Steffan Triplett: ‘Fearless’ writer, inspiring educator

Written by Donata Massimiani
Photos by Amaya Lobato
April 13, 2023

Steffan Triplett favored his English classes growing up, often spending days sitting at an old typewriter in his garage writing short stories. At the time, he was unaware of the years he’d later dedicate to writing and the passion he’d hold for creative nonfiction. 

“The idea of being a writer as a career or as anything beyond liking it in school was something that was not legible to my family or to me as a kid,” Triplett said. “We didn’t know any writers. I didn’t know how one became a writer and that never seemed like a possibility.”

After years of hard work, Triplett achieved the seemingly impossible. His first book “Bad Forecast” is set for release in 2024 by the publisher Essay Press. He said the book is a hybrid collection of essays and poems that ties together many topics and themes, such as the tornado that hit his hometown in 2011, grief and race.

“I wanted to do something that felt unique to me and that only I could write it the way I could write it,” Triplett said. “It’s maybe weirder in its form, but I like that it's going to be my first book.”

An essay Triplett had published in the Spring 2022 edition of the Iowa Review titled “Inclemency” is featured in his forthcoming book and is currently nominated for a Pushcart Prize.

Triplett completed his MFA in Nonfiction from the University of Pittsburgh in 2018, and got hired as an adjunct professor immediately after. Triplett said he decided to pursue nonfiction because he enjoyed the challenge of having to stick to the truth and found himself excited by the “depth” of the genre.

“I wanted to explore the bounds of the genre, whether that was learning a bit more about journalism or learning more about lyric essays and hybrid texts,” Triplett said. 

Pitt promoted Triplett to a visiting lecturer in 2019, and to a teaching assistant professor in the Writing Program in 2022. Triplett currently teaches “Introduction to Journalism and Nonfiction” and occasionally teaches “Introduction to Creative Writing.” He said he also had the opportunity to teach a course titled “Studio in African American Poetics” this semester. 

“It’s a multi-genre, multi-disciplinary creative class where we read Black poets and Black writers,” Triplett said. “The students all form creative responses every week and share them with each other, then work on a big final project in relation to what we read and the class theme, which is emergency.”

Leah Mensch, a Pitt alum currently earning their MFA at the University of Arizona, met Triplett during their first year of college when they took Triplett’s “Introduction to Journalism and Nonfiction” course in the spring of 2018. Mensch said they entered the class not knowing that the genre of creative nonfiction existed, and left inspired to pursue it as a career.

“It was reading his writing that made me really want to become a writer,” Mensch said. “It made me want to be able to do something really meaningful with my truth.” 

Amaya Lobato | Staff Photographer

Mensch said Triplett continued to mentor them until they graduated from Pitt, and that he taught Mensch to trust their instincts and abilities as a writer. Mensch also said no matter what type of essay they tried to write or what point they tried to articulate, Triplett always took them seriously as a writer, which is something he does with all his students. 

“Steffan teaches his students how to be fearless writers because he’s a fearless writer,” Mensch said. “And I think that he implemented that in me really early.” 

Now that “Bad Forecast” is on the way to publication, Triplett said he’s begun working on a memoir — though it hasn’t been picked up yet. According to Triplett, this memoir is told through a series of essays that navigate coming to terms with sexuality while highlighting the various forms of media that contributed toward his own understanding of it. 

“I’m trying to write a book that would’ve helped me navigate sexuality and fear when I was growing up,” Triplett said. “That’s what I’m striving for.”

Triplett said it’s difficult to write about and inhabit the headspace of growing up fearful and avoidant of one’s sexuality, but he sees that difficulty as a sign that he should pursue the subject.

“It feels really vulnerable and raw in a way that even my previous writing doesn’t,” Triplett said.

After graduating high school in 2010, Triplett attended Washington University in St. Louis on the John B. Ervin Scholarship — a historically Black scholarship, according to Triplett — where he earned a degree in psychology. Triplett decided to pick up a minor in creative writing after a conversation with James E. McLeod, the leader of Triplett’s scholarship program and the dean of Washington University’s College of Arts and Sciences at the time.

“When I told him that I liked writing essays he said, ‘A lot of students don’t come into my office and say ‘oh, I like to write,’ so you should stick with that and take a writing course each semester,’ and I liked the sound of that,” Triplett said. 

Historically, white men accounted for most of the nonfiction writers getting published, so he aims to highlight texts from writers with a diverse range of backgrounds in his courses.

“I’m very invested in thinking about the histories of nonfiction as a Black genre and thinking about and highlighting Black nonfiction writers in the past and present,” Triplett said.

In 2020, Triplett received the opportunity to become the assistant director of Pitt’s Center for African American Poetry and Poetics, also known as CAAPP. As the assistant director of CAAPP, Triplett said he serves as the day-to-day liaison and manager between people at Pitt and the center. He oversees communications with community partners and helps organize, run and plan all of CAAPP’s event programming.

“We do our CAAPP Black studies series every semester in which we bring in various Black poets, writers and artists to campus or virtual events,” Triplett said. “We also, each semester, do various events with our community partners.”

Amaya Lobato | Staff Photographer

Triplett said he also runs the CAAPP book prize that’s held each year with Autumn House Press. Triplett helps organize submissions and leads the team that reads those submissions and passes them on to the judge.

Dawn Lundy Martin, the director of CAAPP and Toi Derricotte Endowed Chair in English, said she immediately noticed Triplett’s leadership skills in the classroom and his insightful approach to poetry when he took her poetry workshop as a grad student. 

“I was thinking about how exciting and interesting it is that a nonfiction writer is able to take up poetry and make it his own in such a short period of time,” Martin said. 

Martin said Triplett has played a major role in creating CAAPP’s “astounding” online archive of past events, and that the two do weekly check-ins where they bring their ideas together to ensure the work they’re doing reflects the current sociopolitical moment in a distinct way. 

“We’re always also speaking to the conditions in which we exist as humans and as Americans in this particular moment,” Martin said. “Our work is not just floating off in some intellectual or abstract creative sphere, so working with Steffan has really been key to the development of that.”

Triplett said he wants his work to show that nonfiction is an exciting and flexible genre for all types of writers. He said he holds similar goals in the classroom, ensuring that his students know there is room for them in the genre even if it doesn’t always seem like it. 

"You can always show up to a page and write something in a way that's slightly different than another writer could,” Triplett said. “I think that’s the exciting part about nonfiction — the approach.” 

Editor’s Note: Leah Mensch is a former opinions editor at The Pitt News.