Aimee Suzara Wants You to Own The Fact That You’re a Writer
10 Questions about writing with author and Catapult instructor Aimee Suzara
In our series “Can Writing Be Taught?“, we partner with Catapult to ask their course instructors all our burning questions about the process of teaching writing. This month we feature Aimee Suzara, a poet, playwright, and performer whose book, Souvenir, was a Willa Award Finalist (2015). Check out her 6-week online workshop on archival materials and research in poetry. We chatted with Suzara about popcorn, bearing witness, and three-dimensional joy.
What’s the best thing you’ve ever gotten out of a writing class or workshop as a student?
My first poetry class in college was with the great Ishmael Reed, who, though having such laurels of his own, made sure my, our, writing felt heard. The young poets in our class had such different styles and themes, but he heard and drew out our developing voices, could tell their promise and strength, and this allowed us to both feel witnessed and to feel the confidence needed to keep going.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever gotten out of a writing class or workshop as a student?
I was in a class where it felt that the instructor was just talking to himself, not really listening to us, and this felt more about ego than about our voices.
What is the lesson or piece of writing advice you return to most as an instructor?
“You are a writer” – one of my beloved teachers Elmaz Abinader said in a workshop. I was a writer already, but it felt powerful to affirm it. As simple as this seems, claiming and reiterating that statement can be extremely necessary and empowering. We could write for years but still have difficulty owning that title, that role, as though it must be earned a certain way.
Does everyone “have a novel in them”?
Sure! I don’t teach novel writing, but I do write plays and stories, and believe that each person has an interesting life or story their imagination could invent that could lend to a novel. Now, whether the person has or will do the steps to gain the craft skills to put that to paper is another story.
Would you ever encourage a student to give up writing? Under what circumstances?
No. Writing is always helpful. Perhaps someone could re-direct their writing in terms of genre or take some time to write for themselves instead of submitting, but I would never say to give it up. If you have the drive to write, you must write.
What’s more valuable in a workshop, praise or criticism?
That’s a trick question! Both are equally important. AND I do lean a bit towards making sure there’s praise, regardless of how “good” the work is — because we already live in a world that’s so challenging, so discouraging, and most of us are subject to so much criticism that to receive a bit of positive witness for our creative work could be a necessary boost. I also remind myself to offer praise because I can often jump too quickly to the criticism and forget how essential that bit of positive witness can be for someone to even receive or stomach the criticism.
Should students write with publication in mind? Why or why not?
Generally, no. Publishers are just one category of audience, and we can forget that behind every publication are just human beings with tastes, with opinions, with favorite authors and styles and aesthetics. I notice that students who get too focused on publications also get too focused on the rejections that are a necessary part of submission. Write first for yourself, then for your intended audience — those readers for whom you write, those readers whose lives may be changed, or opened up, or who may feel witnessed when you read. As for me — when I think of an audience, I think about young Filipinas and girls of color who may see some bit of themselves in me. I can only imagine growing up believing that my story could be central, could be not “strange” and outsider and exotic, but could be important, or even normal. So in that way, publication is just one means to getting to those audiences.
In one or two sentences, what’s your opinion of these writing maxims?
- Kill your darlings: This works for me often; when I feel too attached to a character, or a line, but I know intuitively it’s not working, sometimes its best to take them out. Perhaps they return, but “killing” them, even if they are to be resurrected again, could be what saves the piece.
- Show don’t tell: Usually I tailor this to be “show, more often than tell” — in poetry. Specificity, palpable, precise details, are indeed what give poems life. However, if taken too far, it can lose sense. If you’re writing a letter in first person, or a monologue, sometimes telling is better. So I think it’s really an entry point, especially for those beginning poetry, to notice where they’re telling us something that really needs to be illustrated, needs to be offered by way of the senses so that the reader can feel/hear/taste/smell for themselves.
- Write what you know: I don’t often say this upfront, but I do use it as an internal compass when encouraging students to draw from their experiences and knowledge AND to do really good research. So if you don’t know something, get to know it. Writing without doing the hard work of getting to know your subjects, the human beings, places, circumstances that are the content of the writing can lead to stereotyping, misrepresentation, or superficial writing. So it’s not to say that you must write about your own life, but you must care enough about the lives you wish to approximate to decide if, first, it’s really what you want to or should write about, and then render those stories or poems well. That humanization and empathy can only improve the writing.
- Character is plot: This one I’d tailor to say “character drives plot” or “so much comes out of character” when it comes to playwriting or short stories. Even in poetry, narrative poems can come out of strong understanding of character. Studying, sketching, understanding, internalizing your characters will often help you to develop plot, because it will have everything to do with how they react to events and pursue their goals.
What’s the best hobby for writers?
Anything that brings you joy! If it’s dancing, drawing, photography, or knitting, making sure you have something palpable, three dimensional that gives you joy is wonderful.
What’s the best workshop snack?