Faye Rapoport DesPres

The ebbs and flows of the writing life

For the past month I’ve been working in a temporary administrative job at a well-known university meeting individuals who are at the top of their craft and highly respected in the literary world: Pulitzer prize winners, staff writers from The New Yorker, literary scholars with numerous publications, celebrated critics, writers who have been reviewed in The New York Times and interviewed by the Paris Review. The ironic thing is that I have come in contact with these people not because of my writing background or any of my potential talents or skills, but because I am supporting their work as Humanities professors in a faculty services position. Most of them have no idea that I’m a writer or that I’m sneaking extra copies of some of their student handouts into my desk drawer so that I can read them in my spare time. I’ve read short pieces by Paul Celan, David Foster Wallace, and Tillie Olsen, among others, and have stashed away a reader’s guide to James Joyce’s Ulysses (I read 300 pages of that novel for a class in college, and didn’t understand a word of it at the time).

I have five weeks left to this temporary job, which I took to help pay the last of my husband’s tuition bills when he heads off to his final five weeks of doctoral studies at Smith College in Northampton this summer. I’ve been doing all of my freelance work on the side, usually during slow times at the office. The experience has been fascinating and humbling, interesting and challenging. I have to be careful every day to enjoy this unique opportunity to observe certain aspects of faculty life at an esteemed university, because it would be easy to feel discouraged (and I admit that there are times when I have) by the realization that I will probably never be as accomplished as these individuals. I started pursuing “the writing life” rather late, or should I say I started writing creatively early in life but then dropped the ball for many years. During those years I used my writing skills in professional work such as journalism and business writing, but not in any creative capacity. I only returned to creative writing four years ago, and I have to be reminded by friends more often than I like to admit that there is no race or deadline here; writing is something you can pursue at any time in your life. You can only be yourself and write at your own pace, and no good comes from having regrets. Who you are comes thoroughly and absolutely from where you’ve been. I traveled widely and had many varied experiences in my life for reasons that are just as varied. All of that now plays into my writing. I know a woman who graduated from my MFA program a year before I did who is turning 80 this week. She got her first creative publication last year, I believe, and she’s thrilled…I have learned a lot from her attitude!

One of the ironic things about working at this job is that I haven’t had much time to write. I was writing for two hours every morning before the job started, but now that I have to be on the road commuting by 7:30 a.m. I use the two hours before that to work out, shower, and get ready for work. I know some die-hard writers would say I should be writing instead of working out, but I’ve been an avid exerciser all my life (I was a gymnast and lifeguard in another life and I also trained in martial arts for 11 years). I know that not exercising is as bad for my state of mind as not writing, and it’s also bad for my physical well being.

I thought I would be able to write during the slow hours at the job after I finished my freelance work, but I find that there’s no way I can work at anything creative when my office door is open and I can be interrupted at any time by people who might walk in and need my attention or help. I crave total quiet and a private space when I write; I can’t relax and free my mind when I’m always on alert, waiting for someone to walk in. I also get caught up in a stream of concentrated thought when I write, and that’s not something I can maintain in-between interruptions.

I’ve gained more respect than ever for people who write while working at a full-time job. I’m finding that by the time I’ve been up since 5:30 and then out of the house for nine to ten hours, I’m just too beat and restless when I get home to spend more time at a computer. I want to move around. And there are all of the chores that go with working and keeping up the house: loads of laundry to do, floors to sweep, mop, or vacuum, clothes and lunch to prepare for the next day, cats to feed. The most I can get myself to do after all of that is stare at the TV for an hour before bed. Tell me working people, especially working parents, how DO you fit in the writing? My hat is off to you!

Today, on a Sunday, I managed to get back to one of the latest essays I’m working on. I revised the nine-page piece for a total of six hours, and it was interesting to see the difference between writing for a couple of hours every morning and sitting in my writing room for a six-hour stretch (with a break or two in-between sessions). Today I forced myself to keep going after what felt like natural stopping points; instead of saying, “I’ll think about this and get back to it tomorrow,” I thought about it for a half hour while I took a lunch break and then sat down and kept going. I re-edited the same essay from beginning to end twice. There was a completeness about the work I did in one day that I don’t get when I write for just a couple of hours in the morning. And yet now I know I probably won’t get back to the essay, or to whatever is next, until next weekend. Or maybe I’ll be inspired and somehow find the time.

So again — all of my admiration goes out to you writers out there who work full-time and write, or who do all of that and raise a family, too (never mind work out). I could be frustrated by my own limitations when it comes to this, but I will try not to be — after all, what I’m learning over and over through every phase of this writing life is that you can only do your best and, as I said earlier, be yourself.

So cheers, friends working with me in the trenches through the ebbs and flows, and onward!

P.S. Ironically, my student evaluation scores from Framingham State arrived in the mail this week. My students generally rated my teaching and Expository Writing class in the 4-stars-out-of-5-stars region, OK for a first-time teacher in a required course, I’d say. I was pleased that 25% of my students said that their interest area in the subject matter had increased (not bad for Expository Writing) and that the one area where I scored nearly 5-stars-out-of-5 was in “the instructor’s helpfulness and responsiveness to students.” Apparently 14 of the 15 students who filled out the evaluation rated me “very effective” in this area (one considered me “effective”). 13 out of 15 rated me “very effective” in “the instructor’s respect for students” and “the instructor’s concern for student progress,” while two rated me “effective” in these areas. I’ll take it. Students, I wish for great things for all of you.

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