A Portrait of the Author as a Young Woman
Rashawnda Williams and Dr. Jill Biden at Do the Write Thing, a benefit organized by 826DC. Photo courtesy of Ms. Williams
At the tender age of 16, Rashawnda Williams has already had quite the literary career. A senior at Washington’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts, Williams doubles as the Young Writer-in-Residence at 826DC, a local writing and tutoring center for DC-area youth. She was first introduced to the organization through an in-school poetry workshop, which led to publication in Cherry Blossoms, a student anthology produced by 826DC.
On top of that, Williams also counts bestselling author Dave Eggers as among her mentors. She met Eggers, who founded the original 826 center in California, at the 2011 National Book Festival, where she had arranged to interview the author for a school project. But when the day arrived, Eggers turned the tables. He had read her work in City Blossoms and was impressed, and told her that he would be interviewing her instead---in front of a standing-room only crowd in the NEA’s Poetry and Prose Pavilion. It was a memorable experience for all those in the audience, and has led to a close friendship with the author.
These days, Williams writes monthly blog posts for 826DC and helps out at the center three times a week. She has also fully fallen in love with poetry, and is busy plotting out her future college and writing plans. The Big Read recently caught up with Williams, who shared her infectious enthusiasm for reading, writing, and the arts.
NEA: What’s been your favorite part of being 826’s Young Writer-in-Residence so far?
RASHAWNDA WILLIAMS: Besides the writing, I think it's really fun to see the students and the tutors interacting. The kids are all really funny. When I first started, I was sitting on a chair with a laptop. I was typing, and they all started coming up to me and asking, "Who are you? What are you doing here? What are you typing?" The kids are just really cute and it's really fun.
NEA: You've said you began writing poetry seriously after taking an 826DC workshop.
WILLIAMS: Yes. It was in the middle of my sophomore year, early December. I go to an arts school, and at the time, I was in the visual arts department. A teacher from the literary media and communications department came up to me, and said, "There's this poetry workshop that I really think you should be in." I was kind of hesitant because I didn't really write poetry. I hadn't written any poems before. Then I get there, and I'm a little nervous, and after the first exercise, I started getting really into it.
NEA: Had you written prose before that?
WILLIAMS: Absolutely. I'd definitely written a lot. Actually, when [that teacher] came up to me, it was during the time I was trying to transfer to the creative writing department. I'd written a few fiction pieces. I used to write a lot of short stories.
NEA: Do you think your background in visual art informs your writing in any way?
WILLIAMS: It definitely does. When I write my poetry, or when I do my writing, it helps me somehow bring the visual side to my writing. Especially for my poetry, I use a lot of metaphors. I like to use a lot of imagery, and I like to watch people.
NEA: Do you look anywhere else specifically for inspiration?
WILLIAMS: I don't look in any particular place. I can be on a bus and it just hits me, or I can just be hanging out with my friends and a poem comes. One of my favorite poems that I wrote, I was in Union Station and I was hanging out with my friends. We were sitting there, and all of a sudden this whole poem comes into my mind. I wrote about what I was seeing. Union Station is such a melting pot, and you could just see the different cultures. I could see a homeless guy sleeping, and there was all this hustle and bustle. What I was writing about [involved] stopping and actually watching and noticing things that a lot of people tend to overlook, or just become part of their daily lifestyle and that they take for granted. A lot of things people find mundane I find really extraordinary.
NEA: You said a poem can just "come to you." What is your process for turning an idea into an actual poem, or prose?
WILLIAMS: For fiction, I plan it out and I write it down. In my writing classes I take, they tell us to plan a lot. I've never taken a formal poetry class other than the [826DC] workshop. The words just kind of come. I know that sounds a little cliché, but once I get an idea, I just start writing and writing.
NEA: What do you think the challenges and benefits are of being a young writer just starting out her career?
WILLIAMS: I didn't think people would take me seriously since I'm so young. I go to an arts school, and I get to specialize. So I already know what I want to do and I know what I'm passionate about. I guess I'm a bit young [for that], so I guess people are sometimes taken aback. I was afraid that people wouldn't take me seriously, so I think that could be a challenge when you're a young writer.
But a big benefit is that so many people want to aid you and assist you, and they give you so many different opportunities. So that's one of the biggest benefits. I'm happy to be young and be a writer. People want to take me under their wing and teach me and give me opportunities.
NEA: Speaking of aiding people, do you have any advice for other students who are interested in writing but might not have an 826-like organization in their city, or might not attend an arts school?
WILLIAMS: My first suggestion is to write, write, write, write, write. Find a mentor, or find someone you can share your writing with. I know that might be hard if you don't live in an environment where there are a lot of writers, but search.
If [you] like a book, maybe try to go to local book signings, and try to chat with the authors that you like, or just try to pick different people's brains when you find an opportunity. Pick their brain, ask a lot of questions. They're usually really open to you asking questions.
Another thing that's helped me is having a friend who's also a writer to look at my work. Even if they're not necessarily into the arts, get someone else's perspective on what you're writing to see if they like it. Also, if you like something, and people may not necessarily like it, I say just go with it sometimes anyway. Take constructive criticism, but don't let that change your voice as a writer.
NEA: Do you have any one person who's been a strong mentor in your career so far?
WILLIAMS: I've had a couple of strong ones whose opinions I really value and I have the utmost respect for. I feel so lucky to have Dave Eggers as a mentor. It's hard for me to process sometimes. I send him work and he reads it and he gives me feedback. He's probably one of the greatest influences on my writing. Also, my teachers in my department---Mark Williams and Koye Oyedeji. I take their criticism, but for different areas. Also my friend Bridget. She reads my writing all the time and she helps me a lot and she gives me good feedback. We help each other.
NEA: Do you know what's next?
WILLIAMS: Definitely college. I have a whole plan. I guess my top choice at the moment is Oberlin.
NEA: Do you plan on keeping up with writing?
WILLIAMS: Yes. Definitely. I want to double major in creative writing and international relations, or international studies, depending on my school. Some people don't think they'll mesh well together, but I can see where I want to take that. I'm really huge on community service, and helping out the community. My ultimate dream is to start my own nonprofit. A couple of issues I find important are education, homelessness, so places like 826 are really important.
I [also] want to publish a book. I'm aiming for my freshman or sophomore year of college, which is a little early, but we'll see how my writing develops. But I'm beyond serious about the art world. I will definitely be into the arts for the rest of my life. It's not about money, it's not about it being lucrative, it's about it being what I love. I have a lot of passion for my writing. I do love visual arts, but I've always been a humongous reader. I love books. I love the smell of books, I love being surrounded by them. I'm never without a book. I'll stuff them in my purse.
NEA: What book are you reading right now?
WILLIAMS: I'm reading The Magicians by Lev Grossman. I'm big into sci-fi, fantasy. So far it's like an adult version of Harry Potter, and that was one of my childhood loves. It's utterly brilliant, and really hilarious. Another one is Beneath the Lion's Gaze by Maaza Mengiste. I got to meet her at an event, and she mailed me her book. So far it's amazing. It's blowing my mind.