How To Take A Writer’s Workshop, With Memoirist Deborah Taffa

“In this workshop, we will create works of literature using our lives as subject matter,” professor Deborah Taffa describes in the course listing for an upcoming class she will teach at the Summer Writers Institute at Washington University in St. Louis, called Creative Nonfiction: Personal Narrative. She takes great joy in leading students through the transformative, challenging process of self-discovery upon which they will embark through her class.

Taffa herself has a fascinating personal story. Half Native-American, she grew up on an Indian reservation in Southern California and later received her MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Iowa. Mother to five children, she met her husband while traveling in Indonesia, and lives in St. Louis.

At WashU’s Summer Writer’s Institute, students have the opportunity to take classes with several talented writers such as Taffa. Keep reading to hear her discuss the writing process, and why writer’s workshops are vital for emerging talent.

How did you originally become interested in writing and choose to follow this path?
I pretty much always knew I would be a writer. I was four years old when I first picked up a book. A love of writing starts with a love of reading, and stories. The love of stories when you’re young also reveals itself in social interactions, in that you like to connect and talk to people. But at a certain point in your life, it pivots and becomes much more solitary. To write, you have to invite in solitude and sit alone in a room for much of the day. You’re circling a lot of your fears, experiences.

I traveled around Asia, Europe and Africa in my late-20s and early-30s, and I was jotting down stories but keeping them very private. Then, in my mid-30s I started sending things for publication. I attended a few writing classes, then the Summer Festival in Iowa City, where I studied with novelist Sandra Scofield. Then I went back to school at the University of Iowa Writers Workshop to get my master’s. If people have a dream of doing something creative, a writers workshop like WashU’s Summer Writers Institute is a good place to start.

What is the importance of workshopping for writers?
Art is very difficult. A workshop tests what you think you know about yourself. You’ll discover, “Am I ready for the rigor and solitude of writing and editorial advice?” Especially with nonfiction writing, it’s important to think about the ramifications of what you put on the page. A workshop is a great place to start with that. You’re around people who love language as much as you do, and it’s a great introduction to how to do it. You’d be surprised how much you can accomplish in two-and-a-half weeks. I have students that have gone on to publish and get their MFA’s.

In my own writing, the teaching is really important. For me, it’s a way to stay involved with the creative process. My students are my source of socially interacting with other writers, and with being. I’ve learned much more about how to edit my own work by seeing unfinished works in progress—more than I ever did reading finished novels, memoirs or essay. When you see things that are completely done, where the imagery and language is perfected and working, it doesn’t allow you to take part in the problem-solving that goes into editing a draft. When you see something in workshop from a friend that isn’t complete, and then you see the second draft, then the third, and it’s done, you learn so much.

The day that you get up and leave your MFA or workshop, you’re on your own. You need people who are as committed to the art as you are, who are going to ask you to review work, and to whom you can take work to ask for feedback. That’s another thing that people can really take from attending the Summer Writers Institute: the creative community. I see it in my classes. People are revealing their desires and fears on the page, so they create bonds and friendships. As you get older, it’s harder to make and sustain friends. In the United States, we live in these big fancy houses with golden bars. But people make real connections in workshops. I hear from them years later and hear that they’re sending things back and forth. Their creative life has been sustained.

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What does the genre of creative nonfiction encompass, and why are you specifically drawn to write and teach it?
A lot sits in the creative-nonfiction genre. If we think of it as a spectrum … You have the lyric essay that’s very much like a poem—a question, or a topic that doesn’t have a definitive answer. Then, you have an argument where you’re clearly trying to convince your audience. Something set up with dialogue and themes, with conflict and a resolution at the end—that’s a short-story type of nonfiction. You also have the essay—kind of what James Baldwin did, where the writer is having a conversation with their deepest self. We all lie to ourselves about things and avoid taking responsibilities, but that kind of writing gets beyond the coyness, where the hidden desires expose themselves.

