A talent to persevere
of Emily Rapp’s young girl grins from the driveway of her family’s home on what looks a warm summer day. She grips the handlebars of her banana-seat bicycle, ready to tour her neighborhood, her auburn locks streaming out behind her, but first she pauses to pose for her parents’ camera.
So sweet and carefree is her grin, so classic the childhood moment captured, you might not notice that one of the girl’s legs is a prosthesis. Because of a congenital birth defect, when Rapp was 4 years old, her left foot was amputated; by the time she was 8, several surgeries had removed her entire leg. She enjoyed an active childhood, though — jumping rope, riding her bike, swimming, and skiing. Later, she studied at Harvard University, St. Olaf College, Trinity College in Dublin, and the University of Texas at Austin. As a Fulbright scholar, she taught English in a public high school in Seoul. Her writing — which includes fiction, poetry, and her 2007 memoir, Poster Child — has garnered numerous awards.
Recently, Rapp was a Philip Roth Resident in Creative Writing at Bucknell University and part of the Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing program’s faculty at Antioch University in Southern California. She relocated to New Mexico to join the team at the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, where she teaches creative writing and literature. On Tuesday, Sept. 28, alongside fellow faculty member Porochista Khakpour, Rapp reads at O’Shaughnessy Performance Space on the SFUAD campus. Pasatiempo: What are you reading on Tuesday? Emily Rapp: I will be reading from my novel. It needs to get out in the world a little bit, test the waters. I chose it because I’m afraid to read it, which is exactly why I need to. Pasa: When did you discover that you had a gift for writing? Rapp: I’ve always been an avid reader. I remember reading books as a child and then as an adult and each time thinking, I want to do that. I want to create stories in other people’s minds, transport them, make them feel human in a new and different way, challenge them, make them lose an afternoon on a porch swing or in an armchair. And I’m not sure I believe in writerly gifts — I believe in writerly perseverance, and I believe in stubbornness. Pasa: Do you write every day? Do you have any tricks for getting over writer’s block? Rapp: I try to write every day, even if it’s just for 10 minutes. … I don’t believe in writer’s block; I believe in writer’s despair! That blocked or despairing feeling, in my opinion, is often the sign that ideas and images
Iand characters and plot are gestating and that you need to be patient. When that happens I try to lose myself in books, in words, and let the ideas have some room to breathe. You just have to wait it out, and in the meantime, keep your brain occupied. Pasa: What do you like about teaching? What made you decide to join the faculty at SFUAD? Rapp: I like the balance teaching creates in my life. It’s a way to feel of use, it’s a way to, hopefully, instill in students a passion for literature, and it’s a social vocation, whereas writing, by necessity, is incredibly lonely and solitary. ... Teaching also helps me think about writing and literature in new and interesting ways, which is good for my own writing practice. I always learn a lot from my students and their insights.
I joined SFUAD because I enjoyed my time with the students and faculty I met, and because I wanted to teach at an undergraduate institution where I would have more time in the classroom than in my previous position. ... I was also intrigued by the idea of being a part of a school that was in the process of rebuilding and redefining itself. Pasa: Teaching something that comes naturally to you can be challenging. What are some of your techniques? Rapp: I’m not sure writing comes naturally to anyone. I think the desire or the impulse to write — the compulsion to write — might feel natural or necessary, but writing is work. ... As with any art form, there are … theories and ways to approach creating fiction, but as a writer you ultimately need to do three things: read, write, and persevere. And then repeat that process, for the rest of your life. ... It’s about practice, consistency, and resilience. Talent is great, sure, but what constitutes talent is subjective. .... If you can learn to be disciplined, you can learn to write, and if you keep at it, you will continue to grow and develop as a writer. In that way writing is a lot like exercise — you don’t get credit for thinking about it; you only see the effects if you actually get up — or, in the case of writing, sit down — and do it. Pasa: How do you teach someone to be creative? Rapp: I think you can teach people a strong work ethic. You can encourage them to create a space for creativity, establish rituals, things like that. You can teach people to read books that surprise them in terms of style or form or content. … And you can teach people to be open and observant of the people they live with and the landscapes they live within. You can teach someone the wisdom and artistic benefit of bravery, and by that I mean seeking out new experiences, making yourself an outsider in order to be an observer — whether through travel or trying a new dance class or hiking a new trail.