27 April 2010

Aimee Bender and Amy Hempel Dazzle and Disturb my Senses.

I sometimes wonder if I am missing the boat about short stories.  What I know about writing fiction could fit through the eye of an oarlock.  Some rules on writing apply across the board, but I feel that fiction takes a certain knack that I lack.  Perhaps writing poetry and essays, I can always anticipate an ending.  I imagine writing fiction to be akin to following Ariadne’s thread through the labyrinth while hoping not to bump into the Minotaur.

I have been reading the short stories of Amy Hempel and Aimee Bender.  This Amy double-header has left me refreshed and enervated at the same time.  I feel as though I’m listening to pop songs in another language—that if I listened just a little more closely, I could make out the words in English.  I strain and I strain, but in the end I just shake my head.

If poetry has taught me anything, it is to lean into mystery.  Often there is no making direct sense of the words and sounds that surround the hearer of a poem.  It is a complete sensory experience.  The brain stretches between images, metaphor, simile and narrative.  Poetry displays a page of dots and lets the reader connect them as he or she thinks best.  What I like best about poetry is the way it breaks open language to give it new vitality in both sound and meaning.  Understanding is secondary to pleasure.

Perhaps if I take what I have learned from poetry and apply it I will not be so befuddled.  Of course I want to know what the painting that the woman stares at in the last paragraph of the story means, but it doesn’t mean that I have to dissect every sentence.  Cutting open writing and rooting around for the “real” meaning just gets blood on the carpet.

So if any of you would like to explain the hidden mechanics to reading the auguries of modern short stories, I would be grateful.  If not, I will try to enjoy the fog and hope that it eventually clears.


  1. I feel the exact same befuddlement whenever I try to read poetry--I just don't "get" it (insofar as one "gets" poetry). I need the understanding and structures of meaning a short story can provide. Poetry kind of drives me bonkers. I definitely empathize with you, and wish I could tell you how to understand and appreciate short fiction--I seem to have internalized it.

  2. Your post reminds me of one of my favorite Billy Collins' poems: Introduction to Poetry. He discusses our tendency to want to "tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it....beating it with a hose to find out what it really means."
    Having been an English Lit. major, I often find myself dissecting (and thereby desecrating) all written works I happen upon. For instance, I've been trying, for 6 years, to finish Joyce's Ulysses. I just really want to know it in a "scientific" sense, analyzing every adjective and sentence structure. What I really need to do is relax and allow for its mystery to take over.
    Anyway, thanks for your post! I appreciated the sentence, "Understanding is secondary to pleasure."
    Sorry, I have no advice for increasing your enjoyment of short stories. They always leave me feeling disgruntled: wanting more or far less.



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