Cats Tales and Blue Jays, Interview with Author Faye Rapoport DesPres

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Little White, who has a book named after her which will be out on October 16th!

I met Faye Rapoport DesPres in the summer of 2008 when I entered the Solstice MFA program at Pine Manor College.  We were the same age, both from a Jewish background, and both with a deep desire to write creatively.

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Author Faye Rapoport DesPres

Although Faye was a semester ahead of me, we shared writing workshops for nearly two years.  We have spent the last ten years supporting one another’s writing efforts over numerous cups of coffee and talk.

I have always admired the beauty of Faye’s work, her ability to take an everyday situation and turn it into breathtaking prose. Although I know writing is hard work for her as it is for most writers, her finished pieces evoke deep emotional responses. Often you don’t  realize you’re being swept away until you finish a piece and realize you need to breathe deep.

Not surprisingly, Faye has a long list of publications, first with her beautiful collection of essays, Message from a Blue Jay; then with a string of high-quality works published in literary journals and anthologies; and now upon the publication of her book children’s book, Little White: The Feral Cat Who Found a Home. The e-book is currently available for pre-sale now at Amazon   and will be available a paperback and hardcover on October 16th.

Faye has loved cats and writing since she was a little girl. Truly, she has been devoted to animals and the written word for her entire life. Now Let’s hear more about her pursuits.

CZ: I know you’ve been writing for a long time, but when did you first realize that you weren’t just “writing” but that you were “a writer?” Take me through the stages of your writing life. 

FRD: Some people say that anyone who writes is a writer. If you go with that definition, I’ve been a writer since I was a child. I have been keeping diaries since I was very young. I still have them, little books with snaps that close and tiny locks with keys.

When I was a pre-teen and a young teenager, I wrote a few stories about twin sisters named Karen and Karena. I wrote them to entertain a friend, and they’ve been lost to time. I also wrote bad poetry from a young age, although eventually it improved, and I published a couple of poems when I was in my twenties. For a while, I thought I was a poet.

CZ: You also make a living as a professional writer.

FRD: My writing skills eventually led me to a career that has moved back and forth between journalism and public relations or marketing writing for a long time, because I needed to work and have an income. Journalism, especially, taught me to be disciplined about my words and sentences.

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Franklin, one of the heroes of Little White’s story.

CZ: When did the desire to do more creative writing take hold, and where did it lead you?

FRD: When I was in my early forties, I realized I hadn’t written anything especially creative in years. I had always dreamed of writing a book, so I decided to dedicate two years to creative writing by entering a low-residency MFA program. That’s when things in my creative life turned around. The very first day, I realized my writing needed a total overhaul if I was going to jump from journalistic prose to something new and different and expressive of who I am. Creative writing is a very different skill than other kinds of writing.

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CZ:   I’ve noticed that many of your essays and short stories involve birds and animals. Why do you think you write so often with our fellow creatures in mind? 

FRD: I’ve loved animals since before I loved writing. I don’t remember a time when animals weren’t an essential part of my life. We had a cat and a dog when I was very young and living in New York City, and after we moved north to a farmhouse in upstate New York, a parade of animals passed through our family life. Over the years we had cats, dogs, rabbits, hamsters, gerbils, mice, fish, guinea pigs, a skunk, and even a sheep. I adored them all.

I was also passionate about the wildlife and the birds outside the windows. When I was 10, I walked door to door getting signatures on a petition to ban leg-hold traps. As an adult, I ended up working in communications for environmental organizations. Animals, wildlife, and nature are an essential part of my life and who I am.

 CZ: And the birds?

FRD: I have a special affinity for birds, maybe because my name in its various translations (Hebrew and Yiddish) means “bird” or “little bird.” When I was in high school, I played the role of Chava in Fiddler on the Roof, which has the song, “Chavala” with the lyrics, “Little bird, little Chavala…” In my twenties, I recorded some songs with a friend, and we put them on a CD and named it “Little Bird Rocks.”

Faye, in her natural habitat.

CZ: In Message from a Blue Jay, your book of related essays, the Blue Jay is both real and symbolic.  Can you talk about why the Blue Jay is so pivotal to that book?

FRD: I think the blue jay in the title essay “tells” me something that echoes through the meaning of every essay in the book. It’s funny, because most of the essays appeared in literary journals before they were included in the book (and I am grateful to the editors who published them), but “Message From a Blue Jay” was never accepted by a journal. Yet since the book was published, so many readers have written to tell me that it is their favorite essay.

I mention this to let writers out there know that it’s true what one of my teachers, Michael Steinberg, always says – the rejections are often just as arbitrary as the acceptances. I love that essay, and I’m very proud of it. So, I decided to toss aside the rejections and make it the centerpiece of my book.

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Little White with her handsome dude, Tribbs.

CZ: Tell me about the newest book, due out  on October, Little White: The Feral Cat Who Found a Home. What inspired you to tell Little White’s story rather than say, focus on one of the other cats you’ve known? And why did you write it in verse?

FRD: That’s a really good question. Little White’s story is about loneliness and fear and abandonment. It is a story about being rescued. But at its heart, it is a story about how love rescues us, and that transcends species. Maybe I related to that just a bit.

I do have a few stories about other cats in mind. Two other cats especially, Tribbs and Franklin, were an important part of Little White’s life, and mine, too. I tell her story in more detail on her Facebook page than I do in the children’s book, and Little White’s fans there love to hear about Tribbs and Franklin when their part comes up. There might be a series in the works.

