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Jewess » The Weekly 7: Rebecca Segall, Writopia Lab Jewess

The Weekly 7: Rebecca Segall, Writopia Lab Jewess


by Rebecca Honig Friedman

rebeccasegall.jpgRebecca Segall is the founder of Writopia Lab, a writing workshop program for tweens and teens in New York City, and an extremely accomplished writer in her own right.
She began writing for publications as an intern at The Village Voice in 1997 and has since contributed five cover stories, in addition to numerous features and news stories, to the weekly newspaper. She has also contributed to dozens of other magazines and newspapers, including New York Magazine, Salon.com, and The Nation, and she won Salon’s “Best People Story of the Year Award” for “Love Labor’s Flossed.”
Rebecca also served as Senior Editor at Psychology Today Magazine, was a columnist for the (now defunct) PsychologyNetwork.com, and became a Journalism Fellow at Brandeis University in 1999.
In 2003, she entered the world of comedy writing, and began writing and performing sketch comedy around NYC, winning a “Best Sketch” competition at the Upright Citizens Brigade in 2006. A full-length comedic screenplay she co-wrote is currently being represented by The Dorothy Palmer Agency.

Rebecca founded WritopiaLab in April 2007. She currently directs the organization and teaches its nonfiction and fiction workshops. Previously, Rebecca established the creative writing program at the Abraham Joshua Heschel Middle School on the Upper West Side of Manhattan as a consultant. While she was there, the program outperformed every other school in the city (including every elite public and private institution) in Scholastic’s Art & Writing Awards competition. She was awarded recognition from The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards as an “outstanding educator” in 2006 and 2007.

Below, Rebecca gives us the scoop on the Writopia Lab (which just held a reading at Barnes and Noble — see pictures below), explains why creative writing is important for kids and ruminates on the differences between teenage boys and teenage girls.

writopia-kids.jpg

1. JEWESS: How did you come to start the Writopia lab?
REBECCA SEGALL: Two years ago, a few of my students from the creative writing program at the A.J. Heschel School emailed me their pieces over their winter break hoping for feedback. Apparently, neither they nor I had left the city for the holiday so I decided to get them together for a “Winter Writing Workshop.” It turned out to be an amazing experience, so we began planning more and more. As I fell deeper and deeper in love with this approach to learning, I realized that I wanted to do it full time, and to include a diverse group of kids. Finally last spring, I began integrating serious young writers from across the city into the workshops, and become a nonprofit organization. Everything moved quickly from there: Scholastic’s Art & Writing Awards promoted us at their awards ceremony in April, Barnes & Noble invited our kids to read there periodically, Bard High School Early College invited me in to speak about the program to their students in May, several programs for gifted public school students spread the word, and by June, 35 new young creatives (ages 11-19) burst through Writopia Lab’s doors excited to attend one- or two-week long intensive summer workshops. We are still running weekly workshops throughout the fall on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Sundays. (BTW, Heschel or former Heschel students still represent half of my students!)

2. Why is it important to encourage young people to write? Is this encouragement they’re not getting elsewhere?
Kids are encouraged to write — but not creatively. Most English programs offer hours and hours of expository writing and a period here and there throughout the school year of creative time. That’s not enough. Kids need serious time to decompress, to play, to get lost in their imagination. My students complain about the stress of hours and hours of homework but then stay up late at night happily typing away at their creative writing pieces. This is what they want to be doing. And it is only good for their brains: they learn to apply linear themes, abstract concepts, and technical writing skills to their fantasy worlds. What makes for better, fuller, more enjoyable learning than that?

3. Do you notice any difference in the way boys and girls take to the program or the kinds of things they like to write about?
Great question. When it comes to subject, no. The writers have surprisingly distinct sensibilities: I have female scifi writers and deeply reflective male memoirists. But the obvious difference is that fewer boys join the program; I haven’t done an official count but it must
be something like 1 in 4. Another thing: the girls join almost always on their own volition while many of the younger boys have been coaxed to attend by parents. But my teenage boys (13 +) come with as much enthusiasm and dedication, and with as many talents and quirks as the girls. And I don’t think they mind being outnumbered.

4. Why do you think the disparity between enrollment exists?
I am not sure why. Perhaps it is because good memoir and fiction writing demands that the writer takes risks (both emotional and literary)… and that process can make any writer — young or old — feel vulnerable. Tween and teenage guys are dealing with so many emotional issues as they become men, and don’t always have the same social/supportive outlets that girls do. In general, they seem to feel less emotionally safe among their peers in the classroom. BUT, over the last four years of teaching memoir and fiction in public and private schools, I have met many boys who have taken to story-telling easily. And I have worked with girls who had a hard time revealing their personal journeys on paper and/or losing themselves in fictional prose. Both the guys and the girls who choose to write at Writopia Lab have found a safe space to write sometimes funny, sometimes serious, but always emotionally honest, poetic prose.

5. Do you have your Jewish students (from the Heschel school) write about Jewish subjects?
I don’t have them write about Jewish themes, but many of them take them on on their own… Several boys have written memoirs about buying their first pair of t’fillin with their fathers; several girls have written short stories that take place during the Holocaust. They write about what’s on their mind, in their hearts. I just help them flesh their stories out with compelling plots and characters… and help them tell the stories as gracefully and clearly as possible.

6. What advice do you have for young, or old, writers as far as how to get started?
Join or create a workshop in order to connect with other writers. It is hard to begin writing–and to stay focused on writing–without the support of an enthusiastic community.

7. Which book do you wish you had written?
I can’t decide between Random Family, by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc or History of Love, by Nicole Krauss.

6 Responses to “The Weekly 7: Rebecca Segall, Writopia Lab Jewess”

  1. Nice interview
    ;)

    Ron

  2. Children need outlets for their creativity. It is good to see that, while New York City public schools are slashing arts from their collective curricula, private schools continue to realize that it is imperative to keep programs that foster creativity of students if they these children are to have opportunities when they come of age.

    Kudos, Rebecca Segall.

  3. Thanks. :-)

  4. BTW, I just want to mention that many private schools are slashing away at creative writing programs as well. In fact, Heschel cut their program dramatically after I left which is one of the reasons why Writopia Lab has so many Heschel students enrolled.

  5. Two Rebecca’s I admire meet: Rebecca Segall and Rebecca Honig Friedman …and of course I have to mention that one of Writopia’s devoted participants is my daughter, Emma Bronznick Goldberg. Al three, wonderful writers!

    Please don’t think Rebecca Segall is only commited to private school students — like our Heschel kids. She is determined to involve children from everywhere — regardless of their financial capacity — and once she gets her tax exempt status, we should all donate some funds to make that possible.

  6. Thanks, Shira! It really is a small Jewish world after all.

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