Faye Rapoport DesPres

teaching writing

The Long and Winding Road…

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It’s been a long road between my last real blog post and this one — and it will likely be some time before I really get back to blogging. The summer in Boston has been hot, hot, hot…and I’ve been focused on completing a large number of freelance jobs while preparing for the release of my first book next spring.

In the meantime, my wonderful webmaster, Justin Sablich, has been tinkering with both my blog and my website. He’s been transporting everything into WordPress so that I can eventually manage the site on my own. That makes sense, because Justin is “moving on up” at The New York Times and he doesn’t have the time he used to have to devote to projects like my little website. I appreciate very much that he’s putting his heart and soul into the re-do so that I have something to work with. Sometimes you meet someone wonderful without ever even meeting them in person, and that’s been the case with Justin. He was referred to me by a friend who is an editor at the Times, and I’ve loved every moment of working with him.

I do have some new things coming up. I’ll be teaching Writing 1 at Lasell College in the fall as an adjunct lecturer, and I’ve also just completed another guest blog post for Superstition Review, a literary journal that I admire greatly and that was kind enough to publish one of my earlier essays, “Tulips.” The post is scheduled to be published on August 10th on their popular literary blog. I’ll post a link when it’s up.

I also look forward to what’s coming next for my book, the “memoir-in-essays” MESSAGE FROM A BLUE JAY. I’ll keep you posted as it winds through all of the steps before it is launched in Spring 2014 — I don’t have an actual publication date yet. It’s exciting, but also scary. I can’t wait to hold that book in my hands.

Finally, I’ve been working (for fun) on a “cozy mystery” based on a story that I initially wrote as a NaNoWriMo effort last year and then transformed into a mystery short story a few months later. Now I’m expanding that story into a full book, and it’s been a fun exercise.

Still, my heart is always called back by personal essays, and the blog post I wrote for Superstition Review is really more of a short essay.

Well, that’s enough of a round-up for now. I hope to get this blog and website back online soon, and in the meantime, I’ll keep popping in with news and notes. Have a wonderful rest-of-summer — and stay cool!…

A link to my guest post on the Superstition Review Blog

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“California, a prophet on the burning shore,
California, I’ll be knocking on the golden door”
- John Perry Barlow

I always think of the Grateful Dead song “Estimated Prophet” when I travel to California. As a matter of fact, when I woke up in Benicia, a town located about 40 minutes from San Francisco, on Saturday morning, I opened up my iPad case, found the song on YouTube, and played it for a few minutes. I do love this state, as different as it is visually and culturally from the Northeast and the Southwest (the two areas where I’ve lived in the United States). I’m here now visiting family. My elderly parents wanted to see my sister, her husband, and their two children, and it was too much travel for them to handle on their own.

It wasn’t an easy trip. Thirteen hours, including a flight from Albany, NY to Atlanta, a layover, and then the flight to San Francisco. But my husband came along and he and I are here now, on our own in a small but new and comfortable hotel. Yesterday we enjoyed perfect sunny weather with a light ocean breeze as we watched my niece perform in a high school marching band competition in Vallejo, walked to the marina and up and down the main street of Benicia, which is lined with quirky shops and fun restaurants, and sat around my sister’s large dining room table sharing a feast of Indian take-out with the family at dinner time. At night, Jean-Paul and I joined my sister and her husband for a night out at a local bar/night club. As we walked in and made our way through the small crowd toward the bar, the band on the corner stage was singing Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.”

California.

This post won’t be much longer than that, because it’s not easy to type on an iPad! But I did want to share the link to a recent guest post I wrote for Superstition Review’s popular blog. The blog, which is worth bookmarking, offers news from the journal, general literary commentary, and writing tips and advice. I wrote my post 10 days after the bombings at the Boston Marathon and talked about the incidents in life that we can’t shake and how they often eventually translate, for essayists, into writing.

Here’s the link:

http://superstitionreview.asu.edu/blog/2013/05/09/guest-blog-post-faye-rapoport-despres-what-does-this-have-to-do-with-writing/

And now, back to California. …

A helpful revision exercise for writers

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My friend, writer Cindy Zelman, recently asked me to read an early draft of a new essay. Cindy and I exchange new work occasionally to help us each push past those points where we feel stuck with a draft. It helps to gain the perspective of an objective, keen, and supportive reader who shares your general writing sensibilities. That person can offer advice about what is working – and what might not be – in your draft. Cindy and I are very different writers, but we find that the things that we notice when we read each other’s work helps us kick our drafts up to the next level.