The text of Little White is not in verse. Originally, I tried to write the text as a ghazal, a certain kind of poem. A friend, poet Alison Stone, writes a lot of ghazals, and I enjoyed reading them. It turned out not to be the best format for Little White’s story, but trying to write it first as a ghazal helped me find the story.

Little White Cover

CZ:  How do you know when you have a “book” as opposed to a single essay or poem?  

FRD: After Message From a Blue Jay, I had a tough time writing another full-length book. Message From a Blue Jay revealed a lot about a certain time and certain experiences in my life, and I wasn’t sure I ever wanted to do that again.

Little White’s story is from real life and is relatable. It had a message that rang true for me. Wanting to tell it came from my heart. I liked the idea of doing a children’s book and speaking to a new audience, so I gave it a try. I enjoyed the process a lot.

 CZ: What do you dream for your future? 

FRD: That’s a hard question to answer. I think the future in general right now feels so uncertain that it’s hard to think about my own dreams. I would like to believe in a future where neither people nor animals have to suffer or be abandoned, but I don’t know if such a future will happen. I’d like to believe that the environment and wildlife and habitats will be protected for future generations, and I continue to try to be part of that fight. But if we continue moving in the current direction, I am very afraid it’s a losing battle. I read recently that giraffes are disappearing. Can you imagine a world without giraffes?

I’d like to believe in a future where love really will conquer all, as it did for Little White. Maybe if we write it, it will come.

CZ: Thank you for taking the time to tell us about your life and writing. I can’t wait to read your latest book.

Please visit Faye’s author website to learn more about her and her writing.

Little White’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/OurLittleWhite/

Faye’s Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/FayeRapoportDesPresAuthor

Faye’s Twitter page: @FayeRapoDesPres  https://twitter.com/FayeRapoDesPres

Check out her work at fayerapoportdespres.com

Broken things

The Broken PlateThe mirror in my upstairs bathroom medicine chest almost fell on my head. The mirror is separated into thirds, with each third opening when you push it, screws holding the turning mechanisms together, and  magnets holding the doors closed when pushed. Personal things are hidden behind the mirrors: antiperspirant, several tubes, half-used, of anti-itch cream, for a variety of uses, expired, floss, gauze pads, band aids, and items I am unable to recognize after 12 years of storage in this medicine chest. It’s just one more area that I need to purge of uselessness.  One of these mirror doors almost fell on my head  because the cabinet is stuffed to the gills; technically, the leftmost mirror popped out. Talk about potential bad luck. I was having trouble closing the mirror against the chest, and I pushed too hard one day. (Oh, the metaphors for life that come to mind based on mirrors, pushing too hard, useless items stuffed inside, etc.)  I could feel the mirror falling and was able to catch it before it broke my skull. The mirror is still whole and sits beside the vanity, with the screw that broke off the hinge on the floor. My orange and white tomcat likes to play with the broken screw. He does this while I pee. I watch him and wonder when will have the energy to fix the medicine chest. Do I even have the skills?

I’ve been able to superglue the screw and hinge together with great success; however, every time I try to re-install the mirror in the vanity, the top screw breaks off again. You see, there is not enough room to fit the bottom and top into the grooves with both screws in place. In other words, I am taking the wrong approach, trying to squeeze this thing in and breaking it over and over. (Why do I feel as though I am somehow discussing my romantic life here?) I need to come up with a more creative (and less lazy) solution. I have one in mind. I will spare you for the moment.

Speaking of broken things. I wrote an essay while I was a student in the Solstice MFA program in creative writing of Pine Manor College entitled, “This Time I Fell in Love with the Daughter.” The essay is essentially my coming out story between the ages of 18 and 24, the longing and struggles I faced in the 1980s, and the eventual revelation that I was a lesbian. The essay is about broken friendships, broken hearts, and broken people, so I find it apt that the essay has been accepted for publication by The Broken Plate, the national literary journal of Ball State University.

For some people, this is an uncomfortable essay because it is raw and vulnerable. Yet it has done well out there in literary journal land where 95% of my work gets rejected, with the venerable Gertrude Journal writing to let me know the essay reached the finals and that they saw much promise in my writing. Please continue to submit, etc.  I think there were some other “good” rejections for this essay. I’m thrilled, however, that the students of Ball State University have chosen this essay for their publication. Thank you very much.

“This Time I Fell in Love with the Daughter,” is the sixth of eleven standalone essays from my final creative thesis at the Solstice MFA program. There is a final chapter to the thesis, but I don’t believe it is standalone, so I can safely say I’ve published more than half of that thesis. The thesis is all about broken things — parents, lovers, friendships, sex, hearts. I keep trying to finish it, as it could be a full length book. I keep changing the name of the book based on my mood. Right now I’m calling it Marcella Songs: Essays on Valiant Failures in Love.” It’s all about shattered mirrors.

There is a lot broken in our society and around the world these days. I don’t have to tell you if you read the news or the pseudo news on Facebook. Part of me would like to jump into the fray and the arguments, but I cannot. I get too angry and I alienate people. So I don’t discuss politics much, but I continue to think of myself as a writer and hope my personal stories somehow achieve a universal theme and make a tiny dent in improving something in this world, any little thing.

