Professor Profile: Sara Jaffe
I get it. You’re young. And in college. You’re still figuring out what makes you tick. Don’t worry. Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing Sara Jaffe has been trying to figure this out her whole life, and even she didn’t really understand it until after she graduated from her undergrad program at Wesleyan University. “I was a kid who was writing from a really young age,” Jaffe said. “Writing always made sense to me as a way of making sense of the world.”
Despite starting young, it took time for Jaffe to solidify writing as the center of her life. “I took a fair amount of time off between undergrad and graduate school and I was doing other stuff, but I felt the absence of writing in my life and I knew I needed to find a way to center it in my life,” she said. “I didn’t feel like I was doing what I was meant to do in the world if I wasn’t writing. I learned as much from its absence as I do from its presence.”
Once Jaffe made that realization, she jumped in and never looked back. Since completing a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Massachusetts, Jaffe has been writing and teaching writing, first in the northeast and more recently throughout the Portland area. She’s published a variety of essays and criticism, including those that “combine criticism and personal essay.” Jaffe’s novel Dryland was published in 2015. “It’s a queer coming of age novel set in Portland in the ‘90s,” she said.
Jaffe discussed how she uses “discovery and failure [as] generative” methods of subtly provoking political issues in Dryland. “Particularly for a queer character to fail at something, it might actually be a way of choosing a different narrative for herself,” she said. “To me, that’s political, even though it’s not about a political topic.”
Many different subtletties and conventions interest Jaffe as a writer and a reader. “I am interested in working with existing forms of writing and figuring out ways to undo or subvert some of their conventions in more subtle ways,” she said. “I am not a super experimental writer, but I do try to interact with and push against conventions.”
Jaffe mentioned several authors as influences on her own, including Renee Gladman and Jess Arndt, both of whom are coming later this year as visiting authors. Both of these writers push boundaries in their work. Jaffe commented that “the writing that most appeals to me” tends to examine and play with conventional writing in an intriguing way.
One of the upper level classes Jaffe is teaching this term is called “Ambivalence, Failure, and Doubt,” and it follows another path of thoughtful inquiry about how these feelings manifest as subject matter and form in different works. “Ambivalence, particularly, has been something I’ve been really interested in thinking about in my own work as well as in my reading and teaching for a number of years,” she said. “One of the qualities I kept returning to and the texts were the ways in which a writer could capture a kind of simultaneity and complexity of feeling without trying to resolve it. I decided to call that quality ambivalence.”
Junior Jacey de la Torre, who is currently enrolled in “Ambivalence, Failure, and Doubt,” appreciates Jaffe’s teaching style and methodology on discussing their classmates’ writing. “Sara helps facilitate conversation around our work really well — instead of asking us what we liked about one another's shared pieces, she pushes us to share what was emergent to us and what the pieces made us feel as we were absorbing them,” said de la Torre.
While Jaffe clearly engages with her work and teaching in a deeply thoughtful way, there is always more than meets the eye. Stop by her office in Greywood with a peace offering of a good old baked potato and get the insider scoop on hot spots at the Farmer’s Market in Lents or debate the humor of Steve Coogan’s The Trip and methods of dialogue both in film and literature.
Writing dialogue particularly interests Jaffe. “I love thinking about rhythm and cadence of speech and how to translate that on to the page in ways that are interesting,” she said.
For all you writers out there, Jaffe has provided a fabulous dialogue tip to help you on your journey. Jaffe said, “Try to capture the quality of spoken language, but not to transcribe it.”
For everyone else, take heart that stories take time. As Jaffe said, “trust the process.” Chances are, she was referring to the writing process, but that doesn’t mean you can’t interpret it to apply to your life process. Take your time, folks. Or, take it and run.