A long-time member of the Board of Directors, Nancy K. Miller is Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the Graduate Center, CUNY, and author of several books including her most recent memoir, Breathless: An American Girl in Paris.
It sometimes feels as though I’ve always been involved with Girls Write Now, but that’s not true. I can pinpoint a moment in 2006 when I first met Founder and Executive Director, Maya Nussbaum, and heard her describe the organization.
At the time, I was coediting the journal WSQ (Women’s Studies Quarterly) and we were cosponsoring an event at the Graduate Center (CUNY), where I teach. The subject of our conference was Activism — actually, activisms in the plural since there are many kinds, especially when academics are involved — and having been introduced to Maya, I invited her to present her work with Girls Write Now.
No sooner did Maya begin to articulate the goals of Girls Write Now’s mission, with her extraordinary charisma, than I became determined to help the organization in any way I could. Because space was an issue at the time, I arranged for the Saturday genre workshops to be held in the lounge area of the English Program. This meant that I literally became a hands-on activist, as I scrambled to gather enough chairs for the girls and mentors.
I spent several Saturdays helping to set up chairs. The worker-bee experience reminded me of the years, back in the 1980s, when I directed the Women’s Studies Program at Barnard, and brought juice and cookies to our many meetings. When Girls Write Now moved into its beautiful new space in 2010, once again chairs were an issue. A few months later, after I officially joined the Board of Directors, I decided to supply the requisite number of chairs as part of my contribution to the organization.
But enough about chairs. Girls Write Now is about the mentors and mentees who occupy them.
One of the great things about the new space is that it is large enough to accommodate not only workshops and events of up to 75 mentor-mentee pairs, but a book party. I was thrilled to hold the book launch for my family memoir What They Saved: Pieces of a Jewish Past at Girls Write Now in 2011. The freshly painted space was decorated and joyful, and most important of all, successful as the setting for a fundraiser that drew not only my friends, but the many friends and supporters of Girls Write Now. That event consolidated my already strong commitment to the organization and has moved me to create a repeat performance for my new memoir: Breathless: An American Girl in Paris, as a fundraiser for Girls Write Now.
Breathless is the story of a young woman — though we referred to ourselves as “girls” back then in the 1960s — without a story. Educated but naïve, she (I!) drifted through her twenties hoping to figure out what she wanted to accomplish in the world, if anything.
I did not think of myself as a writer when I experienced the events I describe in the memoir, and the memoir captures, I hope, the sense of confusion in the life of girls who do not have a story to live by. The girls in Girls Write Now, younger than I was in the memoir, are already conscious of how important it is to find a story, in whatever medium, a story that gives shape to the process of coming of age. I confess that I envy them. In the space of their time in the program, they come to see themselves as creators of their life-narratives, and their lives.
One of the many secrets of Girls Write Now’s success is helping each girl find her voice, supporting her in whatever way necessary, especially through the mentoring project. At the same time, mentoring, perhaps surprisingly, turns out to be a two-way street: the mentors also learn from the girls. The genius of the pairing system flourishes within the wider context of the Girls Write Now community as a whole. This means that the writer (mentor or mentee) never feels alone with her writing block, her doubts, or her bursts of creativity. The writing project, usually thought of as a solitary enterprise, becomes a shareable activity.
In other words, Girls Write Now is about girls in the plural, even if each individual girl is valued and encouraged for her own distinctive writing process and product.
I have tended to think of myself as a good teacher, dedicated to my students. But when I witnessed the interactions between mentors and mentees, and listened to the girls perform their work aloud at the annual CHAPTERS Reading Series, I started to question my practices as a teacher. The writer pairs operate in an astonishing ecosystem; both members flourish because they are interdependent. Witnessing the pairs at work, I began to rethink my unacknowledged belief in hierarchy: the teacher ranking well above the student. Time for me to change!
I’ve never been brave enough to be a mentor because in part I’ve spent so many years flying solo. Little by little, however, my writing and my books have been affected by this new model of collaboration, and who knows, maybe next year I’ll be ready to try.
Thank you to all those who joined us last month at Girls Write Now to celebrate this wonderful organization and toast my new book.