Photo by Anne Staveley
In April, Blue Mesa Review interviewed Emily Rapp, whose second memoir, The Still Point of the Turning World, was published in March and has since received much public acclaim. Rapp currently lives in a small mountain town about an hour from Albuquerque and teaches writing in Santa Fe. BMR would like to thank her for graciously inviting us into her home, pouring fresh coffee, and giving lively responses to our questions about art, memoir, and the writing life.
Blue Mesa Review: Honestly, because you’ve talked about the book in so many places, I wasn’t going to interview you about that.
Emily Rapp: You can ask me whatever you want!
BMR: Maybe what we’ll do is just link to all of these places. The NPR interview is so thorough, so I didn’t want to ask questions when others have already asked them. I’m more interested in talking about being an artist because probably most of the people who submit to, get published in, and read a magazine like ours are concerned with the art of literature. So that’s my first question: do you consider yourself an artist? If so, maybe you could compare your work to other types of art: visual, musical, etc.?
ER: I think writers are artists. Not all artists are writers, so there’s that. I would say my work — well, less so in this book — but most of the time the work that I do is very visual. I think I see things visually before I see plot. I unfortunately do not have a brain that has little mechanics of plot that turn logically — or at all. I see things in a more visual scope. In that sense, I’m very affected by place and it’s something that I strive to render, even in stories that are largely internal. Because everyone’s sitting somewhere. We’re not just in our heads.
BMR: Do you mean mostly the natural environment?
ER: Yeah. The pitfall of memoir is wa wa wa wa wa — just yacking — you know? We’ll be driving in a car and we don’t see what’s outside the window, we’re just encased in this neurotic cocoon. But I think I have a real sense of space. Visually, I can’t even draw a stick figure, so I think that’s the best comparison I can make between my work and visual art. Also, I was trained as an opera singer when I was young.
BMR: No way.
ER: Yeah. So I think I love poetry because it’s so much about sound. I’ve been writing a lot of poems now and they’re probably all awful, but it feels good, so I’m just going to roll with it. The sound of language has always appealed to me and I think that’s a combination of being trained as an opera singer and being brought up in a church where you’re singing the same thing every week: intonations, chords. It’s funny, though, because I don’t ever really think of myself as an artist because it calls to mind, you know, canvases. I think of myself as a writer. But that’s a good question. It’d be an interesting essay, actually.
BMR: It seems as if there is a definite connotation to the word artist. Like, “Look at me, I’m an artist,” so much so that the label can actually preclude the work.
ER: Totally. Well, anyone can say, “I’m a writer” or “I’m an artist” and hang out their virtual shingle. But you would never pretend you had a degree in psychology and start seeing people without having training. Writing is a job. That’s part of the reason why I believe in [Master of Fine Arts degrees]: it’s the piece of paper that you get to do the job. But it’s endemic in any community — people claiming “I’m an artist” — but it has to mean something — and it’s hard to say that without sounding like a big fat snob. But you’re a writer when you’re doing it, when you’re in the world, making connections, doing the work. It’s not just saying that you wrote a screenplay once.
BMR: Do you think there’s a moment when you took a step, when you committed, or when you felt that you were more of a writer than before?
ER: Oh, yeah. As a result of writing this book, definitely. I mean, I had a huge writer’s block in L.A. after I finished my first book and was briefly considering going to law school, for the umpteenth time. And then Ronan got diagnosed and, well, that was it. There was nothing else I could do with myself.
BMR: Does it feel like a lifelong commitment?
ER: Yeah. It does. I’m sure I’m going to have dry spells. It’s become — and this sounds crazy, even to me — it’s become a kind of a refuge. When I write I feel better. I like the actual act of doing it, which I can say with complete honesty was not the case until these last three years. Before, I was worried about having to write, thinking, “Oh, no one’s going to like it.” I don’t do that anymore. I just don’t get moody about it. When I sit down to write, I write with intention.
