Writing To Make a Difference
By Alex Baker, Shelly Bhagat, Daniel Boyko, and Anika Mukker
How many of you out there know the feeling of writing something special — a poem, a short story, a full-length novel or something else entirely — that you’ve poured your heart and soul into? A piece of writing that makes your imagination take flight, that reverberates inside of you until you let the words out, that makes your heart race as you read it back… but no one to share it with?
If that sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone — especially if you’re a teenager. Writing is almost always seen as a solitary activity, and whilst there are many creative writing groups for adults, there’s comparatively little for teens that are just starting to write. Aside from websites to publish their work, like Wattpad and Archive of Our Own, what options do teen writers have to share their love of storytelling with others?
That’s why my efforts to make a difference in the world are focused on bringing young writers together. In 2014, I set up Igniting Writing, a creative writing club for 11-18 year olds in the county of Berkshire in the UK. The club is based at Wokingham Library, and before the COVID-19 pandemic, we would meet every week. The club provides teens the chance to write as part of a group by sharing ideas, developing their writing skills and building friendships with other aspiring young writers in a fun, relaxed atmosphere.
Sessions are completely free, and each week we focus on a different topic, giving members the chance to draw prompts from a hat and spark their own ideas. For example, a session on similes and metaphors would use two prompts that the group members would combine together and form a writing task to make an extended metaphor. The first prompt would be the beginning (e.g. ‘Describe the feeling of drowsiness…’ or ‘Describe the sensation of being unclean…’) and the second prompt would be the end (e.g. ‘…as if it was a wild animal’ or ‘…as if it was a snowglobe’). Other times, the prompts are meant to be silly; a session on horror writing might have prompts based on made-up B-movie titles, which the group draws at random and then writes stories for — what young writer wouldn’t fancy a crack at ‘Revenge of the Voodoo Lawnmower’ or ‘My Sister and the Undead Flamenco Dancers’? Making each session self-contained helps new members integrate without feeling like they’ve missed out. It’s also great to show the group members genres they’ve never experienced before — not many teens will have tried writing historical fiction, for example, so one session on the topic acts as a nice introduction.
Igniting Writing also leads regular writing competitions and collaborations (including an international collaboration with Lake Erie Ink and the Young Writers’ Project in the USA and being featured as part of the Wokingham Children’s Book Festival’s 2019 programme) and creative writing ‘taster sessions’ in dozens of local schools. In addition, Igniting Writing has forged strong links with the local writing community by inviting in local authors, poets, and literary agents as guest speakers to our events. By hearing a range of advice and experiences from so many knowledgeable writers, teens get the chance to develop their writing skills by questioning and writing alongside the experts. I’ve learnt plenty from them too!
Over the years I’ve done plenty of different kinds of volunteering, from helping out at school fetes to working in charity shops, but what makes Igniting Writing special to me is that it’s something I can do. I’m not going to pretend I’m an amazing writer, but nonetheless, I’m able to fill a niche, a role, a purpose, something that nobody else in the local area is doing. A lot of teens that join Igniting Writing for the first time are shy, awkward or lonely, feeling out of place at school — I know I certainly was. But around other young writers, they often slowly but surely open up, expressing themselves in an environment where they and their creativity are welcomed.
Currently, the coronavirus restrictions mean that Wokingham Library can’t host our sessions. However, Igniting Writing is still active. We’ve started holding monthly sessions online for young writers to dial in, and have arranged several writing challenges, from quickfire writing games laid out in the style of a bingo board to a multi-chaptered fantasy roleplay story. We have plenty more planned in the future, so check out Igniting Writing online at the links below to stay updated.
As students, we are at such a pivotal point in our lives. The world is no longer filled with the fantasies and reveries of childhood. The real world is full of arduous challenges that put our determination to the test every single day. At times, it can be hard for us to find someone who understands our burden.
Mental health is such a misunderstood and overlooked topic, which is what makes it such a sensitive and stigmatized issue. It is hard to express vulnerability when you feel as if the whole world is judging you. I wanted to change that by encouraging people to seek help when they are struggling.
Last year, I started an initiative called MIST (Mental Illness Support for Teenagers) with my friend, Siri Battula. We strive to raise awareness of mental health issues in our generation and combat stigma. MIST has presented to high school students in India, Singapore, and the United States. The presentation covers basic information about mental illness and how students can receive or lend help. Every few months, we release a magazine-like newsletter with student perspectives on an issue that our generation faces (e.g. loneliness, body image, etc.). Together with other student-run mental health organizations, we also work on collaboration projects such as Q&A’s with professionals and fundraising efforts. Currently, we are working on starting student-run chapters in high schools in St. Louis, Missouri — where we are located — and beyond.
