With this post, Five Directions Press author Joan Schweighardt—the author of The Last Wife of Attila the Hun and Before We Died, among other novels—is reviving our Spotlight series featuring authors both inside and outside our coop. Read on to find out more about the multiple creative endeavors of Fay Rapaport DesPres as she juggles essays, poetry, children’s fiction and—yes—paid work.
You have managed to balance a life of professional writing for a variety of clients with your own creative writing projects. Is that as difficult as it sounds, or does one feed the other?
For me, it’s as difficult as it sounds. When I put a great deal of energy into writing professionally (for full-time employers or freelance clients), it’s harder to feel relaxed and rested enough to be creative with my writing on a regular basis. Spending all day at the computer for work makes it difficult to add hours in front of the keyboard for my own writing.
One thing I’ve considered is doing more drafting by hand, so I can get away from the computer. Many people feel that writing with a pen or pencil actually improves the creative process, and I’ve sometimes found that to be the case when I’ve tried it.
I’ve experimented with different ways of writing both creatively and professionally at the same time—doing my own writing early in the morning or after work, for example, or focusing more weekend time on writing. But to be honest, I haven’t found the right balance. Some weeks different strategies work better than others. I envy writers who don’t have to work full time!
Your first book, Message from a Blue Jay, is a memoir in essays. What is gained (and is anything lost?) when a writer decides to tell her story through a series of essays as opposed to a more traditional narrative?
There’s been a lot of discussion in creative nonfiction and memoir circles on this topic. When I first wrote the personal essays that came together as my first book, I focused on them individually. I was learning the personal essay form as a student, and each essay was a separate attempt at conquering something I was exploring with that form.
When it came time to develop a book-length manuscript, I learned that it’s difficult to publish a collection of individual essays. There isn’t a large audience for essay collections, and publishers have to be very particular about which ones they choose to publish. I was encouraged by more than one publisher who liked my work to connect the pieces in more of a narrative. To do that, I had to edit some of the essays, rearrange the pieces more chronologically, and write a couple of new essays that rounded out the narrative and gave it a clearer time frame.
I think what is gained is a narrative that more readers can dig into and relate to; the book forms more of a cohesive picture of a decade of the narrator’s life. Still, some readers who saw the word “memoir” and expected a traditional narrative found the book confusing because of the individuality of the chapters.
I do think perhaps something is lost in the process, too, because there’s a certain beauty in the carefully crafted personal essay that stands alone, much like the great short stories in fiction. So I think it’s a shame that individual essay collections aren’t of more interest to publishers and readers.
After years of writing essays, you have jumped lanes to write children’s books. How did you make that decision, and how does writing essays compare with creating books that require collaboration with an artist?
Writing personal essays is mentally difficult for me; when you take the risk to reveal certain aspects of your life or self, you open yourself up to criticism in a different way than fiction writers do. I was honored to receive many highly positive and touching reviews on Amazon, but like all writers I had negative ones, too. When I feel down about a review, I look at the reviews of books like Anna Karenina and laugh to see that even the most gorgeous classics get negative reviews.
At the same time, when readers criticize the narrator herself in a memoir instead of the book or the writing, it’s hard not to take it personally. You absolutely must gain that skill. Most readers don’t realize that the narrator of a memoir or personal essay isn’t really the author—at least not every part of the author. We select parts of ourselves or our stories to reveal on the page for literary reasons. Crafting creative nonfiction is just like crafting fiction: you make choices for the sake of developing a good read.
The rewarding part of writing creative nonfiction is that when readers do relate to your story or feel inspired by it or less alone because of it, you know you’ve contributed something positive to the world. Helping one person makes it all worth it.
Still, I was ready for something different after six years of focusing exclusively on creative nonfiction. I had a story I wanted to tell that I felt was perfect for a children’s book, so I decided to go in that direction. It’s a true story, so I still maintained that element, but I had a lot to learn about writing for children and collaborating with an artist. I loved it. Writing a text while imagining a story visually is a very different process.
Where do you see your writing heading in the future?
Since my first book came out, I’ve published more personal essays, several fiction stories, and my children’s book. The second book in my Stray Cat Stories children’s book series, Tribbs: The Cat Who Was So Handsome, is scheduled for release on October 29, which is National Cat Day. A portion of the proceeds from my children’s books is donated to animal rescue organizations. I will then write a third book in that series.
I’m not sure if I’ll go beyond three Stray Cat Stories, but I do have ideas for more. I’d also like to get back to prose, and I’ve currently got thirty poems I wrote during National Poetry Month that I’d like to revise and potentially put together as a chapbook.
If only there was time for it all—and work!
Faye Rapoport DesPres holds an MFA from the Solstice Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College. Her memoir in essays, Message from a Blue Jay, was published in 2014 by independent press Buddhapuss Ink. Her second book, Little White: The Feral Cat Who Found a Home, was published by Writer’s Coffee Bar Press in 2018. Faye’s creative works and essays have appeared in, among other places, Ascent, Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Platte Valley Review, Superstition Review, In the Arts, Fourth Genre, and The Writer’s Chronicle. She has also published nonfiction articles in various newspapers, including The New York Times. Today Faye works as a marketing writer by day and as a creative writer in any extra hour she can find. She lives with her husband, Jean-Paul DesPres, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.