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What happens when you put a baby in the mail?

AQR (Alaska Quarterly Review) is one of my favorite quarterly journals. The journal is published by the University of Alaska, but it is not student work; rather, it is a university run literary journal open to unsolicited submissions. It consistently features superbly crafted contemporary literature: stories, essays and poems. The journal often contributes several selections to the Pushcart Prize collection. If you don’t know what the Pushcart Prize is and you like to dream of making a little money as a literary writer (by earning grants and prizes), you might do well to take a look. Each year Pushcart Press edits a collection from thousands of submissions sent in by the editors of many small presses. Being published in this collection is not a turnkey road to writerly success, but it’s certainly going to be a strong addition to a writer’s resume. Anyway, I digress. The question was, “What happens when you put a baby in the mail?” Bess Winter imagines such a scenario in her story “Helena, Montana.”

“Helena, Montana” by Bess Winter

“The Harvest” by Amy Hempel

“I leave a lot out when I tell the truth.” This is the sentence that begins part two of Amy Hempel’s story “The Harvest.”

This simple, straight-forward, and beautifully written story speaks volumes about truth in narrative in regard to process and the craft of writing.

Best I can figure, this program is about exploring truth in narrative, a vast concept I don’t suspect anyone serious about the matter will likely conclude in their lifetime. An investigation that surely requires a never-ending historical exploration of both the role of narrative (Greek Mythology is a great place to start, but certainly not the only place) and the value of the concept of truth in societies; from the ancient past to the contemporary present. I suspect the link between thought and religion would also be a critical area of study, too, especially the shift from Neo-Platonism to Christianity, which radically altered where truth is located, literarily and literally. Greek moderation and their myths of earth dwelling gods gave way to excessive and wretched souls fighting for redemption and salvation from this earth due to dogmatic commandments from God (Why shouldn’t art be didactic or political? Are you sure our way of thinking isn’t still very Christian?). It’s hard to believe this major paradigm shift did not affect the concept of truth. This shift is directly related to the late nineteenth and twentieth century problems of Modernity by way of romanticism and transcendentalism, and most likely a host of other marked human periods (I’m just a part-time historian and philosopher). Exactly how all this might relate and offer a fleeting glimpse of truth in narrative, well, that’s the hard part and a fecund source for academic investigation.

Anyway, I find this story helpful on  a specific level in regard to how it relates to the craft of the writer, meaning the skill-set and toolbox of a vocation. The art of such creations will, I suspect, be up for passionate debate and continually reinterpreted throughout time.

Here’s the PDF I scanned:

The Harvest by Amy Hempel

And here’s Amy reading both parts herself:



P.S. There’s also an interesting epigraph at the beginning of the collection that puts a powerful twist on the “a bird is just a bird” theory:

Q.   What are all those horses

       doing in your poems? I mean,

       what do they stand for?


A.   Horses. They stand for horses.

       The way I stand for you.

                                         – Vicki Hearne



Gordon Lish and the generative theory of Consecution


I brought up Lish’s generative theory of consecution in seminar the other day (I refer to it as generative as opposed to critical, since it’s not a theory for dissecting art so much as a theory for creating art). If you enjoy Paley’s style, you might find this very interesting. It’s a micro focused approach to generating fiction at a sentence level.

A little background on Lish:

He is perhaps most widely known (and often despised) for his accused “re-writing” of Raymond Carver’s short stories, even though when Carver was alive he admitted that Lish was responsible for his success as a writer (for what it’s worth, I would appreciate the heavy handedness of an editor as well-read, prolific in his own writing, and passionate about the creation of literary ART as Lish). Would  Carver’s stories have been as influential to contemporary American short fiction without Lish’s heavy handed approach? We will never know. What we do know is that the work of Raymond Carver, as it exists in print, is some of the most spectacular and influential American writing of the late Twentieth Century.

Beyond that, as the senior editor for the major publisher Alfred A. Knopf, Gordon Lish was responsible for the profound cultivation and publishing of challenging literary ART by a MAJOR publisher during the last quarter of the Twentieth Century, something not duplicated since he left. In many ways, he was a champion for literary art at a time when it wasn’t a viable business model. It’s too bad his legend is tied to the he said/she said drama of Carver’s writing. 

Lish was also a teacher, but not in an academic sense. During the 80s and 90s his private workshops were considered the pinnacle environment for serious literary production. Some of the writers that were either championed, taught, or edited by Lish include: Barry Hannah, Amy Hempel, Raymond Carver, Mark Richard, Cynthia Ozick, Ben Marcus, Don DeLillo, Sam Lipstye, Gary Lutz, and Christine Schutt. Anyway, not much was ever documented of his workshop techniques. In my research on Lish I’ve only found one person who is committed to connecting the dots: Jason Lucarelli. I attached a paper he wrote here.

I also attached a lecture that Gary Lutz gave to writing students at Columbia University, which is absolutely amazing.


The Believer – The Sentence Is a Lonely Place

The Consecution of Gordon Lish: An Essay on Form and Influence — Jason Lucarelli » Numéro Cinq 

P.S. If you were shocked by Paley’s writing, and you loved the language; if your mind was blown by the fact that literature could be so fun and imaginative while still getting at the truths of critical concepts and issues, then I might suggest Barry Hannah. I can guarantee it will challenge everything you ever thought literature was. But be careful, it’s not for the faint of imagination.

More Errol Morris on truth

Some very strong and clear truths on facts and reality presented by Mr. Morris. However, I’m not so sure that the relationship between such facts and guilt is as clear and simple as Mr. Morris would like to believe. It seems that to ultimately judge a human by a particular set of facts centered around a particular action is only a partial investigation of the truth. I’m not disagreeing with the concept of breaking a social contract, breaking laws in short, but an investigation that stops once enough facts and evidence have been gathered to determine whether a person did or did not carry out an action conveniently neglects to continue investigating the totality of facts and evidence that led to said action. This “history as needed” form of justice raises questions about the human ritual of persecuting a scapegoat as an act of vengeance, or perhaps more interesting, as a cathartic action to forego confronting a deeper truth. Some interesting writing that gets at this scapegoat phenomenon: “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas” by Ursula Le Guin, and “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson. 

Errol Morris on truth in cinema

“It’s so stupid, it’s hard to believe that people really believe it, but they do. That if you use available light, and you use a handheld camera, and you don’t move anything, in to or out of the frame, the truth will emerge…You just add the appropriate ingredients and truth results. Well that makes no sense. It really makes no sense at all. It’s a pursuit, a quest. You investigate, you look, you think, you study, in the hope that you can learn something about the world.”


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The Evergreen State College
Olympia, Washington

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