In reading Cindy’s recent essay, I picked up on something that happens to so many of us when we are working on early drafts of our work. We start out with an idea of what we want to write about, but new ideas fall onto the page as we work on the draft. We add scenes or characters that we didn’t necessarily plan to include at first, and we segue into other topics that sometimes lead us off track. Or maybe we are not heading “off track” at all. We might be finding something more compelling that we really want to write about. We might decide, through the drafting process, that our original intention is no longer as interesting as a new direction we now want to pursue.

That’s all a part of early drafting. The drafting process for many writers is about having ideas, exploring those ideas, and throwing a variety of things down onto the page to see where your mind and your writing might lead.

But once you’ve finished that first messy draft you might sit back, re-read it, and ask, “Now what do I have? What do I really want to say with all of this? And in order to say it well, what has to stay and what has to go?”

Cindy was at this place with her essay. She had arrived at what she wanted to write about, and she had some wonderful characters and scenes to help her get there. But she also, we mutually agreed, had some elements in her early draft that she might now be able to let go. There also were some places where she might want to go deeper to make her point. And all of that would happen before she started to worry too much about line editing on the language level. (For both Cindy and me, that tends to come later in the game).

So I suggested that Cindy try an exercise that was assigned to me by Laban Carrick Hill, one of my teachers at the Solstice MFA Program in Creative Writing, when I was working on my critical thesis. After I had completed one or two drafts of the thesis, Laban asked me to answer these three questions:

What is this thesis about in one word?
What is this thesis about in one sentence?
What is this thesis about in one paragraph?

After really pin-pointing what a piece of writing is about (whether critical or creative) you can begin to move outward from that important information to organize and carefully target each section, paragraph, and sentence of the piece so that it leads to the ending you want. Maybe you started out writing about the color of the sky as a metaphor for world peace, as an off-the-cuff and perhaps silly example, and ended up deciding to write about an association you have between the color blue and personal safety because of a blanket you carried around as a child. Now that the topic of your piece has changed, you might want to cut out the lengthy paragraphs about clouds or air travel that you had in your original draft. In other words, you can cut away the stuff that doesn’t lead to your new destination. If that original draft talked a lot about clouds and only had one sentence about that blue blanket, but that one sentence really hit you and made you want to change the whole focus of your essay, you’ll likely want to add in a lot more about that blanket. Maybe you’ll include a better description of the blanket or add scenes that revolve around it. And since you’re now writing about personal safety and not about world peace, you can leave out the paragraph you had in your original draft about your time spent volunteering for Amnesty International. Or did that volunteering stint actually have something to do with your own quest for personal safety? Hmm. This is where your thinking, imagination, and creativity come in. Maybe. If so, figure it out and make it work.

I made up all of that about the color blue and the sky and a blanket this minute, but I think it should help you get the idea. If in one word your essay is now about “safety” and not about “peace,” this is going to change what you do with the next draft of your essay. And you’ll know better what to do if you expand that one word first into a sentence and then into a paragraph so that you can get a more complete (yet still focused) idea of what you want to say.

Try the exercise — it works. Cindy said she’s going to try it, and I am already looking forward to the next draft of her piece. I know it is going to be another Zelman classic.…

SOLSTICE LOW-RESIDENCY MFA PROGAM INTRODUCES APPLIED TRACK IN PEDAGOGY FOR GRADUATE STUDENTS

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Some news from my MFA Alma Mater, below. If you’re interested in an MFA program that will also prepare you to teach, read on:

[Chestnut Hill, MA, December 2012] The Solstice Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing Program is pleased to announce the introduction of its Applied Track in Pedagogy, designed to give low-residency students the training they need to teach at the college level. Featuring a series of classes dedicated to pedagogy basics, course design, assessment and grading, and classroom management, the pedagogy track will also require students to do an applied internship during their third semester in the MFA program, during which they will gain valuable classroom experience.

The Applied Track in Pedagogy will be officially launched at the upcoming winter residency of the Solstice MFA in Creative Writing Program, scheduled for January 4-13, 2013 on the Pine Manor College campus in Chestnut Hill, MA. The first unit, “Current Approaches to Teaching College Composition,” will be taught by PMC/MFA faculty member Kathleen Aguero, Director of the College’s Composition Program for 15 years. This class will provide an overview of some key theories about teaching composition, and ask students to articulate and examine their assumptions about how writing is taught and learned.

As one of the few low-residency programs to offer an Applied Track in Pedagogy at the college level, Solstice will offer an added benefit to MFA students hoping to find work in higher education after graduation.

