Writing to the beat of their hearts

What’s it like to be an adolescent girl in 2008? You won’t find the answer in cheeseball family sitcoms written by thirty-somethings. Thankfully, the Millennial generation, incubated in the Internet, grew up playing with all the multimedia toys of the journalism trade. With their every move tracked around the clock on blogs, Facebook status updates, MySpace bulletins, emails, texts, and IMs, today’s teens make for natural citizen reporters of their own lives.

In Red: The Next Generation of American Writers – Teenage Girls – on What Fires Up Their Lives Today, a new collection of personal essays gathered by writer and editor Amy Goldwasser, a bevy of fearless young women have cut-and-pasted their thoughts right onto the page.

Their writing is guided by only one principle: No thought is too trivial or too strange to shout into the World Wide Web. You wish your identical twin sister would lose weight so she’d be as pretty as everyone says you are. You hate how TV stifles family conversations and then you hate that, as you’re writing this, you are not getting up to turn it off. You think of grinding as make-believe sex. No matter the subject, these girls write only to the beat of their hearts.

Many of the essays were dashed off in a matter of minutes. Some were pieced together from over 50 e-mails. All of them make for tasty, unprocessed reading. OJR chatted with Goldwasser over the holiday break. An edited transcript follows.

OJR: How did the book begin?

Goldwasser: I started the project because I’d been volunteering at the Lower East Side Girls Club, teaching writing — helping with college essays, plays, podcasts. I was really impressed with the originality of the writing. I work as a magazine consultant during the day, but I was finding the writing from the girls more exciting and varied than the professionals I was working with. We adults kind of know how to perform, and things become so formatted. The leads are fairly similar. The epiphanies always happened in the same places within the same word count. The girls, though, they write what they want to write instead of what someone’s telling them to write.

So I was trying to bring it into my work at the magazine — combining my day job and what I enjoyed volunteering with. I tried to get a girl writing column in various magazines and that didn’t work. And you can’t just reuse the writing three years later because they outgrow it: A 17-year-old will disown what she wrote when she was 14. And I was feeling terrible that I was wasting their work. In March 2006, I decided to take a sabbatical and do a call for essays to see once and for all if it would work.

I knew that to sell the idea, I needed the actual essays. So I sent out an e-mail to a few dozen friends and asked them to spread the word. I got 800 essays in six weeks. That’s the difference between the young writers and the professional writers — the girls write on the spot. They’re creating these bodies of personal written work daily. Blogging and social media have taken away the fear of putting something on paper.

OJR: How did you work with the writers?

Goldwasser: I’d tell them to write about whatever they want. I’d maybe offer a little direction, like tell me about a few things you’re into. The girls would respond, then I’d pick out one of the things and I’d get a completely new essay in an hour. They saw this kind of personal writing as an outgrowth of blogging. You know, I’m furious about the NEA report that said Americans are reading less and less. It fails to acknowledge new media. The girls in the book don’t consider themselves as writers. The Internet takes the preciousness of “writing” away. If you could see these essays annotated — some of these were cut and pasted from 50 e-mails. Especially with the girls, they’ll write, “He’s cool.” And I’ll say, tell me why. Tell me three cool things you’ve seen him do and hear him say. You do have to pry out the specifics. A positive that comes from all the Internet use is that nothing’s trivial. They have opinions on everything. There’s nothing weird about blogging about a movie they just saw or . It’s making more interesting writers — chroniclers of the everyday. Writers know that the key is to wake up and write every day. The girls already do that.

OJR: How do the girls feel about their most intimate secrets published?

Goldwasser: In a way, they weren’t concerned enough. It’s another thing the Internet has done — they’re so used to being published that I almost had to take many steps back and go to great lengths to make sure they know what they’re doing. Online, you’re using a username. This is different. You’re putting this into a book forever in the adult world. Their kids and their grandmas will read this. I think they handle it fine on the Internet, but when you transfer this to a book, things are a bit different. They put their full names on their essays. We had to change other distinguishing characteristics — for example, I couldn’t show off who was from the small towns.

OJR: Would it have been possible to do this book if it were teenage boys writing?

Goldwasser: That’s the big question right now. I started with girls because it was easier — it was an experiment from home. This is just the first book in a series. There’s going to be one about boys and then maybe by geographic locations — like a New York volume. One of the cool things is that every one of the 58 authors has a blog. The website is really at the heart of it. It’s a full-on social network like Facebook. Girls and boys can submit work — including photos or videos — constantly. We’ll connect them with professionals, an editor or music supervisor. The “best of” will be published in professionally edited books. Separating media is a very adult imposed thing. The girls — they don’t see the distinction. They just work in multimedia. We’re also looking into adapting Red for theatre.

I think the Internet is the best thing to happen to book publishing, and I’m quite upset about that Doris Lessing quote [“… the Internet, which has seduced a whole generation with its inanities so that even quite reasonable people will confess that, once they are hooked, it is hard to cut free, and they may find a whole day has passed in blogging etc…”]. The younger generation does buy books and they buy books regularly. And they talk to each other. Everyone’s bemoaning the death of the book review. I feel like this generation — they’re all natural reviewers. They’ll start looking to each other more. It’s been so cool to watch it happen.

OJR: Do you think there is a lack of female voices in online journalism?

Goldwasser: The thing that really gets to me is the lack of female humor. There’s this idea that for women to be taken seriously they have to be serious.

OJR: Has the book been met with any negative reactions?

Goldwasser: People are uncomfortable with female sexuality. One girl, Eliza Appleton, wrote an essay on grinding [republished on Salon]. People got really upset with her. On the message boards they were saying where’s her mother, and things like that.

Another thing is adults really want to label the girls. We’ve gotten these false charges, like why are the girls from New York all white and liberal? That’s just unfounded. This book is as multi-anything as any collection. If a girl doesn’t write about race, people assume she’s white. It’s a weird reverse racism.

About Jean Yung

Hi there, I am a Master's student in Print Journalism at USC Annenberg.

After seven sublimely bone-chilling, atom-stopping years in Chicago (as an undergrad at the University of Chicago and a business consultant for Deloitte), I can truly appreciate LA's tedious sunshine!