Life Lessons from Amy Hempel

“….all that time thinking, ‘What we have–love sometimes passes for it, when I should have been thinking, Love passes.'” -Amy Hempel, The Day I Had Everything


It’s May and I am only just getting to my April 1 issue of The New Yorker.  Forgive me.  Long ago, in a land far far away (the Heights circa 2010), I was a devoted reader of The New Yorker (probably in an obnoxious way).  Then a lot of unexpected life happened and the subscription lapsed.  In 2018, gratefully, I became a reader of The New Yorker once more, but I was savagely reminded that reading the thing cover to cover every week is the languorous avocation of people who aren’t juggling children, a house, work, housework, and a plant-based-all-natural-no-processed-foods-sugar-free diet.  Silly me.

Alas, I still manage to read it, even if I am -at any given moment- in arrears of some kind.  Often I read it out loud to my almost-ten year old son.  He tolerates it well.

In this issue I am enchanted with James Wood’s review of Amy Hempel’s newest collection, “Sing to It.”  I met Amy Hempel one summer when I was a student in her workshop at the New York State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY.  It was during a time in my life when I was making a career of attending writing workshops in order to make a career of being a writer.  If you’ve attended such writers workshops you will recognize the type.  I was this type at Kenyon, at Breadloaf, and at Skidmore.  I was also this type locally at Inprint.

Ms. Hempel taught fiction along side Mary Gaitskill.  At the time I didn’t know much about either writer.  I came to find Ms. Hempel a gentle and precise instructor, and Ms. Gaitskill every bit as precise as Ms. Hempel but also entirely terrifying (maybe I mean this in a good way). Ms. Gaitskill spent some class time reading Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov aloud:

I was the shadow of the waxwing slain

By the false azure in the windowpane…

I am still very solidly in love with Vladimir Nabokov as a direct result.

I enjoyed the workshop, I think, and I must have learned a great deal.  What I actually remember is this: (1) missing my children desperately, and (2) a conversation with Ms. Gaitskill where she took issue when a character in my story lampooned western women generally for believing that wearing a bikini meant they were free.

She didn’t believe me or she didn’t believe my character or she didn’t believe bikini wearing was a form of imprisonment.

I don’t recall any conversations I had with Ms. Hempel about any of our class discussions or any of my writing.  It’s too bad because I do remember that I liked her and that she loved dogs and that her short stories are really outstanding lessons in living with your eyes open.

I want him to know what it clearly seems to me: that if it’s true your life flashes before your eyes before you die, then it is also the truth that your life rushes forth when you are ready to start to truly be alive.

-The Most Girl Part of You

Grab her latest collection, “Sing to It” and let me know what you think.  It’s on my summer reading list!

be inspired,


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