Faye Rapoport DesPres interview with Meg Tuite
“Winter,” is one heartbreaking and beautifully written essay of the reality of the downward slope of your connection with your father dying of Parkinson’s and yet the sparks do connect when he writes, “Souls are the atoms of the universe.” WOW!
Here are some quotes from the essay that I’d like to share:
“It has been a long, drawn-out thief of a winter, and today it steals my moment with the cows.”
“The estate once belonged to the Reverend Beecher Stowe, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s brother. He famously declared, “From here I can see the hills of heaven.”
“Everything in this place is a pretense for life, like the beanbag animals with sewn-on smiles that someone lined up against one of the windows. A cloth parade.”
“On the days when he could hold a pen, he scribbled ideas in a notebook he kept next to his chair. When I glanced at one of the pages, I read these words: “Souls are the atoms of the universe.”
“I don’t know who saved my father almost seventy years ago. I only know that here, when he looks into my eyes, he is asking if I am the one who can rescue him now.”
“When he was like that, when I thought the humidity of sadness in the air might drown us both, I tried to say something light to draw him out of his pain.”
What was it like to write this essay, Faye? You write with such clarity and grace in the realm of heartbreak and demise. Can you speak about the process for you?
It was hard to write this essay. I knew from the start that it would be painful to revisit many of the moments, thoughts, and feelings I wanted to express, but I felt that I owed it to my father and I wanted to do it in an artful way that would be a moving experience for the reader. He was a remarkable person who both suffered a great deal and achieved a tremendous amount in his life, and in the last months, weeks, and days he managed to maintain sparks of who he always was despite his deterioration. When I wrote this essay I wanted to be careful to do a few things; I wanted to honor everything that was special about my father and honestly describe what happened, but at the same time I wanted to respect his privacy as much as possible. That can be a tough line to walk, so I tread carefully and re-drafted quite a few times. Also, I am fully aware that there are many stories, essays, and books about people at the end of their lives (An editor told me years ago that he almost never publishes stories about elderly or dying parents), and I wanted to find a way to say something different and do it with my own voice. As I drafted and re-drafted this piece, I kept looking for that central nugget I could pull out of it that would make the essay more than “just another story about an elderly or dying parent,” because my father was not “just another dying parent.” No one’s parent is that.
Your father had gone through so much in his lifetime! Was there something in his struggle with Parkinson’s that allowed for some flickers of intensity that you might not have shared otherwise?
My father was always an intense person. He survived the Holocaust, and he carried the memories of his childhood in the camps with him always. He was highly perceptive about people and things, he was very generous and engaging and charismatic, and he was unusually talented in many ways. But he wasn’t an easy person. He had his dark moments and we had our difficult issues. Your question is interesting…was there something in his struggle with Parkinson’s that allowed for some flickers of intensity that I might not have shared otherwise? I think perhaps he was so dynamic in general before Parkinson’s that the intensity was more constant. He lived with Parkinson’s for many years without it affecting his life or personality too much (he had a very slow-progressing version of the disease). Toward the end, when the Parkinson’s caused more moments of withdrawal, the moments of intensity and presence perhaps stood out in a new way. That might have made it easier to pinpoint them in writing.
You are an exceptional writer and person! Will you share what it was that made you choose to write CNF over any other genre?
Oh, that’s very kind of you. I think the same thing a hundred-fold of you. The funny thing about CNF is that I didn’t even know what it was when I started studying at the Solstice MFA Creative Writing Program at Pine Manor College in 2008. I had written poetry earlier in my life. Then I had a career as a journalist for a while after studying literature, journalism and environmental communications (my original goal was to be a journalist writing about wildlife and environmental issues). When I started the MFA program years later, all I knew was that I wanted to get back to creative writing. I had only written one or two fiction stories (both of which were based on real-life events), and I needed writing samples for the application. All I really had was writing that came from real life (I’ve been journaling or writing diaries since I was about 7 years old). I applied with some of my nonfiction writing and got in. After starting the program I learned more about the genre of creative nonfiction and I fell in love with the personal essay. Since then I have written some fiction, too, but I do write mostly CNF right now.
Who are your deepest inspirations when writing?
I am especially inspired or driven by a number of things: the beauty and delicacy of the natural world and animals; the vulnerability of innocence; certain people; the desire to express and record my time, place, and experiences on this planet so that they might not be lost or forgotten (many writers probably share this inspiration). I have a desire to take part in the literary/creative/artistic legacy of interpreting the world and encouraging people to think about life. I am also inspired to write when people tell me that I’ve shared something that has helped them feel a bit less alone on their own journeys. It’s never easy to share certain things about one’s own life (for me, anyway), but it feels like the right thing to do when it helps others.
Do you have a specific time/place that you write?
Usually I wake up very early in the morning and try to get my creative writing done in a small room of our house where I have a desk and a chair and a computer that I use just for writing (I usually disable the Internet while I write). I try to write before the rest of the day’s responsibilities (and the stress that goes with them) hit me. In warmer weather, I sometimes sit outside with a laptop or notebook because I always seem to write best outdoors or in nature, or at least near a window that offers me a view of the outdoors. I am most at peace when I am surrounded by the natural world. Some people feel that writing at least first drafts by hand produces better, more connected work – the jury is out for me personally on that. I’ve written some of my best work both ways, but I do think each method is different. When I get really caught up in a specific piece, I can write any time of the day to get it done – especially if I have a deadline.
Is there a special quote that speaks to you as a writer and person that you can share with us?
There are many quotes that speak to me (I could quote half of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, for example), but the first one that popped into my mind when I read your question is from the poem “Dreams” by Langston Hughes:
“Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.”
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.”
That’s exceptional! Thank you so much, Faye, for sharing your pure beauty and brilliance with CP!
Thank you, amazing Meg Tuite.