A troupe of teen actresses telling their stories through writing and performance

Welcome to the Girls Surviving blog. We are creating this blog to reflect on the process we use in our work with teenage girls. We are two artists, Paula and Carolyn, who have been teaching writing, theater, and storytelling for many years. We are also mothers of daughters who had a hard time navigating their teens. We believe they would have benefited from a program that provided them with a safe place to talk about what it's like to be a teenage girl and to discover their unique artistic voices. Seven years ago, we began to form a troupe of teen girls who, we thought, could write and perform plays based on the experiences that inform their lives. Since then, we've watched the girls in the Girls Surviving troupe begin to take control of their lives with self-confidence and courage. We are writing to parents, teachers, counselors, and other artists who interact with girls in the hope that this blog will raise awareness of and open conversations about the lives of girls who are growing up in our complicated times.

“I have lived a very hectic life. I would consider myself as not a survivor but as a girl surviving.”

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Teaching Empathy through Collaborative Writing

Recently, someone asked me to explain what I meant by “collaborative writing.” Collaborative writing is something that I have been doing and teaching for years. Carolyn and I collaborate on writing projects all the time, and I often write collaboratively with other storytellers. In addition, I’ve been using this approach to create student writing projects for at least fifteen years. And yet, as I began to explain how it works, I had an insight that felt new. (I say ‘felt new’ because I’m at an age when some things I think I’ve never thought or said before are actually repetitions of something I said years (or weeks, or days!) ago.)
To back up, when our students – the girls in the GS troupe or kids we teach in other settings – write collaboratively, they begin with independent writing. The group selects a topic or a scenario and, after a discussion to get ideas flowing, each person writes in his or her own notebook. Writing is shared and discussed and, at a later date, everyone in the group is given copies of all the written texts. These texts are, once again, read aloud and then group members work to fit pieces of each person’s writing into a publishable work. This kind of writing has always been a wonderful experience for the students I’ve taught. They gain confidence in their own writer’s voice as they learn from their peers, and from the process of writing, revising, piecing, revising, revising, revising, revising. Somehow, all of the do-overs don’t seem tedious when everyone is working on them together. For veteran members of Girls Surviving, this process is a little different than for students who work together on only one project because they do it repeatedly and, at a point in the process, they are revising on their feet as they rehearse and rework scenes.

My insight, as I explained this to my friend, was about the role the girls’ collaborative writing process plays in developing their ability to empathize with each other and with The Other: boys, adults, people from different cultures… the list could go on. Carolyn and I know that the girls who stay in the program for a year or more develop social skills that improve through the years we work with them. This change could be explained by the fact that they are maturing, and their work with Girls Surviving may have little to do with it. Except that the girls, themselves, attribute their social confidence to the GS program. Alumni who come back to visit our workshops tell stories of girls they meet in the work place or on college campuses who, in our girls’ words, “could have used Girls Surviving.”

So, why do I think that the way we write effects this change?

Collaborative writing develops listening skills that are more precise than those developed through discussion and conversation. One reason for this, of course, is because the collaborators’ ideas have been translated into written text. When thoughts are written down, at least two things happen: One, the writer has to clarify for herself what she wants to say; Two: the reader can ‘hear’ the written thoughts of others over and over by rereading.
When we talk in our workshops, the girls listen and respond to each other’s ideas about the topic at hand, but I think that their deep thinking begins when they begin to write. The first time they share their independent writing, the transformation of the thoughts writers expressed in pre-writing discussion is striking. Writers gain insight through the act of writing, and writing with others, especially when the object is to finish one text that represents several voices, ups the ante. When a writer approaches another’s writing with an ear to finding a connection to her own thoughts and beliefs, she has to read between the words and beneath the surface of the page. In other words, she has to find a way to understand why, as well as what, the other writer is trying to say.
This is true of every textual collaboration, but when our girls write collaboratively, they have even more at stake in understanding each other’s words because the topics they write about are very personal.  In every workshop, at least one girl is taking a risk the first time she reads her writing aloud. Not only do our girls share every writer’s worry that what they’ve written isn’t “good enough;” sometimes a girl is uncovering a thought, feeling, or experience that she has never talked about. And every girl knows that at some point in the process, she will be that girl. When our girls perform their plays, each girl is speaking for every other girl in the troupe and, conversely, every individual knows that the group is representing her: saying her words, revealing her truths, stating her most deeply held beliefs.
It is this experience of living, actually and vicariously, in each others’ lives that builds empathy between our girls. Once they have learned to empathize with each other, understanding the motivations of every ‘other’ becomes easier. Empathy, like virtue, is a skill that can be learned and that becomes habitual through practice. Our girls acquire and practice the skill when they write together and, by the time they leave our circle, it has become a part of them.