Let me begin by saying this: Amy Hempel is a goddess.
And this: at the risk of sounding trite, or like i'm lying, I have just added her to my list of women that I would go gay for, should the opportunity arise. Here is my list:
1. Maggie Gyllenhal (of course)
2. Angelina Jolie
3. Amy Hempel
From my vantage point in the "Lillian somethingorother Writer's House" (about halfway back a narrow room, behind a doorway, sans doors, that used to lead from what i assume was the drawing room into what i imagine was the parlor), I watched as Ms. Hempel took her place behind a small podium with a microphone. I sat a few chairs away from the speaker, set on one of those old wooden folding chairs. She has thick white hair, but as I watched her read from (the scarcest book i've ever tried to buy) her collection of short stories ("The Collected Stories") I swear, she wasn't a day over 26. She was breathtaking. I witnessed this transformatory magic as her words swelled toward, and then enveloped me. I was in love.
She writes short stories and what she calls "short shorts" that are only a page or two long. I am in awe of her brevity. And how much meaning she packs into every. single. word. Let me find you an excerpt. Here's one, the end of a short story about a friend who dies.
"I think of the chimp, the one with the talking hands.
In the course of the experiment, that chimp had a baby. Imagine how her trainers must have thrilled when the mother, without prompting, began to sign to her newborn.
Baby, drink milk.
Baby, play ball.
And when the baby died, the mother stood over the body, her wrinkled hands moving with animal grace, forming again and again the words: Baby, come hug, Baby, come hug, fluent now in the language of grief."
Fuck me. This woman is a genius.
After the reading (which could have gone on for hours, in my book), the guy (an NYU professor with prematurely gray hair and a high voice), asked her some questions before they opened it up to the audience. I always hate that part, cringing with (I assume) the writer every time a precocious 19-year-old asks a stupid question. Yet, i never have the nerve to ask one of my own. I'm strangely timid at readings. I go alone. I sit in the back. I take notes. I buy the book if i have the money. I leave, taking a good long look at the writer's face before I do. I suppose I'm looking for whatever it is that I hope I have, too.
Although I loved her writing, i was a little disappointed with her answers. I don't just go to readings to try to glimpse the writer's soul or hear them read: I go because I want them to teach me something about writing that will help me write. She said a few helpful but relatively clicheed things, that beginning writers should "be obsessed," that successful writing is not about talent but about will and wanting it most, that you should "do the thing that unglues you." But when it came down to discussing her process, she was...a bit flighty. The most interesting thing she said was that most writers write about the "main event" but that her stories often look to the side, at what is happening beside that event. She said that she writes a story already knowing the first and last lines, but that she doesn't think of them: they come to her. She says that she doesn't edit after she writes: it COMES OUT THAT WAY. She said, when asked how she writes that way, "Oh, it's really a lot like magic." MAGIC?? ARE YOU KIDDING ME, MAGIC? I CAN'T DO MAGIC! my insides screamed. "That's it. I'm fucked."
She reminded me a lot of Sarah, whose spiritual/other-worldly sense is probably stronger than her other five combined. I bet Sarah would have understood what Amy was talking about. But I didn't, and I wish I had. I try to not even rely on physical things i can touch; can you imagine relying on magic?
Though, maybe there's something there. The something that you can't always put your finger on about the literature that moves you. I guess you could call that magic. Maybe we all have the magic, and it's just a matter of letting it out. Maybe it was that magic that i was looking for as I left quietly, gazing at her face.