Erin Aubry Kaplan (creative nonfiction) is a Los Angeles journalist and columnist who has written about African-American political, personal and cultural issues since 1992. She is a contributing editor to the op-ed section of the Los Angeles Times, and from 2005 to 2007 was a weekly op-ed columnist – the first black weekly op-ed columnist in the paper’s history. A former staff writer and columnist for the LA Weekly and New Times Los Angeles, she has contributed to many publications, including Salon.com, Essence, Black Enterprise, BlackAmericaWeb, Ms., Los Angeles and the Independent. She is also a regular columnist for make/shift, a quarterly, literary feminist magazine launched in 2007. As a journalist, Erin’s passion has always been injecting the personal in features, commentary, criticism and essays. One of her most-remembered pieces is “The Butt,” a memoir/essay for the LA Weekly that pondered the many social, historical and psychological ramifications of having the pronounced backside typical of black women. Another Weekly piece, “Blue Like Me,” explored the modern connections between her own long battle with depression, family history and the still-distressing state of the race. That feature won the PEN USA 2001 award for journalism. Erin’s essays have been anthologized in several books, including Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenthood (Villard, Washington Square Press), Step Into a World (Wiley & Sons) and Rise Up Singing: Black Women Writers on Motherhood (Doubleday). The last book’s contributors include Maya Angelou, Gwendolyn Brooks and Alice Walker, and won an American Book Award in 2004. Her own first book of essays and journalism, Black Talk, Blue Thoughts and Walking the Color Line: Dispatches From a Black Journalista, was published Fall 2011 by the University Press of New England (UPNE) as part of its Northeastern Library of Black Literature.
Though the workshop and mentoring processes are all about student growth, they are necessarily about teacher growth as well. For me, the experiences are invaluable because they synthesize in a unique and consistent way my two writing lives, journalist and creative writer. As a journalist I’ve done plenty of editing, analysis and sharpening main points and angles; as an essayist and creative writer I put aside those imperatives and let my vision and language range as far and wide as they want. Both approaches are essential to producing thorough, energetic, purposeful and passionate work that satisfies the only audience that matters: the writer him/herself. It’s the kind of work I fully expect to help students produce.
I see the whole enterprise as a partnership that is equal, but with far more onus on the writer. Just to be clear, I can’t teach anybody how to write (some days I can hardly do it on my own), a mysterious, indescribable act that’s less an act than a rite or compulsion. I can only respond to what I see on a page. I can suggest and direct, laud and critique, tell a writer when something’s working or not. But writers are ultimately on their own. That’s the whole wonderful thing about the undertaking, the reason why the wrangling and frustration and sometimes failed attempts at discipline pay off; when you do good you know that you did it, nobody else. In terms of making a manuscript sing, you are the only one who can do the job. I’ve known editors at magazines and newspapers who habitually take copy and, seeking to improve it, simply ‘overwrite’ it—change words and language to their liking rather than let the writer figure out what changes make the most sense (these editors claim it’s the pressure of deadline that makes them do it, but I believe it’s something less honorable and less neutral than that).
Nothing remotely like that happens with me. I am truly most interested in what writers have to say, in helping them find their own words, mine the depth of their own feeling and follow as closely and faithfully as they can the trajectory of their thoughts and narratives. Aiding in each writer’s continued literary self-discovery is my only job, and my best reward.