# of pages revised: 28
# of literary mags submitted to: 5
# of days left to complete 2nd draft: 66
Writer Amy Hempel is a master of saying only what’s necessary. Her short stories are often less than five pages. They are like wisps of clouds that resemble familiar shapes as they quickly drift by. But they leave an impression in your mind.
The first time I heard her speak, she read” The Harvest,” a story about a woman who is severely injured in a car accident. Then she told us what parts of the story were true.
“I really was in an accident,” she said. “And everything about the hospital is true, except my leg only required three hundred stitches. I suppose I exaggerated for emphasis.”
I nodded. I do that all the time.
“And there was no other car. There was only the one car, the one that hit me when I was on the back of a man’s motorcycle. But think of the awkward syllables when you have to say motorcycle.”
* * *
This reminds me of Motorcycle Boy, the first book published by Joseph Boyden, a Canadian writer, and one of my favorite professors when I was getting my MFA from the University of New Orleans.
Joseph has won many awards and much acclaim for his most recent novels, Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce, but I remember people chuckling about his first novel. “It’s about a twenty-something guy who rides his motorcycle across Canada,” someone, possibly his wife, the brilliant and beautiful novelist, Amanda Boyden, said with a smile. I stood among a group of other writers at a big, drunken MFA gathering, and we all laughed because, obviously, Motorcycle Boy was autobiographical.
And in our circle, that was looked down upon.
* * *
Yesterday I finally tackled an “assignment” my friend Allyson suggested a while back: writing a 1,500 word young-adult story for Children’s Writer magazine. It was tough. 1,500 words is short – less than five pages. I was going to have to channel Amy Hempel. But I figured it would be good practice since I’ve been talking about editing myself and not saying too much. Plus, my novel is for young adults, so I need to really throw myself into the young-adult fiction scene.
As I sometimes do when thinking of what to write, I mined my own experiences. The contest guidelines said to write a story for 13 to 14-year-olds, so I thought about being that age, and a memory came to me. It wasn’t much of a memory. Only that for my eighth grade graduation my mother gave me three little cat figurines. They had creepy blue eyes and were covered in real cat hair.
I remember being confused about why she would give me these cats. Did she think I would like them? I did like cats, but for a present I would have preferred a gift certificate to the mall. I had a sudden realization that I was no longer a child, but not yet an adult, and my mother didn’t quite know who I was anymore.
So I started a story with “My mom gave me a cat figurine for my eighth grade graduation.” I didn’t know what was going to happen from there, but at least I had my first line.
Of course, the story needed a plot, so I made the cat figurine, covered in real cat hair, a cat genie that could grant wishes. (Unfortunately, that didn’t happen in real life.) And because I wanted to make the main character go back to school the next day, bringing the cat genie with her, I changed eighth grade graduation to a sports banquet where she receives a certificate of participation. But I did use my real eighth grade crush in the story: a blond boy named Travis, although he sat next to me in Science, not Spanish.
In an interview with the Paris Review, Amy Hempel says that she doesn’t feel she has “a particularly large imagination,” but she is a great observer. She often writes about her own life and says she gets an idea “from looking around, not from thinking it up.”
I loved when she told us all the true bits from “The Harvest.” So often, it seems, fiction writers won’t admit to this. “I made it all up!” they’ll say, as if to prove their superior creativity. They might even get offended if you insinuate a story is partially auto-biographical — I know I do! When I was getting my MFA, I often felt I wasn’t creative enough, because I had to keep using my own experiences for ideas.
I still struggle with this notion of creativity, and I worry I don’t have enough of it.
But Amy Hempel says the two things she asks of a story are “interesting language and genuine feeling.” And I suppose you can do that whether the story is truth, fiction, or a combination of the two.
P.S. Here are some other EDITING CHALLENGES I might try:
-write a story of 100 words, no more no less, for Marco Polo Arts Mag
-write a story in exactly 6 words for Narrative Magazine