Perhaps the most powerful thing about this organization is that it’s 100% student-run, and meant for our own peers. I remember the first time that I presented alone in Singapore, shaking and sweating with stage fright. I did not expect my speech to have any sort of impact on the students, yet I was met with the opposite effect. After the presentation, we asked our audience to fill out a survey for feedback. The students had very positive reactions; many said that the presentation had helped them understand their own mental health issues or an issue that a friend was facing. That was when I realized the tremendous impact that I had on these students as a student myself. To them, I was no expert or professional. I wasn't someone who devoted their life to the study of the human mind. I was a student, just like them: a student who was just trying to get through high school. To my audience, I was almost like a friend.
It takes a lot of courage to stand up for something that you believe in, but once you do so, you're already on your way to changing the world. When one person stands up to what is right, it ignites a spark so powerful that it inspires other people to follow suit. I remember that I was leaving a presentation once when a girl came up to me in an elevator, describing how my bravery to stand up for such a sensitive issue inspired her to do the same. I remember that after we presented in an Indian cultural center in St. Louis, many of the students came up to us afterwards and asked how they could get involved with MIST and spread our initiative to their communities.
Me, I'm just your ordinary, quirky, nerdy high school girl who spends way too much time watching Netflix and scrolling through Instagram. I have never been super extroverted, and my legs still shake whenever I speak in front of a large group of people. Yet I possess the ability to change the world with my words and actions. And so do you.
If you would like to get involved with MIST by starting a MIST chapter in your school (wherever you are in the world!) or contributing to one of our newsletters, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are a part of a mental health initiative or organization and would like to collaborate with us on a project or join our alliance of mental health initiatives, feel free to email us as well! We also have other volunteer and leadership opportunities from time to time, so if you are interested, feel free to send us an email!
To learn more information about any of our programs, please visit our website: https://mist-support.weebly.com/
Check out our Instagram (@mist_teens): https://www.instagram.com/mist_teens/?hl=en
While I have not made as much of a difference as the very, very talented people above, I believe little things also contribute to changing the world. I have been a volunteer at Mt. Pleasant Animal Shelter, a local no-kill shelter in New Jersey that is committed to rescuing dogs and cats and providing them with forever homes. As the proud owner of a rescue dog myself, I unapologetically feel that it’s of the utmost importance that shelters are well supported by those who believe in their mission and goals. Despite age requirements that have prevented me from coming into direct contact with the animals, I have still volunteered for over 50 hours at the shelter, and I was scheduled to do more before the COVID-19 pandemic happened. Usually, I do laundry (mostly mountains of towels) and wash dishes. I believe that tasks like this help serve as the foundation of the organization and help improve the lives of the animals. In the end, that’s what matters to me.
If you’re interested in making a donation, volunteering, or helping in any way, here’s a link below to their home page:
Here’s a link to their Facebook as well:
And here’s a photo of my rescue dog:
As someone who loves to read and write, I think one of the most powerful things you can do is help others find their own voice. Before the pandemic hit, I volunteered at a local elementary school, serving as a mentor for students enrolled in an afterschool program. Not only was I able to help the kids with their schoolwork, but I also got to read along with them during their mandatory reading time. From seeing them debate about who got to read the next page to watching their faces light up when they pronounced a challenging word correctly, my experiences with that program have been incredibly gratifying. Even though sitting along with an elementary schooler for a mandated 30 minute story time might not eradicate our world’s biggest problems, helping those kids find their voice and fostering a love for reading is extremely important to me. It’s my way of giving back to my community.
I vividly remember one particular day. It was rather gloomy, I was stressed about a big test coming up, and I was seriously considering skipping before I ultimately decided to go. I walked into the classroom and sat down with my table group: three second graders who were not very excited to do their work. Nonetheless, we kicked off with reading time. As one of the boys started, he was struggling to say some of the words, so I naturally tried to guide him. After he finished up that page, his face beamed with immense pride, and he started trying to help out his friends while they were reading out loud. He also kept trying to convince me to skip over his peers’ turns so he could read an extra page, and once the storytime was up he asked me, “Can I read some more?” That one question made me realize that I helped someone find part of their voice, and showed me how my efforts left some sort of mark on the world.
The program was largely made possible due to face-to-face interaction, and many of the kids relied on this time to get necessary educational, emotional, and physical help. Although the effect of the ongoing pandemic on this program (and similar ones) is unknown, there’s still a lot we can do to provide similar support for those who may need it. Whether it be reaching out to students you notice are struggling, contacting teachers about collaborating on virtual tutoring initiatives, donating school supplies, or simply lending a helping hand, any action, no matter how small, can make a big difference.
What about you? How have you made a difference in the world?
Alex Baker is a First Reader at Polyphony Lit and and a blogger at Voices.
Anika Mukker is a First Reader at Polyphony Lit and and a blogger at Voices.
Shelly Bhagat is a First Reader at Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.
Daniel Boyko is an Executive Managing Editor at Polyphony Lit and a blogger at Voices.