An Interview with Tara DaPra 

Interview conducted by AprilJo Murphy 

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 tha