AprilJo Murphy (AJM): Welcome, Tara, to our humble little webspace at American Literary Review. I was so impressed – dazed even – with your essay “Writing Memoir and Writing for Therapy” in Creative Nonfiction that I quite literally threw the magazine across the room several times during the process of reading it. Your ability to have such a poignant perspective about grief and creation – to not let it overtake your authorial voice and become too painful for a reader – shows a mastery of subject and distance that floors me. Or, literally, astounded me enough to end up on the floor.
Could you tell me a little bit about your writing process? How do let your material breathe? Do you have a routine, or are there authors whose work you read to inspire you?
Tara DaPra (TD): “Writing Memoir and Writing for Therapy” begin as my “thesis essay,” a literary essay I wrote in 2008 to complement my MFA thesis. But I was rushed for time (I was also trying to complete a manuscript!) and knew it wasn’t right or finished. It then sat untouched until the summer of 2011 when I showed it to a few colleagues at UW Green Bay. One described the voice as “Malcolm Gladwell-esque.” That alone may have propelled me into finishing it. So I worked on it that summer, and then put it away again, and I worked on it again the following summer. The essay was originally almost twice as long. I love the braided essay form but it can be really difficult to tie all the pieces together, so I decided to save some of my ideas, a lot which were about Catholicism, for another essay.
I’ve been working as an adjunct since 2009, and there’s a lot of insecurity in that line of work. I spent the first couple of years post-grad school scrapping together a living, so I had zero time or psychic space for writing. There’s a lot of valid criticism these days about tenure, but I’ll tell you, living with zero job security is a real creativity killer. I’ve gained a measure of stability in the last year or so, and I also had a baby in 2011, and those two forces have freed up a lot of time I used to spend worrying. They’ve also brought a routine to my life, so I’ve worked to again make reading and writing part of that routine. I’m not disciplined by nature, but there’s a freedom in structure. For a while I worried I had “forgotten” how to write, but—to borrow the cliché—it’s like riding a bike. During my time away from writing, I was mostly teaching English composition, and a fair bit was online, so I was doing a lot of writing but in a whole other capacity: Writing to instruct, writing to clarify, writing in a much more direct way, and that actually helped my “real” writing when I finally came back to it.
But to get back to your question about whether or not I have a routine—I don’t know that I really do. Even though I preach “Writing is a Process” all day long to students, I still struggle to make a regular, steady process part of my reality. I’m not that writer who wakes up a 5:30 every morning to write for two hours. I wish I were, but I’m not. But I live in perpetual hope. I’m planning to take an online class this winter “Daily work, daily inspiration: Restarting or developing your writing practice” taught by my friend Éireann Lorsung through the Loft Literary Center. She is an absolutely amazing poet who runs a beautiful micro-press called MIEL. If anyone can teach me, she can.
AJM: You’ve written a lot of pieces connected to grief and mourning. Your personal essay the color the brain and the heart – has spoken to me about memory and loss, and ultimately living through it all. I’m curious, what role do you think the writer has when dealing with grief? In what ways can personal loss inform our professional work? Can mourning and creating memory or meaning coincide?
TD: At present, our culture relies heavily on science to understand and explain the world. But before there were scientists, there were philosophers; before there were therapists, there were novelists. Good writers follow the same steps as a scientist; in fact, they did so intuitively long before “scientific method” was so dubbed.
Writing was my best friend during the grieving process, and some of it was just for me, just venting, and some of it has taken on its own life and become suitable for the world. But it was my driving force. Death and grief force us to re-examine our worldview, to re-assemble our understanding of the world, and that is a very compelling reason to write.
AJM: We’ve spoken a bit about Irish memoir and notions of memory. Could you please tell me a little bit about what attracts you to this particular section of nonfiction? (I know that Tara is an Irish named meaning “Earth,” so I’m a little curious about your particular pedigree and literary heritage).
TD: In graduate school, I won a Judd Fellowship, which was a great program at the University of Minnesota that allowed me to create my own project, so long as it brought me overseas. So I developed an idea to go to Ireland to visit the Hillof Tara, which was the seat of the High Kings, to write a kind of backwards genealogy essay about my first name. Americans love to trace their roots, and I thought this was a fun way to play with that idea. What does it mean to share your name with an ancient, sacred place, a place that’s so much bigger and more important than one life? It’s another way of looking for belonging, just like tracing the family lineage. And that’s at the heart of everything I write—I’m always looking for a way to belong because I’ve always felt that I don’t fit anywhere.
