Helping teenage girls find their writing 'voices'

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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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.]

In 2001, former Girls Write Now mentor Keren Taylor formed WriteGirl in Los Angeles. While separate from Girls Write Now for what Nussbaum calls "geographical and financial reasons," its format is almost identical and speaks to the highly replicable nature of the Girls Write Now model. The big difference: Taylor and her assistant receive a salary for their work, while Nussbaum volunteers her time. Both groups publish an annual anthology of the girls' writing.

Taylor started the group because "there really wasn't anything like it in L.A. for teenage girls," she says. "And for girls, the teenage years are critical."

In Los Angeles, the 40 mentees are aged 13 to 18; many hear about WriteGirl in school, but others come to it through foster homes and community centers. In New York, girls 14 to 19 can participate, but most are 14 or15. Almost half are immigrants, mostly from Latin America, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East.

"We want girls who need the most help," Nussbaum says, "but also have their own spark and drive." Both groups ask English teachers to identify promising students. The groups host two readings a year and hold mentor-led writing workshops one Saturday a month.

New York mentor and playwright Jennifer Chen planned the playwriting workshop this year, during which mentees wrote scripts about a social outcast who sits with the popular girls in the school cafeteria. This is Ms. Chen's fourth year as a mentor. She and her current mentee, 16-year-old Natalia Vargas-Caba, are quite different - Natalia is an outgoing Latina and Chen a reserved Asian. But the difference has been a plus.

"Over the course of the year, Natalia has become more thoughtful about her writing," says Chen. "Her voice is stronger, and she now has a very definite tone."

In California, screenwriter Allison Deegan and high school senior Lovely Umayam have worked together since 2001. Ms. Umayam, a Filipina immigrant, is writing a novel and has written and filmed part of a screenplay about cliques. "She's a high-achieving kid who didn't have any opportunity to do creative work," Ms. Deegan says. "Creative work is very different from school work, and confidence in that area permeates every aspect of your life - family, friends, everything."

"I've found I can vent out my problems through writing," Umayam says. "I'm not doing the bad things that other teenagers do."

"It's just such a treat to have a diverse group like this come together," Nussbaum says. "These girls are often learning how to write from the mentors, but the mentors are often learning how to live from the girls."

Mentors like Chen couldn't agree more. "I look at the mentees in our program," she says, "and see them writing about their culture and their self-esteem. They inspire us as professional women to keep our vigor."

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