Amy Hempel’s answer – What’s yours?

Writer Amy Hempel speaks onstage at Strand Book Store on August 30, 2008 in New York City.

As a writing teacher, and in the interest of all the aspiring writers reading this, what’s the most common mistake young, fresh writers make?

AH: This is the young writer mistake question: Wanting to publish more than wanting to write well.

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27 thoughts on “Amy Hempel’s answer – What’s yours?

  1. This has been a real question for me lately, and it’s one I didn’t expect.

    I went to grad school and I made a ton of work that I took a lot of time with and required a LOT of figuring out, and then, when I graduated, I started sending that work out.

    Then the pace of things picked up.

    And working at the pace I’m used to means that I have to say no to lovely people who email me and ask me to submit to their journals, which feels like looking a gift horse in the mouth. But the alternative is to write something really fast and then feel a little funny about it.

    And all of a sudden, I’m needing to pull back and realize that as valuable and exciting as it is to have my work into 12 places, if all of those stories are shitty, what’s the point.

    And there are people that are able to have their work in 12 places at once, and every one of those pieces is spectacular. But if I know that’s not my process, why am I freaking out about keeping up with publishing schedules.

    I’ve slowed down with submissions lately and with publication.

    Sorry for this weird Real World Confessional Room sort of reply. I’m trying to be honest about conundrums I’m facing. I know what I’m SUPPOSED to do: what Hempel says, but sometimes it seems more complicated than that.

    Anyone else with me?

    • Definitely with you.

      I struggled with the creative vs. publish effort for a long time when I was younger. In a race to publish, I started to submit to places I was unfamiliar with, journals that were questionable, etc. I built no relationships with any of those folks and ended up with a bunch of credits i was not proud of.

      My solution at the time was to give up on any attempts at publishing and concentrate only on the creative. No shit, it lasted for about a decade.

      Now, I have about 20 publications that I hold dear. I admire them; I know the folks there and try to help them if I can. For the most part, I only submit to them. Sometimes I stray, but not often.

    • I feel your drain (if that’s the right word) – and I’m not even a plumber.

      I do get it. I think. Maybe the amount of journals out there creates an anxiety to fill them and maybe that is me talking.

      I guess the point is exposure, but it seems we’d rather expose ourselves in print, in the well known and liked journals.

      Elizabeth Bishop published 80 some poems in her lifetime.

    • To some degree, I think the constant hum of the online lit community exacerbates that pressure, and the rapidity with which stories go from written to submitted to published online. I’m not getting all Andrew Keen here and blaming the web, but for me at least the constant awareness via Facebook and Twitter and email of who’s publishing what and where and how often makes it harder to find the calm, quiet corner where my writing actually needs to get done. Obviously, it’s up to me – not the web – to tune that noise out and do the work.

      So maybe my advice to young (and old) writers would be — along with what Hempel said — to get offline more often and trust in the possibilities of your own quiet corner.

      • Steve,

        Yet we want readers, right? I do agree with you, I yearn for that quiet corner and will retreat soon.

        Maybe we should do official no story status updates on fbook. Maybe we’d have a load of new material after that.

  2. Good post, Greg.

    I totally agree with most, except for the concept of the fb ban. It almost presupposes that the writing linked there is sub-par. FB is actually the primary means by which I find links to excellent writing in online journals that I might otherwise miss. At the same time, I agree with Jac about the pressure to keep up, even when you’re tapped out of good material. I think the two are separate issues.

    I recommend this article– very relevant to the issue at hand:

    “Writing, initially a very private act, has the potential to become an overwhelmingly public act … how a writer chooses to negotiate the transition between the privacy of writing and the publicness of reading will ultimately determine what kind of a writer he or she is.

    “Alone, With Words | The New Republic
    http://www.tnr.com

    • I’m mostly kidding about FB–after all, that’s how I read this post. And certainly the writing linked there is not subpar. But I do think it’s part of the online problem/pressure pressure machine–which is really more my own problem. It’s sort of a particular problem for me, since I’m online all day for work, so I can’t avoid the flood.

    • I was thinking of Fb differently. There’s lots of great work being shared there, but there’s also such a volume of work shared that it’s easy get hung up on the frequency with which others publish rather than focus on only the quality of my own work, at whatever snail’s pace makes that work strongest. It’s not a problem with people posting their work to Fb. That’s a great resource. For me, it’s the problem of trusting how slowly I work in the face of how quickly others do, and in the face of the constant reminders Fb, etc. bring.

  3. Greg, I second that idea. Story status after story status gives me anxiety attacks, and I feel compelled to start cranking out the flash fiction instead of sitting down and working on my long-stalled longer stories.

