This year, I had never even heard of most of the people coming. Amy Hempel, I was told, was sort of the headliner, but Susan Orlean is hugely famous too (having written, it turns out, The Orchid Thief, the book that’s being adapted into a screenplay in the film Adaptation), as are Denise Duhamel, Richard Rodriguez, and Terrance Hayes, this year’s obligatory sexy male poet, who I actually was previously aware of, but only because he had been a visiting writer at the University of Alaska Fairbanks when I was in the MFA program up there.
Regardless of the fact that I was shamefully unfamiliar with this year’s amazing cast of writers prior to their coming, this year was, in my opinion, the best Lit Fest I’ve attended—and I say that even though I only, really, was able to go to Amy Hempel’s events (though I caught a little bit of Terrance Hayes and Denise Duhamel—completely missed Susan Orlean and Richard Rodriguez. Rodriguez, I hear, was absolutely REMARKABLE).
I’m not, as you probably know, a student at OU, but my friend Jolynn, who is going for her PhD in fiction there, got me into Amy Hempel’s fiction colloquium. During the colloquium I pretty much kept my mouth shut because I hadn’t read any of Hempel’s work and didn’t, as a result, know what to ask her. I kept my ears open, though, and very much enjoyed listening to her answer the questions the others asked about her writing process, her experiences publishing, and so on. She’s a real sweetheart, Amy Hempel, and incredibly friendly and down-to-Earth.
I picked up a copy of her first book, Reasons to Live (I know, great title!) and had her sign it for me, and I slowly worked my way through the stories last week. I say “slowly” and “worked” because, though these stories are incredibly short—most of them would definitely fall into the category of flash fiction—they are dense, and not in a bad way. They’re the kind of stories you have to sit and reflect on after you finish, the kind you read more than once just to make sure you caught everything, or because the ending sends you back to the beginning with a new filter through which to process the prose.
The most striking thing about Hempel’s writing is her close attention to the rhythm of each sentence. She said she focuses on the sentence, not the story as a whole, and you can definitely see this shining through in her stories. She, like me, is the sort of writer who begins with a line, a killer line that you just have to get down and that you know will inevitably lead to another line, and another. But, unlike me, she is able to feel her way through her language the way a poet can—in fact, many of her stories read as much like prose poems as they do like flash fiction.
She also knows exactly what not to include, how to give the reader just the bare minimum and let him or her put it all together from there. Hempel’s style of writing would be frustrating, I would argue, if she were a novelist. But she isn’t. She has never, she told us, had any interest in writing novels. She wouldn’t know how to go about it, she said. And as a short story writer—particularly a short-short story writer—her bare bones, sentence over story style works fantastically well.
Once, in a workshop, one of my UAF professors, David Crouse, mentioned that he could see his own writing as being on the same plane of existence as Rick Bass’s, but another writer—I can’t remember, now, which one—was on a different plane of existence altogether. He could admire what she was doing (I do remember it was a female writer), but knew he could never do it himself. That’s the way I feel about Amy Hempel. Hempel is, perhaps, the first writer who I felt that way about. Other writers whose work I admire I’ve admired in that, I-can-see-what-you’re-doing-and-I-think-I-can-learn-to-do-it-too sort of way. Not that I think I’m as good, say, as Rick Moody, but I feel like I can understand the mechanism behind Moody’s work, and if I keep at it and keep practicing, maybe someday I’ll be able to pull off what he can. Hempel’s work, though, is so unlike anything I would ever write, could ever write, that it really is like we exist on two completely different planes: I can see her from where I am, but as much as I keep walking forward, I’ll never reach her.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t learn from her.
I love this idea of focusing on the sentence. It’s, to be honest, a fairly foreign way of writing to me. From the workshops I’ve taken, with the varied and all fabulous workshop instructors I’ve studied under, I’ve grown accustomed to looking at story more than sentence. Character. Scene. All of these things tend to come before sentence. Focusing so much on each sentence is much more of a poet thing, I’ve always thought, but I think there’s a lot to be gained from picking a story apart the way you would a poem—paying careful attention to each individual word, each image, spending as much energy deciding what to leave out as what to put in.