Anique Taylor holds an MFA in Poetry from Drew University, and an MFA in Drawing from Pratt Institute as well as a Diplôme from Sorbonne University in Paris, France. She has co-authored works for HBO, Scholastic, Simon & Schuster, and others. She has given featured readings at St. Mark’s Poetry Project, Dixon Place, the Speakeasy, Cedar Tavern, and group readings at What Happens Next, Tompkin’s Square, Charas, and The Knitting Factory. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Rattle, Common Ground Review, Stillwater Review, The World (St. Mark’s Poetry Project), Adanna, Cover Magazine, Cheap Review, Southern Poetry Review, Earth’s Daughters. She has published several chapbooks, including Where Space Bends, chosen Finalist by both Minerva Rising’s and Blue Light Press’ Chapbook Contests, and Under the Ice Moon, also a Finalist in the Blue Light Press Chapbook Contest. Anique has taught The Creative Journal at Bard LLI and the Poetry Workshop at the Benedictine’s Oncology Support Program. She teaches a Creative Nonfiction Workshop for Writers in the Mountains.
Simona David: Anique, talk a little bit about yourself.
Anique Taylor: I’ve been a visual artist most of my life. I’ve also written all my life, and have been involved in St. Mark’s Poetry Project in New York City, doing poetry readings for quite a while. A few years ago I re-committed myself to writing, and enrolled in a MFA program at Drew University, which has some of the most accomplished poets in the country. They’re deeply devoted, and have exquisite knowledge of craft. They opened up my whole life.
SD: You started a Poetry Reading series here in the Catskills, in the town of Phoenicia.
AT: Yes. Phoenicia has a population of around two hundred. We started a marathon reading during the summer, and had about one hundred and thirty people on the lawn, sitting in lawn chairs. They sat for hours listening. It was wonderful.
SD: You have been teaching for Writers in the Mountains, for quite a while now, a popular Creative Nonfiction Workshop. Let’s talk a bit about the genre of creative nonfiction.
AT: I think we each come to writing however we can, and from wherever we can. For some it’s easy, for others it’s difficult. But most of us come to it because we have a desire, and the desire continues. Each time we write, we venture into the unknown, and it’s always a risk. I’ve been writing ever since I could write, and before that I used to write stories in my head. I didn’t consider myself a writer, because I didn’t make up stories. The real writers were the ones who made up stories. I liked to write about things that happened to me or around me, and the things that I felt and thought. When I studied poetry, that gave me tools to write better. Afterwards, I discovered that what I was writing all along is called creative nonfiction.
SD: Lee Gutkind, who founded Creative Nonfiction magazine in 1993, defines the genre as “true stories well told.” How would you describe creative nonfiction? And what does it cover?
AT: Creative nonfiction can be memoir, personal essay, journal, poetry, research papers; it can be almost anything. I’m working on a manuscript now of creative nonfiction poetry. It’s based on stories about non-Jews who risked their lives to rescue Jews during World War II. It’s poetry, it’s also creative nonfiction, because the poems are all crafted from true stories. Lee Gutkind also said that in some ways creative nonfiction is like jazz: it’s a rich mix of flavors, ideas and techniques, some of which are newly invented, and others are as old as writing itself. Creative nonfiction can use the tools of writing forms such as sound, diction, metaphor, rhythm, description, dialogue, even plot. When you write something that is true, you still need to decide how to frame it, where it begins, where it goes, what to put in, what to leave out. The art is to make it come alive, to make it matter. There are two parts: what you say, and how you say it.
SD: What do you think makes this genre so popular?
AT: I think people are fascinated with other people’s lives. There are so many possibilities – you can do anything you can think of in the world with creative nonfiction.
SD: Biographies, for instance, have always been popular. Please, share some of the best names in creative nonfiction.
AT: There is Thoreau, who wrote Walden. That’s a memoir. A biography covers a whole life, a memoir covers a part of a life. Emerson’s essays are really wonderful. Kurt Vonnegut, Joan Didion – Didion’s work is exquisite; Anne Lamott, David Sedaris – very funny and popular. Virginia Wolf, Truman Capote, Susan Sontag, so many. What I find interesting is that it’s very usual for novelists and poets to also have essays or memoir pieces.