I did get the third of the mirror back in place. It took extra effort, not something I’m known for these days, as my workouts wane, my writing production is in the toilet, and my performance at work is only mediocre. Still, I brought a step-ladder into the bathroom and had to glue the broken pieces while I held them in place where they belonged, rather than trying to squeeze something in a space it couldn’t squeeze. (“I held them in place where they belonged,” again, ripe with metaphoric possibilities, but I suck at metaphor.) So, the mirror is back up and functional (to a degree), chipped a bit in one corner where I had manhandled it, and not fitting exactly as before. It’s still broken, but it got up again.

Thank you for reading about broken things.

 

 

A little Halloween tale

“Halloween Costumes. All rayon, full length. Generous bright colors. Each with molded vinyl face mask. Choose from Devil, Astronaut, Princess, Skeleton, Witch, etc. 69 cents each.”

HandbagsDress Me Up and Send Me Out

from my chapbook, What’s in a Butch’s Purse and Other Humorous Essays, Winged City Chapbook Press, 2014.

The Toledo Blade, October 18, 1967*

 “Halloween Costumes. All rayon, full length. Generous bright colors. Each with molded vinyl face mask. Choose from Devil, Astronaut, Princess, Skeleton, Witch, etc. 69 cents each.”

When I was a kid in the 1960s, I sported drugstore-shelf Halloween costumes that my mother bought me each year – green-faced monster shirts, wicked witch dresses, super hero red capes, and in a rare femme moment, Lucy from Peanuts hopped up in a blue skirt. The costumes were made from rayon material that that would crack in my hands if it got too cold out, which it usually did on Halloween night in New England.

The costumes came complete with a molded vinyl painted mask and an attached elastic band to hold it on around the back of my head. The face masks resembled Yogi Bear, Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, Superman, Batman or Casper the Friendly Ghost. Forget all the high tech shit and specialized costume boutiques you can find these days. Forget artistically making up your face with grease paints. I grew up in The Age of Rayon and such cheapo costumes were my Halloween get-ups.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the entire 1960s outfit was highly flammable and made of noxious chemicals straight from the Monsanto plant. I’m surprised I didn’t burn to the ground since nearly all the parents smoked back then. One errant match and poof: Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, Elmer Fudd dynamited to cartoon heaven, nothing left of the Wicked Witch but a puddle of green gunk.

Daily News, October 9th, 1968*

“Flame Retardant Halloween Costumes, sizes tiny 3 to 5, plus small, medium, large. Both cute and spooky, animals and characters. All have well ventilated masks. 99 cents.

I donned these costumes over my regular clothes. You were a total goof if you put on a winter jacket to keep warm. Yet I recall as a young child doing that very thing – pulling a big winter coat over my Felix the Cat costume, or rather, my mom pulling the coat over me to keep me warm.  My neighborhood friends, too, had been bundled in winter coats by their moms, the whole lot of us looking like a tiny squadron of geeks. We all wondered: What was the point of the costume if it was hidden behind winter jackets?

When we were a little older and allowed to trick or treat through the neighborhood without parental supervision, we flung our jackets behind the bushes determined to exhort the full trick-or-treat terror upon our neighbors, scare them shitless with our rayon pants and jerseys and plastic molded masks filling with carbon dioxide.

The spit started to roll down our chins from breathing into the masks. We tried to limit how often we lifted the masks up (so we could breathe) and let them hang on top of our heads, because we would be ruining the spooky effect of the 69 cent costume, or if our mothers had really splurged, the 99 cent costume with the supposedly better ventilated mask.

“I still can’t breathe, Ken.”

“Just keep the mask on, Cindy.”

“I don’t want to do this anymore.”

“Come on, it’s just a few more houses!”

Ultimately, we were left inhaling back all of the air we’d just breathed out. The masks had little ovals for your eyes and a little round hole for your mouth, maybe two nostrils dug out. But the things never fit our faces, so there we were breathing our oxygen and carbon dioxide mix back and forth behind the mask. We started to feel a little lightheaded, a little trippy. This was the 1960s.

I have yet to mention the cars to look out for on those Halloween nights as we walked along darkened streets, a bunch of little kids with Halloween bags and dressed in oxygen-deprived masks and flammable costumes. Teenagers drove by throwing eggs, spraying shaving cream all over the driveways, and screaming out of their hippie vans, “Happppyyyyyy Halloooooweeeen!” High on pot, LSD?  Who knows? How could they see us in the dark in our little store-bought get-ups?

Newspaper Ad, October 8th, 1969*

 Masks 59 cents each. Character and animal faces glow when lit by the light in the dark for safety!

As we made our way through the treacherous Halloween night, we held tight to our plastic pumpkin pails, half filled with candy, most of which I didn’t like such as nauseating Bit-O-Honey chew candies, hard and horrible to the taste. We shivered our little asses off so some idiotic adult could dump a few stale fun-size (tiny) Tootsie Rolls in our bags and pails. Would a Hershey Bar have killed those people? Sometimes we got lucky and someone had Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Those tiny-sized ones, where you needed to eat like ten of them to feel as if you’ve had a candy bar.

We trudged on, little goofy Halloween troupers. We pulled the plastic masks back onto our faces once we reached the next doorbell, to be scary. Plop, plop, someone gave us fun-size Three Musketeers. They’re okay. Pull that mask back over your face before you reach the next house and pretend you’re scary. “Trick or treat. Trick or treat.” And the neighbors respond, “Hi Cindy. Hi Ken, Hi Andy, Hi Robin.” They knew exactly who we were. Plop, plop. “We have homemade Rice Krispie bars for you!” I hated Rice Krispie Bars. That’s not officially candy. Basically, they’d thrown us cereal and marshmallows.

