On Becoming a Good Writing Mentor to Teen Girls

I could hear them marching up the stairs and down the hallway like a pack of amateur pageant queens, performing for each other. There were only titters or guffaws, no moderate laughs. Everything was "very" or "totally" or "literally," not simply as it was.
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[This piece first appeared on the blog of Quaint Magazine.]

I could hear them marching up the stairs and down the hallway like a pack of amateur pageant queens, performing for each other. There were only titters or guffaws, no moderate laughs. Everything was "very" or "totally" or "literally," not simply as it was. But I loved them for it because I had been them only a decade earlier.

When the first of the five eighth-grade girls came to my door, she stopped. Then other girls crashed into her. None of them said anything. I, the adult, had been spotted and thus a new performance began: the dropped gaze, the sudden shyness. I had to cue them in that this was the green room, not the stage.

"Hey, girls!" I chirped. "Come in. Sit wherever you want--the sofa, the table, the floor. We're going to get started."

It was the start of a new session at a creative writing camp where I taught in the summertime. Campers ranged from elementary school to high school students and workshopped their pieces with kids their age. Sometimes I presided over a group of eight-year-olds; other times, I was assigned 18-year-olds. But whether they clutched their pens or hesitated to pick them up, teen girls were, and remain, some of my favorite mentees and personal teachers.
Here are three things I learned while teaching teen girls how to write everything from fiction to college essays:

1. Love poetry isn't their genre of choice.

I knew this from experience, of course, but we've all seen the eye-rolling that accompanies any mention of teen girls writing. There's this patronizing idea that they scribble in their diaries or pen poems to their beaus in gel pen, replete with hearts and daisies. My first response to that is, embrace the hormones and the passion. Journaling is therapeutic and there's nothing wrong with love poetry.

My second response to that assumption is that it's simply false. At my camp, kids could write whatever they wanted. My girls chose science fiction stories, family dramas, fantasy epics, memoirs, and even political poetry over love poetry. Was love on their minds? Probably, but they were more than capable of focusing their intelligence and imagination on other things when it came time to write their stories. Don't underestimate a teen's ability to think clearly, creatively, and elegantly--about love or otherwise.

2. Writing isn't only for the fledgling literati.

Teen girls get a bad rap for being vapid and gossipy, yet lip gloss and drama are far from the only things on their minds. All teens, regardless of their English class placement, have ideas and experiences worth processing, organizing, and expressing. A good mentor helps a girl tell her story by encouraging her to speak, listening attentively, discussing books and movies, and inspiring her with writing and storytelling games. Human beings naturally understand stories; every culture has them. Whether they're cheerleaders, "trouble" kids, or honors students, you should give every girl a chance to contribute to humanity's storytelling tradition.

3. Ideas first, grammar second.

Despite being a grammar nerd, I realized that privileging Standard English over other forms isn't the way to go, especially when working with mixed socio-economic groups. It's condescending and may prevent a girl from telling the story she wants to tell, the way she wants to tell it. What matters most is that girls understand that writing lets them capture their ideas and that they make use of it. For many young writers, just pounding out a first draft is hard enough. If you constantly peer over a girl's shoulder and call out her grammatical errors, she may never make it that far.

After a girl has written her first draft, a good mentor will offer suggestions and ask questions about what works in the story and what doesn't, keeping in mind that grammar is among a writer's many tools. Some stories call for the Queen's English; others call for Lowcountry Cajun. Many of my teens chose to include textspeak in their stories and I always complimented them for perfectly inserting an LOL or BTD.

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