Hugo House instructor Emily Rapp Black is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir and The Still Point of the Turning World, as well as the forthcoming memoir, Sanctuary. Her work has appeared in VOGUE, the New York Times, Die Zeit, Salon, Slate, the Huffington Post, and more.
In addition to her work as a writer, Emily is an active member of several advocacy groups working to change cultural conversations around healthcare, as well as a founding member of Zoeglossia.
This fall, Emily is teaching Preach—How the Bible Taught Me to Write and Cracking the Book Proposal. We recently caught up with her to learn more about her path as a writer, her advocacy work for writers with disabilities, and her approach to teaching.
Can you tell us a little bit about your path as a writer and what drew you to writing memoir?
I began writing memoir because I was tired of being asked personal questions about my body in elevators. I wrote the book I wish I’d had to read as a child, and this has been the main motivator in each subsequent project. Stories provide guidance in times of terror or uncertainty, or joy and revelation, and when I looked for a book that would mirror my experience, I found nothing. All four of my books were an attempt to fill this gap, in the hopes that someone else would find a mirror for their own experience as well, and they would feel seen. And when we feel seen, we feel like we belong—to a community, to ourselves, to the world.
You also work with several groups that are pushing to change the socio-cultural discussion around quality of life healthcare decisions, as well as creating spaces for writers with disabilities. How, if at all, does your advocacy work influence your writing?
I feel as though my writing IS my advocacy work. I view writing as an act of service. If I can write about living and thriving in a non-normative body, while also encouraging others to share their stories, there’s real power in that, and a tangible potential to create cultural change. But first those voices have to be encouraged, nurtured, and published. And people need to start writing and talking about death as a way of kicking back against our death phobic culture.
This quarter, you’re teaching several classes, including Cracking the Book Proposal. What are you most looking forward to about teaching this class?
It’s practical! And there are clear deliverables and outcomes, which is different from other writing that writers do.
Your upcoming class, Preach—How the Bible Taught Me to Write, explores the Bible as a literary document. What’s one element of craft biblical stories excel at?
Compression, and high stakes.
How would you describe your approach to teaching?
Collaborative, compassionate, energetic, and clear. Also, I seek to create a space that is safe and fun and exploratory, while also being intellectually rigorous and challenging, perhaps in unexpected ways.
What are three things students can expect to take away from your classes?
A heightened sense of confidence, a belief in the power of curiosity, and practical tools for nurturing a writing practice that is unique to them.