Faye Rapoport DesPres

Random thoughts after finishing Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail”

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Forgive yourself.

Try to be comfortable in your own shoes.

Don’t carry so much.

It’s OK to be afraid. Sometimes it’s good to be afraid.

It’s OK to be angry. Sometimes it’s good to be angry.

It’s OK to be alone. Sometimes it’s good to be alone.

Love is a funny thing.

To understand the importance of $5, buy a small tub of cottage cheese for $3.99, walk out of the store feeling bummed about using up almost an entire $5 bill, and then give $1 to the homeless man selling newspapers on the sidewalk.

Don’t miss so much by moving so fast.

Just walk.

Sing.…

The ebbs and flows of the writing life

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For the past month I’ve been working in a temporary administrative job at a well-known university meeting individuals who are at the top of their craft and highly respected in the literary world: Pulitzer prize winners, staff writers from The New Yorker, literary scholars with numerous publications, celebrated critics, writers who have been reviewed in The New York Times and interviewed by the Paris Review. The ironic thing is that I have come in contact with these people not because of my writing background or any of my potential talents or skills, but because I am supporting their work as Humanities professors in a faculty services position. Most of them have no idea that I’m a writer or that I’m sneaking extra copies of some of their student handouts into my desk drawer so that I can read them in my spare time. I’ve read short pieces by Paul Celan, David Foster Wallace, and Tillie Olsen, among others, and have stashed away a reader’s guide to James Joyce’s Ulysses (I read 300 pages of that novel for a class in college, and didn’t understand a word of it at the time).

I have five weeks left to this temporary job, which I took to help pay the last of my husband’s tuition bills when he heads off to his final five weeks of doctoral studies at Smith College in Northampton this summer. I’ve been doing all of my freelance work on the side, usually during slow times at the office. The experience has been fascinating and humbling, interesting and challenging. I have to be careful every day to enjoy this unique opportunity to observe certain aspects of faculty life at an esteemed university, because it would be easy to feel discouraged (and I admit that there are times when I have) by the realization that I will probably never be as accomplished as these individuals. I started pursuing “the writing life” rather late, or should I say I started writing creatively early in life but then dropped the ball for many years. During those years I used my writing skills in professional work such as journalism and business writing, but not in any creative capacity. I only returned to creative writing four years ago, and I have to be reminded by friends more often than I like to admit that there is no race or deadline here; writing is something you can pursue at any time in your life. You can only be yourself and write at your own pace, and no good comes from having regrets. Who you are comes thoroughly and absolutely from where you’ve been. I traveled widely and had many varied experiences in my life for reasons that are just as varied. All of that now plays into my writing. I know a woman who graduated from my MFA program a year before I did who is turning 80 this week. She got her first creative publication last year, I believe, and she’s thrilled…I have learned a lot from her attitude!

One of the ironic things about working at this job is that I haven’t had much time to write. I was writing for two hours every morning before the job started, but now that I have to be on the road commuting by 7:30 a.m. I use the two hours before that to work out, shower, and get ready for work. I know some die-hard writers would say I should be writing instead of working out, but I’ve been an avid exerciser all my life (I was a gymnast and lifeguard in another life and I also trained in martial arts for 11 years). I know that not exercising is as bad for my state of mind as not writing, and it’s also bad for my physical well being.

I thought I would be able to write during the slow hours at the job after I finished my freelance work, but I find that there’s no way I can work at anything creative when my office door is open and I can be interrupted at any time by people who might walk in and need my attention or help. I crave total quiet and a private space when I write; I can’t relax and free my mind when I’m always on alert, waiting for someone to walk in. I also get caught up in a stream of concentrated thought when I write, and that’s not something I can maintain in-between interruptions.

I’ve gained more respect than ever for people who write while working at a full-time job. I’m finding that by the time I’ve been up since 5:30 and then out of the house for nine to ten hours, I’m just too beat and restless when I get home to spend more time at a computer. I want to move around. And there are all of the chores that go with working and keeping up the house: loads of laundry to do, floors to sweep, mop, or vacuum, clothes and lunch to prepare for the next day, cats to feed. The most I can get myself to do after all of that is stare at the TV for an hour before bed. Tell me working people, especially working parents, how DO you fit in the writing? My hat is off to you!

