Faye Rapoport DesPres

On Starting Over After 40,000 Words

As I write this, Hurricane Matthew is barreling up the Florida Coast. The storm has already devastated Haiti and caused issues throughout the Caribbean. My thoughts are with those who were — or are — in the path of this Category 4 Hurricane (wobbling down sometimes to a Category 3). It is hard not to remember the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and Hurricane Sandy in New Jersey. May everyone on the southeast coast of the U.S. remain safe from the storm.

I have spent the last five weeks working with the students in my Creative Nonfiction Writing Workshop and Intro to Creative Writing courses at Lasell College. Each semester brings its own mix of content and students. In fact, so far I have developed all or part of a new course during almost every semester that I’ve taught at Lasell. Although it is challenging to start with new content and/or new formats each semester, it is also highly rewarding. Often I work with students who are taking a course because it fulfills a requirement or simply fits into their schedule. Yet sometimes even those students who didn’t expect to be interested reveal a talent for writing and become motivated to try it, and that is gratifying.

Being a college instructor involves a lot of work, and the issues surrounding the adjunct instructing environment are well known. Yet each semester as I hope to inspire at least some students to be interested in creative writing, I meet students who inspire me perhaps even more. Their stories are interesting and involved, and their effort to put those stories into writing can surprise and illuminate. Usually I never see the students again once they pass through my classroom and move on, but for this short period we share a space 2-3 times per week, and I hope we can leave each other with something valuable by the end.

screen-shot-2016-10-07-at-9-43-16-amThis semester the Intro course started with a general discussion about creativity. That discussion, and the students’ comments, reminded me to consider some of the important aspects of living a creative life. For one thing, it is important to access who you are individually and what you really want to say, regardless of what creative medium you work with. That can be much harder than it sounds, especially in a market-driven publishing environment.

I realized during the first few weeks of this semester that a novel I have been working on for months wasn’t reflecting my true voice. Frankly, I was hoping to write something that might sell better than Message From a Blue Jay. I’m deeply proud of my first book, and will forever treasure the letters from readers who felt the book left them feeling less alone. I hope it has many more readers ahead of it.

But the truth is that Message From a Blue Jay is a memoir-in-essays, a personal essay collection written in a literary genre that generally doesn’t attract many readers, certainly when it comes to most first-time, lesser-known authors. Many readers — especially those who enjoy “literary” writing —  have given me tremendous positive feedback on the book. Still, I found myself getting caught up in the wish that I’d written something that might have garnered more sales for the independent press that published my work. The press, Buddhapuss Ink, did a wonderful job of publicizing the title but didn’t receive enough back for the effort. Still, the owner championed my work and declared over and over that she loved it. That made me feel good, but like all small presses, Buddhapuss Ink can’t survive if readers don’t buy the publisher’s books. So I thought this time around I might write something in a more light-hearted fiction genre that would have the potential to sell more copies.

Forty-thousand words into the draft, after thinking about the discussions I was having with my students, I realized the book wasn’t working. I can write this type of book, but it’s not me. It’s not reflective of who I am and what I want to say, and I felt that simmering in every paragraph I re-read. I was skirting the tops of issues that are important to me to entertain, not delving into them in a meaningful way.

So, dear readers, I started the book over after 40,000 words (about half-way through a full draft). I am using the same setting and characters and some of the scenes I had already established, but I am transforming the manuscript into a story that will say something that resonates more honestly for me. At the same time, I am learning to do this in a way that must also grip the reader in a good story. It may take me a long time to get the book there; I’m sure it will. But at least now I feel as if I am being creative in the truest sense of the word…creating something that comes from who I am. And in the end, I think this will be better for my publisher, because they’ll be getting my best writing (and so will my readers).

Maybe I’ll never finish this book; I am certainly continuing to work on shorter pieces while I go through the novel-writing process. The world is full of unfinished novel manuscripts stuffed in old desk drawers, and this one might end up in a drawer of its own.

But I’m going to try to finish it. I really am. In the end, like anyone working on a creative project, what I need to do is find — and stick to — my own voice.

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