Alumni Spotlight: Talya

Talya Zax

by Mia Kweskin

WashU alumna and former peer tutor Talya Zax has taken her passion for writing to the big city. She is currently the Culture Fellow at The Forward, one of the oldest newspapers in the US, where she writes short pieces on industry news and long form profiles.  She even interviewed author Jonathan Safran Foer. Talya offers a glimpse into the life of a New York City writer and shares how working at The Writing Center transformed her own writing process.

M: What have you been up to since graduating from WashU?

T: I stayed in St. Louis the year after I graduated. I did AmeriCorps Vista and worked with United Way of Greater St. Louis. I was helping build this program called Service Works, which is a professional development and service learning program for 16-24 year olds from low income areas in St. Louis, and I kept tutoring at The Writing Center while there.

I had really wanted to move to New York City. I applied to an internship at The Forward, one of the oldest newspapers in the US. It used to be a socialist rag, but it has an exciting history because of that. I got the internship, moved to New York, and started working part time. I was also teaching creative writing at an after school literacy program. I then got a yearlong fellowship at The Forward writing mainly about arts and culture. It’s a small staff so I do news coverage when necessary and editing as well. It’s all hands on deck. We’re a digital first publication so we have high production demands. I’m doing a bunch of shorter pieces and industry news. Working in a newsroom, things come up and need coverage. In the afternoons I’m working on my long form stories. I also go out and talk to people. A few times a week I’ll go to press events, interviews, movies and plays.

M: What are your favorite pieces to write?

T: My favorite pieces to write are profiles. I talk to the most interesting people, and have the task of presenting a succinct but moving profile. My favorite profile was one on Rabbi Everett Gendler, the father of environmental Judaism who was active in the Civil Rights Movement. I learned about segments of Judaism I hadn’t had contact with before. I also interviewed Jonathan Safran Foer after his latest novel came out last summer. I had the challenge of making my story different and compelling since everyone was writing about him. I love reading the Talk of the Town pieces in The New Yorker. They’re 750-800 word pieces that offer a picture of a scene—the writer meets a celebrity and spends some time following them around or they spend time in the studio. They’re witty and light and reach a higher-level grace. It’s really elegant gossip. I’m doing something similar for The Forward.

M: What’s your favorite writing spot in New York?

T: When I’m writing for work, I’m strictly in my cubicle. I can’t focus when I work from home. There’s a café by my apartment called Kettle and Thread that I go to on the weekends and before work, and it’s full of yarn, board games and a stand up piano. It’s the one café I can work in.

M: What’s your favorite thing about your job and what’s most challenging?

T: Being a working writer is extremely hard in a mental way, but it’s extremely rewarding. It’s a lot of time sitting down and writing, which is the best part of my job. It’s practice all the time, and it means most of my job is thinking, which is hard to find.

M: What’s your dream job or ultimate career goal?

T: That’s a subject of constant questioning—I would like to be writing. I would like to be a novelist but maybe a critic in addition. The dream for someone who does what I do is to end up at The New Yorker. I never anticipated being in this job, but I love it. I have goals, but I also want to stumble into something.

M: How’s New York?

T: New York is great and awful at the same time. It’s an incredibly exciting place to be if you’re into the arts and if you’re into seeing life, but it’s also really hard, and it can be lonely. I have lots of days when I spend three hours on the subway, and I think about the days of driving from my office to my apartment in St. Louis in 10 minutes. It’s an exciting place to be at this point in my life and career.

M: What was your experience like as a writing tutor?

T: I loved being a writing tutor. I think about it all the time. Before I became a writing tutor, I had this idea that tutoring was about copy editing, fixing grammatical errors, and touch ups. Learning about the methodology and focusing on ideas first was formative for me as a tutor and writer. I think it’s incredible fun. When I was a tutor, I felt like I could spot what needed to be done immediately, and it was this fun psychological challenge to get someone to see what needed to be done and to formulate their ideas. Training as a tutor was one of the most meaningful educational experiences I had. It lays out how you think.

The Writing Center was a haven of thoughtfulness in a chaotic campus and world. You walk in, and the air is still and quiet and people are thinking deeply. When I edit things now I still have Rob and Steve’s voices in my head. Rob and Steve were such constant presences in three out of my four years of college. During my ascent into adulthood they were always there. I have a sense of how they impacted me as a whole, both of them. I think Rob taught me a lot about how to maintain equanimity with a sense of humor. As a writing tutor, it’s easy to get wrapped up in questions and fears if you don’t get someone to see your point of view. You in some way are letting down yourself and the tutee. Rob gave me an education in how to not get overly invested, because when you are you’re not objective and you’re less effective. Steve has such a kind, informed way of going about everything. He’s a good listener, with an open but firm presence. I think he made me more compassionate as a tutor. That sense of intention and innate understanding is something I’ve learned to exhibit. They’re really good at what they do.

M: How did your experience at The Writing Center influence what you’ve done since graduation?

T: It made me be a lot more deliberate in how I choose to present information when I write. I see a lot of writing and pitches, and I can tell where people haven’t been judicious enough in analyzing their own instincts. People have a tendency to let themselves run over. My work with The Writing Center taught me to be judicious by nature, as opposed to only unwillingly and when forced to be. You see people running to excess in a great way as well. If you look at communications in government and ideology, it’s running to excess. This training to be clear minded, artistic, deliberate and nuanced is something that has been in my mind since I left. People get enamored with their own ideas. It’s not about taking over the conversation and assuming you know best; it’s listening and discussing—knowing when to push and when to listen.

M: If you could offer any advice to current tutors and aspiring writers what would it be?

T: For aspiring writers, I would say go to The Writing Center! Ask for help from people who you trust—that can be tutors, teachers, or professors. At college, you’re trying to prove yourself and do well at what you do. Asking for help is admitting you’re not there, but realistically no one is there. Every writer works with an editor. Not a single book you’ve read has been written and just sent off. It’s not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength, and it helps you become a better writer. For current writing tutors, see this as a job, but also understand the fun in what you’re doing. Take your own advice and learn the lessons you give to other people.