Today, on a Sunday, I managed to get back to one of the latest essays I’m working on. I revised the nine-page piece for a total of six hours, and it was interesting to see the difference between writing for a couple of hours every morning and sitting in my writing room for a six-hour stretch (with a break or two in-between sessions). Today I forced myself to keep going after what felt like natural stopping points; instead of saying, “I’ll think about this and get back to it tomorrow,” I thought about it for a half hour while I took a lunch break and then sat down and kept …

Fourth Genre Founding Editor Michael Steinberg Launches Creative Nonfiction Blog

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Fans and writers of creative nonfiction, you might be interested in a new blog launched by Michael Steinberg. For those of you who don’t know Mike or who haven’t read his work, he is the founding editor of Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, one of the premier literary journals that solely publish creative nonfiction. Mike has written, co-written and edited five books and a stage play, and his essays and memoirs have appeared in many literary journals and anthologies. In 2004, Foreword Magazine chose his memoir Still Pitching as the Independent Press Memoir of the Year. The Association of American University Presses also listed Still Pitching in “Books Selected for School Libraries.”

Other titles include Peninsula: Essays and Memoirs From Michigan (a finalist for the 2000 Forward Magazine Independent Press Anthology of the Year and the 2000 Great Lakes Book Sellers Award) and an anthology, The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/​on Creative Nonfiction, co-edited with Robert Root, now in its sixth edition. Many creative nonfiction classes use the anthology as a course text.

Mike has also been a guest writer and teacher at many colleges and universities, as well as at several national and international writers’ conferences. Currently, he is writer-in-residence at the Solstice low-residency MFA program at Pine Manor College, from which I earned my MFA.

Mike enjoys both starting and participating in dialogues about Creative Nonfiction (his recent panel at AWP was titled “Crafting the Made-Up Self” and featured Phillip Lopate, Mimi Schwartz, and Thomas Larson). I’m sure the ideas he brings up on his blog will be informative and perhaps, at times, provocative. He looks forward to your feedback in the comments section.

Michael Steinberg’s blog can be found here:

http://www.mjsteinberg.net/blog.htm

Enjoy!…

Dribs and Drabs for Writers

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It’s been a crazy couple of weeks; I recently started a two-month temp job at a well-known university to earn some extra income before my husband heads off to his final summer of PhD studies at Smith. Every bit helps. I’m working in the Humanities building and meeting some incredibly talented and accomplished writers and other faculty members, but my role is simply an administrative one. It is interesting to have been a professor last semester at Framingham State, and to be working in an administrative role at another university this semester. I often think that the universe places us in situations designed to teach us something about ourselves and our lives — in this case, I think I’m being challenged to hold onto a definition of myself that comes from within as I move among the different levels of work at academic institutions.

There is no doubt about one thing: it is inspiring to be around the faculty here. These people have reached an incredibly high level in their creative and professional lives.

Since my days have been a bit too hectic to allow for drafting a lengthy blog post, I thought I’d share some links to the reading I’ve been doing that has inspired me as a writer (or has just affected me as a person).

I finally had a chance to read James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son,” an essay that can be found in a number of collections including the original essay collection of the same name, which a TIME Magazine reviewer called Baldwin’s “defining work, and his greatest.” Reading this essay was a life-changer for me, not only because it is written so well that even as a writer I forgot about the writing as I read it, but because it brought home the experiences of another human being — experiences that I can never fully comprehend, but that I can learn from and honor and respect.

I also read a great interview with Amy Hempel that was published a few years ago in the Paris Review called “The Art of Fiction.” Not only does the interview shed light on Hempel’s life and writing process, it offers a valuable perspective on certain aspects of story and narrative. It’s always interesting to get a glimpse into the mind and creative process of a highly accomplished writer, and to weigh their views and experiences against your own. In what ways does your style or process differ, an in what ways is it similar? Are there some new things you might try? Can you be inspired by looking at certain aspects of writing in a new way?

Hempel’s first published story, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” has been anthologized many times and is available online at Fictionaut. The story offers a strong example of many of the techniques she discusses in her interview.

On my Kindle, I’m currently reading Cheryl Strayed’s new and touted memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail. I am only about a quarter of the way through the book, which has been optioned by Reese Witherspoon for a movie, so I’ll let this review from the Washington Post introduce it to you.

Finally, I’ve started reading The Complete Essays of Montaigne, which I’ve wanted to read for some time. I am sure it will take me a long while to get through the book, which I’ll approach bit by bit, here and there. But I was struck by how touched I was by these simple words at the end of the author’s introduction, titled “To the Reader”: “Thus, reader, I am myself the matter of my book; you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject. So farewell. Montaigne, this first day of March, fifteen hundred and eighty.” Something about the way those words reached me across 431 years truly moved me. And in a way, they describe what a personal essayist does…lay out “myself” as “the matter of my book,” even if we worry on some level that the subject is indeed “frivolous” and “vain.” The self is all we have to absorb and interpret the life that we live, and writing about it is the only way we know how to share our interpretation with the world.…