5 min read

Recently, we had the pleasure of sitting down with Soul Searching author Sarah Stillman. Sarah is an inspiring example of what one teen can achieve. She originally sat down to write Soul Searching at the age of 16, and recently worked to fully update the title for today's teens. Today, Sarah is a successful journalist whose work has appeared in The New Yorker. In part one of our three part interview, Sarah discusses the origins of Soul Searching and some of the outcomes she hopes the book will achieve. You can learn more by joining the Soul Searching community on Tumblr and Facebook where you can share your own Soul Searching journey

How did you first decide to write Soul Searching?

More than anything, I wrote Soul Searching out of frustration. When I first decided to start working on the book, I was frustrated that most of the reading material available for teen girls assumed that they’d only be interested in boy bands and lip-gloss.  I was frustrated, too, that most of the books about female adolescence focused on the various traumas that can afflict girls during that period: eating disorders, depression, drug addiction, and more.  The sort of book I wanted to read – but couldn’t seem to find on shelves – was about how girls could actually take some control over their own lives and contribute to their communities: a book that took girls seriously as change agents in their homes, schools, and world.  So, that was the book I sat down to write, naïve as it sounds.  Luckily, I was oblivious to the many reasons I wasn’t qualified to do so, the most obvious being my age. I just started doing research on the topics I cared about – meditation, yoga, really basic philosophy stuff on “the good life” – and talking to other girls about the things they thought were important or interesting. That’s how the project got started.

What's changed for girls between the time you wrote the book at age 16 and today? How have the challenges facing girls evolved?

So much!  One obvious difference is that I never had to worry about all of the various social networking tools teens now have at their disposal to take gossip and bullying to new creative heights. I didn’t have a Facebook wall, or a Tumblr account, or even a cell phone back then. I barely had a functioning email address.  Of course, the pre-social-networking days also meant that there were fewer ways for girls to connect with each other outside of their immediate communities, and fewer ways to find resources that might be helpful to them. The Internet, in that respect, has been both a huge blessing and a serious curse.  Without it, I think a lot of girls around the world would be living much more isolated, disconnected lives.  But they also wouldn’t have to stress about the 1,001 ways in which online technologies complicate an already-difficult phase of their growing up. Somehow, for instance, online harassment seems a lot scarier to me than the mean notes my classmates scribbled in the back of science textbooks when I was in middle school.  And while some young women are given a lot of support when it comes to handling the challenges of a hyper-networked world, a lot of girls have to figure out how to deal with all of this stuff on their own.  That’s definitely not easy.  But my guess is that being a teen girl was never easy.  I don’t imagine our grandmas or great-grandmas had a much simpler time of it.

What do you see is the biggest challenge facing teens today? What advice would you give to help?

I think it can be hard to stand up for yourself and the things you want or need when you’re faced with so many conflicting messages about the things you’re supposedto want or need: whether it’s a particular brand of clothes or a particular kind of crush or a different body/ethnicity/personality/family/life. I think one thing I’ve learned from other girls who’ve made it through tough times is that it means a lot to find an ally – somebody who you can trust to listen to you and have your back.  You just need one: a loyal friend; a teacher who believes in your talents; a godparent or an older sibling who you can turn to for advice.  Then share what you’re facing with them.  It’s pretty tough to navigate this time of life on your own, whether you’re just dealing with small, day-to-day frustrations like a friend’s betrayal at school, or huge, scary challenges like dating violence or a family health crisis.  If you can’t find a person you trust, find something that brings you comfort until you do – an after-school sport that you can throw yourself into, a coffee shop or a community center where you feel comfortable, a band whose songs you want to play on repeat over and over again.

What sort of reception have you had for the book? In the new introduction, you mention that you've corresponded with readers from around the world -- how has that impacted you?

I’ve learned an awesome, unbelievable amount from the girls around the world who’ve written me about the book.  For one thing, it’s confirmed the hope that led me to write Soul Searching in the first place: girls really do care about the “big things” in life, and they want their big ideas to be taken seriously.  I’ve also been humbled to hear about the challenges some girls are up against – both girls here in the U.S., who’ve often reached out because they’re trying to be brave amidst a lot of stress and chaos in their families, and girls elsewhere in the world, who increasingly turn to the Internet as a resource for solving problems that they would have otherwise faced alone.  It’s been cool to hear about the creative visions many of these girls have – for starting their own companies some day, for instance, or writing their own books.  But it’s often been equally inspiring to hear about the really simple, day-to-day things that girls want to vent: the courage they mustered to stand up to someone in their lives who was hurting them, for instance.

What's the top thing you hope readers take away from your book?

I hope they’ll feel empowered to try new things, regardless of their “coolness” factor, and also realize that it’s OK to feel lost.  It’s normal to flounder around.  Everyone – seriously, everyone, from the popular girl in your class who’s always rolling her eyes at everyone to the President of the United States – feels insecure sometimes.  It just goes with the territory of being human.  What the book is about is realizing that there are concrete tools that can help us all get through the tough spots, feel more comfortable within ourselves, and feel like we’re a part of something larger – something that has meaning and real rewards.


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