This week, we welcomed Louise Story, a reporter at The New York Times, back to the classroom for a special visit with two classes at The Young Women’s Leadership School in Queens. Her message – that your voice can outlive you – resonated deeply with the students.
Katie Rainey, one of our amazing Teaching Artists, started the classes off with the regular five-minute free writes. However, she added a twist to this one and asked them to write a “free write within a free write”. The students were very creative in their approach, with one drawing the words “free write” within larger characters of “free write” and others musing on what a “free write” even means. They may not have known it, but they were practicing “metafiction,” Katie told them, promising to return to that topic in future classes.
Louise spent the rest of the class talking about her sister-in-law, Lily’s, novel. The book was finished just before Lily passed away, and her family subsequently published it. It’s a murder mystery set in Newfoundland featuring werewolves and people with super powers. But more than that, it’s a book about standing up for yourself in the face of bullying.
Lily began writing the book when she was in high school, around the same age as the students in the class. She had not had the easiest path, because she was born with some learning disabilities that meant she couldn’t do math. But she could write, and she loved to read, so she began her book on her own initiative. She had been bullied in high school, so she wanted to write a book that would be helpful to people who are bullied.
Louise pointed out that writing is something you can do even if you aren’t great at math.
“All you need for writing is your voice as your ideas. This is liberating,” she said.
And she noted that lots of things from Lily’s own life – a favorite class in forensics, a trip to Newfoundland, her siblings – became fodder for her book.
“Good writing comes out of what you know,” Louise noted, adding however that the longer Lily worked on the book the characters took on a life of their own and became different from the people they’d been based on.
Lily worked on the book for about seven years and had just finished it when she passed away in early 2015. The book, dug out of her computer, turned out to be:
“A gift to us and a gift to the world,” Louise said. “There she was. There were her jokes. There was her voice.”
Lily’s parents chimed in with some thoughts about why Lily wrote the book and why they published it on Amazon.
“She wanted kids to know that there is life after middle and high school. And afterwards you can do what you want,” said her mother, Beverly. “Reading this is a comfort to me.”
Lily’s family passed out copies to all of the students. Several responded that they were psyched to read it — which was so heart-warming after hearing the backstory on the book and its author.
As Louise noted, “With writing, you can leave your voice behind.”