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50-for-50 interview: Keren Taylor, visionary

How does someone look into the very same future the rest of us do and see something entirely different? How does someone coping with the same struggles of the present—personal, financial, political—somehow manage to forge ahead and realize her spectacular vision despite the odds against her? I suppose Keren Taylor is as good a person as anyone to ask. In the days and weeks following 9/11, while many people rose up in anger, she had a different response: what if we saw this as a call to create more meaning, to pour ourselves into creating a future full of love and meaning rather than fear and hatred? Over these past challenging ten years, she has slowly and quietly brought her dream to fruition, teaching hundreds of girls the gift of knowing one’s own voice and believing in one’s ability to speak it, helping them to build a foundation of self-confidence, giving them a chance at higher education, and above all, instilling in them the knowledge that they are loved and valuable human beings with the talent and heart to change the world. Yes, we could ask her to explain how she has done what she has done. But I would suggest that instead, we leave her to do the work she was so clearly born to do, and perhaps take up the challenge to find the work that will allow us to be similarly focused and useful. Because Keren Taylor is busy. And because there is so much more to be done.

When did you decide to become a writer?

In high school, I was asked to join an afterschool group that was tasked with reading all the books on the reading list for the 10th grade. There wasn’t a single female author in the list, and very few female characters worth remembering. I was shocked. I think that was when I decided to be a writer. Since then, I think I’ve had many more moments of re-committing to be a writer – when I wrote that poem about moonlight that I really loved, when I was first published in a literary journal, when I performed my original music at Kenny’s Castaways in the Village and people stopped in the doorway to listen, when I had a profile published in a newspaper and picked it up at a newsstand on 42nd Street in New York.

Who was your favorite teacher?

I’ve had so many fantastic teachers, I can’t just pick one. When I was 22, I took a clowning workshop with a professional contemporary clown (no whiteface or jumbo shoes, just a wonky character). She was free and creative and I learned a lot from her about how to let go and explore the world with intense curiosity and honesty. I learned about “carving” poetry from Carol Celluci. She’s a wonderful poetry teacher – intense, demanding, focused, funny and encouraging – all the qualities a great teacher should have! I learned about abandon from an art course with assemblage artist George Herms, and I still study mosaic assemblage with Carol Machado. She has many techniques for smashing plates and even more for how to glue and anchor them into a tableau. Writing, too, is about taking things apart and putting them back together again, in your own way, in your own words.

What do you love to write about?

Really old people, myself, food, the desert, love, loss, rocks, water, palm trees, strangers, dogs, characters in Russian Folk Tales, small foreign towns, advertising and people who live in Glendale. I shortened the list so you could print it on the blog and not run out of space.

What has writing taught you?

It would be easier to list what writing hasn’t taught me. Most of all, writing has showed me how thoughts can be organized and made real, when you write them down. WriteGirl came into being because I wrote a plan down on paper and took it out of my head and into the world. Writing makes you think about the outcomes of your ideas, not just the ideas themselves, since writing seeks a destination, an end point.

How has writing made you stronger?

Writing has helped me through falling in love, handling a divorce, moving across the country, losing a job, finding my passion, losing myself / finding myself (ongoing), understanding my deepest friendships, learning how to be honest and when not to tell the whole truth, accepting the range of thoughts that come up in the stillness in the middle of a Los Angeles night, forgetting vital details, remembering more than I thought I would, figuring out how to talk to my brother, realizing I do not control my relationship with my brother, and gratefulness for all that I have, amongst many other things. Even now, just these moments of writing these responses is teaching me about myself and my path. Today, I read a poem that one of our teen girls wrote for one of the donors of the 50 for 50 campaign. It was fresh, sensitive and surprising and I was moved by how evocative it was, even though she was writing about a 45-year marriage. It reminded me instantly about the power of words, the power of a writer who has poured herself into the page. A single poem can make us stronger – I was reminded of that today.

If you could go back in time and tell 10-year-old you anything, what would it be?

Write every day. Write on napkins or newspaper or journals or placemats. Write about what you are feeling, what you see, what you think, what you want, what you hate, what you love, what you are missing. Don’t let anyone tell you that writing has to have a goal or a purpose. Just write, and goals and purpose will reveal itself to you.

What are your five favorite books, blogs or things to read?

Don’t leap to judgment, but I love the book Women Who Run With The Wolves for wisdom and insights into archetypes. Whenever I read a chapter of that book, I have epiphanies and questions about where I’m headed and where I’ve come from. I read the Philanthropy Chronicle, to learn more about nonprofits and trends in charitable giving. I read The Guardian and the BBC online, to get a different perspective on world news. I read the Daily Ohm for a few paragraphs of calm. I read “Flipboard” on my iPad for a wide variety of eclectic articles and news.

Keren Taylor is the Executive Director of WriteGirl, a nonprofit organization that promotes creativity and self-expression to empower girls. With over fifteen years of experience in arts education, public relations, sales, marketing, event planning, freelance writing and editing, she founded WriteGirl in 2001. Carefully overseeing its expansion for 10 years, Keren has grown WriteGirl into a thriving organization that helps hundreds of Los Angeles girls annually. Passionate about inspiring others to cultivate their creative ideas, she has conducted hundreds of creative writing workshops for youth and adults, and led staff development workshops on literacy programming for the California School-age Consortium, California Department of Education, the Los Angeles County Office of Education, and the New York Partnership for After School Education, among others.

Keren is the recipient of numerous accolades, including the Humanitas Philanthropy Prize, President’s Volunteer Call to Service Award, and Soroptimist International’s Woman of Distinction Award.  An accomplished poet, her work has appeared in many literary journals as well as So Luminous the Wildflowers – An Anthology of California Poetry. Keren has performed her original music nationwide with her a capella vocal group, The Trembles, and as a solo artist.  She has designed the covers of all ten WriteGirl anthologies, which have won more than 33 book awards. Keren holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of British Columbia and a Piano Performance degree from the Royal Conservatory of Toronto.

Raising $50,000 in 50 days for an amazing group of girls