Creating Rooms of Our Own: Women Writers at Work at Girls Write Now

Ninety years ago, Virginia Woolf spoke to the young women of Girton and Newnham colleges in England on what women needed in order to become writers. These talks were to become her famous feminist tract, A Room of One’s Own, and in them Woolf explained why there were so few great women writers, why Shakespeare could not have been Shakespeare had he been born a woman: “For we think back through our mothers if we are women.” She was speaking of the importance of predecessors. It is hard to become a woman writer, she argued, if few have gone before. The lack of successful models demoralizes and dissuades.
In the intervening decades, women have excelled in many realms once off-limits, and many more dazzling female literary models have made themselves known—from Flannery O’Connor to Zadie Smith, Joan Didion to Jhumpa Lahiri.
Still, in this season of great hope and change, we have also witnessed staggering sexism and the status quo. Pollsters worried over so-called Bradley effects, but more amazing than this breed of covert racism, is the way in which, culturally, we feel no need to cover over gender biases. It seems it’s not embarrassing to be sexist: voters unabashedly told news sources during the primaries that they were not sure they’d be comfortable with a woman as their Commander in Chief. These biases are visible in the hallowed halls of all our highest offices. In 2007, only 86 of the 535 seats in Congress were held by women—a mere 16.3%.
Such dismal percentages permeate the culture well beyond politics. We see similar figures throughout the media landscape. A 2007 study found that only 15% of behind-the-scenes talent (directors, producers, writers, cinematographers and editors) on top grossing films in the U.S. were women, and the number has in fact decreased in the last ten years. The White House Project, an organization devoted to increasing the number of women in positions of leadership, reports that in 2005 women accounted for just 14% of guest appearances on the Sunday morning television talk shows. The table of contents of our most revered magazines and journals bear the names of fewer women than men. According to Editor & Publisher, 2007 saw a 0.1% gain in the number of women opinion columnists at the eight largest syndicates—from 24.4 to 24.5%.
Media, then, clearly reflects and perpetuates the inequality of opportunity for women in this country, and the lack of successful women role models no doubt demoralizes our young girls as much as it did in Woolf’s day. But youth media organizations are uniquely poised to serve as a corrective to that inequality. Not only can youth media offer girls the opportunity to thrive as creative and flexible thinkers, and in so doing train them to be our future leaders. We can also provide them with the successful role models they cannot find elsewhere.
Training the Next Generation of Thinkers and Leaders
In “What Feminism Means to Me,” essayist and memoirist Vivian Gornick explains the epiphany delivered to her at the hands of “women’s libbers” of the ’70s: “The lifelong inability to take myself seriously as a worker: this was the central dilemma of a woman’s existence.” This central dilemma persists today, and millions of cracks in the glass ceiling aside, there is an urgent need now, as then, for girls to see themselves as thinkers and workers, valued for the quality of their intellect.
As those who work in media, we know it is about making. This act of creation is inherently empowering—by making media, young people learn the tools and the hunger to make something of their lives. It falls to youth media organizations to make our next generation of media makers a more fair and accurate reflection of our 21st-Century world. Girls Write Now (GWN), a small and burgeoning non-profit mentoring organization, is one potent example of the role youth media can play in that kind of change. GWN pairs teenage girls from New York City’s schools with professional women in writing-related fields, and with an age range of 14 to 80, the women of our community come together as working writers with the purpose of sharing their work, and growing as workers.
Through the program, pairs meet once a week, developing both their writing and the bonds between them, and the whole community of 80-plus women writers meets once a month for workshops in memoir, poetry, fiction, editing, journalism, playwriting, and songwriting. Our curriculum challenges and stretches these young writers—each mentee completes the season with a seven-genre developmental portfolio of her writing. But these portfolios are evolving works-in-progress that encourage process over perfectionism, creativity over caution.
In addition to full participation in our monthly workshops and weekly pair meetings, GWN requires that the girls practice all facets of what it means to be a working writer, preparing them now, when the stakes are lower, for challenges ahead: at public events throughout the year they read their work aloud to large audiences; they must submit their writing to contests. Last year our mentees took home 13 Gold and Silver Key Awards from the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. For those girls who did not take home awards, we talked, too, about the reality of rejection in the life of all successful writers, and the need to try again.
By giving girls the opportunity to take risks and try new things, and in so doing both succeed and fail within the safe space of our community, we can teach them not just to become better writers, but to become more fully and resiliently themselves. By focusing on girls, now, we can change the face of leadership in this country, and make sure our future Shakespeares are not limited by their X chromosomes.
Providing Successful Models
Like Woolf, GWN believes in the vital role successful models play in creative development. Through those that have gone before, we learn what we might be capable of. In the world of media, models of course can be living or dead, young and old, present in the flesh, or merely on the page or screen. The growing versatility of media allows all youth media programs even greater freedom—and demands greater imagination—in giving girls many varied “mothers” to “think back through.”
At our Poetry Workshop this November, we read and were inspired by the 19th- and 20th-Century models of Emily Dickinson and Gwendolyn Brooks. One of our mentors shared a sestina she had written. Then the girls from widely disparate neighborhoods of New York City became models to each other: they read their own poems, crafted that day in that communal room of our own, receiving both thoughtful feedback and riotous applause. Finally, at every workshop, there is the culminating craft talk by a highly regarded female author working in the genre.
At our Screenwriting Workshop last spring, the girls listened to Jenny Lumet talk about conceiving, writing, and selling her screenplay for “Rachel Getting Married.” The star of the film, Anne Hathaway, stopped by, and the two talked not about the usual staples of celebrity media (boyfriends, diets, clothing), but about the demanding and rewarding collaborative work of making this movie. At our Memoir Workshop this fall, Janice Erlbaum, author of Girlbomb: A Halfway Homeless Memoir, spoke of the long process of revising her book, and read to us from her early drafts, demonstrating the equal importance of talent and tenacity. “If your first draft is perfect, congratulations! You may be the first person in the world to whom this has happened,” Erlbaum told us.
Lyn Pentecost, Director of the Lower East Side Girls Club, wrote last year in YMR of the importance of cultural exchange in youth media programming, of the need for “new people, new experiences, new ideas, and new environments.” This seems to me another way of articulating the importance of introducing a range of models—different ways of being, of living, of working. Though one can find such vital newness in Chiapas, Mexico, as Pentecost’s girls did, we can also build it into the spaces—virtual and actual—we create for the young people we serve.
Through on-line social networks or face-to-face workshops, chat rooms or brick-and-mortar rooms, youth media programs should provide girls with a diversity of mentors and models, and encourage them to be mentors and models to one another as they discuss and develop their work.
Using this approach at GWN, we are teaching young women not only what one needs in order to become a writer, but also what it means to be a professional woman in the world. As PinChang Huang, a GWN alumna, told The New York Times last March after a reading at The New School, “I was so nervous when I stepped onstage. I was shaking. But now I feel like I can say or do anything.”
Making Room—and Rooms—for Girls
This paradigm of teaching skills and practices, and providing successful models can be easily repeated in the many different types of media, and of course will benefit boys as much as girls. But it is easier to find those models of professional men, and indeed we often stumble upon male-only “rooms” when we turn on the Sunday news shows, or open newspapers to the editorial pages, or watch our presidential debates.
If we in youth media do not give girls rooms in which to practice the work of making media and to hear and learn from their predecessors and contemporaries today, we are guaranteeing they will inherit a media landscape with little room for them tomorrow.
Maggie Pouncey is Co-Curriculum Director of Girls Write Now, and a fiction writer. She received her MFA from Columbia University, where she also taught undergraduate writing.