It’s a busy Saturday afternoon at Skylight Books in Los Feliz Village and a group reading is about to start. The seats are full, and the audience rustles with energy as everyone settles in, waiting for the afternoon’s published scribes to appear. A few feet away, behind a bookshelf, some of the authors have congregated. They are young and excited, but some are feeling anxious. They all have something to share, and this forum is an opportunity many of them never expected to have. They won’t waste it.
The writers are all young women (ages 14-20) and they are there to read from the new anthology This Moment: Bold Voices from WriteGirl. At the urging of Katie Geyer, WriteGirl’s managing director, the girls shake out their muscles and take a few deep breaths. This isn’t the first time the organization known as WriteGirl has asked them to challenge themselves, to put themselves out there or to express themselves. And it’s one of many forums for female voices that WriteGirl provides.
Geyer takes the mic first, introducing and sharing the motivations behind This Moment, in which 180 teenage girls from all around Los Angeles shared moments that matter in their lives. The book also includes a 20-page “Creativity Starter Kit” to motivate readers to pick up a pen themselves.
“I encourage all of you to write about the small moments,” Geyer tells the audience. “Write about the big moments. Write about everyday moments, because you don’t have to wait for something monumental to happen in your life to start writing.”
Before each of the teen authors steps up to the mic, Lilliana Winkworth, a WriteGirl event assistant, shares some background on them, mentioning only their first name and a special skill. Maya (“She can put out fire with her fingers.”) reads a poem called “3 Seconds,” about the time she made the game-winning shot for her basketball team, and “Even the coach jumped like one of those freeze frames at the end of an ’80s movie.”
Juliana (“She’s double-jointed.”) reads a poem called “Social Media” that begins, “The internet: a place of narcissism, negativity, fakeness. A place of creation, positivity, connection.”
Lauren (“She’s been baking since she was 5.”) reads a piece about being biracial, in which she calls herself “a chilaquile — a blend of flavors.”
The young women may have been nervous before, but on the microphone, sharing carefully chosen words, the girls radiate confidence and pride in their work. How did they get so comfortable expressing themselves this way?
Keren Taylor, WriteGirl’s founder and executive director, says this is by design. “It’s no accident. What happens at WriteGirl is they get a chance to read something to their mentor, then they get a chance to read in front of the full group at a workshop, then they get a chance to read at the season-end event, then they get their work published in a book, and they get a chance to read it…” she explains of the process that drives WriteGirl, which works with young women writers and helps them hone and polish their work. “So by the time they get to Skylight, most of these girls have had other experiences reading in WriteGirl, where we’ve had a chance to really celebrate them and pump them up and give them positive praise.”
WriteGirl is now in its 19th year, and the creative writing and mentoring organization based in Los Angeles has become known for its unbridled encouragement of young women. “It’s undeniable how it helps a girl when she has only positive feedback,” says Taylor. “We’ve never strayed from that.”
Another longtime priority for WriteGirl is guiding girls through the college application process. Taylor still remembers a girl in WriteGirl’s first year saying, “My college counselor told me I’m not college material.”
At WriteGirl, every girl is college material — and the organization helps them along the path with special college workshops that include SAT prep, financial aid information and visits from college admissions counselors. There’s no pressure to pursue a writing-related career, either. The new anthology lists a few alumna highlights, and while some of the women are writers, others went on to become doctors, lawyers, filmmakers and policy analysts. Good writing skills complement every profession.
As WriteGirl has grown, so has the training the organization offers mentors, many of whom are professional writers who want to pay their successes forward. Taylor says that while these volunteers often bring a passion for writing, they don’t necessarily know how to best work with teens. “We’ve learned that mentors will do a more solid, effective job of being a mentor if they have a little bit more skills and tools to work from,” she explains. The day-long mentor training now includes trauma-informed educational strategies, advice on working with girls who are struggling with depression, and information about the dangers teen girls face online.
Each month, WriteGirl holds a creative writing workshop. These workshops focus on different writing genres and take place at cultural institutions around Los Angeles. In January, WriteGirl gathered girls and their mentors at The Autry for a day of fiction writing. In February, they worked together on songwriting at Huntington Gardens. This month there’s a journalism workshop at the Natural History Museum. As a longtime volunteer and mentor with WriteGirl, this writer has watched countless girls develop their creativity and leadership skills at events like these. It’s always exciting to see a new girl overcome her shyness and step up to the mic to share her work.
Back at Skylight, the reading continues. Kumari (“She has a pet chicken.”) takes the microphone to share a poem she wrote on the train after a bad day at school. It begins, “I used to tell my mama that I want to be a writer. I wanted to pour my heart onto a page so that little girls like me could engulf their minds in the red flames of words and say, ‘I’m not alone’.”
Kumari, 16, is in 10th grade at Alexander Hamilton High School. On a phone call after the Skylight reading, she says, “I don’t really like to share my writing, so it was hard having to go up and do it in front of everyone. That takes me out of my comfort zone.”
She joined WriteGirl at 13, after hearing about it from a friend’s mom. Kumari says she didn’t always like writing, but she has always been really competitive. “When my mom would compare my writing to other people’s, I wanted to be better, so it made me keep doing it.”
Her all-time favorite WriteGirl memory happened at the character and dialogue workshop in her first year. “They had us write these scenes, and they had these actors perform them, and I remember going through the entire day, and I thought my scene wasn’t chosen,” she recalls. “We were almost to the end, and they hadn’t done anything that I’d written.” She was feeling a little sad about it — and then Wendi Mclendon-Covey from The Goldbergs performed her piece. She remembers, “It was so interesting to see, and it made my mom proud, which really means a lot to me.”