And then finally, after a long night, at about 8:30 p.m. we had to go home. It was there that our mothers would have us spill the contents of our bounty and go through it with us to check for un-wrapped candy–someone might have laced it with LSD, just for an especially scary trick on Halloween. We checked with our moms for slits in the wrappers or in the occasional apple, as bad as getting a frigging Rice Krispie Bar, to examine for razor blades–another wonderful “trick” from our more psychotic candy-givers. By the time the inspection was through, all that was left was a roll or two of Sweet Tarts (good), a few fun size Hershey Bars (good), a Rice Krispie Treat (shoot me) and a half pound of Bit-O-Honey chews (gag me.) I felt I had to pray to God before I ate each piece of candy, hoping it wasn’t poisoned or sabotaged in some way that might kill me. Or nauseate me (think Bit-O-Honey).

What an awesome holiday, huh???

Yet somehow we kids lived through all this toxic, flammable, oxygen-deprived costuming without a problem, and ate the Halloween candy we’d collected without any hallucinogenic incidents or razor-blade sliced apples. We survived Halloween the way we survived drinking tap water without dying and eating rare-cooked hamburgers without getting sick from e. coli bacteria. We went out to play a few blocks down the street without cell phones to text our moms saying that we were okay. There were no cell phones in the olden days. And when I say our moms bought Halloween costumes at the “local pharmacy” I mean it; we shopped in places called “Thayer Drug” or “Dykeman’s Pharmacy.” Chains like CVS and RiteAid had not yet been invented. We came home for dinner when we were supposed to everyday, or if we heard our mothers call out the backdoor to us. We told time by the position of the sun. This was long ago and far away, for my younger readers, one or two decades after the dinosaurs became extinct.

*Most of these ads can be found in a Google Search, by entering, “History of Halloween Costumes Timeline.” The origin of the October 8, 1969 ad is unknown.
This short essay is included in my Chapbook, What’s in a Butch’s Purse and Other Humorous Essays. For ordering information, see Winged City Chapbook Press.  or email me at cindy.zelman@gmail.com. You can find the e-book on Amazon.com, bn.com, or in iTunes.

I want to make a comeback

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Oh right I have a blog!

When I started The Early Draft in 2010, the point was to free myself to write whatever I wanted. It was an exercise in not worrying that the writing was perfect or publication-ready. I wanted to blog because I don’t journal. I always write because I want readers. For a few years, I went great guns with this effort and started to build a following. I developed many mini-essays here, that with a little work, actually became publication-ready. Some of the early draft work that began here ended up in my chapbook, What’s in a Butch’s Purse and Other Humorous Essays. Some of it ended up as posts for lesbian.com. Some of it ended up published on other websites.  My blogging took off, and for several months, I had blogs featured on The Huffington Post, particularly in the Gay Voices Section, but also in their over 50 page and their Impact page.

And then it all stopped. Not just the blogging stopped, but for the most part, the writing stopped. You’re wondering why, I suppose. I’m not sure exactly, but I have a few ideas. I had commentators on The Huffington Post rip me a new asshole for an unpopular view about smoking marijuana at outdoor concerts. I didn’t realize my writing could engender so much hatred. The reaction freaked me out. Another paradox: not only was the marijuana blog my most read post (with more than 250 comments, most of them hateful), but it was linked to a national pro-marijuana website and exposed in state after state after state. The article probably got more exposure than anything I have ever written. I became known as the woman with a stick up her ass who didn’t want to inhale someone else’s pot smoke at a concert. Yes, the anti-party chick. That’s me. The buzzkill. The one who would vote against legalization — although that’s not true — I do vote for legalization, just not smoking in public where it travels up my nose. The Huffington audience didn’t catch that part. So, I had my first brush with audience hatred. Ouch.

People hate me because I don't like to smell their marijuana smoke. I'm a relic.
People hate me because I don’t like to smell their marijuana smoke. I’m a relic.

Nearly a year later, my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer, incurable, and the morbid oncologist made it sound as if her death was imminent. This also dampened my spirit when it came to writing. My mother is still here, and overall, doing well, but the shock of the diagnosis threw me into a state of “Who the fuck cares about writing, death is the BIG thing…”

One cannot live in a state of morbidity or cowering from the angry mob forever. One must try again to get the writing energy going. This is what writers do. This is what human beings do under many circumstances. We fall, we fail, we try again.

The paradox of my writer’s block being that since 2013, I have had more work published than I ever thought possible (work I wrote prior to the block, of course.) I am not rock star of the literary world, but since 1991, when my first, well, creative-nonfiction-piece-disguised-as-fiction was published in the journal Feminist Studies, and decades went by and nothing was published, and I thought I was a one hit wonder, I now have a relatively (everything is relative) long list of publications. If you would like to see them and maybe read some of the pieces published online, please refer to my publications page on this blog site.

Just "angst" period.
Just “angst” period.

