—A Cause Celebre

This past weekend I went up to New York on the train to give a reading and workshop at Girls Write Now, on the joint invitation of GWN’s Stacy Noble and She Writes’ founder, Kamy Wicoff. It was luxury having all that time to read on the train, going and back—I am reading Susan Minot’s Evening, such a beautiful book—but anyway, the workshop: was wonderful.

Fifty participants—twenty-five high school girls from all over New York and their mentors-- came together on a cold but sunny Saturday afternoon, twenty floors above the Hudson and the mad persisting scramble on Eighth Avenue (I almost ran into a bunch of decidedly-youthful Santas as I emerged from Penn station—apparently it was Santa Con day—Santas (meaning anyone who wants to wear a Santa suit) take the subway in to convene, carol, revel, etc. , although the two girl-Santas smoking outside a store I stopped to ask for directions didn’t quite seem to know where they were—maybe they were visiting) to read, write, and talk about fiction.

Apparently this is a once a month event, with two sessions, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. GWN provides a table full of food for participants to nibble on, through all the sessions—and the young and dedicated directors and mentors at GWN stay through the
day to co-ordinate and manage the whole afternoon (on top of having managed the morning session earlier). The agenda looked impressive—between 2:30 and 6, there was going to be craft talks, discussions, paired sharings, writings, critiques, and mini-lectures on story structure, conflict, perspective.

As guest speaker for this afternoon session (the morning’s was Hannah Tinti), I was asked to speak on characters and point of view—two major aspects of fiction in one 45-minute session!—in addition to reading; I was not at all sure I could pull this off. Given the intensity of the focus on fiction though, and the real interest of the girls in becoming writers and better writers and in exploring forms of writing, it turned out to be a very engaged and engaging afternoon.

The girls began by writing of their neighborhoods, and a few of them came up to read their pieces—about trash on the sidewalks, the sounds of trains, people they saw everyday—lovely, lyric bits of contemplation you didn’t want to end. I read parts of a story (
In Another World) from Temporary Lives, opened a conversation on where our characters come from, mentioned the role of conflict and the usual shape of story arcs (to be covered after me), touched on point of view and Rust Hills’ contention that the point of view that works is that of the character who experiences change in the story, and set up an interactive exercise in character discovery. The participation in the exercise was immediate and enthusiastic; interesting answers came out of the focus on character. My favorite was the soft-voiced girl who wondered if our characters could be different parts of our selves (yes so often yes).

I spent a long time afterward talking to the directors, several mentors, and several students who came up to talk or ask more questions on writing characters and point of view. I also looked through all of the news on the wall and browsed through their annual anthologies—an article in the New York Times, a visit from Michelle Obama, a citation for best mentoring-youth non-profit—poems, stories, and essays from teen writers transcribing their experience, feelings, world.

I just want to say what a lovely and meaningful program this is, how genuinely engaged, warm, and enthusiastic all of the GWN’rs I met are—Sarah, Megan, Erin, Stacy, Heather, Marlee, Maria, Maya, Catherine—how focused on their mentees and their welfare the diverse group of mentors are, and how thoughtful and engaged the mentees are. These young women seemed to me very absorbed in their work, self-possessed, self-confident—I love that this program exists to give these New Yorkers a place to come to, to write, to learn, to explore writing, to bounce their ideas off receptive working adults, to receive guidance and counsel. They also get to observe writers at close quarters, to discuss craft with writers, to gain confidence young. It seemed to me a large and lovely thing, to be able to dream of writing young, to write young, and to experience such whole-hearted support young.

Many of the conversations I had with mentors touched on the great What-If question: What if we, our generation/s had had access to such support when we were in our teens, what tragedies in career and profession might have been averted, what heartache elided, what material evidence to display to those families who cannot conceive of a daughter entering the world of writing for profession or livelihood. That we can do this now for our younger sisters is path-breaking—so I applaud everything GWN is doing and hope they can indeed set up shop in every major city in the US.

It’s a great place to go volunteer as mentor if you live in New York, or to support through donations. To read more, see their website: Girls Write Now. The results are tangible: stronger writers, high schoolers who write compelling college essays, who all—with a hundred per cent success rate-- go on to college on the strength of these applications. Mentors spoke too of the strong bonds of friendship formed with mentees, how each in unique ways supported the other.

For me, it was special going up to New York on the heels of my book release—Temporary Lives has just been launched and is online at Amazon and in stores—a way to celebrate stories I wrote mostly in and of a very different place (Madras, India) but stories nevertheless of people whose voices, I believe, needed to be heard, and a rather fitting way to celebrate, with a free workshop and reading for writers just beginning to make their way in the world.

Some days ago, I put out a call on She Writes for donations of my books to GWN, to complement the workshop—it’s not too late; if you would like to support a young writer in her work, and help expand her library, please send a copy of Temporary Lives to GWN, and please let me know.

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