Writing Saves Lives: A Look at Life Stages in Pages

Young women gain self-worth through self-expression at this creative writing workshop in the Hill District.

by Anna Rasshivkina

Meet Autumn, a 13-year old girl who laughs about carrying around a backpack full of notebooks everywhere she goes and wrote a 10-minute play called “Girl Versus Social Media.” Meet 12-year old Jasmine, whose thoughts overflow poetically onto paper, whether she is at engineering camp or riding the bus. And meet her 14-year old sister, Mckenna, who writes poems, stories and songs and casually begins a sentence, “In most of my books…” These are only three of the young women in the Life Stages in Pages creative writing workshop.

Finally, meet Kim El, who started the workshop in the Hill District. El is an acclaimed playwright, actress, poet and director. She has written a number of plays and one-acts, self-published a book of poetry (“Straightening Combs & Other Things That Changed My Life”), and written and performed her own full-length solo stage show, “Straightening Combs.” Many of the neighborhood kids know ‘Ms. Kim’ well; she’s been leading after-school and summer programs in the Hill for the past two years. She greets all of her students with hugs as they arrive.

Life Stages in Pages, which is funded partly by a grant from the Sprout Fund’s Hive program, is a creative writing program for girls under the age of 21. The girls write poems, plays, songs, blogs and journals. For eight weeks, the workshop meets every Saturday between 10am–12pm. El kicks off the class with a variety of short warm-up writing exercises—responding to an image, or a symphony; writing a list poem. Then, the girls read their responses, and the conversation drifts over whatever ideas or topics arise with the exercises. Later, they have a longer journal-writing period and a visit from a local writer, poet, playwright or songwriter.

Past guests include award-winning young adult novelist Sharon G. Flake, freelance writer Deesha Philyaw, whose writing has appeared in The New York Times and the Washington Post, and singer/songwriter Bridgette Perdue, among others.

If you ask the girls why they joined the workshop, they’ll tell you it was to improve their writing and meet other writers. “I get to be with a whole bunch of other creative people who think differently, in a room, where we all have one thing in common,” says Autumn. “…And [you get to] get comments on things, on what you wrote, on what you did. It makes everything a lot better.”

But the workshop’s real power is less in the words themselves than in everything that surrounds them: the opportunity for expression, the confidence this brings with it, the emotional release of having a place to put all of the passion, hope and fear of adolescence. “They can write whatever they want,” says El. “And it’s in a trusted environment.”

High poverty neighborhoods like the Hill District are often not easy places to grow up, and the power of expression is particularly potent here. In a past class, El played a symphony for the girls and had them write down the imagery the music evoked. One girl envisioned herself at an elegant cotillion, her gown swishing across the floor. Meanwhile, another girl heard bullets in the music, saw a young man getting shot and herself running toward him through a crowd. “Why did they shoot you in the head?” her poem asked.

The 13-year old girl’s cousin, it turned out, had been killed days earlier in Wilkinsburg. “When they don’t understand, sometimes they just shut down,” says El. “So in this workshop, when they don’t understand, they can say, ‘Why?’” The girl had kept her head in her arms the entire class; after the exercise, her head stayed raised. “I want the girls to know to use their poetry as therapy.”

El, who grew up in the Hill District’s Elmore Square housing projects in the 1960s, remembers her own childhood, weighted by self-doubt and pervasive messages that she was not beautiful, that poor people were bad, that happiness and success were not for her. “I think that’s one of the reasons why I’m drawn to working with young girls and children so much: because I had low self-esteem, I had low self-worth, I didn’t think I was pretty,” says El. Writing was therapeutic. “It allowed me to change the endings of things.”

Kim El has been teaching for 25 years—primarily with girls, and primarily in low-income neighborhoods, like the Hill District, Homewood and Garfield. For her, success is encapsulated in moments when she can “move the students to communicate something that could easily have been hidden,” teach them something they didn’t know, or just see them appear for another class. “One time it was 9:45, it was raining, it was cold, it was like 60ª, and they were there waiting for me, on a Saturday,” El marvels.

El strives to ‘plant seeds’ with her art, and the one she most hopes to plant in her students is of self-worth and self-confidence: “To know that you are worthy of all the good things that life has to offer you.”

The future of Life Stages in Pages depends on its participation rate and the availability of grants. “I love this workshop. I hope that it does continue,” says El. “I anticipate that it will—if it doesn’t, I’ll do it on my own.”

“Once I get them, I can keep them,” El says. “Once I have them sitting around me, then we have this…everlasting thing.”

Life Stages will hold a public reading of plays, poetry, songs and monologues on Saturday, August 15th at the Kaufmann Center Auditorium from 1–2 pm. Admission is free.

Published August 13, 2015