recycling with the mayans

Straighten your papers, the ones you never look at. Never touch a paper twice, that’s what they say. Avoid information overload! Never touch a paper twice. Look at it and file it or throw it out. Don’t straighten your papers then, see if I care. Log in. Er, try to log in. Oops, forgot your password. How many are in your head. How many are the same. You fool! Don’t use the same one twice! You must use a combination of four numbers, three symbols, and no less than six letters. We will not accept anything less. Also we’ll need you to change it again as soon as you begin to remember it. Forget it the first time you try to log in. Request new password. Make up new one, but not the same as your email password. And don’t use your pet’s name. Your neighbor might hear you calling him outside and hack into your account. Throw a few papers out to make yourself feel better. It’s okay, I know you touched them already. Just throw them out so you won’t touch them again. There, isn’t that better? Now go outside and breathe in some car fumes. It might be better than recycled office air but honestly science hasn’t bothered to find out. No corporate funding would touch that kind of study. So it’s still up in the air. [Don’t laugh at that!] Walk around and pretend you’re not an insignificant speck, not just another cog in the machine (you are, even though you purport not to be by affecting a continuous broadcast of apathy and cynicism to the world, and to yourself– the worst and most damaging lies are always to yourself. We learn this over time.). Return to the office. Pick up another stack of paper from your mailbox. Leave it on your desk for weeks to gather the appropriate office patina. Then recycle it. Or think you’re recycling it. Everyone knows the cleaning staff just throws it all in the trash anyway. It’s common knowledge. It doesn’t matter. Recycling can’t save us, Derrick Jensen says. Only complete destruction of civilization will save us. Would you prefer that? Read The Road by Cormac McCarthy and check back with me. I’ll make tea and we can pontificate. Then we’ll pack our emergency preparedness kits. Leave work behind now. Go home and attend to the needs there, the ones behind the scenes of everyone’s public life. Nourish your body. Attempt to nourish your mind but mostly just numb it and then maybe squeeze in a little bit of nourishment before sleep. If you’re lucky when you’re out late walking you’ll look up and see Venus glowing above the rooftops. Or maybe a full moon. If you’re lucky a breeze will rustle the cottonwood leaves and leave you breathless. But you won’t be lucky tonight because it’s winter and the branches are bare. So go to sleep and dream of spring. Dream about the end of civilization. Dream of anything at all. Like Amy Hempel says, that’s where most of us get what we want.

Hempel redux: the murkiness of genre

Running on the treadmill today I started thinking about Amy Hempel’s writing again. Recently I read some vitriolic criticism of her work. It bothers me when critics slag a writer in such a way that suggests a near personal hatred. I sometimes think that reviewers shouldn’t even bother writing about work that they hate, unless they are able to muster up some degree of objectivity. I see no value in completely trashing someone’s creative work in a public forum. Above all, everyone’s definition and expectation of a particular genre differs, and so basing your critique solely on your own understanding or expectation is a flawed point of reference.

To follow that thread, much has been made of the blurring of genre boundaries in recent times. Flash fiction, mini nonfiction narratives, and prose poetics often entwine to the point where some have suggested that only the authors themselves are capable of declaring what genre a specific piece falls into, should they even care to label their work at all. Some don’t, although this can make it harder for them to find their audience.

Amy Hempel’s writing is a perfect case study when examining genre’s murky waters. She’s been described as a minimalist fiction writer, though that term has been loaded and discharged so many times over that it’s mostly shooting blanks now. Amy has said that most of her inspiration comes from poetry, and I would say that can definitely be seen in her work. Her stories are like frames, each sentence a neatly trimmed two-by-four, nailed together with precise punctuation. Sure, she could then cover this frame with thick boards of wordy prose, but why bother? Sometimes readers (and writers) want to sit on a bare floor and peer out at (or into) the world through the spaces between sentences. We don’t always (and sometimes never) want it all spelled out before us. Of course, there are those readers that do want a lot of action; they want a story to progress at a certain pace and get somewhere. But then there are those who aren’t interested in a destination, who enjoy an aimless walk, who love when a story ends leaving them breathless and unsettled, but not with perfect closure.

I think of Amy as more of a poet than a fiction writer. Poetry does not have to rely on the ease of line breaks and stanzas. Poetry can reside within a paragraph, with word choice and punctuation hammering out a steady rhythm on their own. But maybe even these terms, poetry and fiction, are not needed. For all writers draw from life, and life is real and true, but when we commit it to the page it takes on a different form altogether. Sometimes we determine what that form will be, merely with how we organize the words on a page. We can then try to bend it to fit a genre’s flimsy label. But perhaps that is unfair. Maybe we should not be corralling these words within fences. Maybe as readers and as writers, we should just let them flow through us, without the burden of our demands, without the limits of our expectations.

in the wilderness

“Dreams: the place most of us get what we need”—Amy Hempel

Amy Hempel

So I just discovered Amy Hempel’s writing.  I guess I am behind the times, but whatever…at least I found her!  I looked up an interview and her answer to this question below struck me.  In particular, this statement of hers rang like a bell in my head:  “I’m still drawn to MOMENTS, moments when power shifts between two people, or moments when something small but encompassing happens.”

YES.  Yes, Amy.

I also really like the quote from that Jane Hirshfield poem…I’m going to have to look that poem up.  In her answer to the next question, Amy talks about poetry and how important it is in helping her craft stories, how you learn about rhythm and conserving words, among other valuable lessons.

RH: Your longest written work, Tumble Home, is a novella. Have you ever considered or attempted a full-length novel? And what attracts you to the short story form?
AH: I have never wanted to write a novel, though I might write another novella someday. I never get tired of what stories can do. I’m working very short again, and will continue this way (short-shorts, prose poems) until that gets old. I’m still drawn to MOMENTS, moments when power shifts between two people, or moments when something small but encompassing happens. There is a poem by Jane Hirshfield titled “Changing Everything” that best describes what I mean by that last– a person walking in the woods who picks up a stick and moves it to the other side of the path and says, “There, that’s done now.”

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