 

So, I’ve been sending all this stuff out in the last few years, and mostly what I get back are the typical rejections, but beyond those, are the acceptances, even minor recognition: I’ve won three honorable mentions in the last year from New Millennium Magazine (and how I’d love to crack 1st or 2nd or 3rd Prize) and one honorable mention from The Writer’s Workshop of Ashville. I’ve been flattered to have one of my essays chosen to be in the top 10 of the year (a few years back) from Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, and more recently, to have a short story (I started nearly 20 years ago) published in Volume 17 of the print journal, Steam Ticket: A Third Coast Review, which also has been chosen as a piece to republish online to represent the “Best Of…” Steam Ticket.

Why am I doing all of this humble bragging on myself. I’m sure it’s a form of compensation. I’m trying to tell you (and me) how great I’ve been doing as a writer when truly, in the last year, I’ve written nothing at all. I hope to rectify the situation. I love to write. Sometimes I write (not quite) great things. I do have an audience who enjoys my prose. I am not a brilliant writer, but I’m good, when I’m good, when I actually write something. I am trying to remind myself by all the self-congratulatory crapola expressed above.

It’s been an interesting year too, of seeing friends from the Solstice MFA program also publish books. My good friend, Faye Rapoport DesPres, has published Message From a Blue Jay: Love, Loss, and One Writer’s Journey Home, in 2014, which is a beautifully written, yet very accessible read, about the narrator’s search for an authentic life. If you’d like to read more about it before buying, I wrote a review of it on Connotation Press. However, I would just skip the review and buy the book! It’s fabulous. Faye has also published her essays in numerous literary journals. See her blog at http://www.fayrapoportdespres.com.

Another Solstice friend of mine, and one of my favorite guys in the world, Mike Miner, has published All She Knows, an amazingly beautiful and dark novella in stories that you don’t want to miss and you won’t be able to put down. I have also  ordered his newest book, The Immortal Game. I can’t wait to read it. See his author page on Amazon.

Faye and Mike are major talents. You don’t want to miss their stuff.

There are so many books coming from Solstice alumni and students that they are too numerous to mention in a short blog post; however, I want to reassure you this is a talented group of writers. If you have an interest in the program, here is there website: http://www.pmc.edu/mfa-news

While this attempt to get back to The Early Draft turned out to be more about my trying to pat myself on the back for successes in the midst of writer’s block, my on-going goal is to post a blog here once a week, even if it’s just a paragraph, and hopefully, one that is not about writing but that is writing.

You see,  I want to make a comeback.

 

Is the MFA Worth It?: Guest blog by Message from a Blue Jay Author Faye Rapoport DesPres!

Message from a Blue Jay was written one chapter at a time, starting in the early days at Solstice when I started practicing the personal essay form. Slowly, over the two-year period of my studies, I began building a body of work I could be proud of. Still, the essay collection that became my final Creative Thesis was not the end of the road – not by far.

Blue-Jay-Cover-10.2-for-webuseToday my friend, Faye Rapoport DesPres, is guest blogging! Her book, Message from a Blue Jay, was released just yesterday, and it sold out on Amazon in half a day! It’s a fabulous and beautiful read about one’s woman’s journey home. You can still order on Amazon as more copies are being shipped ASAP. Below, please read Faye’s guest post, then enter the giveaway by leaving a comment after the post!

Faye Rapoport DesPres

Faye Rapoport DesPres is the author of the new memoir in essays titled Message from a Blue Jay(Buddhapuss Ink, May 2014). Faye was born in New York City and raised in upstate New York, and she has also lived in Colorado, England, and Israel. Her personal essays, fiction, poetry, reviews, and interviews have appeared in a variety of literary journals and magazines including Ascent, Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Fourth Genre, Platte Valley Review, Superstition Review, and the Writer’s Chronicle. Faye earned her MFA from the Solstice Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College.

The MFA in Creative Writing: Is it Worth It?

 By Faye Rapoport DesPres

It is appropriate that my first guest post for the Message from a Blue Jay “blog hop” (or virtual book tour) is being published on Cindy Zelman’s blog. I have been a fan of The Early Draft since Cindy began publishing her lively, insightful posts here several years ago. That was before she was stolen away by larger blogging venues like the Huffington Post – I hope she shares more of her writing here soon. Check back when she does – you won’t be sorry.

Cindy and I met as Creative Nonfiction students at the Solstice MFA Program in Creative Writing at Pine Manor College, so I thought I would use this space on her blog to address an often-asked question: Is earning an MFA in Creative Writing worth the money, time, and commitment?

Before I began my own studies at Solstice, I posed this question to several friends who are writers. Two of the people I spoke to had graduated from well-known MFA programs, and one held an MA in English Literature. Perhaps predictably, the two MFA grads recommended that I apply, while the third friend did not.

The writer who felt that an MFA wasn’t necessary basically told me this: “If you want to write, just write.” Armed with a strong background in literature and the experiences he’d had in his MA workshops, he felt motivated enough to read and work on his creative writing on his own. He noted that there are writing workshops, writing groups, and plenty of other opportunities to practice and perfect one’s craft without making the commitment (financial and otherwise) required to earn an MFA.

I have seen this work for some writers. I have a friend, for example, who has published five novels and a memoir with several independent presses. She even owned her own press at one point – and she never studied creative writing in any formal way. She was simply an avid reader from a very young age, and writing comes naturally to her. She is also highly disciplined, and because she loves writing and reading so much, both are a major part of her life.

