Faye Rapoport DesPres


A Small Bit of Publishing News


Picture 1It’s a cold, snowy afternoon in Boston (quite a change from hot and humid Florida, where I was last week) and I thought I’d pass on some publicatin news.

I mentioned in an earlier post that I was one of four writers who contributed to the November “Exquisite Quartet,” a column published by Meg Tuite in Used Furniture Review. Meg has now compiled all of 2012′s columns in a print anthology, and it is available through Lulu here.

It was quite an experiencing being the third of four writers to write a single story in succession. It was really fun, actually, and my thanks go out to Meg for inviting me to participate and for producing this anthology.


The book manuscript is just about done – here’s the “pitch”


For the past few months the focus of my writing has subtly changed; instead of feverishly writing, revising and submitting individual pieces (which I had been doing for the previous four years) I began thinking about finishing a collection. I’ve blogged in the past about the potential trap of “going for a book” too soon, but after two years of MFA study and two years of hard work improving the work in my creative thesis and producing some new essays, I felt it was time to develop a manuscript. This doesn’t mean I stopped writing new work; on the contrary, I felt that the manuscript I had in mind had a few pieces missing and I concentrated on filling in the gaps I thought existed. I also took out some old work and revised it heavily; but in most cases I found that even after a lot of revision, some of the older pieces didn’t stand up to my best work.

As of this week, on the advice of my wonderful agent, Joan Schweighardt, I believe I have “finished” my manuscript. What this means is that I think I have enough individual essays that have either been published by literary journals or that are polished enough to include in a linked collection. What it doesn’t mean is that I’m finished with the job. I still have to work on ordering the essays in a way that works a cohesive read, and then the process of proofreading and final edits will begin. But we’re close; we’re now beginning to work on a “pitch” for the book.

Joan asked me how I would describe the book, which has a tentative (Message from a Blue Jay ­– the title of one of my essays) that might change as the process progresses. This is what I wrote as a very quick first draft of the pitch:

Message from a Blue Jay is a collection of linked personal essays that also serve as a memoir of the decade of life between forty and fifty – a decade that is receiving so much attention in today’s media. It is a time when people grapple with the concerns that accompany the onset of middle age: coming to terms with one’s heritage and the lessons of youth, exploring the meaning of marriage and interpersonal connections, accepting bodies that are still youthful but are beginning to age, handling illness and the passing of parents. Rapoport DesPres also touches on her experience as the child of a Holocaust survivor and as the survivor of a life-threatening illness who grapples with her resulting childlessness. But in addition to exploring the very human passages that occur in this middle decade, the author explores her (and in extension, the human) relationship with the natural world and its inhabitants, which serve as the backdrop and ultimate metaphor for her emotions, her life, and her ultimate search for home. In the classic tradition of the personal essay, Rapoport DesPres’ writings are both observation and rumination and allow the reader to join her on a sometimes lyric, sometimes observational, and occasionally experimental narrative journey of both personal and philosophical exploration.

Creative nonfiction and personal essays are experiencing a resurgence in popularity thanks to the success of memoirs such as Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, and Kim Dana Kupperman’s recent essay collection from GrayWolf Press: I Just Lately Started Buying Wings. Faye Rapoport DesPres studied this genre at the Solstice MFA Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College under the tutelage of such known authors in the field as Michael Steinberg, the founding editor of one of the premier literary journals in creative nonfiction, Fourth Genre; well-known memoirist and fiction writer Joy Castro, and literary scholar and author Randall Kenan. She is also a volunteer for Kupperman’s Welcome Table Press and an active blogger on the topics of writing and creative nonfiction. Eleven of the essays included in this collection have previously appeared in literary journals, one has one an honorary mention in a short prose contest, and two have been highlighted and reprinted or republished online as “best of the year” pieces by the literary editors of those journals.

That’s it, the first draft of my pitch, straight off the top of my head. Joan will certainly work her magic and improve it.

So, any publishers interested out there? :-)

Here we go! Let the adventure of attempting to publish a book begin.…

Irrationality — Acceptances and Rejections


“Remember, the acceptances are just as irrational as the rejections.” One the faculty members at my MFA Program often told me this. And the more I forge through the daily life of a writer in the trenches, the more I understand what he meant.

I just learned that an essay that I entered into a literary contest didn’t win or get a nod as a finalist. That alone is not unusual; it’s very difficult to win a literary contest. There are often hundreds of submissions, and in order to win your piece has to get past initial readers and then end up being the one particular piece that one particular judge decides is the best among the final entries. That judge has his or her own tastes, interests, and literary preferences, and if your essay or poem or story doesn’t particularly match those sensibilities, it’s not likely to win.

The reason the failure of this particular essay confuses me, however, is that it is almost universally the essay that readers who know me have loved most. I first wrote it during my MFA studies, and even then the initial draft I presented at a workshop got rave reviews from most of the students and teachers. Since then, over the past nearly two years (after I had polished the piece and gotten the sign-off from a respected reader) I have submitted it to quite a few journals — 13, to be exact, if you don’t count the contest. It has not been accepted at any of the journals. Five of the journals rejected it with a basic form rejection, and eight rejected it with a note that requested more work. These requests either arrived in a form-letter type response or in a more personal letter praising the piece but saying it was not right for the journal. One of the journals, a well-known publication, sent a personal note letting me know that the piece got “very close” and encouraging me to try them again.

In a case like this, it’s tough to know what to think. I am inclined to think the piece is good enough to be published, because it got “very close” at a well-known journal and inspired eight editors to request more work. But part of me thinks that maybe there’s something not right about the piece, because, well, let’s face it — no one has accepted it in almost two years.

