Faye Rapoport DesPres

writers

So long, AWP!

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It’s Saturday afternoon and AWP is still going strong in Boston. From what I heard, more than 12,000 writers descended on the city for the event. What a crowd, what chaos, what eagerness!

But now I’m back home — two days at the conference was my plan, and it’s time to get back to work and reality.

It will take a while to integrate all of the information received, friends met and re-met, and activity that is the crazy scene at AWP. In fact, it might take me a day or two just to absorb the reading/talk given by British writer Jeanette Winterson in front of a huge, crowded auditorium. Wow — was she dynamic, intelligent, funny, perceptive, and…well, amazing!

While I re-think it all, those of you who are still tromping around the Hynes Convention Center should enjoy the time that’s left and the sunshine that has finally returned to Boston! Have fun!…

Rejection: The Other Side

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Somehow it wouldn’t be honest to celebrate the writing successes I’ve had without talking about the other side of the writer’s life: the dreaded rejections. Over the past few weeks, I’ve received several rejections from literary journals. They have informed me, one by one, that one of my newer essays (which I started submitting about three months ago) doesn’t “meet our needs at this time.” That phrase that can mean so many things. Either the piece isn’t right for that particular journal, or the piece doesn’t fit into the theme of their current or future issues, or their reader(s) simply didn’t feel the essay was good enough for publication. As the writer, you never know for sure unless the editor decides to include an explanation, which is an extremely rare occurrence.

On some days the rejections don’t bother you too much. They arrive in the form of impersonal emails (with or without your name or the name of your piece included), or xeroxed form letters returned to you in Self Addressed Stamped Envelopes. Usually it’s been months since you sent out the submission, so it’s not as if you’ve been focused on it and allowing yourself to hope on a daily basis. When the rejection arrives, you tell yourself that this is part of the game, that your piece just didn’t hit the right journal, reader, or editor, and you swallow the informality of the response without letting it get to you. You remind yourself that most literary journals are poorly funded and understaffed, that they get thousands of submissions and publish precious few, and that they don’t have time to respond to them all personally. Rejections are common; it’s the rare moment when your piece hits the right reader at the right journal at the right time.

In one recent case, the editor of a journal that I respect took the time to type out a short personal letter to me, discussing a few aspects of my piece. He called the writing “great,” which thrilled me, but noted that he didn’t quite get some of the connections I was making in the piece. He ended by saying that he wasn’t sure he was right, and he hoped the piece found a home at another journal. That kind of a rejection feels almost like an acceptance; the fact that the editor liked your writing enough to take the time to personally explain his response — never mind wish the piece well at another journal — means so much. A generous human being sits behind that editor’s desk.

But most often the rejections are brief and impersonal, and I’ve had a few of those lately. And the truth is, unless you have a pretty thick skin, it’s easy to feel hurt by them. You put your heart and soul into your writing, and even a jaded writer who submits often and understands the rejection process can feel kicked in the gut when the rejections arrive. Your reaction can depend on the day, your mood, whether you’ve had any good news lately about your writing, and whether the rejection is the first you’ve received in a while or one of several that have come in lately.

Recently, maybe because I haven’t been writing as much as I’d like due to my teaching schedule (and therefore feel a bit off my game), I have felt the sting of the impersonal rejections. One recent rejection from a well-known journal was just a xeroxed copy of the first page of my piece, accompanied by a smaller piece of paper with a xeroxed form rejection. No kind words about the writing, no invitation to submit again. Just your basic, “Thanks, but no thanks.” This was a rejection of the same piece that had inspired the personal note from the other editor. And this one hurt a little.

I can’t deny it, the varying responses confuse me sometimes. But they shouldn’t; editors have varied tastes, just as readers do. And sometimes your piece never even gets as far as the editor. Your work might have been at the mercy of an unknown reader. Maybe he (or she) is a student, is overworked, likes a different writing style, or simply wasn’t in the mood for an essay on your topic that day. Plus, the more well-known the journal, the more chance that your work is competing against more seasoned (and perhaps talented) writers.

Of course, as I told the kind editor when I wrote back to thank him for his personal response, if a few more journals reject the piece I’ll consider some revision based on his comments.

But all of that is calm rationalization — the kind of thinking I can do in my best, most balanced, most normal moments. Even knowing all of that, on my not-so-great-days, sometimes the rejections still hurt. They inspire a struggle with self confidence. They make me especially wonder if my newer work is as good as the work I did during my MFA program, which ended two years ago. Back then, I had faculty members who read my work and gave me pointers on how to improve it. Even though I worked hard on those pieces for many months, and in some cases revised them on my own after the MFA, those essays did have the benefit of that oversight from talented, published writers and teachers.