On the other hand, the MFA grads who I spoke to felt that their MFA programs contributed in important ways to their experiences and eventual successes as writers. One person is still writing regularly as part of a writing group, and his MFA qualifications helped him land a job as an adjunct writing instructor at a state university. The other grad won a major poetry prize a few years ago that resulted in the publication of her first book; since then, she has published several chapbooks and a second book-length manuscript. She also teaches creative writing at a well-known college.

In the end, I decided that the discipline and experience of a Creative Writing program would help me – and that decision proved to be the watershed moment that propelled me toward the publication of Message from a Blue Jay. Before I studied Creative Nonfiction at Solstice, the bulk of my writing experience included a few poetry-writing classes I’d taken years before and my ongoing work as a professional journalist and a business/non-profit writer. I read a lot of classical literature during college and the years that followed, but I was out of touch with contemporary literature and the literary community in general. Most important, I had never learned some of the basic aspects of creative prose-writing craft.

I chose the Solstice program because it is a low-residency program that allowed me to continue with my professional freelance work while I pursued my interest in creative writing. Solstice is a small, more affordable program with an incredibly talented faculty, and it is located in the Boston area, where I live. As I had hoped, my creative work improved leaps and bounds during the two-year period that I participated in the program. I also met other writers and became part of an unexpectedly supportive community of writers and teachers.

Message from a Blue Jay was written one chapter at a time, starting in the early days at Solstice when I started practicing the personal essay form. Slowly, over the two-year period of my studies, I began building a body of work I could be proud of. Still, the essay collection that became my final Creative Thesis was not the end of the road – not by far. I revised the essays many times after graduation and continued to produce new work. I also struggled through the process of submitting to literary journals and wrestling with the standard rejections, which came far more often than the acceptances. Through it all, my teachers along with fellow students and graduates encouraged me by believing in my work.

It wasn’t until two and a half years after graduation that I finally felt my essays merited inclusion in a publishable collection – the manuscript that eventually evolved into the memoir-in-essays that is Message from a Blue Jay. The study, the revision, the persistence, and the waiting were all worth it. I finally have a book that I’m proud of.

As to the argument that MFA programs produce robotic, unoriginal writers, all I can say is that Cindy Zelman, whose blog I’m posting on today, and I couldn’t be more dissimilar writers. Yet we graduated from the same MFA program and had many of the same instructors. We’re different people with different perspectives and different voices – yet we enjoy and respect each others’ work. We’ve celebrated each others’ successes over a hot cup of coffee and we’ve encouraged each other to keep going after the sting of rejection. When one of us says, “This is it! I’m done! I can’t do this anymore,” the other listens patiently and then says, “Okay. Now get back to work.” Having colleagues like that on your side is priceless.

So – is an MFA worth it? I think the answer to that question is different for different people. All I can say is that in my specific case, the answer was definitely “yes.”

 

This was the second stop on Faye Rapoport DesPres’s Virtual Book Tour.

Don’t miss the next stop on 5/16 at Chloe Yelena Miller‘s blog!

The publisher is offering a personalized, signed copy of Message from a Blue Jay plus swag to the winner of their Virtual Tour Giveaway.
We invite you to leave a comment below to enter.
For more chances to enter, please visit the Buddhapuss Ink or Message from a Blue Jay Facebook pages and click on the Giveaway Tab!

Baton Blog Hopping: Hey, it’s Cindy’s turn.

Any author who has developed a distinct voice makes his or her work different. Once you have found a voice as a writer, no one else sounds like you.

It’s my turn to talk about writing for the Baton Blog Hop. 

                                              Showing off the muscles

Writer Cindy Zelman posting her picture for no apparent reason…except vanity.

This is the baton
This is the baton

The official blog hop BATON was passed to me by…

 

Author Mariam Kobras!

Author Mariam Kobras. This is a blog hop in which writers discuss their work and their writing process. Mariam is a successful author of five novels, three of them published and available for sale and two to be published in 2014 by Buddhapuss Ink. The three currently available are known as The Stone Trilogy. Mariam has won awards for the quality of her novels.  As Mariam describes her own books: They’re not romance, not mystery, not crime, and somehow, not even women’s fiction. They’re less than each of these pieces, and yet, taken together, more than all of them combined. Mariam’s books are absorbing reads, so if you want to get lost in a good story, please see her wesbsite: www.mariamkobras.com

And now I answer the baton blog hop questions:

1. What am I working on?

Right now, I’m trying to sell my new chapbook, What’s in a Butch’s Purse and Other Humorous Essays. It includes seven short essays that you can read in less than an hour. Most of them have been published online, but now they are available as a collection. Hopefully, the writing will make you laugh, as you read about me bumbling through life and especially tripping over my romantic relationships with women.  I have found that both men and women, straight or gay, enjoy these pieces, because really, relationships are relationships. A dysfunctional romantic interlude always leads to disaster no matter who you are.

20140329-215956.jpgThe chapbook is available for pre-order as a print book and available immediately as an e-Book. If you want to order my book, please see 

www.wingedcitychapbooks.com.

Selling the book is important to me for many reasons, not the least of which is raising money for the the gay and lesbian population of Uganda. For those of you who don’t know, Uganda’s government recently passed a bill that punishes gay people with up to a life sentence in prison just for being gay. Even if you are suspected of being gay, you can be arrested.The bill was passed by Uganda’s Parliament and signed by the president. The specifics of the bill make it impossible for gays to work or rent apartments, as those who give them jobs or homes can also be arrested for helping to “promote” the gay lifestyle, as the government so erroneously labels it. The populace has essentially been given license to beat up and torture anyone they suspect of being gay without consequence.