  4. Ok–but what if FB and these other mechanisms are fundamentally changing the “nature” of writing?

    Are we hanging onto some outmoded or at least slowly dissolving notion that “real” creative output is “longer”?

    I’d be surprised if writing in 2100 looked anything at all like it does today, even in the degraded form of FB/web/publishing-too-much-not-fresh-or-whatever-writing.

    • I pretty much agree. Someone I know, thinks cell phone novels or stories (maybe there is a word for them) are the future. I don’t know about that, but I do know print journals are publishing shorter and shorter stories. Though it seems the general reading public still want a good long novel to sink their teeth into and sit with – they hold this onto that notion.

      Size shouldn’t matter, but it does. I think flash fiction (use any term you want) is somewhat scary to the general public (not the internet/small press/poetry world) because it resembles poetry (less story, need to read the lines more perhaps). And I’ll risk generalizing further (to hopefully generate discussion) and say it’s easier for an author to hold the reader’s hand through a story-driven novel (JAWS, DA VINCI CODE) than in stories where an uncommon sludge of words twist and whinny to reverse our perceptions (MOLLOY, UNDER THE VOLCANO). Do readers want their hands held? Some do. But some want to float free and earn that hand-holding from the author. I believe Gass says as much in some interviews.

      • The brevity of the internet, and so much writing these days, drives me crazy, honestly. I’m all for shorter writing, but I’m also all for longer writing. They’re substantially different, and writing is less full–less itself–without both.

        So I despair at how little patience there seems to be for longer writing, both on the part of readers and.

  5. I’m all for shorter writing, but I’m also all for longer writing, and honestly the vast dominance of the former these days greatly concerns me. Writing is less full, less fully itself, without there being both.

    So I despair at the heavy bias toward the brief, and an infrastructure of journals that support almost exclusively that: word counts limits of well-under 3000 words, often even 1000 words, etc.

    (I thought the internet was going to free us all? But McLuhan, he was a wise one.)

    …This, incidentally, relates directly to that post I wrote about alternative values in small-press lit. If the small presses are an alternative from dominant mainstream culture—and from movie catch phrases and news tidbits and soundbites and text messaging and Twitter and Facebook posts—then why does it want only the brief?

    • Large houses want novels and often look down on short story collections unless you are Munro/Trevor/Saunders or the big magazines consistently publish your short stories (I’m sure there are exceptions).

      Look at someone like Jean Follain, a french poet, but he also wrote prose poems, many not more than 200 words. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Follain

      Books like this or American Gymnopedies (to keep up the French theme) by Monsieur Garson are unimaginable in the large presses these days. I know – the Lish crew at Knopf, but again a rare blip in history.

      Again the BIG dominates in the large press world. Look at any bestseller list. Most of those novels are well over 300 pages.

      But then again we can’t dictate what people write. The people that want to write long stuff will, whether it will be published is certainly a different story. How many people read Shya’s entire novel on-line?

      • Yes, that’s true, one of the differences between the large and small press world is that the large press world still publishes big stuff.

        But they also publish small stuff, too—the stuff you noted, but much else as well. And they put out story collections. And shorter novels, etc. (I can go downstairs to Barnes & Noble and start making a list of them.)

        So does that make the large press world more diverse?

      • And you can dictate what people write, to a large extent (in a certain community). When 90% of journals don’t accept anything longer than 3000 words, and 50% of them want work under 1000 words, guess what people will write…?

        • I mean, I write longer stuff (just had a 12,000 word story published), but I feel a great pressure to write shorter and shorter stuff. I had multiple publishers reject my first novel not because they didn’t like it, but simply because it was “too long to be published.” (It’s 400 MS pages.) I just had a story rejected, and the editor told me he didn’t even read it, because he never looks any more at anything longer than ten pages.

          And so I’ve started putting together a flash collection…

          • I feel your drain. That was not nice of that editor. Conversely I’ve had people tell me a novel is too short to be published, so where does that leave us?

            Taste, taste, taste.

            I am for any length of story (forgiving the ambitious post for a second, that’s a prod) but I still think the writer dictates her or his own length. Whatever they see fit. Maybe I’m the only one but I would never add or delete to make some word count, only if the story dictated.

            • Of course, editors are free to pick and choose whatever they want. What surprised me in this particular case was that this was an older journal that has a history of publishing longer works, and that openly boasts about bucking trends and not having submission guidelines. (Though as Shel Silverstein and David Mamet said, “Things change.”)

              Drawing the line for fiction at ten pages or fewer seems silly to me, and not healthy for fiction in general. I think it’s arbitrary and faddish decision (this is a print journal, not something online).

              And I’m for any length of story, but I’m enough of a Marxist to believe that the economic infrastructure will dictate the artistic superstructure. Today’s small-press publishing and technology strongly encourages the brief. We will live in the culture we make.

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