Can I do work that’s as good on my own?

The jury is still out. “Waiting for the Hurricane,” which was recently published by the Platte Valley Review, was started and completed after the MFA. But the two other pieces I’ve completed since graduation have yet to find a home (and I’m still shopping around a couple of essays that were started during the MFA). The challenge is to keep believing that I can do this, and that I’ll get better and better if I work at it. Believing that is not always easy. Not on the tougher days.

So this is …

News and Notes

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It’s been a bit tough for me to keep up the blog this month. The last month of teaching Expository Writing at Framingham State has been a busy one. Because I was asked to teach just before the semester started, I had to grab another instructor’s syllabus and run with it. The syllabus has been an excellent road map for the course, but I’m realizing now that the bulk of the student’s graded papers are scheduled in the last month. I don’t grade lightly; I give significant thought to each student’s paper and grade. So the course has been time consuming lately.

I won’t be teaching “Expos” this spring. I wasn’t on the initial schedule because they hired a lot of new instructors for a large freshman class in the fall, and they needed fewer sections in the spring. The department chair recently let me know that a section had become available and asked if I’d like to teach it, but by then I’d already made plans for the first few months of next year. I had to decline, which is a little sad after teaching for just one semester. I’ve committed to some new freelance work, however, and to attending the AWP conference in Chicago at the end of February and re-focusing on my essay collection. If there’s one thing that I’ve learned this fall, it’s that I can’t do it all, at least not without feeling significantly stressed.

I “finished” two essays over the past few months (I put that word in quotation marks because I’m not sure if a personal essay is ever really finished, even after it’s published), but I haven’t been able to spend nearly as much time on my creative work since I started teaching, and this is a major concern for me. I have to write, revise, and/or polish a number of essays before I will have enough good work to consider a collection, and I want to maintain some momentum in that direction. Although the individual essays are more my focus than a book at this point, the book is still out there, waiting to happen.

Some other news: I have been asked to moderate a panel at Pine Manor College on January 2. The panel will be part of the winter residency for the Solstice MFA Program in Creative Writing, will focus on publishing, and will feature faculty members Venise Berry, Mark Turcotte, David Yoo, Anne-Marie Oomen, and Randall Kenan. That’s a panel loaded with talent, and I feel honored that the directors of the program asked me to moderate.

Melissa Varnavas, a fellow graduate of the program, recently posted something on Facebook that was both exciting and amusing. Melissa decided to google her own name (let’s face it, most of us do that now and then), and in doing so she discovered something unexpected: she was a finalist for the Arts & Letters/Rumi Prize for Poetry and never even knew it. Melissa is a very talented poet; I love her work. Congratulations!

My teacher and friend Joy Castro, meanwhile, announced on her blog that German publisher DTV, Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, has acquired the rights to her debut novel, HELL OR HIGH WATER. The book hasn’t even arrived on U.S. bookstore shelves yet, and already overseas publishers are acquiring the rights. I can tell you that I’ll be purchasing HELL OR HIGH WATER as soon as it’s available. If you haven’t read Joy’s work yet…really, do. Her memoir “The Truth Book” is stunning, haunting, and a master class for any writer.

I guess that will do for now. It’s hard to believe that December is already underway, and 2011 will soon be coming to a close. Wasn’t it just yesterday that we were all anticipating the new millenium? I remember standing on the pedestrian mall in Boulder, Colorado on New Year’s Eve 2000, watching the clock above city hall. When the clock struck midnight, champagne corks popped and couples, clad in warm ski jackets, hats, and gloves, hugged and kissed. I was on my own that night and I stood in the crowd, absorbing the celebration and trying to grasp the change. I can’t believe that was nearly twelve years ago.

Onward……

Congratulations, Meg Tuite!

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Meg Tuite, author of Domestic Apparition and fiction editor at The Santa Fe Literary Review and Connotation Press: An Online Artifact received two Pushcart Nominatins today (so far!). The first came from Thunderclap Press, which nominated Meg’s story “Fissure.” A short time later, A-Minor came out with its list of nominees, including Meg’s short fiction piece, “Dad’s Strung Out Women Blues.”

I once heard Meg refer to another writer’s work as “warrior writing,” and I think the term applies just as well to her own prose. Meg “goes for the jugular” like few writer’s I’ve seen. You don’t board this roller coaster unless you’re ready for the ride.

Congratulations, Meg! I feel honored to know you, and I know many writers have experienced your support and generosity.…