In creative nonfiction, when I write about someone else, I’m required to really reveal more about myself. You’re really naked on the page. That’s how it feels when I’m writing something in the nonfiction genre that I know is going to be important, and good. It feels like I’m risking something. It feels challenging in a way that fiction and poetry never really felt to me. People think memoir has more of an ego to it, to think the world wants to know about you. But everyone who writes is egotistical.

A nonfiction piece isn’t going to work if it’s a silly cautionary tale. That’s not real enough to capture your reader. You have to get to a depth of understanding about yourself, which I value a lot. The process of which is meditative and challenging. I always tell my students, “You can’t tell a cautionary tale through memoir.” You have to own your mistakes. People don’t read literature through a moral lens. Write about the problematic moments in your life. Nothing is off-limits. Tell me how you thought you were getting through your problems. Tell me who you were when you were 18. What were you doing, effectively or ineffectively, to grapple with life’s big issues?

In literary circles, some people say “me”-moir. But if I’m going to divulge information about someone close to me—say, my husband or my father—I can’t be coy with myself. I have to be ok with the light and dark sides of me. However far I go to expose someone else to the reader, I have to expose much more about myself. The only thing I find inexcusable in essay is evasion—someone who is apathetic, who is not doing the hard work of asking, “Why?”

For me, writing creative nonfiction was challenging because I had a hard time accepting who I was as a child. My father is Native American, and I grew up on an Indian reservation. It was later I discovered what that means to society. When you’re first a little kid and you’re hanging out with your siblings, going to the pool, things like that—you don’t think of it. And then you gain awareness. I’ve discovered that until you’ve accepted who you are, you can’t really do anything with your life. Writing has helped me accept all the parts of who I am. I know it makes me a better person.

5.16.2014--153rd WUSTL Commencement. Commencement Address: Tony La Russa Honorary Grand Marshall: Martha Storandt Honorary Degrees: Henry Bloch Temple Grandin Tony La Russa Vivian Pinn David Robertson Diana Walsh Student Speaker: Varan Pratap Mehrotra Photo by Joe Angeles/WUSTL Photos

How do you teach something like writing, which seems largely intuitive?
Often when people sit down with pen and paper, they start to put on affectations about what they want to portray, and who they want to be. I try to bring them down to earth a little bit. I tell them, “Let’s imagine you’ve lost the people you’re closest to. You’re alone, and you’ve had to develop a new relationship to not be alone in the world. They’re people you don’t know yet, and when you sit down with them, there are certain things they’d have to know about you to see what makes you, you. You’d have to catch them up to speed. That communication is in earnest, because you need for them to know you.”

That’s what writing nonfiction is. It’s a sincere attempt to communicate who you are to the world. But in the end, if we’re not communicating something heartfelt about our moral education, who we came to be, and about what we hope will happen in the future or what fears we have in our lives, we’re not communicating something people will know or understand. It’s frightening to tell the truth. And it’s not simply enough to tell what happened. I get them started by thinking about that.

The first workshops I give are little 10-minute flash workshops for people to start getting a feel for the pressure that happens when you’re in a workshop, and then we build up to the longer ones. What I’m trying to do for people a lot of the time is for them to leave with a sense of empowerment. I don’t think you can teach talent. But I think we’re all natural storytellers. Our minds know everything that happened in our own stories, and everything that’s involved. We don’t think in a straight line. We think in layers and images, and everything piles on top of everything else. If you think of writing like a tangled-up Christmas light cord, with lights and thoughts blinking, it can be the same as having to untangle it and get it all in a straight line on the page. What you’re really teaching is how to order the information. Art is an arrangement. You can map and teach how to use desire lines, how to work with time, and how to get the jumbled up thoughts out in a way that doesn’t fail.

Registration for the Summer Writers Institute remains open until July 13, 2017. Find more information on instructors and workshops at www.summerschool.wustl.edu/swi

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