SD: Let’s talk a bit about your approach to teaching creative nonfiction. I’m looking at a note you sent out to class at the beginning of the semester: “Write about love. Do not directly describe the person (animal companion, place, house, friend, group, etc.). Avoid emotional adjectives and adverbs. Let your nouns and verbs give substance to your writing. Let details, action, dialogue, description speak for your emotions. It doesn’t have to be about cozy, kissy love. It could be about unfulfilled love, loss, confusion, betrayal, the excitement of beginning love. See where it takes you. Have fun. Your work can be personal or shared with the class.” What is the structure of your class, and what are your goals as an educator?
AT: What we do in class is that we start with a silent writing prompt. And everybody writes for about ten minutes. It’s work that they never have to show anyone. Then we usually have a discussion about the readings – I send out beforehand a few essays or a story piece. And we talk about the craft, we talk about what makes the piece work, what are the issues that the writer uses and are strong, what’s the structure. Then we listen to each other’s current work. I give a class exercise. In the end I assign homework.
SD: One piece of advice you give your students is “Avoid clichés, and overused expressions.” And I often hear experienced writers say “write as you speak.” In other words, just be natural and authentic, and don’t strive to find the perfect phrase.
AT: I think it’s very important, especially with the first draft, to just write and let everything come out. Don’t focus on trying to have a voice. Focus on speaking out as yourself. When you look at the piece a few days later, you will edit. Yes, on the one hand, be authentic; on the other hand, you want to take out phrases that weaken or slow the process and lose the reader. There are writers who write very simply and plainly, and that is riveting. And there are other writers who write in very complicated ways, dealing with very difficult, philosophical questions.
SD: Absolutely. And each of this kind of writer has his or her own readership.
AT: Exactly. And some of us love both.
SD: You mentioned voice. On the first draft, you say, don’t focus too much on developing your voice. What is voice, and what is tone?
AT: My advice is to write the first draft with passion, then come back when it’s cool, to be able to bring in the editor in you, and tighten things up. Your voice is who you are. We’ve also had long discussions in class about tone and viewpoint. Are we writing from the first person? Is it intimate? Are we talking to someone close to us? Is it a gentle tone, or angry or resentful? Is the first person omnipotent? You can write from the second person. The third person can be very familiar. It can also be an omnipotent third person. We take a piece and write it from various points of view. These are all tools that I want my students to have in their toolbox.
SD: I know that at the beginning of your class, you ask your students to clarify their goals – why are they taking the class, and what do they seek to accomplish? You ask them to think about their strengths, and what they want to write about, their voice, and also what they think holds them back. Talk about this experience.
AT: I want my students to become aware of what they had really wanted but never verbalized it before.
SD: Let’s talk about writing a personal essay. You recommend a piece by Tim Bascom, Picturing the Personal Essay, A Visual Guide. How does diagramming an essay work?
AT: Most people assume that, because it’s creative nonfiction, you just tell the story. But there are infinite possibilities in a way you tell a story. So, in class we started to diagram the structure of each essay, and that gave us a visual sense of how to form an essay.
SD: I think this is helpful from the reader’s point of view too, because we’re all visual learners to some extent, and once we see a story in our head and the story makes sense to us, it’s easier to remember it as the time goes by.
AT: Yes. As a writer however, I don’t think you start with a form in mind. I think, as a writer, you just have to let it go, and then come back to it later to see what you’ve gotten.
SD: In essence, your advice is to focus first on what you have to say, then how you say it, and then look at the overall structure – the visual representation of your story.
AT: Yes. The visual representation is something you would come to later to look at. It’s also important to read other people’s work to see what they do.
SD: One last piece of advice for writers.
AT: I constantly read, and do it as a research for class. What I look for are pieces that will inform us about how to write, and what choices to make when we write. I want a literary piece to be beautifully crafted. I care about what the writer is saying. I look for humor, wisdom, and scope. I want the writer to give us something that we can take with us, and will open us up, and change us.
© 2016 Simona David