WriteGirl Has My Heart: A Conversation with Keren Taylor
By Dinah LenneyJanuary 16, 2020
Go to a junk drawer in your home. Choose any three objects and place them on your desk or writing area. Think of a fictional story where these objects play an important role in the life of your main character.
Think of a color you love … What does that color make you feel? What is one memory you have where that color was significant?
Also included: Suggestions for good habits to cultivate (“free yourself from distractions — no ringing, no dinging!”); for “turning memories to memoir”; for crafting flash fiction; a consideration of mash-ups and found poetry; even instructions for writing Haiku and nonet poems — nine lines that start with a line of nine syllables, and lose a syllable with each consecutive line — like this one by Drew Shinozaki, age 16:
Opportunity at a blue cliff edge
Luminating with promise of
Whimsical dreams to save worlds
Flickering when people
whisper, will you choose
As a newly minted volunteer for WriteGirl, I’m unreasonably proud (never mind that I had nothing to do with the collection), and appropriately grateful. But it’s not only that I can’t wait to put the book to work; the content itself is that rich — that keenly observed, various, joyful, affecting — a testament to the power of language to inspire attention, intention, insight, confidence, community, and hope.
As for the editor — WriteGirl founder and executive director, Keren Taylor — 20 years later, it’s as if she started the organization the day before yesterday. She evidently loves her work and her enthusiasm is catching. At a recent orientation for new volunteers, by way of introduction she mentioned that she’d been a performer back in the day. No surprise there — she’s easy with a crowd: genuine, funny, approachable. But I wanted to know more.
DINAH LENNEY: I’m remembering that you said you started life as a singer, do I have that right? And do you still sing?
KEREN TAYLOR: In my 20s I moved to New York City to study musical theater and for many years performed as a singer with a variety of different groups and bands. I still sing once in a while, but WriteGirl has my heart.
Were you also a writer back then? How did you stumble on this idea, to bring writing (as opposed to some other kind of performance: acting, improv, whatever) to teenage girls?
I’ve been a writer as long as I can remember. At some point, I became passionate about writing songs, and spent a few years performing my original music, including a two-year stint in Las Vegas. Eventually, I was invited to present some songwriting workshops in public high schools in the New York area, and those workshops were the catalyst for a complete change in career direction for me. It was exciting to see young people get interested in expressing their ideas, especially when their initial reaction to writing was negative. It was clear to me that the public schools lacked the creative arts curriculum that young people need, and by then I knew so many writers who were willing to share their expertise and passion.
I launched WriteGirl in December 2001, in Los Angeles, just a few months after 9/11. I wanted to give girls the inspiration and hope that they need to survive and thrive beyond their tricky teen years. Teen girls benefit from all kinds of art forms, but writing is particularly effective in giving a girl an outlet to be able to understand her emotions and discover her voice. We see girls grow confidence through participation in WriteGirl. Writing is part of it, but it’s also the positive community of women writers, the one-on-one mentoring time, the inventive and interactive curriculum, the opportunity to present their work in front of their peers — all of it works together to give girls a rare environment where they are accepted and encouraged, never criticized or pressured.
Did you yourself have a mentor early on, a woman — or a community of women — who recognized your gifts?
My primary mentor was always my mother. She read everything I wrote and was incredibly supportive and encouraging. She always told me, “The world’s your oyster” — which I understood to mean that I could pave my own way, that I could achieve whatever I wanted to achieve.
And as a kid, were you a reader as well as a writer?
My mother taught me to read before I was four years old. For a few years in elementary school, I kept a log and read more than 100 books per year. I read mostly fiction back then — the classics, as well as fantasy, science fiction, fables. (I still have a passion for international folktales and all the metaphorical ways they teach us about morality and society.)
When did you begin to write in earnest?
I wrote in journals throughout middle school, but I think I really discovered my love for writing when I took up public speaking and debate in high school. I loved writing speeches and closing arguments. I found it empowering to have to take a stand and try to make people come on board with my ideas.
Since then, I’ve had many teachers and champions — a whole team of people (women and men) along the way who nudged me forward and helped me connect with the power of my own work. That’s another big reason why I started WriteGirl. I want teenage girls to have that feeling of possibility and adventure ahead. I want to help them cultivate that voice in their heads that fiercely believes in their creativity, protects them through tough times, and ignites their resilience and energy to accomplish whatever it is that they would like to contribute to the world.
And you’ve made some of those contributions possible, haven’t you? How many anthologies has WriteGirl published?
We’ve published 15 anthologies, and an additional 19 chapbooks of writing by incarcerated and pregnant/parenting teens, plus a teacher’s guide called “Pens on Fire,” for a total of 35 books.
Amazing. Do any of these girls go on to write professionally?
The list is long! We have dozens of young women who are now working as professional writers, editors, journalists, and songwriters. It’s exciting to see them advance into writing careers, but the skills they learn at WriteGirl, from writing to public speaking to collaboration, will serve them well in any career they choose to pursue.
And, tell me, when it comes to putting the anthologies together, how do you choose what goes into each one?
For each of our books, we establish a team of writers and editors to work on everything from reviewing submissions to editing to promotion and marketing. We ask all our teens to submit several pieces of writing, and we have a longstanding policy of including all those who submit.
Is there very much editing involved? If so, at which stage or stages of the process?
Sometimes a member of the editorial team works with the girls one-on-one to help complete their submissions. We also offer individual mentoring to girls who request extra support during the book submission process. And all of our mentors are coached through the WriteGirl “Feedback Model” to help guide them in editing the work throughout the year. Our approach is positive, non-critical, and playful, in order to encourage the girls to write and expand their ideas.
So there isn’t an overall aesthetic at work here. And yet the anthology feels so cohesive — so all of a piece.
We believe that all girls’ creative voices deserve to be honored and valued. Many of them face difficult challenges, including unstable home environments, violence in their communities, lack of academic opportunities, mental health difficulties, and more, and their voices and experiences often go unheard. A core ethic at WriteGirl is aimed at disrupting that experience and giving girls the opportunity to be celebrated for their unique perspectives and creative self-expression. We work hard not to have any competition at WriteGirl. It’s amazing what can happen to a girl’s self-view and confidence when she is not judged, evaluated, compared, and pitted against other girls. If the goal is to really lift girls up and help them grow their self-confidence, then a non-competitive, welcoming environment gives all girls a chance to thrive at their own pace, in their own unique ways, without fear of rejection or elimination.
And what about your goal for this book, This Moment? Who is it for? Who do you hope will read it?
Well, the book features the voices of teen girls, so you might think it’s a book for teen girls — but if I could, I’d put a little This is for YOU sticker on every copy, with the hope that it finds its way into the hands of people of all ages and backgrounds who might want a glimpse into the minds and worlds of teens, while also getting inspired to unleash their own creative ideas.
Dinah Lenney serves as an editor-at-large for LARB. Bloomsbury will publish her new book, Coffee, in April 2020.
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