Midpoint Reflections–Writopia Lab, NYC

I write this in front of a large arched window in the New York Public Library (NYPL), St. Agnes branch, looking down at Amsterdam Ave. Until I arrived in NYC close to nine weeks ago, my connection to the NYPL didn’t go past watching PBS’s “Between the Lions” as a child; my primary understanding of streets and avenues came only from short trips into the city where I relied on others to take charge of navigating.

Nine weeks later, I can now walk alone from the 79th Street subway stop to work each day, coffee in hand, feeling the directions intuitively. I also have a New York library card to fuel my subway reading, and travel once a week to an NYPL in the Bronx to help lead free Writopia workshops for kids and teens. Each week, more areas of this enormous city become familiar as I visit them more frequently and form personal connections with them.

Though I still make mistakes with subway transfers and muddle what it means to be Queens-bound or Bronx-bound, express or local (and where is this mythical Van Cortlandt Park, anyways?), I now solve transportation problems fairly quickly, knowing how to navigate the basics of different lines and their connection points. I also have official lunch break traditions on constant rotation–I eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the park bench outside of Central Park on 81st and Columbus, paperback book in my lap. Or, I’ll get a ham and cheese croissant and sit at the communal table in Zabar’s, surrounded by elderly ladies. If I’m in a rush, I’ll go for the “P.S. 85” turkey sandwich at the Parisian Deli on Columbus, with a bag of blue Doritos.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when it happened, but I suddenly find myself at home here, settled into the routine of 9-5 work.

It’s a strange new feeling, being a 19-year old in the “world of work,” yet many of the basic emotions I feel here are similar to how I often feel in college. For starters, I constantly feel some mixture of inspiration and sleepiness, and being in a workshop setting each day requires critical thinking and attentiveness just as classes do. One difference I really appreciate, though, is how much I feel I am directly benefiting the lives of others. Though I of course have ample opportunity at Brandeis to volunteer or give back to the community through my extracurriculars and on-campus job, the basic reasoning behind college is typically to further one’s own life: a student takes classes in order to complete a major, in order to then get a job that ideally helps the student feel fulfilled. Even if that dream job is related to helping others, the student has to get to that point by working hard and focusing on their own studies and goals.

Working at Writopia this summer, one of my goals was to take a break from this college mentality and immerse myself in making a difference in the lives of the children I worked with. What I did not predict is how much of a difference they’ve made in my life, too.

Teaching Writopians in a graphic noveling class
Teaching young Writopians in a graphic noveling class

I came into this internship as an English and Creative Writing double major, with an interest in teaching but more of a passion for generating my own work. Writing has always been a creative outlet that allows me to put elements of my life in perspective, while providing a temporary escape from it. Writing helps me understand myself when I feel my mind is running in an unmanageable number of directions, and is always what I turn to in times of unhappiness.

After many weeks at Writopia, focusing entirely on the work of others, I’ve begun to rethink the role of writing and creativity in my own life. Though I still feel strongly about how much I love it, I realize now that if (realistic thoughts aside) I were to somehow manage to be just a writer for a living, it would not be enough. It is too amazing to help facilitate this process for children and teens–many of whom are experiencing the benefits of creative writing for the very first time–to not continue teaching and inspiring.

The responsibility of helping Writopians express themselves through writing and graphic noveling is something I take seriously, because I know the emotional vulnerability that a child can put into a creative piece, and how beneficial that process can be for their emotional growth and confidence. I want to help them feel safe expressing whatever they want to through their work, and proud of themselves for doing so. My internship at Writopia has not only helped me learn the NYC subway system, explore various NYPL’s, or discover places to get sandwiches–it has taught me that the act of helping another person create a piece of writing or art is just as powerful as, and often more fulfilling than, the act of creating itself.