My second night in Dublin, I went to The Palace Bar, which I’d heard was a pub where journalists from The Irish Times hang out. I brought some writing and sat in the corner, and drank a pint of Smithwick’s, and I did meet a journalist, and I married him a year and a half later. I moved to Ireland the year following graduate school, but the world economy had just crashed and with so much uncertainly in Ireland, we did what so many had done before: We settled in America. In the meantime, I’ve learned that even though we both speak English, it’s not the same language. What I call “lies” he calls another version of the truth. I don’t mean to say that my husband is a dishonest or immoral person. He’s not. He’s a very kind, generous man, and I married him—in large part—because he makes me feel safe. But we do have this fundamental difference in our perception of truth. So I’m exploring why there are so few Irish memoirs and how I think it has to do with the Irish tradition of story weaving and their flexibility in truth telling.
The last few Irish memoirs I’ve read – Edna O’Brien’s Country Girl, Colm Toibin’s A Guest at the Feast, John McGahern’s All Will Be Well. John McGahern died about a year after his book came and and on his death, The Irish Independent interviewed his ex-wife. She claimed the five pages where she appears in the book are pure fantasy. Now fabrications and embellishment in memoir are of course not the domain of any one culture, but I do think there’s something about the colonial legacy that makes memoir, at least in the way that Americans understand it, foreign to the Irish.
AJM: This is an interesting thought, that there is a sense of flexibility in the Irish memory. I’m thinking a little about Irish funeral customs here – how keening and waking are both expressions of mourning but also a very physical expression of love and loss.
Do you feel that Irish memoirs, and by extension perhaps, Irish-American hybridity seeks to take the personal and elevate it to a mythic or a tendency to think of memory as a bit tricky or supernatural in itself?
TD: When I was traveling alone in Ireland, I almost felt like I was taking part in a play. Irish people are friendly to outsiders, almost to a fault. It’s like they want to play these roles that have been—to use your word—mythologized by the culture. Tourism remains one of Ireland’s biggest revenue sources, and the Irish are keenly aware of its importance. I think the writing can fall into that as well. But this may also have something to do with the fact that Irish society has a cohesion, a harmony, that just doesn’t exist in America, which is a patchwork place in comparison.
AJM: When you are running a workshop, what barriers do you set up to keep it from being a “group therapy” session? You’ve touched upon this in “Writing Memoir and Writing for Therapy.” Could you please tell me more?
TD: One really basic way to address this—which many others have said before me—is to avoid second person pronouns. My husband actually uses these all the time when talking about something “America” or “Americans” are doing (“What are you guys thinking?” [fill in latest American political fiasco]), which drives me crazy. So in workshop, we talk about “the character” or “the narrator” on the page. I also request that when a writer’s work is being discussed by his or her workshop mates, the writer remains quiet. To channel nervous energy in the meantime, I encourage the writer to take notes. This prevents 1.) defensiveness about the actions of the character, and 2.) it really allows the writer to listen to what her peers have to say. Questions can be addressed after all the comments have been made. I also like the idea of hearing a question and the writer not responding immediately, giving it a little time to simmer.
Another great piece of advice came to me via Patricia Fransisco Weaver. She tells her students that if they’re writing about something that’s still very raw, that it’s a really, really good idea to concurrently take part in therapy. I love this advice, because it doesn’t tell the writer that shecan’t write about something until it’s fully processed—which I think is the message that’s often given. I mean, the fact that it isn’t processed can create a powerful sense of urgency to write, so why waste that momentum?
AJM: When you are running a workshop, do you have favorite exercises? What are some of your teaching tricks, that you wouldn’t mind sharing?
TD: Since I’m a nonfiction writer I like to use prompts that involve memory, which is useful for all genres. So I might ask students to write about a favorite photograph, or a recurring dream, or even to write around “things I can’t tell you” or something they don’t fully remember but wish they did. I’m also looking for new writing prompts and recently came across a treasure trove from Poets & Writers.
I think all writing begins with description, which can be a kind of meditation. Describing a person, a moment, an object allows a story to emerge and creates a flow and an authenticity in writing that can be hard to find if we spend too much time looking for it.
AJM: This has been a lovely conversation – and very informative. Thank you very much for coming to speak with us at American Literary Review. I hope our readers enjoy your perspective as much as I do.