So if you buy the chapbook, you also help the persecuted people of Uganda. I am donating all proceeds to help them escape. I have gotten to know several Ugandans personally, and I call some of them friends.

Uganda head
He cannot show his face because he could be arrested.

In addition to selling the chapbook, I’m working to complete a full length book of memoir in essays that examines my relationships with women in more depth and with more seriousness than the chapbook does. The working title has changed a few times, but right now, I’m calling it Romantic Defectives, Narcissists, and Other Dykes. That’s a bit of a tongue-in-cheek title, and it may just be reflective of the sardonic mood I’ve been in lately. I think that title may not do justice to the serious essence of one woman’s struggle to find a life partner. And here she is middle-aged and has never had one — that’s the why the word “defective” came to mind, as in “What the hell is wrong with me?”

2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?

Well, first I need to say that I don’t write in what most people think of as genre; I don’t write mysteries, or romance novels, or inspirational books, for example. If I work within a genre, it is within the broad one known as creative nonfiction (or CNF) which includes, among many “sub-genres,” personal essay and memoir. I guess we could ask how my essay and memoir writing differs from others.

Any author who has developed a distinct voice makes his or her work different. Once you have found a voice as a writer, no one else sounds like you. There may be similarities — a few people have called me a female David Sedaris — but I don’t write like David Sedaris and he doesn’t write like me. What we have in common is that we can both be funny and we can both be jerks. He is much higher paid jerk than I am.

A reader can identify a writer’s voice, even without looking at the title page, assuming the reader is a fan and reads this person’s work on a regular basis. That’s not to say a writer doesn’t jump into a different voice and persona throughout the course of his or her writing life, but generally speaking, no two writers sound exactly alike. When I state this,  I’m not talking about those mass-produced titles where you don’t even know who is writing the book, and perhaps the name on the cover isn’t even a real person. I’m talking about creative writing or literary writing or whatever term means the opposite of supermarket paperback.

That said, readers of my work and other writers have described my essay and memoir writing  as wry, humorous amid great sadness, raw and honest, tender yet robust. I think I tell a good story, I think people tend to get absorbed in my work, but a lot of writers can say that. I tell my stories  in my own voice and style and that’s what makes me different.

3. Why do I write what I do?

In answering this question, I will describe what happened to me more than two decades ago. I enrolled in an MA (no MFA available) program at the University of New Hampshire. The year was 1988. I was accepted as a fiction student. It’s not that I didn’t have my glorious moments (few and far between) as a fiction writer, but at UNH I received a great deal of (not often nice) critique that went t like this: That’s not fiction! That’s not a credible character! You’re just writing about your life!

So, fast forward twenty years and I am having my first mid-life crisis and find the Solstice MFA in Creative Writing program of Pine Manor College. This time I am accepted into a genre called “creative nonfiction.”  People have been writing creative nonfiction since humankind learned to write, any sort of writing that is based on the actual experiences and “characters” of the writer’s life. But when I was at UNH all those years ago, the “genre” of creative nonfiction was just on the verge of being defined as a genre. Sometimes it’s referred to as the “fourth” genre, with poetry, fiction, and drama, being the other three.

Regardless, writing personal essays and stories about my own life felt entirely natural. I read somewhere that fiction writers like to “imagine” the world and that creative nonfiction writer’s like to “record” their “observations” of the world.

While no one has to be just one or the other – fiction writer or nonfiction writer – I definitely fall into the camp of wanting to record my observations of the world, my life, and the characters who have inhabited it or merely crossed my path. It comes more naturally to me to write an essay that tells you the story of a relationship in my life that fell apart than to imagine a fictional character who may experience something similar. So, I write what I do because it’s my natural tendency.

In terms of topics, I do write a lot about my life as a gay woman, but also about my battles with panic disorder and agoraphobia, and about my family,  mother especially, although I am hoping to write more about my father going forward. He was quite the character. Even in saying that just now, I have a vague notion of an entire book I could write about my family.

4. How does my writing process work?

I don’t know if this is the correct term but I call myself an “organic” writer, meaning my process doesn’t usually involve a lot of pre-planning like outlining or storyboarding. I think those methods are very important for long works and especially for novelists who have complicated plots and subplots and many characters. I have no idea how they keep track of all that and I admire them so.

But for me, my work may start with a word, a phrase, a memory, a feeling, a song lyric, a smell, or the way the sun lights the cars in a parking lot. I might write a sentence about whatever small thing has latched onto my brain and emotions. If it feels like I need to say more, I keep writing, but without a plan, so I make this big mess on the page, so to speak. I try not to worry about organization or grammar or spelling or the quality of the prose.

The piece grows sideways and upside down and inside out as I keep adding to it, with a vague notion as to where I want to take it. I think I know what it’s about but as I keep writing, the piece tells ME what it’s about, and once I hear the piece tell me, then I can start to shape it and work toward an end.

For most of my process, the prose is pretty weak, because strengthening prose comes later for me, but I feel a lot of excitement in the beginning and middle of my process because I am creating something from nothing.

Of course, to make the piece coherent and well-written takes many drafts and involves the use of “craft” in terms of being conscious of sentence structure, cadence, scene, dialogue, reflection, transition, paragraphs, and how to create a beginning, middle, and end. Even an essay should have some kind of story arc. People tell stories, fictional or not.

