Faye Rapoport DesPres

Where Have I Been (Literally and Figuratively)?

It’s been quite a while since I’ve written a blog post. There are a few reasons for that.

In practical terms, I’ve been busy. After the semester ended in early May, I began interviewing for a new part-time job. It was a difficult decision to take on a new job, but the college where I teach as an adjunct professor started hiring me for just one course per semester (due to changes in its academic structure). Then, for the first time in a long career of freelance writing and editing, my network began to dry up. To fill in the gaps, I began looking for a job. When an opportunity came up for a part-time position within walking distance of our home, I applied. Two interviews and an office visit later, I was hired as an office manager at a small but prominent architecture firm. The job makes use of another hat I’ve worn in my life: administrator.

Right after I was hired for the job, my husband and I took a ten-day trip to England and Iceland. We arrived in England just after the devastating terror attack in Manchester, and left a few days before the more recent attack on London Bridge. In fact, we were walking near the bridge just four days before it happened. Still, though sobered, we had a wonderful time in the U.K., which I consider one of my three or four “homes.” We stayed with friends, and took day trips to London, the Cotswolds, and the historic harbor at Portsmouth. We joined the British in the determination that life goes on – with vigilance and concern and prayers for those affected, but it goes on.

Iceland was absolutely stunning. I wrote pages and pages of journal entries while there, but I haven’t found the right words to truly express the rugged beauty of that country. From steaming geysers to magnificent waterfalls, from miles of black sand beaches to imposing volcanoes, from fields of Icelandic horses to pastures dotted with sheep, Iceland is an intriguing and mesmerizing place. I hope to go back, and soon.

The NonfictionNow conference took place in Reykjavik while we were traveling around Iceland, but I didn’t take part. The timing was a coincidence. I tried to meet up with my friend and former teacher, Michael Steinberg, a presenter at the conference, but the stars didn’t align on our one mutual day in Reykjavik.

So, I’ve been busy traveling and re-arranging my working life, but there are other reasons I haven’t been blogging — and I haven’t found the right words to express those reasons, either. Reconsidering my writing life has, by force, gone hand-in-hand with re-evaluating my professional life. My version of “having it all” is having the time and space to write and be creative while also having enough income to live comfortably. The decisions I’ve had to make have made it harder to have this version of “it all.” When I wake up early in the morning and sit down to write, I start to feel pressed by the professional or household things I could be getting done before I head out the door to job #1 (I currently have five jobs, if you include the two freelance gigs I’m still fitting in, the billing work I do for my husband’s growing private practice, and the summer course in American Short Stories I’m teaching at a retirement community). Of course, that might be a cop-out: many dedicated writers have written late at night at the kitchen table or early in the mornings before commuting to a full-time job. If you’re driven, you find the time.

Am I driven to keep writing? That’s what I’ve been pondering.

As appreciative as I am of the opportunity to work when many people are struggling to find jobs (after all, I have much to be grateful for, including a roof over my head and enough to eat), it was tough to face the fact that adjunct college instructing doesn’t pay enough to allow me to focus solely on teaching. As an adjunct professor, you receive a very small percentage of the compensation received by full-time college professors. Of course, you also get no benefits. The major reason I have to work so much is that my husband and I pay for our own health insurance, something I refuse to do without (thank goodness I live in Massachusetts, where everyone had the opportunity to buy individual insurance plans before the threatened Affordable Care Act was even enacted).

For the past four years, I have been teaching undergraduates out of a love for writing and the pleasure of meeting and working with students. It’s been hard to face that adjunct teaching requires a tremendous amount of time, work, and care for low pay, and that without a Ph.D. (I have two Master’s Degrees, a published a book, and positive evaluations, but I’m not a well-enough-known writer, and I don’t have the time or money to add a Ph.D.), it’s unlikely I would ever be hired as a full-time professor. It’s been difficult to have to juggle teaching with other jobs. Many adjunct instructors have given up teaching for this reason, and that’s a shame. I have met brilliant adjuncts who are wonderful teachers and are loved by their students, and unless they’re retired from other careers, independently wealthy, or have spouses with benefits, they struggle to keep teaching.

I already committed to teaching creative writing this fall. I love teaching writing, and I love teaching literature – but it doesn’t feel right that colleges and universities take such advantage of hard-working adjuncts. I am lucky that at the college where I work, I have a wonderful, supportive department chair who does her best to give every teacher – adjunct or full-time – every drop of support she can offer. She’s amazing. She’s inspiring. Both the students and the instructors love her, and she gives me the unusual opportunity to teach creative writing as an adjunct (most adjuncts teach freshman composition, which is how I started). Right now, I still teach largely because of her.

We’ll see what the future holds.

So, what does this have to do with blogging, or creative writing? This professional pressure has filled my head for the last year. I’ve had less time or focus to write. I did recently finish the second short story I’ve written this year, but my initial goal of drafting a full collection has disappeared, at least for now.

Strangely, I have felt ambivalent about the writing life. Maybe it’s because of the other pressures I’ve been juggling, but I think it’s also because the writing I’ve been doing isn’t necessarily what editors and journals are looking for right now. I haven’t submitted a lot of work this year, and when I have submitted it, I’ve gotten some of those nicer rejections from prominent journals (“this isn’t right for us, but we enjoyed reading it and would like to see more work”) along with the usual couple of form letters saying “thanks, but no thanks.”

Sometimes you must make choices about your craft or art, and I feel as if I’m at one of those crossroads now. Am I going to keep pushing for publication and recognition and dealing with the rejections, or am I going to just write for myself — try to express who I am and write what I feel compelled to write, regardless of whether it will be well received or even acknowledged by literary editors.

The truth is, I haven’t had much heart over the past year to keep putting myself out there. I don’t like to sell myself or my work. I don’t like selling anything, and I’m not even sure whom I’m selling it to. I think that’s why I published my book with a small, independent press that simply loved it.  Something inside me bristles when I have to push to be considered one of the “cool kids.”

Maybe that means I just don’t have the drive to continue to succeed as a writer. I don’t know. That’s what I’ve been pondering.

I watched part of the movie “La La Land” during the plane ride to England, and watched the end of the film during the plane ride home. I won’t spoil the story for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but suffice it to say there’s a point in the film where the female lead, who plays an actress in the movie, isn’t getting parts. She decides to do something on her own. It’s not really spoiling the film to note that she doesn’t end up acting in obscurity forever. The message seems to be that you should follow your heart and your own creative spirit, and eventually recognition will come, although you might have to pay a price.

Sometimes, when I’m working part-time, teaching, doing freelance work at night and on weekends, and telling myself that the writing will come at 5 a.m., I want to throw up my hands and give up.

Or maybe I’m just not willing to pay the price.

I’m not sure. I’m doing the best I can to figure it out, and in the meantime, I’m still writing.