The last reader steps up to the mic at Skylight. Sabrina (“She only has one weakness, and she’s stronger than Achilles, because it’s not her heel — it’s dark chocolate.”) reads about an illness that keeps her up at night and makes her fingers antsy: “Writer’s Fever.” Her poem describes it as “A truly devastating disease that overwhelms you in the best of ways.”
A senior at John Marshall High School, 18 year-old Sabrina looked relaxed on the mic, but says she found the Skylight reading challenging. “I used to love speaking in public, but for whatever reason, midway through high school, my body developed an allergic reaction to it. So now, it’s really tough for me to do it as seamlessly as I used to, but I still push myself.”
Sabrina heard about WriteGirl from her middle school English teacher and joined when she was 13. “I was kind of surprised at first because the atmosphere was just so welcoming, and also — free journals! That really got me excited,” she enthuses.
In addition to writing, Sabrina is interested in drawing and video editing, and she plans to explore her options in college before choosing a major. She has found WriteGirl’s college and career-prep workshops valuable and says, “I went to one over the summer where it was about job etiquette, things you can learn to help get interviews or building your resume and things like that. So that was pretty cool.”
She also speaks fondly of the WriteGirl mentors — especially her own mentor, Kelly Chan, who has always been there to give her advice or talk to her when times were rough. “Every now and then, we’d meet up at a cafe, and she’d really reenergize or rejuvenate my desire to write if I ever had writer’s block or anything,” she shares. “It was really good to have somebody backing you up and helping you, no matter what.”
WriteGirl’s impact on teenage girls is especially impressive considering that the organization has only three full-time and nine part-time staff members. Taylor calculated that WriteGirl volunteers contribute more than 2,000 hours a month. The organization also brings in about 160 special guests annually, including writers, poets, actors and musicians.
More than 500 teen girls participate in WriteGirl programs each year, and Taylor says the goal is to provide resources for those who don’t always know where to find them. “We focus on girls who really need this the most — girls who are suffering from depression, violence at home, violence in their communities. There aren’t enough extracurricular or mentoring programs available to them. There aren’t college access programs.”
While the workshops and mentoring opportunities are open to all girls ages 13 through 18, the organization relies on community members to connect them with those who need this extra support. “We have a sort of underground network of teachers and counselors and social workers who are helping us find girls that really need this and have them come to the program,” she adds.
Some girls need more of a push than others. Jeanine Daniels heard about WriteGirl in 2003, and at first, she wasn’t interested. “My 11th grade AP English teacher gave me a flyer and told me that I should do the program, and I threw it away,” she says. “And then she called my mom and asked if my mom got the flyer, and my mom was like, ‘What flyer?’”
Her mom dropped her off at a WriteGirl songwriting workshop and made her go in. Though she recalls having a negative attitude about it, she was matched with a mentor and started writing lyrics. A few hours later, a singer/songwriter put some of the girls’ lyrics to music and performed them. Daniels recalls, “I heard how she played the other songs, and I was like, ‘Oh, I hope mine gets picked.’” When it didn’t, she says, “I felt some kind of way about it,” and from then on, WriteGirl had her attention and she became more active.
With help from Allison Deegan, WriteGirl’s associate director, Daniels applied to 32 different colleges in 2003. She attended Pitzer College on a full scholarship and earned a B.A. in media studies. After college, she did temp work at various studios while working on her own projects. “I wrote, created, directed, and starred and edited in a multitude of web series, one of which I sold to HBO in 2014,” she tells us proudly.
Today, Daniels is a staff writer on the FX show Snowfall — and she credits WriteGirl with helping her get there. “I’m a black girl from an around-the-way neighborhood, and where I’m from, there’s not a lot of people telling you that there’s all kinds of jobs in entertainment available,” she says. And when they do tell you that, you don’t see people who look like you.” At WriteGirl she met black women who made a living writing for TV and film.“It was one of the first times in my life I felt like, ‘This could be a career option’,” Daniels explains. “I wasn’t entirely sure, but I knew that something sparked.” She looks forward to doing more producing and directing in the future and says, “I just want to create healthy images of black people and African people for the world.”
WriteGirl’s successes extend from personal stories like Daniels’ to a long list of literary achievements. On April 17, Taylor will receive the 2019 Innovator’s Award at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books for her work with WriteGirl. Shortly after being honored, Taylor will take the stage at the organization’s annual “Lights, Camera, WriteGirl!” benefit on Saturday, May 9. The benefit is based around actors performing the work that WriteGirls create in its character and dialogue workshops, and all scenes and monologues are performed by acclaimed actors as a way to raise funds for the organization.
Aside from the Skylight Books reading and the annual benefit, most WriteGirl events are closed to the public — and they intend to keep it that way because, as Taylor says, “it’s about the process of writing, which is ultimately private and individual.”
Indeed, it’s the intimate atmosphere, where women in the field impart experiences and encouragement to the next generation, that makes Writegirl truly special and gives its workshops and gatherings an inspiring sisterhood-like energy.
Still, as the organization has grown to reach more and more girls, it encounters its challenges, especially in terms of financial support, making benefits and book events like the one at Skylight so important. “The hardest and most significant part that we are still always working on is raising the funding we need to be able to continue and thrive,” admits Taylor. But she’s not deterred. Hard work and persistence are part of what WriteGirl is all about, after all.
To learn more about WriteGirl or buy a copy of This Moment: Bold Voices from WriteGirl, visit writegirl.org.