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Girls With Pen Power

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Author Carolyn Cohagan shares her tips for how girls and young women can find success through writing.

By Elizabeth Ucles, Photo by Courtney Runn

Before spending transformative stints in such locales as Chicago, London and Paris, Carolyn Cohagan began life as a Lake Travis girl who loved art and acting. After finishing school in Austin, Cohagan attended Barnard College to study art history while immersing herself in the world of stand-up comedy and improv. However, after college, stand-up didn’t give Cohagan the storytelling element she desired. She then decided to try theater school in Paris.

Eventually, Cohagan’s interest in theater faded but her love for creative writing never ceased. She thought film was her next move, so she took to Los Angeles to get filmmaking experience, writing and directing short lms. But she was turned off by the pre- and postproduction aspects of moviemaking. All Cohagan wanted was to work with her actors.

Cohagan began writing a screenplay in prose for a dark fairy tale and just couldn’t stop writing. This screenplay became Cohagan’s rst novel, Lost Children, published in 2010. Since then, she hasn’t looked back.

To continue her young-adult trilogy, Time Zero, Cohagan researched the effects of religious extremism on girls. This took her to Rwanda in 2013. There, she received a grant to teach writing. The groups of girls Cohagan met inspired her to create her own organization, Girls With Pens, which aims to give a voice to girls 8 to 15 through creative writing.

From stand-up comedy to novel writing to serving as a mentor to young girls, Cohagan’s wide-ranging creative endeavors have made her an expert in her field. Here, she shares five pieces of advice for how girls and young women can set themselves up for creative success:

  1. Shut down your inner critic. “Yours is twice as loud as any man’s, and it will get in your way,” Cohagan says. “For one day, write down every critical thing you think about yourself. You will learn that you are the meanest mean girl you know. After a few days of doing this, just shut it down.”
  2. Surround yourself with smart, funny women who support your work. “Dispose of the naysayers who fill you with doubt,” Cohagan says.
  3. Seek out mentors. “Learn from other women’s mistakes so you don’t have to make them,” Cohagan says. “If you don’t have access to them in real life, find them in non fiction books.”
  4. Write. “No matter what career you aspire to, you need to be articulate,” Cohagan says. “Even journaling regularly will help you become more comfortable with the practice of witting. I don’t accept it when students say, ‘I hate writing.’ I say, ‘No, you hate the kind of writing you have tried so far.’ ”
  5. Don’t give up. “I am 45, and the women I know who are successful are the ones who stuck with their dreams,” Cohagan says. “The women I know from high school and college are now kicking ass. They have become partners in law rms, professors, an ambassador, two are movie producers and one is a TV star. A lot of my friends started off as actors and the one person who didn’t quit, she is now the TV star.”
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