Monday, August 31, 2009

Notes on Skidmore: Louise Glück and Amy Hempel

This is probably not a coincidence. Louise Glück's new book was reviewed in the NY Times on Friday, a rather negative review by William Logan. Basically, he says that she's trying to do something new (for her), and that she's not quite succeeding (in his view). I guess this makes sense: everyone who read at Skidmore this summer was getting ready to promote a new book, and now it's a month later and all the reviews are coming out. Maybe not everyone. But many.

My friend and fellow Skidmore participant Evelyn shared with me a link to Alice Hoffman's essay published a few years back in Ploughshares, where she talks about her writing teacher, Albert J. Guerard. I love how unorthodox his instruction sounds even today (for some reason I tend to imagine that with passing time, established traditions within a field get broken and the state of permanent revolution sets in. I suppose the traditions of writing instruction are still getting established?): "His motto was “Tell, not show.” Write not just what you know, but what you imagine. The concept of a personal voice was at the heart of Guerard’s philosophy. Much the way Gide spoke of an author’s gait, Woolf an author’s rhythms, Guerard believed in this concept of the voice, the writer’s most authentic self."

Amy Hempel's method of instruction included a whole bunch of reading recommendations. Usually, she was recommending novels and stories as a way of seeing how another writer solved a specific technical problem, in relationship to the stories we were workshopping. I'll just list here the names & titles.

Mark Richard, "The Ice at the Bottom of the World."
Jose Saramago's novel (she couldn't remember the title) about a town where nobody dies.
David Shields, "Reality Hunger: a Manifesto" (comes out in Sept).
Barry Hannah (Amy said something about having a voice to transcend artifice).
Ron Carlson, "Plan B for the Middle Class."
Stuart Dybek, "Pet Milk," "The Coast of Chicago."
Tillie Olsen, "I Stand Here Ironing."
James McElroy, "How it Ended," "The Last Bachelor."

At the beginning of the first workshop, she read several statements to us, something to keep posted to our writing desks: "I have to keep relearning the same things," she said. "It's like all the stories I've written before don't really count."

One of them was Ken Kesey's definition of a story: "What someone wants & what he or she is going through to get it."

The other was Gordon Lish's idea of a story (and this is the part where it became clear that both she and Jim Shepard are graduates of the same school): "Story happens when you have 2 ideas or 2 people completely opposed to each other. They are equally appealing & trying to occupy the same space & they are both right."

Question to ask of place (setting): "What is the thing that only happens here?" (Saramago's town where nobody dies was an example).

"The helpful comes from the breakdown of what you think is true." I have no idea what this means. The word "helpful" strikes me as suspicious in this quote, not sure if I got it right.

"Worse than boredom: fear of boredom."

"The writer is the person who stays in the room." (Compare this to Jim Shepard's "remember that as a writer your first impulse is laziness.")

"Solve all your problems through the physical world." Amy had a very useful variation on this popular dictum. She said specifically, "Character reveals herself through what she chooses to observe." So whenerver you have a character who looks at something make sure that she's looking at something in particular, and not merely looking. And that looking at someone's eyes is as unrevealing as looking at nothing. "Empty gesture: characters looking at each other or staring." Simply don't do this, she said. "Find something for the character to observe. Just render the object. What's in the room. What this character would look at." "This is particularly important for the first person character-narrators."

She quoted an interview with David Lee Roth of Van Halen about teaching: "with a teacher you can go right up to where the writing is done."

"The account of an event is the event itself."

"Power shifts in a narrative are always interesting." And more specifically, "Sex scenes are not about the body but about power shifting in a relationship."

Point of entry into a story: "Why write about something now?": "What's the vantage point?" (She mentioned Stanley Kunitz' poem "The Portrait": "After 64 years I can still feel my cheek stinging").

The idea of "vertical" vs. "horizontal" writing: "core thing you're looking for in a story & you keep unraveling deeper and deeper into the core." (But again, this reeks to me of a particular style, genre, tradition. Isaak Babel strikes me as a very "horizontal" writer -- whatever that means. Compare this idea of the "vertical" to a statement below about conjunction "and" being more useful than "but." "And" is a conjunction of the accumulation of detail. "Depth" and the idea of "vertical" writing do not strike me as particularly useful metaphors. I'm remembering a similar trope from theory, in linguistics, paradigmatic changes -- which could be useful upon closer examination -- or not.)

"Why is this story being told?" -- "Why are you telling me this story now?" -- "These questions are particularly important for 1st person stories").

"Establishing your own mythology -- drown out all the other stories."

"'And' is truer than 'but.' The more consistent a character is, the less true she seems."


  1. The story by Jose Santamago (spell) is Death with Interuptions. Great stuff, Olga!

  2. Thanks for sharing this, Olga! I love soaking this up via your knowledge. :) Did you like the workshops there? What was the format like?

  3. Molly, basically the schedule looked like this:
    Mon, Wed, Fri we had workshop from 1 to 4 pm. Most of the time, it ran late till 4:30 or almost 5. Each instructor did one week of workshop, and each author had one story workshopped in 2 weeks. So my stories got workshopped by Jim Shepard and Amy Hempel. In addition to workshop advice, each instructor usually had some more general tips to offer at the beginning of each session.
    In addition to workshop, every night of the week there were 2 readings by guest authors, followed by a reception; and on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons from 2 to 4 pm, Q&A sessions. On the weekends there were extra readings on campus + student readings. Lots of time to hang out and eat and drink together in between.
    Altogether, it was intense -- but not too much so. I don't really have much of a frame of reference yet, I'd have to go to other conferences to have something to compare this to :))

  4. The "empty gesture" sounds like what Rick called "micro-gesture"-- needless bits of information, filler, that you tend to put in a story when you're learning to write.

    It's reassuring to hear that Amy feels like she is learning all over again with each new story.

    Reading through Tillie Olsen's "Silences" got me started writing again-- that and Jane Cooper's "Nothing has been used in the manufacture of this poetry that could have been used in the manufacture of bread."