Unlike most writers, I can’t count my drafts because I don’t start at the beginning and go to the end, at least not every time. I do that more often when I’m close to a final draft, and I’m checking for stupid errors of diction, grammar, and typos. 

But during the really tough revisions before we get near the final, I jump around in the piece. I may randomly open up a page and start working on the sound of the paragraphs and sentences. I may take things out — that old “kill your darlings” writer’s cliche — or add in some new darlings that I kill the next time. Once in awhile I marry my darlings and keep them. All the while I’m doing this, I have in my head the idea of where I will end this work.

All this jumping around leads to strengthening pieces of the essay, but at some point I need to make sure it all makes sense as a whole. I need to make sure I have a coherent beginning, middle, and end. I accomplish this by multiple revisions and rereadings, until I am so sick of what I’m reading that I can’t look at it for quite some time. Shorter pieces come together quicker, but I have been known to work on a piece periodically for years. I recently had an essay published in Tinge Magazine that I started working on seven years ago. And if you think tha’ts a long time, I just had a short story accepted by Steam Ticket: A Third Coast Review that I began working on nearly 20 years ago!

Most of the time, I can get a piece into publishable form much sooner than a decade or two, but  it’s a good thing I’ve been writing for most of my life and have a body of work that’s ready or close to ready for publication as I continue to churn out new work that will take some time to be good.

In case you are interested in reading some of my pieces. Just follow the link. And again, you can find my chapbook of humorous essays at this link: www.wingedcitychapbooks.com.

Thank you for reading, everyone.

I now pass the baton to a wonderful writer:

Angie Foster who will be posting on April 21st.

 

First, Angie Foster: Angela Foster

Angela Foster is a poet and memoirist who lives in Pine City, Minnesota. She teaches memoir at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, MN, and holds an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Pine Manor College in Boston, Massachusetts. Angela’s poetry book, Farm Girls, co-authored with her sister, Candace Simar, was recently released by Riverplace Press of Brainerd, Minnesota. For more information about Angela, please visit her website at www.angelaffoster.com.

Below is information about her book:

Farm Girls: Reflections and Impressions

Written by Angela F. Foster and Candace Simar

If you learned to swear in Norwegian or shared a two-holer outhouse with your cousin, you’ll enjoy the poetry and prose of these sisters. From memories of Norwegian ancestors and growing up on a Minnesota Dairy farm, to dreams of Oprah’s couch and rapping with Eminem, Farm Girls will take you back to the days of rural schools, moon light, star light, hope to see a ghost tonight, and the auction of the family farm. n or shared a two-holer outhouse with your cousin, you’ll enjoy the poetry and prose of these sisters. From memories of Norwegian ancestors and growing up on a  swear in Norwegian or shared a two-holer outhouse with your cousin, you’ll enjoy the poetry and prose of these sisters. From memories of Norwegian ancestors and growing up on a Minnesota dairy farm to dreams of Oprah’s couch and rapping with Eminem, these farm girls will take you back to the days of rural schools, moon light, star light, hope to see a ghost tonight, and the auction of the family farm.

 

 

 

 

What’s in a Butch’s Purse will soon be available for download and pre-order

From a completely dysfunctional relationship with a woman named Jan, to seeing my first and last name linked to a hardcore porn site, to meeting a man in the coffee aisle at a supermarket and contemplating my “hetero-curiosity” in middle age, you will see the narrator (me) bumbling through her life. I certainly hope you will enjoy all that bumbling.

20140329-215956.jpgHello out there,

I have yet to mention to my blog audience that my chapbook, What’s in a Butch’s Purse and Other Humorous Essays, will soon be available for pre-order for hard copy and as a download for e-book, according to my editor at Winged City Chapbook Press. She says it’s just a matter of days. When it’s official, I will provide the link for ordering and/or downloading.

The chapbook (meaning a short book) is a compilation of some of my briefer essays that have been published on lesbian.com and in Gay e-magazine, as well as on  my blog, The Early Draft. One essay has never been published at all, so this will be its debut in print!

butch's purse#2
I wish I had a cool purse like this!

 

Last summer, I entered the Winged City chapbook contest, as I saw they were looking for creative nonfiction submissions, which seemed unusual, since most chapbooks are poetry books. My manuscript was one chosen for publication, which has been very exciting for me.

I have since learned that the shorter form of the chapbook is becoming more and more prevalent for both fiction and creative nonfiction writers. I say hooray to that. It’s a great way to showcase an author’s work along  a common theme or voice or something that pulls together the writing. In the case of What’s in a Butch’s Purse, the overarching thread is the wry humor, and dare I say it, the self-deprecation.

From a completely dysfunctional relationship with a woman named Jan, to seeing my first and last name linked to a hardcore porn site, to meeting a man in the coffee aisle at a supermarket and contemplating my “hetero-curiosity” in middle age, you will see the narrator (me) bumbling through her life. I certainly hope you will enjoy all that bumbling.

I have a Facebook Page devoted to the chapbook, so if you can link to it here, please LIKE the page and make me a very happy butch. 🙂 On Facebook (please scroll to the thumbs up button and click on LIKE.)

And if you can’t link to the Facebook page, no worries. I will keep you informed here on my blog.  Thank you, everyone.

Cindy