Through the many lonely, sleepy, and even depressed moments I’ve had this summer living on my own in an often stressful city environment, it is not my own writing that got me through, but working with the campers at Writopia. When I read their amazing writing pieces, laugh with them on a picnic blanket in Central Park, or help them illustrate their imaginative and often downright weird ideas in a graphic novel, I gain inspiration and strength through their fearless, boundless creativity, their insightful comments in workshop, and their discovery of writing and art as a means of self-expression. It is indescribably rewarding to help young people reach their creative goals, big or small, and I find there is beauty and truth to each Writopian’s piece, whether it be about a talking toilet or the death of a sibling. I know now that working with and empowering the next generation of artists and writers is something I want to continue doing for the rest of my life–it allows me to feel like a mature member of the “world of work,” but with a sense of humor and emotional awareness that only a young writer can inspire.

Presenting the graphic noveling pieces at the weekly Writopia showcase
Presenting the graphic noveling pieces at the weekly Writopia showcase

My First Week at Writopia

After almost five weeks of living on my own and working in New York City, I can confidently say that accepting an internship position at Writopia Lab in Manhattan was the perfect choice for a summer job at the midpoint of my college career.


Writopia is a non-profit organization that facilitates creative writing workshops for students ages 6-18. During the school year, workshops usually take place in the afternoons. In the summer, however, the Manhattan headquarters is much busier, hosting around 40 students each week for half-day morning/afternoon workshops or all-day summer camp. Each writer finishes the week with at least one polished piece of writing, which they are then encouraged to submit to Writopia’s online literary magazines.

Writopia ultimately provides writers with a positive, safe place to express themselves intellectually and creatively, regardless of their previous writing experience. It is a diverse community of young writers who are invited to write about whatever they want without fear of censorship or not being taken seriously. Writopia writers are encouraged to challenge and empower one another through their writing, and have a lot of fun doing so.

Editing a Writopia writer's story in a morning workshop
Editing a Writopia writer’s story in a morning workshop

Interns like myself mainly work with the all-day campers. I am assigned to a workshop group of around seven writers each week, and in the mornings assist the head instructor by giving feedback on campers’ writing pieces, helping to lead writing-based games and activities, and offering typing help to those who need it (each camper is provided a Google chromebook and their own personal Writopia e-mail address so they can easily share their writing with and offer comments to their peers). Then, we break for lunch in Central Park, where interns and instructors lead the kids in writing-themed outdoor games like “character kickball.” After lunch, campers select two electives for the last portion of the camp day, with options ranging from film making to songwriting to comedy writing.

I intern in the graphic noveling elective each afternoon. In this elective, campers begin character sketches in pencil, then map out a page-long comic or story about this character, eventually inking their final work on comic book-style panels that we provide. These ink drawings are then scanned, and the graphic noveling teacher and I help the campers digitally color their work with an online program. I am also a photography intern, in charge of getting at least one photo of every camper each week and uploading them all to Facebook by the end of the week. In weeks to come, I will also be interning at two of Writopia’s outreach programs—I will assist weekly public workshops at the New York Public Library in the afternoons, and will also help with weekly workshops for homeless and at-risk youth through the Homes for the Homeless organization. Through working with these programs and the many Writopia Manhattan students, I have been exposed to an incredibly diverse and inspiring group of young writers, and I am so impressed by their creativity and talent.

This summer, I hope to expand my knowledge of creative arts and writing education, and feel more confident in my abilities as a teacher. I came into this internship with a love of writing and an interest in mentoring and inspiring kids and teens, but had little formal teaching experience. I initially was nervous about how I would pick up the teaching skills and if it would be something I truly enjoyed and could see myself doing for a future career. I am excited to report that I already have learned so much from the 2-week training period and my first two weeks as an intern, and am eager to continue to polish my teaching techniques. Interning at Writopia has solidified my interest in someday working for an organization that empowers children and teens through creative practices like creative writing, visual art, dance, and theater, and working for them is simply a dream come true.

– Rachel Dillon ’17