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Helping teenage girls find their writing 'voices'

By Deborah Lynn BlumbergContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / August 4, 2005


The night before Vanessa Cruz's first poetry reading, she was nervous - very nervous. The high school senior had never shared her poems in public, let alone at a Barnes & Noble bookstore.

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So she took to heart every encouraging word from Penny Wrenn, her mentor from Esquire magazine who cooked her a spaghetti dinner to prepare for the occasion.

"I can't hear you - project," Ms. Wrenn said. "Speak slowly."

Ms. Cruz, a recent Dominican immigrant, spoke up then, and again the next day as she practiced with her sister on the subway ride to the bookstore. When she arrived for the big event, she read her poetry without a hitch.

Cruz credits her newfound poise to Girls Write Now, a New York volunteer organization that meshes youth mentoring with creative writing. The group matches 25 professional women writers with 25 teenage girls from New York City public schools. WriteGirl is the organization's Los Angeles branch.

Through one-on-one mentoring, monthly workshops, and special events, the two nonprofits connect teens and women from diverse backgrounds who share a common bond - a love of writing. In poetry, prose, and plays, the girls take on topics such as love, identity, and self-esteem. In addition to fostering formative relationships, Girls Write Now creates powerful testimonies of minority girls' experiences.

"Who am I?" asked Cruz's younger sister Jenny in the poem she read at the group's year-end celebration. "Should I answer I'm a future lawyer who doesn't condemn dreams.... Or a Dominican who loves mashed plantains and all sorts of ice creams?" Before joining the group, Vanessa says she and her sister read their writing only to each other.

"I don't like sharing my poems," says Vanessa Cruz, a student at Manhattan International High School in New York. "With Girls Write Now, though, there was this cozy atmosphere where I knew whatever I said was respected; they understand me because they're writers too."

Through the program, mentor and "mentee" pairs meet once a week during the school year to discuss students' works in progress. One afternoon when Wrenn wanted to help Cruz with structure, the duo pulled down poetry books at the public library and wrote their own pieces based on other authors' styles.

"Vanessa has really gained an appreciation for her 'voice,' " Wrenn says. "She's a very romantic writer - even if she's not talking about love, everything is very mysterious and soft. Being around her talking about her work inspires me to create work of my own." Wrenn enjoyed one of Cruz's poems so much, she says, that she wrote and e-mailed her mentee a remix of the piece, which prompted each to write additional poems.

That's the effect that executive director Maya Nussbaum hoped Girls Write Now would have when she founded the group in 1998 with fellow creative writing graduate students in New York. "We had just figured out a way to make writing work for ourselves, creatively and professionally, and wanted to pass that on to girls in their high school years," Ms. Nussbaum says. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Nussbaum.]