Faye Rapoport DesPres

dreams

Hard Times and Dreams, and Why They Might Go Together

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“Right in the difficult we must have our joys, our happiness, our dreams: there against the depth of this background, they stand out, there for the first time we see how beautiful they are.”

- Rainer Maria Rilke

I posted the above quote on my Facebook wall a couple of days ago because I was looking for some meaning in the middle of a difficult few weeks. First one of my beloved cats died in my arms, and then, just one week later, my father fell at home and had a serious health scare related to his ongoing battle with Parkinson’s Disease. Thankfully, my father is doing much better now; he wasn’t badly injured in the fall and he is recovering more of his strength than we thought would be possible at first. I live two hours away from the upstate New York town where my parents live, so it is difficult to balance my desire to be a loving, available daughter and my need to pursue a separate life and fulfill my responsibilities in Boston.

And in the midst of all of this, on top of my paying work, my house, my husband and my remaining three cats, is the writing. The writing is always hovering nearby, tugging on my sleeve, waiting for its turn to be the center of my attention. I can feel almost as guilty about missing writing time as I feel about not being more available to my parents. I am virtually dogged by the belief that successful writers don’t let anything (or at least much) get in the way of their commitment to write and their determination to succeed. I once had a friend who was a professional skier (he competed in the 1992 Olympics), and he told me that professional athletes have to be selfish in order to succeed. I understood what he meant; it takes a tremendous amount of focus to be successful at something on that level. But as we get older, life can get more and more complicated. Responsibilities mount. Tough times occur (that’s not to say that they don’t occur in the younger years for many people). It can get increasingly difficult to have the tunnel vision it takes to succeed. Dreams, joys, and moments of happiness tend to occur not in a vacuum, but “right in the difficult.” The work we love to do and any success we achieve comes as more of a relief “against the depth of this background.”

When I wrote the sentence above it occurred to me that creative endeavors often are pursued simultaneously with tough times, and do serve as a kind of “relief.” Consider the different meanings of “relief”: “The easing of a burden or distress, such as pain, anxiety, or oppression.” And “a. The projection of figures or forms from a flat background, as in sculpture, or the apparent projection of such shapes in a painting or drawing. b. A work of art featuring such projection.”

For me, writing can be both of these things, although each type of writing is different. This morning I wrote a journal entry during my writing time. The entry recounted what had happened with my father. The act of writing it gave me the space to vent many of the feelings I was having about the situation on the page. This type of writing fits one definition of relief: “the easing of a burden or distress.” And anyone can do it – get relief just by pouring his or her guts out on the page.

But this is a very separate thing from writing a personal essay. A personal essay can be thought of in terms of the second definition of relief: the “projection of figures or forms from a flat background;” and “a work of art featuring such a projection.” We pull personal essays, memoirs, and other creative nonfiction from the background of what is happening in our lives. This type of writing is not just a recreation of the messiness that happens in life, it is the work of art that can be pulled out of that messiness.

The rest of Rilke’s quote says: “…there against the depth of this background, they stand out, there for the first time we see how beautiful they are.” As we lie in bed feeling the pain of losing a pet, we cherish more deeply the one that is left to nuzzle our head on the pillow. After we watch an elderly father struggle with a debilitating disease, we go for a jog near a lake and remember to appreciate each step.

And when we pursue our dreams despite hard times we realize that these dreams do more than just drive us. They give us relief.…

On the Quest for My First Book

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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. …