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Author Amy Hempel: Collaboration, Volunteer Work Make Better Writers

Author Amy Hempel signs a book for a fan at a reading held September 25 in the Bordy Theater. Prior to the reading, Hempel gave a Q&A for students and faculty in the Beard Room.

Renowned short story author Amy Hempel had some unexpected advice for young writers at Emerson last week.

“I would say volunteer work is the best thing a writer can do, particularly crisis intervention,” she said. “Right now, there is plenty of work to do in the aftermath of the hurricanes in Puerto Rico and North Carolina.”

She was speaking to a Beard Roomful of students and faculty for the semester’s first WLP Reading Series event last Tuesday. She followed the Q&A with a Reading in the Bordy Theater.

Hempel has authored four collections of short stories. One of these, The Collected Stories, earned a spot on the New York Times’ Ten Best Books of 2006. Next year she will release a new collection called Sing to It.

Volunteer work is a great way to “do some good, learn about something,” and “go into the white-hot center of experience with people you don’t know yet,” Hempel told the writers in the room. She added that the goal is not necessarily to write about volunteering, but that “it will often find its way into your work.”

Students in the crowd were curious about what drew Hempel to short stories as opposed to longer forms of fiction. Hempel deferred to playwright and screenwriter David Mamet, whom she quoted as writing “Omission is a form of creation.”

Known for her unconventional writing style, Hempel once published a story that consisted of a single sentence. Her confidence to write free of constraints did not come without the encouragement of fellow writers, she said. Author Leonard Michaels once told her, “You tell them what a story is. They don’t know.”

Graduate student Christina Montana said she was “emotionally moved” by Hempel’s memories of the support and advice she got from fellow authors.

“She wasn’t even using her own words, even though she’s such a great writer herself,” Montana said.

Hempel also spent some time discussing her writing process, sharing that she writes every story “to the last line.”

“I don’t know anything between, just that it’s going to end there,” she said.

Although students were fascinated to learn about Hempel’s process, she was emphatic about the idea that every writer’s process is different. “I’m not espousing my way as the way to do anything.”

Hempel went on to share the story of another writer who once remarked, “if you’re writing for less than eight hours a day, you’re a dilettante.” Hempel’s response to this assertion? “Says you!”

Throughout the evening, Hempel deferred to famous writers and even writers in the room to answer questions. Students and faculty were quick to take her up on the invitation, sharing their own thoughts and those of authors they admired.


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