There might have been complaints regarding the lack of strong female authors in the literary community, but Dallas Woodburn (sister of BR!NKer Greg Woodburn) is the perfect counter-example to that presumption. The twenty-three-year-old author of two award-winning collections of short stories and a forthcoming novel, already interviewed on The Early Show on CBS and the nationally syndicated PBS book talk show, Between the Lines, was recently honored as a 2010 Glamour Magazine’s “Best of You” award winner for her volunteer work. Her relentless desire to share her passion for books has led her to found Write On! For Literacy, a nonprofit organization that encourages young people to discover confidence, joy, self-expression and connection through reading and writing. Kienna Kulzer, one of the young authors from the Write On! Summer Writing Camp, volunteered to interview one of the individuals she looks up to the most.
Can you tell us about the Write On! For Literacy program?
I started Write On! For Literacy in 2001 to encourage kids to discover joy, confidence, a means of self-expression and connection to others through reading and writing. My website features writing contests, book reviews, fun writing prompts and more. I also hold an annual Holiday Book Drive to collect and distribute new books to disadvantaged kids — more than 11,000 books have been donated to date.
Why is Write On! For Literacy especially important today?
In a recent national assessment conducted by the National Literacy Institute (NLI) of fourth-grade students, 13% reported never reading for fun on their own; an additional 16% only read for fun once a month. I think this is a travesty. Writing and reading have given me so much fulfillment and self-confidence, and I feel other young people should be exposed to writing and reading as well. Having an outlet to express yourself freely and creatively is so important.
What inspired you to start writing?
It’s funny, but looking back it’s difficult for me to remember a time before I loved to write! I learned to read when I was four years old and I gobbled up books. I decided that I wanted to be someone who writes books for other people to enjoy.
When did you know you wanted to write as a profession?
When I was in the first and second grade I was lucky to have an amazing teacher, Diane Sather, who encouraged my love for writing. I remember she asked me to read one of my stories aloud to the class. I got such a burst of joy from sharing what I had written with others. It never crossed my mind to just write for myself.
What did it feel like when you were published for the first time?
I published my first book, There’s a Huge Pimple on My Nose, when I was in fifth grade. Pimple is proof that with a lot of hard work, a lot of perseverance, and a lot of support, a small idea can snowball into something bigger than you ever dreamed. My snowball began as a snowflake when I applied for and received a $50 grant from my elementary school to write, publish and sell a collection of my short stories and poems. I proposed using the profits to repay my grant, so the school could offer an extra one the following year. My first printing, done at a Kinkos copy shop, was modest: twenty-five staple-bound forty-page books. Actually, they were more like thick pamphlets, but to me they were the most beautiful books I had ever laid eyes upon.
My fellow students and teachers acted as if Pimple was at the top of the New York Times Best-Seller List. The first twenty-five copies promptly sold in a couple of days. Can you imagine what a turbo-boost this was to a fifth-grader’s self-esteem? I was pursuing my dream, but I wasn’t pursuing it alone – my family and friends and teachers were right there with me. So I went back to Kinkos, ordered twenty-five more books – and soon sold all those as well. I then searched out a publishing business and ordered a few hundred glossy-covered, glue-bound, professional-looking Pimples. My little forty-page dream evolved from a snowball into a blizzard, with newspaper and radio interviews; appearances at literacy events all around California; even a “Dallas Woodburn Day” at the Santa Barbara Book Fair. I still have to pinch myself, but Pimple has sold more than 2,600 copies, enabling me to repay two school grants and found Write On! For Literacy.
What are the most challenging things about being a writer to you?
Rejection is something challenging that every writer has to deal with. I joke that I could wallpaper all four of my bedroom walls with all the rejection letters I have received from editors! I’ve learned to try very hard not to take rejection personally. It took me more than a year to find my literary agent, a year of rejection, rejection, rejection – until finally, I found my perfect match. My agent understands my writing and has faith in my career. I just had to have the patience and perseverance to find her!
You have devoted a lot of time to teaching young writers. What inspires you to do that?
Yes, every year I teach a summer writing camp in my hometown of Ventura, California, for kids ages 8-18. Teaching young writers started out as something I wanted to do to “pay it forward” to the writing community that has given me so much support over the years.
What distinguishes you from other authors?
I’ve never thought of myself as much different from other writers. I have always tried to write stories that felt authentic to my own experiences. As a young writer, I often had people tell me I was “too young” to be a writer, but what they saw as a disadvantage I saw as an advantage. As a child, I wrote stories based on things I was dealing with and thinking about at the time – everything from pimples to friendship to magical stuffed animals coming to life. I think Pimple is incredibly relatable to kids because I was a kid myself when I was writing it. I would encourage other writers to put themselves in this mindset – what insights and lessons do your particular background and experiences give you? How can you use these traits as an advantage in your writing life?
What advice do you have for young writers?
Write every day, read as much as you can, and enjoy the process! In addition, publishing my books has taught me not to be afraid to take risks, and to take the initiative when you have an idea and make it happen yourself rather than letting fear and doubt make you wait. Because, why wait? Take small steps towards your dreams, and small steps can snowball into amazingly big opportunities!
Can you tell us what you are up to now?
My dream career is to be a novelist, short-story writer, professor of Creative Writing at a university and to continue expanding Write On! For Literacy. I hope to never stop growing and challenging myself, as a writer and as a person. I’m writing short stories, working on a novel, serving as Editorial Assistant of the literary journal Sycamore Review, and teaching undergrad writing courses.
Recently I also started a publishing company, Write On! Books, that publishes work by young writers. The first anthology, Dancing With The Pen: A Collection of Today’s Best Youth Writing, is due out next month. It features short stories, essays and poetry by more than sixty young writers from all across the United States and even abroad – Canada, Singapore and New Zealand.
How can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to your success?
Join the “Write On! For Literacy” Facebook group. Subscribe to my free monthly newsletter by sending me your email address. Pre-order a copy of Dancing With The Pen and spread the news to your friends – details are on the Write On! website. You can also get involved with Write On! For Literacy. For example, we are always looking for enthusiastic volunteers who would like to start Holiday Book Drive chapters in their areas! It can be as large or small of an effort as you have the time and energy for. Email me if you’re interested!