BMR: What do you mean?
ER: So I don’t always know what exactly I’m going to write, but I’ve given myself a task. It’s either a task that’s been assigned to me or I tell myself that I’m going to write a poem about something like Ronan’s last day, I’m going to try to render that feeling. It’s not like I’m super task-oriented. Sometimes I get distracted and end up doing something else. But I think when you sit down to write, don’t be checking your e-mail or doing something else. Being a parent taught me this because I’d have like five minutes and that was it. But, I think writing definitely is a lifelong vocation. I hadn’t really thought about it until you asked me. It’s a nice feeling.
BMR: When you had that four-year writing block, was it that you just refused to sit down and write?
ER: Oh, no. I was sitting down. Just the stuff that was coming out was so bad.
BMR: So it wasn’t that you weren’t writing …
ER: No, I was writing, but it was awful. And that’s not even an exaggeration. It was the worst novel ever written. I was writing, but it didn’t feel like writing. It felt like wasted words on a page. I didn’t know where it was going. I’d write these scenes but I couldn’t commit to a story. It just didn’t feel satisfying at all. The process didn’t feel satisfying, the work didn’t feel satisfying.
BMR: Because you weren’t producing whole things? Or because others didn’t like it?
ER: Oh, I didn’t give it to anyone. I just didn’t like it. It’s not like I like everything I write. But I’m not repulsed by my work, usually. I was just repulsed by all the sentences I was writing then. But I was locked into this idea that I should keep working on the book, because one person had told me — one person — that it was a novel, not a short story.
BMR: It’s funny that you call it writer’s block, when I think of writer’s block as simply not writing. But you were producing work …
ER: Sort of, but it felt futile because it was so bad. It felt like it wasn’t going anywhere. But I think writer’s block is often confused as writer’s avoidance, which is more like what you’re describing. And there’s plenty of ways to trick yourself into writing. I’ve tried everything — exercise, bourbon, lighting candles, lighting more candles — but nothing really works for me. I’m not a regimented schedule person. But I just try to do it every day. Keep my mind active. Teaching actually helps with that.
I’m not a writer that needs like six weeks of quiet. I would go nuts. I just try to build it into my day. What I realized about my writing is that it’s actually necessary for me to do it to feel like I’m fulfilling my purpose in the world. For me, writing this last book clarified for me that this was my purpose because why else, in the moment when everything is going wrong, would writing be the thing that sustained me? There has to be a reason. I think the reason is because it’s what I’m supposed to be doing. Since I really internalized that — it wasn’t a cognitive logical thought; it just happened — writing has been easier for me. Not that it’s a big ol’ picnic. It certainly never has been that. But I don’t doubt that I should be doing it. And the removal of that doubt is the single most incredible, remarkable gift that parenting my son provided me. I wish that I could have been able to learn that in any other way. But that removal of doubt is so liberating.
BMR: BMR did an interview with Justin St. Germain in which he says: “I see a lot of essays in which the author seems to have never considered the question of why the reader should care. And if they have, the answer was: because this happened to me. And that’s not enough.” What do you think about that?
ER: Yeah. It’s not enough. Some memoirs don’t feel generous in ways that I think memoirs are asked to be, even more so than fiction. There’s this “about-ness” litmus test. What does it mean that that happened to you? What does getting run over by a car teach you about human life? What does winning the lottery teach you about human behavior? Those are very “meta” questions that nonfiction has to answer by deep specificity and particularity in the writing. So, it’s this duality, which is why I love the genre. The more deeply specific and personal you are, without becoming self-absorbed and neurotic — which is a pitfall of memoir — the more universal the piece becomes. Jonathan Franzen does that really well in his essays. He’ll say, “war is bad.” But he’ll say “war is bad” after 20 pages of his hysterically funny, irreverent attempt to quit smoking.
