Thursday, March 3, 2011

A 1/2 Dozen for Emily Rapp

A (stunning) 1/2 Dozen
with memoirist Emily Rapp
who talks about
her complex relationship with the page,

her compulsions,
her life with brutal honesty and grace,

what writing can be,
plus feminism, religion, and grief.

(Read this one all the way through.
The first Answer may be for
serious readers and writers
but from there on
her words here
speak to all of us.
I seriously recommend her blog
at .)

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

Vindication by Frances Sherwood is one of the best novels I've read in decades; my writer friend Tara Ison recommended it to me while I was re-reading Frankenstein and happened to let slip my long-standing artistic fantasy of writing a new biography of Mary Shelley. Sherwood's novel is a fictionalized version of the life of Mary Wollstonecraft, author of the watershed text and hugely influential A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (and mother of Mary Shelley, who appears in one of the final scenes of the book -- see above obsession) and known, in both popular and academic circles, as "the mother of feminist thought." Sherwood's portrait-of-the-artist-as-a-young-and-then-not-so-young woman is wildly imaginative, brutal, fascinating, and downright euphoric. The synthesis of history, imagination and poetry is like a feat of engineering -- practically rhapsodic in parts (at least for this reader. There's also a jubilant, dripping scene in a sweltering summer garden involving Mary W., William Blake, and Blake's wife that is not to be missed.) Sherwood is unflinching (and lyrically brilliant) in her interpretation of this complicated, magnetic woman (any female artist who has been chastised for being "too much," "emotional," "moody," "strong-willed," but also simultaneously "inspiring," "fascinating," and "luminous," and understood that the mix of these traits is considered potentially off-putting when manifested in a woman but not in a man, will relate). Sherwood makes heartbreakingly clear the price Wollstonecraft paid to be touted in Women's Studies classes all over the world as a "pioneering feminist." (Wollstonecraft herself would most likely have disagreed with this distinction, and she certainly would not have understood it the way modern readers do.) The novel can be tough-going; life was a hard slog for most people during Wollstonecraft's day, specifically women and children without financial means or a male protector, and she was not spared her own troubles: she lived through a childhood characterized by neglect and violence, was privy to the effects of wrenching poverty and disease that were real-life dangers for London city dwellers, and, much later in her life, bore witness to the almost daily beheadings in Revolutionary France, where she'd traveled to rabble-rouse with her revolutionary friends, many of whom were swept off to the guillotine under the cover of night. She survived several misguided and disastrous love affairs and two suicide attempts. The novel takes risks in terms of voice, and I think experimenting with voice is one of the riskier things writers do. I was simultaneously enamored with and disgusted by the main character, and I couldn't wait to read what happened next, not only because the story was compelling, but because the language was so poetic and surprising and the portrait of the historical woman so textured and alive. On an "otherwise" note, I'm obsessed with the BBC series Downton Abbey - anything involving costumes and manors and country dances and intrigue-among-the-servants and I'm hooked, and watching it on our elliptical trainer is a happy way to pass 50 sweaty minutes. I also have a decades-long crush on Hugh Bonneville, who plays the father in the series. And I still go back to police dramas, because I struggle (as many writers do) with endings, and at the end of a Law and Order episode, the "perp" is usually found. Nice and neat and there's even a nice swelling of melodramatic music to punctuate the denoument. I also like the faux-cop lingo that's tossed around on the show, and I've always had a ridiculous but tenacious daydream of being a detective; I suppose the desire to be a biographer is a nerdier and less dangerous way of attempting to make that fantasy a reality.

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

Two months ago my son Ronan, who was nine months old at the time, was diagnosed with Tay-Sachs disease, an incurable genetic disease that will take his life before the age of three, at which point he will most likely be in an almost vegetative state. I have a congenital birth defect myself, so out of frantic (read: paranoid) concern that my child would NOT have a birth defect of any kind, genetic or otherwise, I had every possible prenatal test that was available to me, and often at considerable expense. Of course we were stunned when we received Ronan's diagnosis because I'd had the blood test for Tay-Sachs (even though it wasn't recommended based on my ancestry) and, as the record states: "no mutation was detected." Two days and several doctors into the diagnosis however, and I felt like I'd gotten a degree in genetics. As it turns out, Tay-Sachs is NOT a Jewish disease, but the knowledge that those with affected children have (and too late) has simply not made it to the desks of most genetic counselors or those who train them. And, as my brother-in-law said as he was watching the twin towers fall on 9/11, "I can't believe I'm awake for this," I felt a similar sense of shock, betrayal, and the yawning void of fear and grief as the doctor explained to us that our son would eventually lose his mobility, his vision, his sense of touch and smell, his hearing, and finally - his life - over a span of a few short years. My first impulse was "I've got to record this," perhaps as a way of remaining awake or reminding myself to stay awake and/or alive; I felt it was important to stay grounded in my identity as a writer/mother (and this last part I had just gotten used to) before I became the "disabled woman writer/mother with a terminally ill child who won't live to see his fourth birthday." In other words, I wish this had never happened, I hate that it has happened, but because it has happened and because it is, right now, the main story of my life, I feel an obligation to record it. Writers write. If we can't write about the most horrific experiences of our lives then what's the point?

