Faye Rapoport DesPres

Dribs and Drabs for Writers

It’s been a crazy couple of weeks; I recently started a two-month temp job at a well-known university to earn some extra income before my husband heads off to his final summer of PhD studies at Smith. Every bit helps. I’m working in the Humanities building and meeting some incredibly talented and accomplished writers and other faculty members, but my role is simply an administrative one. It is interesting to have been a professor last semester at Framingham State, and to be working in an administrative role at another university this semester. I often think that the universe places us in situations designed to teach us something about ourselves and our lives — in this case, I think I’m being challenged to hold onto a definition of myself that comes from within as I move among the different levels of work at academic institutions.

There is no doubt about one thing: it is inspiring to be around the faculty here. These people have reached an incredibly high level in their creative and professional lives.

Since my days have been a bit too hectic to allow for drafting a lengthy blog post, I thought I’d share some links to the reading I’ve been doing that has inspired me as a writer (or has just affected me as a person).

I finally had a chance to read James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son,” an essay that can be found in a number of collections including the original essay collection of the same name, which a TIME Magazine reviewer called Baldwin’s “defining work, and his greatest.” Reading this essay was a life-changer for me, not only because it is written so well that even as a writer I forgot about the writing as I read it, but because it brought home the experiences of another human being — experiences that I can never fully comprehend, but that I can learn from and honor and respect.

I also read a great interview with Amy Hempel that was published a few years ago in the Paris Review called “The Art of Fiction.” Not only does the interview shed light on Hempel’s life and writing process, it offers a valuable perspective on certain aspects of story and narrative. It’s always interesting to get a glimpse into the mind and creative process of a highly accomplished writer, and to weigh their views and experiences against your own. In what ways does your style or process differ, an in what ways is it similar? Are there some new things you might try? Can you be inspired by looking at certain aspects of writing in a new way?

Hempel’s first published story, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” has been anthologized many times and is available online at Fictionaut. The story offers a strong example of many of the techniques she discusses in her interview.

On my Kindle, I’m currently reading Cheryl Strayed’s new and touted memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail. I am only about a quarter of the way through the book, which has been optioned by Reese Witherspoon for a movie, so I’ll let this review from the Washington Post introduce it to you.

Finally, I’ve started reading The Complete Essays of Montaigne, which I’ve wanted to read for some time. I am sure it will take me a long while to get through the book, which I’ll approach bit by bit, here and there. But I was struck by how touched I was by these simple words at the end of the author’s introduction, titled “To the Reader”: “Thus, reader, I am myself the matter of my book; you would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject. So farewell. Montaigne, this first day of March, fifteen hundred and eighty.” Something about the way those words reached me across 431 years truly moved me. And in a way, they describe what a personal essayist does…lay out “myself” as “the matter of my book,” even if we worry on some level that the subject is indeed “frivolous” and “vain.” The self is all we have to absorb and interpret the life that we live, and writing about it is the only way we know how to share our interpretation with the world.