Thirsting for the Written Word
It is finally raining today. Not a heavy rain, but it is lightly falling onto the hardened concrete and parched landscape, greeting every groove and crevice as if each drop is saying, “I’m here, because you needed me.” There is relief that comes when a dry land finally feels the precipitation. It is the same when a person is thirsting for their own kind of rain. Like when a runner, after a long hiatus, runs until they feel the burning air in their lungs and electricity in their limbs. Or when an artist puts brush to canvas, and with a single stroke, they transport themselves to another world. For a writer, it is when they get up before the sun rises, and plant the seeds of their thoughts. When pen touches paper, the writer feels rain, and they watch those seeds grow.
Just as plants need water to survive, writers need to write. In her essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” Joan Didion pens, “The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself. I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle. . . . Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether.” There is nothing like feeding the source of a writer’s creativity and thoughts, letting the words drip onto a page naturally, like a droplet dripping down a flower petal. I have always understood that this part of a writer’s life is instinctual, and I knew early on that for me the written word was my lifeblood and my sustenance.
I had many early experiences with writing. At a young age, I coveted every birthday and Christmas card, stowing them away in shoeboxes and unearthing them more times than I can count. I became pen pals with my great aunt Mary in middle school and high school; I can still feel the heightened excitement when I heard my father’s footsteps coming in from work, mail in hand, and I saw the envelope with my name in her beautiful cursive, and smelling hints of her scent off of the paper—those too, have been stored in a box. Now that she has passed, I get to hold them forever, tracing every letter and knowing her words will always be in the palm of my hand. These behaviors were not learned for me. They were instincts I knew to trust. I knew that within someone’s words, I felt comfort. Fortunately for me, this behavior was nurtured, and I have my grandparents and family to thank for being the writer, and the advocate of the written word, that I am today.
This need to write has carried me through my journey in my undergraduate career and into my graduate work. However, my studies have led me down an unexpected path. In this new experience, I have discovered a new kind of nourishment, one as surprising as a downpour in the middle of July, and even more glorious. Over the turbulent summer of 2020, I began a virtual internship with 826LA, a non-profit writing organization in Los Angeles. 826LA’s mission is to support students of all ages with their creative writing. They provide many services, such as in-school and after-school tutoring and workshops. They also provide publishing services to students, and their goal as a community small press is to strengthen each student’s voice and create a community of young writers and artists. As an intern, I was able to be a part of the publishing process; my main job was being copyeditor of both a zine and chapbook. Starting out on these projects, I did not know the differences between these two mediums. A zine is defined as a noncommercial, homemade or online publication that specializes in unconventional subject matter, while a chapbook is a small book consisting of ballads, poems, short stories, and/or tales. I did not realize how much of the literary and publishing world I did not yet know, and had yet to uncover. As I began to learn what these terms meant, and how these literary forms provided actual spaces for students, I was able to understand how impactful these projects would be.
826LA provides this small press service for two high schools in the Los Angeles area; the first is Manual Arts High School. Manual Arts High School has 1,339 students total. 99% of them are students of color, and 416 students (31.1%) are English Language Learners. Manual Arts is also a Title I School, meaning that 1,198 students (89.5%) qualify for the free/reduced lunch program. There is a prevalence of food insecurity among youth and families, and fresh food options are scarce. Chicas Verdes, a green space and sustainability community, has been serving students at Manual Arts by empowering them to grow their food, live sustainably, and in turn, reverse the food desert. They also have created a community garden on campus where they teach students how to be advocates for environmental justice. 826LA has collaborated with Chicas Verdes to provide small press services for students. The zine, titled As Long As Hope Grows, is a collection of works with themes of sustainability, environmental justice, and green spaces, which demonstrates how the youth can use art and community to bring progressive action to local government.
