Cheryl Werber helps girl-identified teen writers connect through the written word with free, weekly Girls Write Pittsburgh workshops. Their organizational team is trained in youth mental health first aid and support, and they encourage the writers to take up space, write and read, and grow!
Cheryl has a Master’s Degree in non-profit organizational leadership, is a creative non-fiction writer, and she’s working on a portfolio about her family’s home in the hopes of entering the MFA program at Carlow. When she wants to play around with writing, she writes fan-fiction.
I find her work fascinating, so I asked if she’d do an interview, and she said yes!
PersephoneKnits: How did you end up at Girls Write Pittsburgh?
Cheryl Werber: Girls Write Pittsburgh is the brainchild of Vivian Lee Croft. I got involved in the organization when we became coworkers, about two years ago. Like me growing up in the south, we both wanted some sort of safe space for writing. I sorely wanted this program when I was a teen. And actually, when I was googling writing workshops, Girls Write Pittsburgh was one of the first things that popped up in my results. At first, I thought I was going to be doing behind the scenes sort of stuff — which I am more comfortable with, to be honest — but then one day, she asked me to be a co-facilitator of our second location.
When she asked, I said sure – because sometimes, you just say yes without really thinking about it. Andrea, was the lead facilitator, and I was there for back-up. But then my spouse fell and broke both his kneecaps – I don’t recommend doing it. He broke his kneecaps a total of three times within a span of six months. During this time, I had to take a step back to help care for him. When I returned, Andrea wanted to take a break. So, I was the sole facilitator of the Garfield workshop. Eeek!
PK: What types of writing happens in the workshops?
CW: Our writers like no, love, the weird. The weirder the better.
Sam is my co-facilitator and she is the first person to graduate from Carlow with an MFA focused on SFF. I famously tried to introduce other genres to the group to a spectacular failure. Perhaps, I shouldn’t have started with romance! But, whatever. Sam and I work hard to discuss writing, genres, tropes, why we dislike Hemingway, and if I accidentally fridged one of my characters. (We never answered the question. I think I did, and therefore have to rewrite her character.)
Usually, we have themes during the semester. Each workshop is different, and if something doesn’t work, we learn from it for next time. For us in Garfield, our writers love the prompts and the discussions we have about writing. Oh, did I mention that every other week we have outside mentors come in and work with our writers?
PK: This sound so wonderful. And inspiring! Do you find it seeps into your own work?
CW: Talking about writing to a group of teens who are just starting out makes me think. I believe – hopefully – that it tightens it up; that it makes my writing clearer; that I’m just generally more aware. Does that make sense?
Writing isn’t easy – duh – and the writers are finding that out. I throw a prompt at them like “write a story using only the second tense,” and you can see how they’re more aware of what they are doing.
Sam and I work the prompts, and the mentors too, when they are there. I like to think that writing – at least once a week – is helping all of us become better writers.
PK: Will you share an example from your own writing life with us?
CW: I’m taking the summer off from creative non-fiction to focus on the novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo in 2017. I started writing it while sitting next to my spouse while he was recovering in the hospital. It’s a spy novel – think Queen & Country by Greg Rucka – with an Asian American protagonist. But the more I wrote it, the more I realized that I wanted to see someone like me on the page — a Filipino American woman. I was never going to see a Filipino American woman as a protagonist in this type of novel unless I wrote it. So, I rewrote her, and there I was represented on the page. Earlier in the interview, I mentioned a character that I may or may not have accidentally fridged, that character was the protagonist’s sister. I’m still working on her. That novel, and the sequel that I wrote during NaNoWriMo 2018, is what I’m working on during the summer.
PK: Many of our readers have to balance writing with the day job. Have you carved out a writing schedule or do you squeeze it in when you can?
CW: If I had my way, I’d stay up late to write and get up late to start my day. But, I don’t. I’d love to carve out a writing schedule, but I squeeze it in when I can. My mornings are full, and I am never at my best. So, I get my exercise out of the way when I don’t really need to use my brains. I try to write in the evenings after everything is done (dinner, etc.) but most of the time by then I am tired and want to just go to sleep.
I have a standing meeting with a a group of writer friends on Saturday nights at 6 pm. Most of the time, it’s just me, but I’ve made a deal with myself to sit down and do some writing with or without others. I’ve got my journal on me all the time, which serves as my agenda/calendar/diary/writing space/everything when I can’t get to my laptop and lately, I’ve been using my phone to write. It’s not my favorite way to write but it does the job just fine until I can get home.
Please consider supporting a writing group for youth in your area or a prison program. Check in with your local library and after-school programs. Words are seeds, and help us grow better communities!