But then why does everyone who knows me and reads it love it so much? It’s a mystery.

It’s possible that the topic of this piece throws off some editors, or makes them question whether the event described in the essay really happened (it did — I had a very special, almost mystical encounter with a blue jay that bordered on unexplainable, and that’s what I write about in this piece). I can’t know if this is the problem, or if some other aspect of the essay just doesn’t gel with these editors’ sensibilities.

In the end, I guess I just have to accept what my teacher told me so long ago. “The acceptances are just as irrational as the rejections.” You can’t get too puffed up when you get good news, just as it’s a mistake to get too discouraged by bad news.

As for my essay, I think at this point that I might just include it in my book manuscript and leave it for my future readers to decide — if, of course, that manuscript gets one of those irrational acceptances.…

On the Quest for My First Book


It’s hard to believe that June is more than half over. Time passes that way, flying so fast you can’t catch it. For the past few weeks I’ve been adjusting back into the schedule of writing and working at home. I’ve found it strangely difficult to get back into the swing of things; the writing is getting done, but I’ve been falling asleep later at night and waking up later in the mornings. I’ve also been living alone while my husband is away at school, so I’ve had more household chores to handle when I first wake up. Today I didn’t start writing until 7, and that meant the rest of the day didn’t begin until 9.

I’ve been concentrating lately on trying to complete a collection of my personal essays. I have an agent, the wonderful Joan Schweighardt, who is also a long-time friend and colleague. Joan has worn every hat in the writing and publishing world; she has written four published novels of her own, as well as a memoir that was recently accepted for publication by a small press. Joan was in fact a publisher herself for a time after founding a small press called GreyCore Books. After a number of years in the field and the successful publication and marketing of quite a few books, she found that the financial challenges publishers faced at the time were too difficult to conquer (today there are more printing options that might have sustained her venture). As a result, she transformed GreyCore into a literary service that assists authors with manuscript editing, marketing, and occasionally, agent services. Joan has successfully placed a number of fiction and nonfiction titles with publishers, and I felt lucky when, after I worked with her as an editor on a couple of titles and she read some of my work, she agreed to be my agent once I finish a completed essay collection.

There are many facets to the idea of attempting a full-length book, especially if you are an essayist. Personal essay collections are notoriously difficult to publish, because publishers have to work with books they can sell and essay collections traditionally don’t attract a broad audience (even when they’re very good). A number of small and/or independent presses are working to boost general interest in essays, and I am forever grateful to the editors and publishers who believe in creative nonfiction and take this work seriously as a publishable genre. Fiction, biography, memoir, and poetry are generally easier to sell – but personal essays are becoming more popular, thanks to the many great essayists out there and a growing number of readers who are interested in the shorter forms of personal writing and reflection.

When I decided to earn an MFA, I wasn’t sure which genre to pursue. I had written poetry throughout my childhood and young adulthood, and had taken a poetry class at The New School and a graduate poetry workshop at the State University of New York at Albany. I received solid, positive feedback from my teachers and saw myself as a poet. But by the time I decided to apply to an MFA program, I hadn’t written any poetry for some time. Instead, I had been working as a journalist and writing a lot of feature stories. Fiction was the genre with which I had the least experience; I had written just two or three short stories in my life, and although one of them had been published by an online journal called Void Magazine (now defunct), I wasn’t confident that I had either the skills or the portfolio to apply as a fiction writer. I also wasn’t sure what “creative nonfiction” was exactly, but it sounded like the type of writing I was doing even in my spare time – I used to distribute a tongue-in-cheek newsletter called The Rapoport Times to friends and family that shared humorous stories about my life. One of my stories, about the culture shock experienced by a young woman from New York who was adjusting to the “new age” lifestyle of Boulder, Colorado, was published in a special Boulder edition of The Intermountain Jewish News.

When I was accepted as a student of creative nonfiction, I still wasn’t quite sure what creative nonfiction was. But I fell in love with the personal essay as soon as I learned about it, and I have been writing personal essays ever since. The form feels the most natural to me right now, and seems closest to what I want to achieve with my writing, although I haven’t ruled out a return to poetry or another try at fiction in the future.

Currently, my goal is to combine the essays I’ve been publishing over the last few years with new work in order to form a collection. And after re-dedicating myself to my morning writing routine I’m getting closer to my goal: enough words that I feel good about to complete the generally accepted required length of a manuscript (a minimum of 50,000 words for essay collections).

A couple of years ago I actually held myself back by worrying too much about completing a book; I needed time to improve and to focus on individual essays without worrying about finishing a book manuscript. Rushing things led me to produce inferior work in the quest for a manuscript with “enough words.” So I set aside my hope for a book and focused on individual pieces. That was the right thing to do at the time, and it’s possibly an approach I should continue with even now. I certainly don’t think that I’m already the best writer that I will ever be (at least I hope not). But I have worked long and hard and have had the quality of at least ten of my pieces verified by acceptance for publication in respected journals. And lately I have felt the desire to see my work in a larger context. So I’m going for it. …

Help save the University of Missouri Press!


On May 24th University of Missouri President Tom Wolfe announced that funding for the 54-year-old university press would be ended almost immediately. This was a devastating decision for the staff of the press, the writers who have been published by the press, and all writers who care about the fate of university and other small presses in the United States. Most of these presses work on a shoestring budget to publish really good work that would never see the light of day in the major publishing houses, which focus on highly mass marketable publications.

You can learn more about the effort to save the University of Missouri Press at this Facebook Page. Many writers are working to let Tim Wolfe know he made a mistake.…