The second school that I worked with is Roosevelt High School, also in the Los Angeles area. Due to COVID, I was never able to visit the campus, or meet the students in person. I met everyone virtually, and learned about the authors' lives through their writing. I grew to understand their spaces and places. This school has 1,278 students total, with 226 students (17.7%) as English Language Learners. Their free/reduced lunch program serves 1,209 students, which is 94.6% of their enrollment. Roosevelt created its first Ethnic Studies course to accurately represent the diversity and history of California students. The chapbook I worked on marked Roosevelt’s fifth collaboration with 826LA; the course and chapbook series started back in 2014. This ongoing series of selected stories touches on sensitive topics, such as the foster care system, economic hardships, food insecurity, the ongoing fight against systemic racism and inequity, and what is the most recent affliction to our global community—the Coronavirus. These topics are all written about through the perspectives and themes of resiliency, re-imagination, and resistance. The discourse produced by students not only gives them the opportunity to share their stories by writing, but also to create a community with their peers and their families, who are all living in the same conditions.
While I continued through the copyediting process, I learned the process of publishing, and the delicacy needed in order to honor youth writing. Students shared such intimate parts of their lives that I felt the weight of responsibility as the editor for young voices. Who was I to make editorial decisions about how these students felt, or how they wanted to be heard? However, I soon remembered the most powerful aspect of the written word, and why it is such a gift. I remembered that an author does not create a single sentence without an intention behind every word. The author is the one who feels the rain when their words are written, and it is the editor's job to just make sure the sky stays open for that downpour. To create something beautiful, yes, we need the authors to make the rain fall, but we need editors and publishers to create the spaces for it to rain, and to bring the people who thirst for it. It became my personal mission to edit and publish these stories, keeping in mind that the voices of young dreamers, artists, and activists need to be heard. I not only felt delighted to be the one reading these works, but I also felt a sense of purpose. I felt the tremendous honor of getting to absorb these stories before they made their way out into the world. Other than editing works, I also had the duty of finding “gems,” as 826LA calls them, little pieces of greatness. These gems are meant to be pulled both for marketing purposes, and to inspire more works and collaborations in the future. As editor, I can say it was not hard finding these pieces of greatness, and in fact, each story shone in its own magical way.
Through this surprising experience of editing and publishing, I have come to find my passion, that instinctual feeling of what I am meant to do: to put forth works of writers who have things to say, but need a space to say them. Finding this Truth brought me back to reading philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who described the feeling of finding his purpose and knowing when he found it: “it must come alive in me, and this is what I now recognize as the most important of all. This is what my soul thirsts for as the African deserts thirst for water.” I have come to find that although I felt my first rain through writing, there is more to discover, not only in this field, but in this world; reading another person’s words and empathizing with someone else’s feelings is itself a meaningful contribution. And most of all, I want to support artists and create space for them. This is where my real purpose comes in: I’ll use my artistry to create a community where all voices can be heard, and all authors can be seen.
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- Joan Didion, “On Keeping a Notebook,” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays, (New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 132.↵
- Merriam Webster Dictionary Online, s.v. “Zine, n.,” last modified November 1 2021, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/zine.↵
- Merriam Webster Dictionary Online, s.v. “Chapbook, n.,” last modified October 4, 2021, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/chapbook.↵
- “School Profile: Manual Arts Senior High,” California Department of Education, accessed April 30, 2021, https://www.cde.ca.gov/sdprofile/details.aspx?cds=19647331935519.↵
- “School Profile: Roosevelt High,” California Department of Education, accessed April 30, 2021, https://dq.cde.ca.gov/dataquest/SpringData/StudentsByLanguage.aspx?Level=School&TheYear=2020-21&SubGroup=All&ShortYear=1920&GenderGroup=B&RecordType=EL&CDSCode=19647331935519.↵
- Rachel Mendelsohn, “Welcome to the Writers’ Room at Roosevelt High School.” 826LA, March 7, 2019, http://826la.org/welcome-to-the-writers-room-at-roosevelt-high-school/. ↵
- Søren Kierkegaard, The Essential Kierkegaard, ed. Edna H. Hong and Howard V. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2000), 8. ↵