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

My relationship to the page, at least at the moment, is driven by need. I need the space, the time, the escape, the act of creation for its sake alone. Writing from the inside of this experience is helping me survive it, although it's hardly therapeutic -- it's the hardest thing I've ever done. Apart from the subject matter of this recent project, which I wish I'd never had to wrangle with, the experience of that need to write, as an artist, feels like a rare and terrible gift. I never believed writers who said, "I have to write," but I certainly feel like I MUST write this book. Is it a compulsion, a habit, a way of creating order, something to do to avoid grief? I don't know. Whatever the reason may be, the pounding need is there. I've also never had the experience of composing in my head, which has also been happening with this book. I don't know if it's because the grief and anger and fear are pushing the words our or what, but I can't seem to write fast enough or often enough. Of course much of what I'm generating will be reworked or chucked out, but the impulse to generate is stronger in me than it's ever been. I'm a trained theologian and the daughter of a minister, and I've been thinking a lot lately about John Calvin's ideas about "being called" to particular tasks in our lives, or even to particular moments. Calvin felt that every human life was pre-designed, and that rather than this being a restrictive concept or a limiting framework, it set individuals free to follow their hearts in some palpable way that had practical consequences. Calvin believed that if you felt tugged or pulled in a particular direction, that was God pulling you there; there were no accidents. I feel that very strongly in my writing life at the moment, although it's less of a pull and more of a violent yank. In the Lutheran ministry, pastors are "called" instead of "hired." I always thought it was kind of a dopey concept (especially when my dad was being "called" to rural Nebraska and my brother and I had to move there as teenagers!) You can't pick and choose the circumstances that bring you to the writing chair; you just have to go there when you're called. So - and I never thought I'd say this -- but my relationship with the page at the moment is one of genuine gratitude.

Writing Tip #12 for Aspiring Writers

As a writer interacting with other writers, or just people in general, don't suck all the air from the room. Let other people breathe and tell their stories, too, even if you're burning with your own. Remember that being an artist is different from being famous and requires a different set of compromises; figure out which set you're willing to live with.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

I was a melodramatic, romantic, nerdy, morbid and bratty kid with a temper who used to snoop through people's medicine cabinets at dinner parties -- smelling their cologne, reading their prescription labels, pawing through their hair nets and pins and jewelry. I grew up in a church and in small town Wyoming, and from an early age I appreciated older people and their stories, as well as impossibly wide skies, unpredictable weather, and wind. I was also a ritualistic kid, and I loved the rituals of the church; for example, call and response psalms or liturgical settings. Although I don't believe the content anymore, I still think it's powerful when an entire group of people speaks with one voice -- about anything, really. (And I'm still deeply and almost obsessively -- is there any other way? - ritualistic). I think the melodrama and the romance and an early life reading Bible stories steered me towards the "epic" stories, stories with real life and death consequences. In Wyoming there is more landscape than there are people, so place (with the exception of this current project) is almost always a starting point for me. I have to fall in love with a place (which usually means having a complicated relationship with it) before I can set a novel or a story or an essay there. I suppose this most recent project is about ideas and experiences that are not as place-specific. I also had a nomadic first few decades -- from state to country to city to small town, always on the move, always building a new life -- so I think I became more anchored to place in my work because my lived life and day-to-day experience was changing radically and often.

Was there an extremely influential writing teacher who was impactful on your writing life?

David Bradley handed me back a story that was covered in four different colors, but he provided no "key" to unlock the meaning of those colors; his comments didn't indicate why certain passages were colored in one way and not another. I rocked up to see him during his office hours, frantic and talking a mile a minute. What did it mean? Why was part of the dialogue scene in pink and the rest in green? What was up with the big block of yellow on page 4? Did he like my story or what? Did he think I was a good writer? Could he help me? He looked at me calmly and said, "You figure it out." Eventually, I did, and in the process I learned a great lesson about balance, about consistency, plot, sentence rhythm, and story. It took months to solve the puzzle, but I'm still reaping the rewards today.

Emily Rapp is the author of Poster Child: A Memoir, as well as many essays and stories. A former Fulbright scholar, she is the recipient of the Rona Jaffe Award and the Philip Roth Writer-in-Residence fellowship at Bucknell University, and she has received grants and awards for her work from The Atlantic, the Corporation of Yaddo, the Jentel Arts Foundation, the Fine Arts Work Center, and the Valparaiso Foundation. Educated at Harvard University, the University of Texas-Austin (where she was a Michener Fellow), Trinity College-Dublin, and Saint Olaf College, she has taught writing at Antioch University-Los Angeles and with the Gotham Writers' Workshop. She is currently Assistant Professor of Creative Writing and Literature at Santa Fe University of Art and Design. She loves old dogs, trashy pop music, long hikes, costume dramas and books that are big enough to prop open a door. She lives with her husband and son in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Check out her blog at and on Open Salon ( or visit her online at