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Soul of the People: A Profile of David Taylor
by Myra Sklarew
David Taylor’s first contact with The Writer’s Center (TWC) came in a fiction workshop he took in 1996 with Kate Blackwell. A short story he workshopped then later ended up in his collection, Success: Stories. For him, one of the great benefits of TWC is meeting and working with other writers; he still shares work with those from that early workshop. He then took a short fiction workshop with Richard Peabody, leading to his first published short story, “Strikers,” and another with Barbara Esstman, “an excellent forum for work on longer pieces, dealing with questions of process.”
Since then, David has received a number of awards. His nonfiction has appeared in Smithsonian, The Washington Post, WIRED, Environmental Health Perspectives, and in publications of the National Institutes of Health and the National Academy of Sciences, as well as in documentary scripts for PBS, National Geographic, and the Smithsonian Channel. His collection won the 2008 fiction award from Washington Writers’ Publishing House and was a Library of Virginia Literary Awards finalist.
David contacted TWC about instructing in 2005, and soon began teaching science writing. I have been one of the fortunate recipients of his teaching in two workshops. This fall he leads a workshop on “Writing Brilliantly about Science,” for both generalists and technical experts with a focus on narrative.
What strikes me about David’s work is its enormous range and daring. Travels have taken him from service in the Peace Corps in Mauritania, West Africa, where the drought was severe, to work as an editor in Southeast Asia, to a recent journey to a remote clinic in Mali where malaria is being treated and studied. He has interviewed Malian singers Amadou and Mariam about their lifelong blindness and plan for concerts in darkness, ziplined through coffee forests in Panama, and explored the great Brazilian novelist Machado De Assis, whose writings set the stage for many innovations by modern fiction writers. It seems that there is no journey that is off-limits as long as there is a narrative, a life-story.
David’s subjects include Ginseng, the Divine Root, an exploration of the science and subculture of a medicinal plant. His work on a 2003 documentary, Partners of the Heart, took me back to my own childhood. I recall the “blue babies,” born with congenital heart malformations, and the work of Alfred Blalock and Helen Taussig, and, most importantly, a man named Vivien Thomas who with no college or medical education became head of Hopkins’ Surgical Research Lab, teaching a generation of surgeons. Thomas’ contribution might have gone unnoticed had it not been for documentarians like David.
His work on the Works Progress Administration echoes powerfully in these hard times. In 2011, something like the W.P.A. Writers’ Project might lend a hand, for example, to the thousands who recently assembled at a job fair arranged by our Congressional Black Caucus at Atlanta Technical College, waiting all night in dress clothes for 2,000 jobs. David brought this project into the light once more with Soul of a People: The W.P.A. Writers’ Project Uncovers Depression America.
Myra Sklarew writes fiction, poetry, and nonfiction essays on science and medicine. Book publications in 2010 include Harmless and The Journey of Child Development: Selected Papers of Joseph Noshpitz, co-edited with Bruce Sklarew.