ABOUT PINE MANOR COLLEGE
As an undergraduate institution consistently ranked among the most diverse in the country, Pine Manor College emphasizes an inclusive, community-building approach to liberal arts education. The Solstice MFA in Creative Writing Program reflects the College’s overall mission by creating a supportive, welcoming environment in which writers of all backgrounds are encouraged to take creative risks. We strive to instill in our students an appreciation for the value of community-building and community service, and see engagement with the literary arts not only as a means to personal fulfillment but also as an instrument for real cultural change.…

Notes on publishing (for new writers)

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Yesterday I moderated a panel on publishing at the Solstice MFA Creative Writing Program’s winter residency. The panel featured current faculty members Randall Kenan, Venise Berry, David Yoo, Mark Turcotte, and Anne-Marie Oomen.

I’ll try to summarize, here, some of the general points the panel made during the hour-long event (remembered as best as I can, as I was moderating and not taking notes):

The publishing industry is currently in flux, but at least one panel member noted that it has always been in flux in one way or another. The panelists differed somewhat in their opinions on how, or whether, writers should consider current trends in publishing when approaching their own work. Some panelists felt that it was best to follow your own creative impulses and goals without focusing too much, at least initially, on your work’s potential to be published. But at least one panelist countered that it was actually very important to be in tune with current trends and technology in order to have the best chance at placing your work. One of the changes noted was that in the past self-publishing was generally frowned upon, while now it is considered by many to be an important option for new writers who are having trouble finding a publisher. Anne-Marie Oomen noted that before she initially published her own work, she asked selected professionals to review the project and deem it publication-worthy.

All of the panelists seemed to agree that submitting shorter works (poems, short stories, or essays) to literary journals was an important first step for most new writers — a useful way to break into publishing and gain some recognition before trying to place a book-length manuscript. The career of one panelist, Venise Berry, was the exception in the sense that Venise’s first publishing experience was with her first full-length novel, So Good. Berry noted (as an example of how publishing trends can affect your luck with a manuscript) that the novel was accepted after a friend let her know that the industry was anxious to capitalize on the popularity of Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale by publishing similarly themed books.

Mark Turcotte told a somewhat shocking story about an incident in his earlier career. He and his then-wife had lost a child, and someone in the industry called to ask if he were interested in writing a book of “grief poems.” He turned the person down, wondering, “What type of empty vessel I would have to be” to capitalize on his personal tragedy on demand in that way. This story prompted a discussion on the difference between work that is written on demand in the right circumstances and inappropriate requests from agents or publishers.

When an audience member later asked how to determine where to submit (because there are so many literary journals), David Yoo suggested that writers submit to the journals that they really love first, and avoid the belief that their work will never be accepted in the more prestigious journals. But he also noted the importance of submitting to a variety of journals and not just targeting each piece to one journal at a time, because of the lengthy wait that usually occurs between submission and response. (As an aside, some literary journals still prefer or require non-simultaneous submissions, and it is important to honor their policy, but many journals today do accept simultaneous submissions.) Although David Yoo maintained that the submission process is often a crap shoot, and an acceptance can depend on what an anonymous reader had for lunch on the day he or she read your piece (a comment which elicited a number of nods in agreement) Venise Berry noted that she likes to get a feel for a journal by reading a number of issues and determining if there is a pattern among the accepted pieces. She recommended submitting to journals that publish work that is in line with the piece being submitted.

Another topic that came up, and that often comes up in publishing forums for new writers, was the idea and process of landing an agent. Anne-Marie Oomen explained that she has never had an agent, and would only make the effort to find one at a point when her time wasn’t so booked up with teaching and other projects. Randall Kenan noted that by not having an agent, Oomen was saving herself the 20% (or whatever) of author income that goes to the agent. Randall noted that if you think that an agent is what you see on “Entourage,” you won’t find that in the literary world. It’s important, he explained, to decide what you’re looking for in an agent (one who will hold your hand through every phase of your manuscript’s development, for example, or one who will expect a finished product on his or her desk?) before you try to find one. David Yoo noted that although he found an agent relatively early in his career, the agent turned out to specialize in an area that wasn’t appropriate for his book, so the arrangement wasn’t particularly helpful. It’s important, he stressed, to find an agent who focuses on young adult fiction (for example) if that’s what you’re writing. Randall noted that he was often surprised to hear that writers were looking for agents before they even had a completed manuscript. “Don’t put the horse before the….” he said, before an audience member called out the word “carriage” and he started laughing. Mixed-up metaphors are a product of Randall’s stream-of-consciousness discussion style, he explained.

The hour went by quickly, so quickly that we hardly had time for questions from the audience at the end. But I think everyone learned a lot about the basics of pursuing those first publications.  Of course, there’s a tremendous amount to learn and navigate when it comes to the publishing world, and I’m sure if we’d had another hour or more, the panel would have had much more to share.

If I’ve remembered …