BMR: Well, how do you balance in your life the feeling that you’re producing work that is stuck, stuck in a market with editors and all that, and also the desire to produce something — all of us want to be producing something — that lasts?
ER: With this book in particular, it was unique for me because so much of the book I felt was written publicly, in pieces, for people who knew me very well. So, it has — this is going to sound so New Age-y and Santa Fe — it feels like it’s carrying that whole freight of care and concern and compassion and love that I felt when Ronan was sick. It’s in there. In that sense, because it felt like such a collective thing, it was all about good will. There was this truckload of emotional stuff that was all positive that was generated by this crappy situation. For me, the story lives in a lot of different people as if they had also been part-author. Particularly, I subjected my close writer friends to multiple hideously long drafts. I reached out and got it back tenfold. I think that is unique about this book: a lot of people were involved.
BMR: What that undermines is the idea of the artist as a solitary genius, producing complete works after laboring over sentences for years.
ER: Oh, geez. I think that’s such a cliché. I think some people work that way. But I’m just not that way. I like to be out in the world. I like to absorb experience. I asked Charles Baxter about that once in an interview. He said that the bulk of his life is spent just absorbing experience. Be in the world! What’s the point in beavering away on a solitary sentence so that you can be a genius? No one’s a genius. You’re a genius if you’re dead when you’re 30. I mean, these terms don’t mean anything. People go after them as if they’re tangible, as if they’re items they might collect. It’s a very capitalist approach to work, saying, “I’m going to become a genius.” No, you’re not. You’re going to work, just like the rest of us. Maybe you’re going to write something great or maybe the next thing you write won’t be so great. I can’t think of a single living writer that I think is a genius. All of them are dead. What does that tell you?
BMR: I’ve thought about this a lot. Specifically, do we as writers have to commit to a sort of Kerouac-ian, live-fast existence?
ER: Listen, when I was in graduate school, I was in my 20s, I was stupid, and I was drinking a lot of margaritas. I spent a lot of time on porches drinking margaritas. It was a waste of my time. Maybe it wasn’t, but I was totally committed to that Bohemian, party lifestyle. Kerouac died because he drank too much; he lived like a maniac and burned out his life. Which is tragic, but he left behind this amazing piece of art. But I don’t think you have to commit to some sort of life of outright debauchery and self-loathing and depression. Maybe not depression. Depression is a real psychological illness, which I think everyone has. I mean, if you’re awake, you’re depressed. But no one wants to be Hemingway. He was miserable. He tried to walk into a helicopter blade. He was a miserable alcoholic. Why would you want to emulate that? Genius — moments of genius, flashes of genius — doesn’t stem from self-created neurotic angst parties. These moments stem from real, basic human emotion: love, desire, despair, grief. That’s where little flashes of genius come from.
BMR: In those moments, though, most people tend to avoid those emotions, or try to fix them. Does the artist just … stick with it longer?
ER: I think so. Or tries to sort out why. The task of the writer is to take all of the base emotions, these emotions that make us humans, and figure out why they make us so fucked up. Loss undoes people. People lose their minds. That happens. Artists want to know why. I’m really interested in grappling with what drives people. In the process of writing this book about my son, I asked myself: what is driving me? I was fueled by this compulsive rage. I was like, I’m not going to sit down for this. I’m not going to be undone by this. I certainly think that many writers — and I would put myself in that basket — flirt with the outer limits of mental illnesses. But I think, again, most people have mental illness. Ha! Because we’re human beings. I don’t think we have to be happy all the time. You know, one of the books I love to read is C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed. Now I have this sort of dream image of walking off a porch with him and both of us sort of putting our faces in the mud. You know, asking, What is this? What is this? I want to do that, because I think the journey toward — not an answer — but a journey toward an epiphany or realization, or just a nice line of poetry, is worth it. You learn so much about people and the world. You feel alive in it. When I was writing this book I felt very alive. I felt my son was very alive in it. It all felt like a living thing.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.